Here it is: the book that jump-started my curiosity and sent me on my life-long journey through the world of Stephen King. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I had made the descision to save The Shining for the end of My Long Walk with the King, to serve as a perfect conclusion for what will be a years-long adventure. Much has changed since that decision was made. For all of us. We have quarantined. We have isolated ourselves from each other, many of us trading the warmth of a hug for an unfortunate return to old habits. When the pandemic started, I thought to myself, “Well, I may have lost my job, but at least now I have plenty of time to catch up on all of my unfinished projects!” Months later I wondered what happened to all that extra time? Falling into old patterns of laziness was far too easy, especially with the excuse of “well…it’s 2020” conveniently locked and loaded. Almost all of the forty pounds I lost have been packed back on. My anxiety and depression have both returned like faithful friends who stayed out for one drink too many, laughing and yelling about what I’ve missed, in a language only they understand. Previously enjoyable activities like playing board games, painting miniatures, and reading Stephen King, have all morphed into panic inducing tasks to be avoided.
With all of this swirling in the air around me, the choice to move The Shining back into its proper place in the chronology was an obvious (and necessary) one. Perhaps there is some therapy and self care to be found within it’s 659 pages.
What a strange thing that would be.
The Kubrick Conundrum, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love CBS
Until now, I had no idea it was possible to become retroactively upset about a book’s film adaptation. This was not my first read of The Shining, and I have logged multiple watches of the Stanley Kubrick film (I am on record in several episodes of Measuring Flicks stating my enjoyment of the film.) I was thrilled to pull up The Shining on Prime for my obligatory post-book screening.
What happened? Why was I not digging it this time around?
The book hadn’t changed since I first cracked its cover all those years ago. And as far as I know, Warner Brothers has not recently “tweaked” the film, nor have they made any changes to the edit (a popular trend and not outside the realm of possibility.) The movie varies greatly from its source material: it’s impossible to miss, and until now, I have been more than satisfied with how different they are. It’s abundantly clear that Kubrick was taking extreme liberties with the source material. And damn well he should! One of the most brilliant minds in the history of cinema should certainly feel free to paint his picture with every madness-stained brush he has at his disposal. But sadly, on this most recent spin, it felt less like enjoying a painting and more like choking on dirty brush water.
So, if the book hasn’t changed…and the movie hasn’t changed…then that just leaves…
A lot of life has happened in the thirty years that have passed since I last read The Shining. Situations that I once saw as being simply scary, now resonate on a much deeper level. Reading the book when I was much younger, I saw the struggles of two parents through Danny’s eyes, taking in only what I was capable of understanding. Reading the book as an adult, I find myself sitting awkwardly on Jack and Wendy’s side of the table wondering how the hell I got there. Marital struggles, alcoholism, unemployment, and mental instability were all themes that were glossed over in my pre-teen brain. The problems and worries of adulthood are now standing center stage, hideously exposed in a grotesque full monty. And I can’t look away.
This is a testament to King’s writing style and the intense focus and care he takes with creating his characters. He allows his readers to find their way into the story through the eyes of whoever is most relatable to them at the time.
The same is true for the horrors and wonders that King manifests in his stories. When you’re young, it’s all about a ghost in the bathtub, a firehose that moves like a snake in the hallway, and a boy with special powers. For an adult, it’s a struggling marriage, a fear of unemployment, and a boy with special needs (also tub ghosts and fireshose snakes.)
I dare say this is Stephen King at his finest.
Many, including myself, have said the same for Stanley Kubrik and his film adaptation. Discovering that I’ve earned the necessary life experience to see Stephen King’s adult characters more clearly is the cause for my change in heart towards the Kubrik classic. I could write volumes upon volumes to describe the many ways the movie strays from the book, but I feel my thoughts can be summed up with a single word.
From frame one, I get the sense that good ole’ Jack is already one hot fart away from mentally shitting his pants. The movie becomes all about Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance and Stanley Kubrik’s hypnotic visual tapestry, while leaving the human side of the story somewhere back in Sidewinder. The Kubrik flick should be viewed on it’s own merit as a unique piece of art, and not as a direct film adaptation. I’m sure I’ll come back around to digging the movie again once the emotional impact of this most recent read has been given time to fade.
Thankfully for us, CBS was totally in love with Stephen King back in the 1990’s and adapted many of his books into mini-series, including The Stand, The Tommyknockers, IT, and The Shining. King wrote the teleplay for The Shining and (unsuprisingly) follows the book damn near beat for beat! We are also blessed with Rebecca Demornay as Wendy and Steven Webber (that’ right, the cute brother from Wings) as Jack. Both give performances that feel honest and occasionally nuanced. The first episode is a bit of a slog, and drips with that “made for TV in the mid-90’s feel”, complete with unnecessary mini-cliffhangers leading into each commercial break (which only adds to its charm.) But hold on tight, because much like the book that came before it, this mini-series is all about the threat of things that hide just beneath the surface. A wasp’s nest humming under rotting shingles. A fat, greedy furnace begging for more steam to choke on. A perfectly crafted cocktail of family drama and raw horror.
