44. The Shining by Stephen King

First published in 1977. This edition: 2012, Anchor Books)

Cradled in the majestic, foreboding arms of the Colorado Rockies, the Overlook Hotel seems like nothing so much as a salvation/sanctuary, a real boon for the Torrance trio. Jack Torrance, patriarch, middling writer of possible promise (he once had work published in Esquire, which is saying something) and forcefully-retired preparatory school English teacher, knows that managing the Overlook during its sealed-up winter months is an ace of a job. For reasons that make him sick to his stomach to contemplate, performing commendably here, for six sequestered months, is his last chance in a variety of ways. He’s determined not to muck it up, and with the emotional support of his cheerful wife Wendy and dutiful son Danny, Jack thinks his first tenure at the grand hotel could be just the chance he needs to solidify his autonomy and finish the first draft of his three-act play.

Soon before departing for Floridian warmth, empathetic Overlook cook Dick Hallorann assures Danny, “I don’t think there’s anything here that can hurt you.” Halloran also gives a name to the prescience Danny’s always had, calling it “the shining”. Though Dick shines on a lesser level, Danny’s psychic powers are starkly, eerily majestic, revealing both Jack’s ever-pressing compulsion to drink and Wendy’s crushing anxieties. Danny’s shining is the brightest spark the Overlook has encountered in an age, and the hotel wants him. The spectre-lined chambers know just which desperate, drink-deprived man they can use, to help draw little Danny deeper into their carpeted, chandeliered clutches.

No, this isn’t like the Hotel California, since, in addition to not being able to never leave, you really can’t check out any time you like, either. King situates the glacial furnace of the novel’s primary activity in a place where retreat is nigh-impossible, where the hope of external rescue hangs as precariously as a loose tooth from a bloody thread of gum. Further to this, the storyboard conflicts – Man vs Nature, Man vs Self – are so orderly, so cleanly hewn in their make that they might have popped straight from the pages of a “How to Storytell” primer. Therein lies the ghoulish, fantastic rub, though – this is aching, jealousy-makingly-good storytelling. King’s third novel sees him harness deceptively simple constructs and then stun us between the eyes with the consistent power of worldmaking that fires on all cylinders.

First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.
First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.

What works well for The Shining is a discernible dearth of heavy turns, though the narrative does occasionally pat itself on the back with unnecessary, sometimes corny insertions. (If I were as tremendous a third book as this one, I’d probably be stroking my own spine with inky compliments, too.) We feel, when we read Jack, that we *are* Jack, from the moment we’re fidgeting in Ullman’s office, hating the officious little prick’s guts, promising vindictive retributions that our new boss might not quite deserve, but by God, it’s the principle of the thing, it’s to do with being humiliated and just how unjustly one can turn the knife back on one’s oppressor matters, it does. When we’re reading Wendy, we’re Wendy, a woman who fiercely adores her son, a woman who’s timed the steady degradation of her marriage against the repetitive clink of scotch and gin bottles, a lady who’s startled by the surges of her own uncommon intelligence. She stifles her own better judgments with hausfrau-esque personal admonitions that resonate with a sickly thud of commingled girlish naiveté and calculated despair, measured out in mental hair twirls through restless, well-manicured fingers.

Perhaps most astonishing and gratifying is the fact that when we read Danny, we are Danny. We’re five, and not too far gone from nights of bedwetting. We regress to thumbsucking states when confronted by the ire-fuelled interactions of the Mummy we cherish and the Daddy we idolize. We want things to be right, knowing from the very beginning that the Overlook is wrong, and we learn far sooner than we should about all the slithering, Room 217-dwelling manifestations of just how wrong wrong can be. King’s embodiment of Danny’s precarious, nuanced mental journeys is stunningly navigated. We’re there with him, fumbling in the labyrinths of his exceptional mind, our hands held up to fend off bogeymen of corporal and ethereal formations. We’re there with him even when we most want not to be.

2006 edition cover, Hodder.

Certainly, this book is scary. It’s more than a scream-by-numbers investigation, though. At its best, The Shining pierces through to the telltale heart of psychological decay, of the most earnest of human intentions lain low by a roque mallet. It’s a portrait of personal devastation as convoluted as anything Dorian Gray could conjure, and then some. Jack’s progressive decline is the novel’s snarling beast, and it’s even more terror-inducing than encounters with topiary creatures in feet of fresh snowfall, because Jack is you, and me. Jack is anyone who’s fought tooth and nail against the siren call of the thing they most love and fear. In his hubris, his clever arrogance, his petulant protestations against situations his own shortcomings have engendered, you know that he’s you on the days you want to erase from the ledger. Jack is proof that we can’t outrun ourselves, and oh, how brutally and systematically this reminder thuds from the pages.

