Doctor Sleep + Three Faces of The Shining

This post is going to contain spoilers for The Shining.  The book is 37 years old, and the Kubrick film of the same title is 34, so deal with it.  I’m not going to go crazy spelling out every little plot detail, but just expect that some major elements– including the story’s conclusion– are going to be mentioned.  And I’m not going to wait until I get to the Three Faces of The Shining section of the post to start spoiling.  Any spoilers for it’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, are as minimal as I could manage in a review.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a Constant Reader of Stephen King.  I’ve read almost everything by him (I’m probably just a few months away from having read all of his books, at which time a big post will inevitably result).  Like a good portion of his readers, one of the first books I read by him is inarguably one of his most famous– The Shining.  I enjoyed it a great deal (as will be detailed later in the post).  It’s lingered for years in my mind as one of King’s scariest works, which, wanting to write horror myself, has meant that I’ve tried to break down what makes the story so unnerving, which has actually been quite tricky to do.  It’s a very impressive, well-crafted amalgam of supernatural and psychological horror.

While perusing the Stephen King Wikipedia page a few years ago, trying to decide which of his works to read next, I noticed a blurb about upcoming books, specifically that on his site he had voting for what book to do next– either an intermediate Dark Tower book (a series which I love dearly) or a sequel to The Shining.  With how often I had ranted about how beautifully unusual The Dark Tower is, I was surprised to find myself being more enthralled with the idea of the latter book.  The listed title was particularly alluring: Doctor Sleep.  Thus, I was pleased to see that the vote slightly favored Doctor Sleep.

It turned out that The Dark Tower: Wind Through the Keyhole ended up coming first in spite of the election of the other novel (not that I was too disappointed, it was a compelling yarn).  I made myself content by reading another slew of his other books while waiting the additional two and a half years to find out just what happened to Danny Torrance, and what kind of man he had become in the years after his father tried to kill him and his mother with a croquet mallet in a haunted hotel.

As a reader, it was easy to see how special of an experience it was for Stephen King to revisit one of his earliest novels.  It’s unusual for a writer to write a sequel so many years after an original work (the only other example I can think of being Joseph Heller’s Closing Time following up Catch-22), and it makes for an especially wonderful treat as a reader (particularly an avid follower) in that it is clear to see how the writer has matured and grown with the character, even though the character has only been living in the back of their writer’s mind.  It’s been fun to see how King has revisited some of his other characters by way of The Dark Tower series, but this was something altogether different, something more.

For starters, I’m going to just give my basic, back-of-the-book sort of synopsis so people who haven’t read this excellent book have some idea what I’m talking about.  Essentially, Doctor Sleep is a novel about Daniel Torrance, who we knew as the little boy in The Shining, who now is an adult, a recovering alcoholic who works in a hospice, using his “shine” to help patients at the close of their lives.  It’s also about a little girl who has an incredible amount of the shine, and a group of creatures who feed on psychic energy.

So, not quite as cut-and-dried as its predecessor, and it really helps to know the original pretty well, especially making sure one has a grasp of the whole idea of what the titular shining is.  Let me just say that if you haven’t read the original, don’t touch Doctor Sleep.  Pick up The Shining (and no, watching the Kubrick film doesn’t count– I’ll get to why later in the post), and then pick up the newest King book.  You haven’t earned it yet.

The first element of the book I want to get into is Dan.  386px-Doctor_SleepIt was fascinating to see a character that I previously only knew as a child now as a middle-aged man.  It was actually quite impressive, because King transitioned the character into the present day very seamlessly.  I felt like his choice to begin with a young Danny, a few years after the events at the Overlook Hotel, eased the transition (while also helping to re-cement in my mind a plot element that had been muddled a bit by the film– specifically that a character did not die in the book).  Then, I loved that Danny, who I thought was fairly lovable in his youth, grew up in a way that showed a great deal of complexity.  I loved that we could see his emotional scars as he first resented his father and his alcoholism, then mimicked it.  We see Dan at the lowest of his lows, but can’t help but identify with him, sympathize with him, ache in our hearts to see a character of innocence turn into a broken man– and, as the novel progresses, a good man who is haunted by ghosts, literal and figurative, from his past.

I do take issue with one element of Dan in this novel, however.  It by no means ruined anything, but I had a hard time getting a solid grasp as to what he exactly he does as “Doctor Sleep.”  I got the gist of it, but I didn’t feel like the things that were described in the novel were enough to warrant the title being Doctor Sleep.  It’s certainly a catchy title, but the book’s main story wasn’t about Dan’s “Doctor Sleep” actions.  I just needed more of Doc and Azzie.  It’s really my one complaint with the novel, particularly as a real-life version of Azzie the cat, which knew when people were about to die, is what inspired King to revisit The Shining characters.

