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I like big books.

The Shining

The Shining - Stephen King I can't help but think of the Simpsons when I look at the title of this book. Long before I'd seen the Kubrik film or finally read the original source material The Shining had already worked its way into the collective cultural subconscious of American media. Its place is well deserved. The novel is a powerful polemic on the power of rationalization and one of its strengths is the very real way that the characters put the events in the Overlook Hotel into the context of the problems they bring with them. The great thing about King is that you can often read his novels two ways - akin to how you could watch the X-Files (which I'm currently doing again as well). You could accept the supernatural elements as part of the story and just accept everything at face value. If you do, you'd read that the Overlook was haunted by the violent and emotionally charged events that it carries as baggage through its seventy plus year history, with the Torrance family caught in the middle of it - the power of the Overlook resonating with the power and psychic ability of young Danny Torrance to bridge the gap between some other world (and time) and our own. You could also choose to discount said supernatural events as the mass hysteria and delusion of a broken family, some of whom have deep psychoses and unresolved problems who essentially go mad due to cabin fever in one of the most isolated and demanding environs in the world. Either way, it's brilliant; and while King may lean toward a certain perspective, there's nothing here that can't be rationalized away. And that's what makes it scary. Because if you can rationalize it, and still find it believable, it could damn well happen to you.

Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues on his last social legs - accepting the charity of a friend for one last opportunity to make something of his life and give it meaning in the typical masculine American sense - provide for family, gain social mobility, notoriety and above all, RESPECT. He accepts the caretaker position at an historic hotel in the Colorado mountains during its downtime in the winter. He brings his family along with him as a sort of reprieve from the constant reminders of the family's - Jack's - failures and to build up some frayed bonds. The Overlook represents the last hope to keep the Torrance family together, and the last hope of redemption for the patriarch himself. Wendy Torrance is a homemaker that's watched the unravelling of her once promisingly brilliant husband from breadwinner and father of the year to malcontent with no outlet for his frustrations other than his own son and wife. Caught in the middle is Danny (Doc), feeding off the just-below-the-surface anger and reproval in a passive aggressive marriage. Both parents, and younger Torrance, have deep-seated parent issues, and its interesting, in a train wreck sort of way, to see how isolation destroys rather than heals the bonds in this family. With no distractions or outlets for their pent up anger, the relationships degenerate into barbarism, hallucination and insanity.

One of the more important themes picked up by King this time around is forgiveness. Astute observer of the human condition that he is, he makes Jack's descent one that focuses on his inability to cope with his own actions. In every harsh tone from his wife, Jack sees recrimination for past wrongdoing and every strain begs a couple of questions: who hasn't given forgiveness yet? Is it true that Jack's drunken behavior and abuse will never be forgotten by his wife? Will she always resort to his past behavior in a fight, no matter how much he's improved himself or grown away from his destructive behavior? Or is it Jack who sees the recrimination in her eyes as a reflection of his own inability to forgive himself for becoming his own father? Will he be the one who drags out in tough spots and merely cast blame on Wendy for his own inability to trust himself? It's very interesting to think about and it's a question that really has no answer other than to say their survival will depend on their ability to forgive and create a new life for themselves. Needless to say for those familiar with the general outline of the story, King is pessimistic.

What's realistic here is the way the inner workings of Jack's mind in particular are articulated. His narrated descent into insanity is slow, subtle, but unmistakable. You can see it unravelling in utterly believable ways. You rationalize along with him to the point where you find yourself agreeing sometimes and saying, "Yeah, fuck it man. You're right," and when he turns that dreadful corner you find yourself back-stepping and saying, "Whoa, wait a minute." There are brief glimmers of sanity and hope that are interspersed at sufficient intervals to add to the despair of the situation when it turns worse so that the Overlook becomes the stage that contains and holds in the overwhelming emotions of a broken family. The imagery of the boiler and its constant need of relief by the caretaker is simple - some might say crude - but absolutely fitting. But in the middle of the Colorado winter, there is no relief valve for the Torrances and The Shining is indeed the logical outcome.

This was an earlier King work that fits into that category of semi-autobiography. While researching the novel, King and his family moved to Colorado, where he and his wife did spend the end of a season in a resort much like the Overlook. In it's empty corridors King found the inspiration to revive the idea of the story that he had shelved as a failed play earlier in his career. Jack Torrance finds himself at the Overlook to finish a play that he'd been having trouble with and is a former English teacher with alcoholic tendencies - in short, he is King. Such self-visualization is not cheap though. The experience lends to the credibility and reliability of the narrative, making, like usual, King's characters pop out of the page and into real life.

Four stars because once again, I found the ending a trifle unsatisfying. I don't know what it is about this one. It wasn't bad or cheesy like some of King's other works...just...unsatisfying. Maybe it's just me. Unlike other King books, which are usually great summer reads, I'd save this one for the depths of Winter.