If you’re new to Stephen King, as I was (and still am, since one novel doesn’t an adept make), maybe you might not want to read this one in the dark. Maybe it’ll come for you in the dark regardless, like it did for me, demanding to be read in silence, with a light borne aloft, while the rest of the house slept. Read about how this inhuman place makes human monsters, of how imaginary friends can reveal the truth lingering in a chiaroscuro world running parallel to this one. You might dismiss the horror as not supernatural enough, maybe. Or, like me, you might find your body blistering with wintry fear when you learn that King’s paranormal horror beats (bleats?) with the dogged persistence of a very human heart.

Don’t be surprised if surviving The Shining catapults you into the dimly-lit corridors of King’s considerable oeuvre. At the very least, it’ll make you want to take your medicine.

8. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Published in 1994 by Vintage/Anchor Books.

Admit it—you know you’ve got one.

Along with a paraphernalia-packed drawer of your idealistic, angry years betwixt eleven and nineteen, and every holdover memento that’s defied the lure of the garbage or local Goodwill/Salvation Army, (you feign laziness, unwillingness to ‘spring clean’, but you damned well know it’s nostalgia)—along with these, you keep the memory of a best friend. You braided her hair in thousands (you know, like, thirty?) of plastic-clipped plaits. You both got high off of office-supply glue, stolen cigarettes, illicit pay-per-view softcore pornography. You kissed him once, hard, in your father’s garage, and neither of you spoke of it, not ever. You thought of her on the day you got married, and for a guilty second, your maid of honour didn’t seem like such a perfect choice. Together, you played with fire. Together, you were sure you could both change or rule the world.

The enchantingly titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was, for me, worth fishing out of a bargain bin at a charity sale, based on the quirky promise of its name alone. If I could compare the experience of reading it to consuming fruit, it would be like nothing so much as a crisp, tart apple—something in the vein of a not so wicked stepmother’s gift, bearing far less malice than the origin tale, with more wise humour that’s never too far from a sigh.

The novel’s progression seems bivalent at first. Protagonist Berie Carr remembers her adolescent ramblings and misadventures with her best friend, Silsby Chaussée, while the former navigates the murky waters of adulthood and a marriage that is failing in tragically slow increments—this, while she sojourns in a city famed for its passionate interludes. Approaching the story’s end, however, the narrative appears seamless. Whether Berie was assiduously pilfering money as an amusement park cashier in her childhood town of Horsehearts, evading drunken rape and other life threatening risks with Silsby at her side, or wandering alone in the present day through narrow Parisian streets, her hip aching for a secret reason, (one that, when revealed, smarts at the side of the reader herself, for all its quiet cruelty) the story feels linear. It follows the line of the life of Berie, with and without the person who has known her best. What could be simpler, or more haunting?

If it is difficult to quote Lorrie Moore’s prose, it is not because it is unlovely, quite the opposite. It presents a challenge because so much of it is lovely, and not with the hollow lustre of pretty words fashioning no purpose, either. There is a lilting cadence of sadness to Moore’s description that will catch your breath when you least expect to be swayed.

You might say that the novel goes nowhere, in terms of discernible plot progression, and you might not be entirely wrong. Life’s like that, though, isn’t it? We wander countless times over into the murky mire of our favourite mistakes, swearing anew each time, wondering why we are here again, with all the televised and replicated rebellion of teenagedom, all the mortifying ostentation that paves our tumble into adulthood.

When Berie visits with Sils again, on the occasion of their ten-year high school reunion, she knows that Silsby is simultaneously just as she ever was, and lost to her, always. She takes a long, languorous shower in Sils’ bathroom, thinking, wanting.

“I felt close to her, in a larcenous way, as if here in the shower, using her things, all the new toiletries she now owned, I could know better the person she’d become. All evening, I’d been full of reminiscences, but she had seldom joined in. Instead she was full of kindnesses — draping her own sweater around my shoulders; bringing me tea. How could I know or hope that she contained within her all our shared life, that she had not set it aside to make room for other days and affections and things that now had all made their residence and marks within her?”

This illuminating, thorny offering from a severely underrated writer is even more captivating than its title. Perhaps, when you have turned its last page, as I did, you will think of someone with whom you once made a blood oath, with whom you shared scabbed knees and shy showers. Perhaps you will pick up the phone to call them, and feel what I felt, to learn that the number had long been discontinued.

Perhaps you will be luckier (or infinitely less lucky?) and they will answer.