King described Doctor Sleep as “a return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror.”  Though the book was quite scary at moments, I actually felt like this wasn’t quite an accurate description of the feel of the book.  It’s certainly a horror novel, but I didn’t feel as though it was anywhere near as frightening as some of King’s older works, such as The Shining, Misery, or Gerald’s Game.  I would even go as far as to say that his implication that his more recent work isn’t as scary as it doesn’t even apply– I felt like the darker sections of Duma Key (my favorite King novel) were notably more frightening.  That said, I do feel like the monsters of this novel– The True Knot– are very chilling, especially because in that outside of their supernatural element they are just as horrible– and quite plausible.

As with most of King’s works, his writing shines for a variety of reasons.  Most notable in my mind for this particular book is his characters.  The two most notable characters are Dan (who I’ve already discussed so no need for more) and Abra Stone, the little girl who also has the shining.  Even though the story is told in blocks of time that move forward in a way that almost seems haphazard (though that is the wrong word, really, because King gives us the snapshots of time with a master’s hand) he deftly paints the characters through the years the novel fills, giving the reader a love of their personalities and genuine concern for who their well-being.  Rose the Hat, the main villain of the piece, is terrifying yet very graspable– the reader can see and believe her motivations, even while reviling her.  The remaining cast, all of whom are comparatively minor characters, are all very alive in the piece.  His dialogue definitely has always been the key to bringing his characters to life, and it is very apparent here as most of the gaps in time are filled very seamlessly with the words spoken by the characters.

King’s prose, as usual, is wonderful, filled with language that somehow manages to be awful and beautifully perfect at the same time.  His storytelling is tight, excellently paced.

And, as usual, there are some of the ever-fun connections to his other works.  Mostly just references to places, and interestingly enough there also are references to Joe Hill’s book NOS4A2 (Hill is his son).

It’s really just a wonderful read (but again, make sure you’ve read The Shining first, otherwise you’ll spend much of the book wondering what is being referenced).

And now, onward (and backward) to the three faces of The Shining.  Properly, I’ll now begin with the beginning– the novel.

I’ve already revealed some of my feelings about this book.405px-Shiningnovel  In fact, I feel like this section of the post isn’t going to be too horribly long, as I’ve already had to cover a fair bit of the material I wanted to.  Also, I apologize, but I’m apt to repeat myself a bit.

The Shining is potentially one of the best books you could pick up if you want to start reading Stephen King, or if you just want to read a good old-fashioned scary story.  It’s King’s third published novel, and, as I’ve stated probably too many times already, it’s one of his most frightening.

As I stated at the beginning of the post, this book is very strong at bringing the scares because King doesn’t rely on just one or two tricks to keep his readers cowering.  Instead, there are layers upon layers of scares.  There is the horror of the broken (or inevitable-to-break) family, of alcoholism, of child and spousal abuse, both verbal and physical.  There is the terrible difference between perspectives of individuals.  There is isolation, the fury of nature.  There is the darkness of a place that has been filled for years with selfishness and depravity.  There are ghosts and things with teeth (the topiary animals scene is my favorite).  There are lies, secrets, and love that isn’t shown in return.

So, something for everybody.  Hopefully lots of things for each reader.  Having so many diverse scare tactics creates a very interesting tone in reading the piece– simply, I felt overwhelmed by it all.  And that was a good thing.  With a situation as overwhelming as the events of The Shining, the fact that my reading experience imitated that is a very good thing.  It shows that Stephen King knew what he was doing.

And he really did.  The alcoholism of Jack Torrance is by far one of the most prevalent elements of the story, and King was (unfortunately) writing from a position of personal experience.  The setting, too, feels so very real because King spent time researching the novel in the Stanley Hotel.  This, I feel, serves as a testament as to what good research can do for a novel.  Especially hands-on research.  It’s something that I want to be able to replicate for my own writing in the future (to clarify, good research, not alcoholism).

The are (and had to be) strong.  With only three characters filling most of text, each had to be well-developed, and it was clear that Mr. King was very well-acquainted with each of them.  I definitely felt that Jack was the most powerfully written of the family, but that worked for what happened in the story.  I felt Danny was a very realistic child, though I did want even more of him as the book was named after his talent.

So, all-in-all, one of King’s better novels.  Probably not quite in the top ten, but only barely missing that mark.  I’m sure that I’ll make a list of my favorite Stephen King books in order when I get around to that exhaustive post in a few months.

