Have I ever told you about the time I discovered Stephen King? It was at a wedding. A classmate’s wedding. An unlikely place to discuss horror books (or is it?) I can’t remember which classmate it was (I had attended quite a few underage weddings that year), but I remember this conversation so well. A few of us were discussing books and one of our teachers, dressed in one of the most beautiful lavender silk saris I’ve ever seen, told us how she had bought four Stephen King books at a second hand book store for 80 bucks the previous week. We made the right noises to convey our jealousy towards that cunning bargain. Another classmate then told us how she herself had read a King’s book recently and was blown away by it.
I was known as the book lender of the group, and was in no mood to reveal that I had no clue who Stephen King was. What I did, instead, was get a copy of the only Stephen King book I could find at a second hand book store. Quite possibly, the same one my teacher had gone to.
The book was Dolores Claiborne and I hated it. It felt, in my head, rather noisy. I swore off King’s books.
Four years after the events described above, I found myself running for King’s books like it was winter and they were warmth (weird, yes, I know. Creepy, yes, I know that too). I eventually realized he mainly wrote horror stories (which I didn’t know at the time I read Dolores). I read all his short stories, and to this day, I haven’t read anything that is as terrifying and disturbing as Gray Matter, from the collection Night Shift. I read his works with slight distaste and a perverse need. Something bigger than guilty pleasure, and almost as enticing as slow self destruction.
I’ve realized now that I keep going back to King not because of his skills. It’s admirable that he’s written more stories than most authors we know. But it’s not just about the volume either – they are all good stories. Although, I am not particularly a fan of his writing skills. Sure, I love his metaphors, I love the vivid imagery. But I’ve found faults with how swollen his books are, when they could easily have been much more compact. All that padding lessens the impact of the horror he wants to conjure up in the reader’s mind, and which is why, I have repeatedly and truthfully insisted that his books don’t scare me. In all honesty, I find Shaun Hutson’s no-brainer slashing scarier than King’s works and I’ve read Japanese thrillers that can give you far worse nightmares. I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I remember literally and exactly only two sentences from it, and I liked the memoir part more than the writing part. But I go back to King’s books, always. With a lot of respect and a deep sense of loyalty that – one that I cannot fully comprehend myself. I feel defensive of him in a way I don’t about authors I like more. It’s strange, and perhaps that is why The Shining affected me so much. And I’m not even talking about the supernatural elements (although, yes, this book will go down in history as the first King book that scared me).
It is a well known fact that authors leave pieces of themselves in all their characters. But often, the heroes we create are the superhuman versions of ourselves. Ideal, better men and women than we really are. It is a question that has often nagged me: do we only glorify ourselves through our characters, or do we dare to write the worst about ourselves? The dirt and the mess? Do we dare? I found my answer in Jack Torrance, the unlucky, alcoholic, down-on-his-last-buck protagonist of The Shining.
When asked about how he came up with the story, King narrated the incident where he and his wife spent a night at a Colorado hotel which was closing for the season. He had a nightmare involving a fire hose, which provided the inspiration for what later became one of his best known works. The room they stayed in was, no points for guessing: 217. But the real source of inspiration lies much deeper. And its clues lie in King’s anger at what the movie version did to his book.
Movies, in general, do not do justice to the books they’re adapted from. We know this. Authors have every right to be peeved. We know this too. But King’s anger draws itself from a personal well. An episode of Friends refers to The Shining as “a book that starred Jack Nicholson”. I bet that made King cringe, and why shouldn’t it? The character whom Nicholson portrayed on screen was a crazy axe-wielding maniac. It isn’t just that he wasn’t the Jack Torrance King wrote about. It was that it wasn’t who King himself was.
I read the book over a period of a few weeks (given my limited reading time, and the fact that this too is a well-padded book). One evening, the Mr. was watching a video on YouTube about the differences between the book and the movie. It was a coincidence; till I said something about a scene in the book, I did not know what he was watching nor did he know what I was reading. The video covered unimportant, secondary details (such as how book-Danny is 5, telepathic and intelligent, but movie-Danny is 7 and ordinary), but not the finer points that really mattered. It mattered to King that Wendy, a strong, sensible, caring woman in the book, is portrayed as a “screaming dishrag” in the movie. “That’s not the woman I wrote about,” he says. It mattered to him that the supernatural elements in the book were written off as psychological issues in the movie, thereby negating even the title [The Shining refers to Danny’s psychic abilities. He sometimes speaks to a “friend” Tony, who tells him things that are about to happen. The movie dealt with this… differently. It is interesting to note that the book is dedicated to King’s son, and he writes “keep shining”]. It matters that Jack, an ex-alcoholic like King himself did not slowly descend into madness because of the evil hotel, but was already crazy to begin with, someone whom the audience would never really sympathize with. And King has sympathy for all his characters. Torrance was not given a chance at redemption in the movie, but in the book, he does have a moment of clarity. The book has a heart, the movie does not.
The book is King’s confession – of his rage (especially directed at his children), his alcohol and drug abuse, his fears of failing as a writer. It cuts closer than On Writing. Jack Torrance is him, or who he was. The Shining was written at a time when King had some financial stability to speak of. But that does not erase the years he grew up watching his mother’s struggles, or the early years before he sold a story. Jack’s innermost thoughts are King’s innermost thoughts – why doesn’t Jack leave the Overlook hotel knowing how suicidal it is to stay? Fear. He has absolutely nothing to fall back on. All of these are King’s wounds and bruises that he smashes with roque mallets on to paper, exorcising his own demons, giving them forms of bloated dead bodies and blood and brains on the wall.
In The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, King all but says it out loud that he and Roland are the same person. You see King in all his characters, but not as loud, as neon, as obvious as you do in the villainous Jack Torrance, the angry man you somehow sympathize with (so much so that I felt guilty using the word “villainous” above). Why? Because it’s an angry side we all have, but we dare not talk about it. The real ghost of The Shining isn’t the Overlook hotel or the fire hose or the topiary animals, it is the mirror it holds up to ourselves. By showing us how he could have turned out to be when he was at his weakest, King shows us how we could be at our weakest. It shows us the evil inside our own hearts.
And it’s scary as hell.
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References: Rolling Stone | Salon | Guardian | The Dissolve