As wonderful as the mini-series is, it still pales in comparison to what Stephen King gave us way back in 1977 with release of his third novel, The Shining.
One could spend hours digging into The Shining and only ever find more bread crumbs to follow. It’s so dense it makes my head spin. There are, however, two thoughts that keep popping into my head. The first is the phrase, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The second – why are those Hedge Animals so terrifying?
Decades before the Doctor faced off with Weeping Angels, Stephen King introduced us to the vision-based movement of the Overlook’s Hedge Animals. At their core, both the Weeping Angels and Hedge Animals freak me out for the same reason. With most threats in horror, the victim has no control over the behaviour of the Thing that persues them. Michael Meyers will just keep coming, slow and steady, until he can slide his sharp piece of metal into your body. Freddy Krueger will play around in your dreams, teasing you with the taste of death before ripping you to shreds with his homemade murder glove. The Shark, the Ghoul, the One That Follows, are all coming for you and there is nothing you can do about it.
The Hedge Animal’s pursuit can be halted. All you have to do is never look away. Once in view, the Hedge Animals loose their ability to hunt and become frozen in place. Frozen but still hungry. They will remain silent and still, but will never stop dreaming of turning your body into chewed up piles of meat. Driven by a desire to taste what you are made of, they require no other source of energy to survive. You require food to survive, and exaustion is inevitable. Eventually your eyes must close. This illusion of agency is such a painful twist of the knife and why I find them (along with the Weeping Angels) to be one of the more terrifying creatures I have encountered in fiction.
This is all extremely horrific, but knowing what these bundles of sticks and greenery represent makes it so much worse. I see the Hedge Animals as the manifestation of those problems we turn our backs to while we wish them out of existence. We try to turn Not Seeing into Believing. But the grass menagerie is always there. Constantly gaining ground.
Hush now. Just close your eyes and count to ten.
Leaving the green grotesqueries behind us, let’s take a peek at the second thought that keeps bubbling up to the surface. The one concerning that old phrase, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
This is a phrase my dad is quite fond of. He employs its use more frequently than necessary, and always through a clever smirk that gives the impression he believes this is the first time in human history the phrase has ever been uttered. I’ll give you two guesses who does the exact same thing through the exact same smirk…
Like father, like son. Where did Danny get his ability to Shine? Was it passed down from father to son? This notion is explored briefly through conversations between Danny and Dick Hallorann, but is never quite fully acknowledged. There are plenty of hints that Jack has the ability to Shine, with his coversations with Grady being chief among them. The Overlook taps into both Danny and Jack as soon as they walk through the front door. “Here’s one with a history of violence and alcohol abuse. He could be useful to us. Oh, but this young one has enough juice to keep the party going well past midnight!”
When The Shining was first released, and in the years to follow, many would read it and wonder how they would have handled a winter at the Overlook. Would the cabin fever set in? Would the glass stay empty, or would we have Grady shake us up a couple Martians? As of this writing, we are now in the second year of a global pandemic. Winter has come and gone, and many of us have dicovered answers to those questions that were once rhetorical.
I will be spending more time diving into my personal experiences to link (hopefully) cleverly back to The Shining, but some old ghosts have begun to stir, and for now, I prefer they stay sleeping. I am putting a pin in the story that started this journey to come back to with a fresh perspective once the empty skies of winter have been filled with a few more birds of spring.
There will still be challenges for all of us in the coming months as vaccines are in a race with virus varients for the wellness of friends and family. Unlike the Torrance family, we still have the ability to reach out and communicate with eachother and the rest of the outside world. The phone lines are all up and the radios are still humming. This is not the end of the road for The Shining and me. A brief pause as I head on down the road to discover what delights are in store in Night Shift, King’s first published collection of short stories.
The road I walk with the King is long and treacherous, and I am still only a few miles from home. The farther I travel, the more I fear getting lost in the ice covered mountains of intention, with nothing but the voices of Nay Say to keep me company. It would be so much easier to turn around now and hurry back home to the warmth and comfort of stories that calm and soothe my spirit. Stories that lack teeth. Stories that hold no influence over the ghosts that sleep in dark corners. Here the Nay Say voices soften to barely audible mutterings of, “I told you so.” Here I can relax, put my feet up, and leave the road to be walked far behind me.
Funny. I don’t remember our apartment having such elaborate landscaping.
If I didn’t know better I’d say that hedgerow looks a lot like…