I have very split feelings about the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of The Shining.  Part of me sees the masterful filmmaking, the iconic moments, and Kubrick’s deliberate, beautiful detail, and wants to love the film.  The_Shining_posterAnother part of me– one that is much louder and passionately opinionated– really can’t help but hate how unfaithful it is to the source material.

As a piece of its own, it is wonderful.  It is on almost every list of the greatest films of all time, after all.  There is no denying that Stanley Kubrick is one of the most talented filmmakers of all time.  Every moment of every scene has been constructed, framed, acted, and filmed according to his precise instructions, and his work really shines (no pun intended).  His set is beautiful and unnerving.  In Kubrick’s hands, the film is meticulously filled with themes and idea that are furthered by everything in the film– from barely visible props and scene dressing in the background to the dialogue.  He also is very talented at creating iconic moments that are unforgettable– especially the big wheels scenes.

There is no denying that Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance is brilliant.  He really captures the complexity of the character, from the man who wants a fresh start to the axe-wielding drunk maniac.

The effects in the film are also very good.  It’s a scary film in how it shows you the monsters of the Overlook Hotel.  I felt like Danny’s encounters, such as with the iconic twin girls at the end of the hallway, or the woman in room 237, were particularly powerful.  In terms of making the supernatural elements of the story very realistic and frightening to viewers, Kubrick did a great job.

But, as I said, I still don’t feel like the film was a faithful adaptation of the novel.  In fact, Stephen King shares the same feelings, having openly reviled the work numerous times since its release.  It’s almost funny in a way– in terms of general quality it is far from the worst adaptation of one of his stories, but it seems that he has a special store of venom set aside for it.  I’ve puzzled over what it was that made it seem so off to me, and it actually took watching part of a documentary, Room 237 (it’s terribly putRoom_237_(2012_film) together, with no semblance of editing– at one point one of the people voicing their ideas actually has to pause to kick their noisy kid out of the room), that discusses a variety of interpretations of the film for me to be able to place what it was that I didn’t like.

The film version of The Shining isn’t about the same things that the novel is about.  The themes are totally different.  As my viewing of Room 237 showed to me, the movie was possibly actually about early American treatment of the Native Americans, or the Holocaust, or the authenticity of the moon landing– but it wasn’t really The Shining at all.

Additionally, I really hated Shelly Duvall as Wendy Torrance.  Wendy Torrance was never supposed to be the happiest character in fiction, but she just made her seem like a contestant in the misery olympics, even when things weren’t going to hell.

There were also some changes to the story that didn’t seem to have any logic, such as the death of Dick Hallorann.  What did that change possibly contribute to the film?

And, most disappointing of all, Stanley Kubrick replaced the wonderful, chilling topiary animals with a hedge maze.  I wasn’t sure what exactly he was doing with it, but it was clear that it was to pursue one of his off-the-wall themes.

Also, I actually don’t like the “Heeeere’s Johnny!” line.  I acknowledge that I may be the only person who has seen it who doesn’t, but it totally threw me out of the movie.  This may be in part because it is so iconic, but it felt unnatural in the scene.

I think when I want to enjoy Kubrick’s talents, I’ll go a different route, maybe 2001, A Space Odyssey.  He worked with the author on that one, and it shows.

I’m only going to briefly touch on the latest iteration of Stephen_King's_THE_SHINING_(mini-series_intertitle)The Shining— the 1997 TV miniseries.  Honestly, I’m actually fairly limited on what I can say about it, because I haven’t gotten myself motivated to watch the second and third episodes because it suffers very badly from pacing issues.  It’s definitely very thorough in its presentation of the story, and quite accurate for the most part (King wrote the teleplay, so that kind of goes without saying), but the director was definitely squeezing sections for all the time he could.  The acting was pretty mediocre (though I did like the guy who played Dick quite a bit).  The effects are really bad (and I hadn’t even gotten to any of the big supernatural scares).  The choice to portray Tony– Danny’s imaginary friend that serves as a sort of manifestation of certain elements of the shining– seemed a poor idea, and was even poorer in execution in that it was played by a guy who was either in his late teens or early 20s.

I’ll probably sit down and force myself through the remaining three hours soon (if I could get through The Stand miniseries I can get through just about anything) and I’ll update to have my evaluation to be more exhaustive, but for the time being my biggest thought is that the miniseries by no means served as a redemptive filmed version of the book, though it at least shared the same story and themes as the original.  It’s just hard to do justice to a book as complex and subtle as The Shining.

Advertisements

House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.

Wow.

The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

%d bloggers like this: