I’m so excited to welcome Stephanie Stamm, author of A Gift of Wings (if you haven’t read it, you’re living a deprived life) to Books & Such. I met Stephanie last spring at the Southern Kentucky Bookfest shortly after she’d published her book and in the early stages of getting her blog up and running at http://stephaniestammblog.wordpress.com/. When I asked her to write a guest post a few weeks ago, she graciously agreed, but said it would have to wait until she returned from Italy – awesome! And if that’s not enough excitement, her short story Phantom Pains, has been accepted by Mystery and Horror, LLC, for their “Undead of Winter” anthology due to be released November 18th. Thanks so much, Stephanie, for being a guest on Books & Such.
When Teri approached me about writing a guest post related to horror, I’d just heard Stephen King on NPR promoting the release of his new novel Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining. The interview had made me want to read The Shining, since (horror!) I had seen the movie but never actually read the book. So I told Teri I’d like to write something about The Shining.
I’m not going to waste your time with a review of a book you probably read long before I did. Instead, I want to talk about what makes The Shining so scary—in other words, about what makes good horror fiction work.
Let’s start with the characters. King writes characters we care about. We want to see Jack Torrance, with his troubled past, his history of alcoholism and violence, be redeemed—not consumed by the Overlook and its ghosts. We want Wendy Torrance to live without the fear of a controlling mother or an unpredictably violent spouse. We want Dick Hallorann to get back home where he can file that will he just had made away, since it won’t be needed until far into the future. And more than anything, we want Danny Torrance to survive, to have the opportunity to grow up and become a man. Much more so than Kubrick’s movie version, the novel focuses on Danny, the five-year-old boy whose psychic abilities give the book its title. We sympathize with the other characters, but it is little Danny we care about most. With his innocence, vulnerability, and power, he shines at the novel’s heart. He is the one the Overlook wants, and he is the one the Overlook must not get.
King hooks us by setting up a conflict between good and evil, innocent Danny and possessed hotel, but that conflict alone isn’t what gives the book its fear factor. What happens to the Torrance family (and Dick Hallorann) at the Overlook scares us, because King very skillfully plays on some basic deep-rooted human fears.
(1) Our sanity is fragile.
We know from early on in the book that Danny has psychic abilities, and we trust that those abilities are real. We know he’s being warned about the dangers at the hotel. We never doubt Danny’s sanity, though his parents and the doctors do. But we seriously doubt Jack’s. And when he begins slipping away, at first we don’t know for sure if there is an external evil (like the hotel and its ghosts) or if Jack is simply losing his mind. How much of what he’s experiencing is imposed by an external force, and how much is in his own head? We are creatures of perception, but our perceptions are fallible. How much can we trust about what we perceive? How much can we really know? Do we really have something to be afraid of, or are we jumping at shadows? With enough thoughts like these, paranoia sets in.
(2) Our power is dangerous.
Danny’s “shining” gives him a power most people don’t possess. There are others who have a bit of the shine, but Danny shines brighter than anyone else. He is powerful. But that ability is both blessing and curse. He sees things, but he passes out when the visions come, and his parents don’t believe him when he tells them what he sees. So he has learned to keep his knowledge to himself. Worst of all, his ability makes him a target for the Overlook. He’s the catalyst that sets the horrible events in motion. The Overlook possesses Jack in order to get to Danny, because it covets his power. Who among us hasn’t at some time felt afraid of our own gifts? Afraid that we may not use the gifts wisely or that using them will result in a bad end or cause someone to be hurt, or that the power will somehow go awry, despite our best intentions? We fear our weakness, but we fear our own power as well.
(3) We are monsters inside.
Part of the reason we fear our power is because, down deep, we sometimes wonder if we aren’t really monsters at heart. And this brings us back to Jack. The Overlook plays him because he’s vulnerable to its manipulation. The son of an abusive father, he has battled the demons of his memories, his alcoholism, and his own violent temper. He’s ridden by the guilt he feels over breaking Danny’s arm when the boy was just a toddler. He wants to get his life in order, to make good on the job at the Overlook, to be a good husband and father, but he fears those things will never happen, because he knows—knows—he’s really a monster who doesn’t deserve anything good. Since he knows he’s a monster, he has sabotaged himself at almost every opportunity. The Overlook preys on his fears and lets him have it both ways. It twists his mind, tricks him into believing he can rise in his position, make good, find the success he’s never had. All he has to do is give in to the monster he has never been able to shake. What could be scarier than that?
(4) All is chaos, madness, out of control.
Two words: hedge animals. The Overlook is a place where elevators run on their own, spilling out confetti from parties that took place decades ago. Where fire hoses shift position at will. Where the bloated corpse of a long-dead woman rises from a bathtub to strangle a small boy. And where hedge animals walk, run, and attack. Hedge animals. Plants cut into the shapes of animals. Nothing is obeying the laws of nature here. The world of The Shining is one where the fabric of reality is fluid, where boundaries that we take for granted don’t exist, where things that shouldn’t move move, and where things that shouldn’t have bodies do. It reminds me of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell where human bodies, animals, plants, and machines combine in myriad torturous and disturbing ways. Bosch could have painted someone being devoured by a hedge lion—or better, a hedge rabbit. Creepy.
Stephen King knows how to scare us, because he understands our hearts and he knows our fears. He builds a foundation of emotional connection and then lets the fearful scenes unfold. We are hooked, and we read on, hearts racing.
Speaking of hooked, I have to find a copy of Doctor Sleep, so I can read the rest of Danny’s story.