Stephen King: the master of horror, still shining after all these years
I’ve read Stephen King since primary school, 50 books at the last count, drifted away a bit but now, as an ageing 45-year-old, am back on the same page as I read his sequel to ‘The Shining’
Jack becomes the winter caretaker at the Overlook, bringing with him his wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny, who is gifted with the titular telepathic power, the ability to “shine”. Jack, driven mad by the hotel, eventually turns on his wife and son, pursuing them through the hotel with a roque mallet.
What’s that you say? Yes, a roque mallet. It’s used in the American variant of croquet. No, not an axe. That was only in the film. Kubrick’s film. The one King doesn’t like.
“Yes, I’m perplexed,” King says when I ask him about the movie’s enduring popularity, “but I still find it a deeply dislikable film, partly because there’s no real arc to the Jack Torrance character and partly because it’s so misogynistic – Wendy is basically a useless scream machine. I’ve been told Kubrick and Nicholson used to laugh about her, which makes me furious.”
One of the difficulties in discussing King’s third novel is that book and film have coalesced into a single mass in the popular imagination, to the extent that mention of The Shining tends to provoke a Pavlovian response of “Here’s Johnny!”, images of a gurning Jack Nicholson shambling apelike along garishly carpeted corridors, or visions of elevators gushing blood, none of which troubled the pages of King’s novel.
In the credits of his 1986 film The Name of the Rose, the French director Jean- Jacques Annaud describes it as “a palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel”. A palimpsest – and I had to go home and look this up back in 1986 – is a manuscript page from which the text has been scratched or scraped off so it can be used again, with traces of the original text, or “underwriting”, still visible beneath the new additions.
Basically, that’s what Kubrick did with his film of The Shining. He scratched the novel back to its bare bones, then rebuilt it according to his own vision. It’s not a film of the book, but it’s a fascinating piece of work in its own right. None of this is of much consolation to King, who perhaps didn’t particularly want to see a palimpsest of his novel and would happily have settled for a straight adaptation.
In 1997, he went so far as to collaborate with the director Mick Garris (who once described King as the Norman Rockwell of horror because of his impact on American culture) on a TV miniseries of The Shining in an effort to create a version closer to his original conception.
It’s not very good.
But the novel is still great.
Parting of the ways
Looking at that bibliography again, I realise that King and I had a slight parting of the ways around 1986’s It. It wasn’t anything that he had done, and the split wasn’t final. I just wanted to see other writers. I would still read the books as soon as they came out, but I did so at one remove. Some point of connection had been lost, and I couldn’t understand why.
I think that I may have an answer now.
In 1986 I had just turned 18, and my relationship with horror was changing. Horror fiction, when read in adolescence, offers a means of exploring the darkness of the adult world. It’s only superficially about vampires, or werewolves, or ghosts. What it does is enable young people to ascribe a name – zombie, ghoul, monster – to the unnameable, to give form to formless terrors and in that way come to terms with them.
King’s fictions are particularly suited to these explorations, in part because he writes so well about childhood and adolescence (which is not to say that the books themselves are childish or adolescent, not at all). But once we enter young adulthood, the need for such tools is less pressing. We begin dealing with the reality of sexuality, relationships, compromise, work, responsibility and, far in the distance, the shadow of mortality. As a consequence, horror fiction loses some of its immediacy.
But, at 45, I have new terrors to confront: the ageing of my body, concerns for my children, the reality of my own death. I was immortal when I first read King; I feel absurdly vulnerable now. With all that in mind, I find myself affected anew by King’s later works. They are, of course, the writings of a man who has suffered grievously himself. In 1999, King was struck by a minivan while walking in Lovell, Maine. He endured life-threatening injuries that left him with an addiction to pain medication, which he has since overcome, and caused him to consider giving up writing entirely.
(As for the driver of the minivan, one Bryan Edwin Smith, he died one year after the incident, on September 21st, 2000, King’s 53rd birthday, which is the kind of thing that usually only happens to people in Stephen King novels.)