Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

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Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

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King claims in his afterword to this book of four novellas that he’s not very good at writing delicate and elegant prose – and I agree with his self-assessment. What he’s good at, though, is writing stories, and whenever I read or re-read one of his books, I tend to enjoy his writing a lot.

The first novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is mainly good because it’s the basis for the film. After re-reading the novella, I quickly watched the film again, too, and I concluded that I liked the film better than King’s text. It seems to me that the film allows sufficient time for things to develop while the novella feels more rushed, and the film is more balanced than King’s prose. The film wouldn’t exist without King’s novella, though, so I don’t complain much.

The second novella, Apt Pupil is the least successful one in the book. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to compare the novellas to each other, as King says in the afterword that the book is made up of stories that have nothing to do with each other and there’s no underlying organizing principle here, so it’s possible to talk about each story on its own. However, seeing that they are actually in the same book, and given the fact that I tend to read stories in a book in the order in which they are presented, it’s hard for me to ignore what comes before and after a particular story. So: both in comparison with the other novellas, and viewed on its own, Apt Pupil isn’t very good.

It’s an extremely long, convoluted, meandering story that deals with a lot of issues but manages to avoid dealing with the essence. The story is about a war criminal, an old Nazi hiding in the United States, and about a high school boy who develops a morbid fascination with the horrors of Nazi death camps. And yes, it’s horrifying: what a sick imagination can do, and it’s painful to see what emptiness and perversion lies behind the everyday, perfectly average, perfectly American nice-boy façade of the main character. However, in this topic I’d rather recommend American Psycho – because that’s much better than this story.

The third novella, The Body is my favorite from this book. It’s an excellent story about young kids on the brink of adulthood, about going on boyish adventures, about growing up, about the loss of innocence. And I mean the innocence of the mind here: that transient state, that last moment, week, summer when we’re all still just kids – fooling around, pretending to be heroes, adventurers, explorers; when it doesn’t matter yet whether our friends are jerks or not; when girls haven’t yet come into the picture; when no-one cares yet what the future will bring.

And the way King depicts this fragile and fleeting period is beautiful, lyrical and perhaps even delicate and elegant at places. In any case, he manages to move me to tears a couple of times (and not with the awfulness of his prose, like in Apt Pupil).

The last novella, The Breathing Method is a paranormal story, not exactly horror, more like an exercise in the uncanny. It’s nicely wrapped up in another, equally mysterious framing story, and while it’s not the most innovative mystery story ever, it’s strangely captivating and magical. I think King can be great when he doesn’t try to be too intellectual and artistic, and he doesn’t do that here – he only tells a story. And he’s really good at telling stories.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk’s book is an intriguing, modern, and successful take on an ancient story-telling technique. In the frame of the narrative, we meet a number of screwed-up would-be artists who all hide shameful faults or sins in their past, and who all answer a tempting newspaper ad that offers a three-month retreat with all expenses paid, all necessities provided. The wannabe writers are all eager to jump on the opportunity as they imagine that far from the madding crowd they will finally be able to write their masterpieces, and then return to their regular life all renewed.

Instead of an idyllic writers’ community, however, they find themselves in a gloomy, abandoned, old theater building where – true – they have everything they need to stay alive, but the simple fact that the circumstances are not exactly as they imagined is enough for them to feel cheated. And just as in their real life they always found an excuse for not writing, here, too, shut off from the world, they always manage to blame their circumstances and avoid writing altogether.

Despite the fact that the characters don’t write the supposed masterpieces that have been blooming in their minds for long, they still become artists, creative people – doubly so. First, they come up with the idea that they make a novel – or rather: a large-scale, bloody, bound-for-success drama – out of their own lives, and jointly they create the fiction that they were forced into the role of the victim and sentenced to three months of suffering by the unknown evil who put in the newspaper ad they replied to. And second, while they get deeply immersed into their roles as victims, they tell stories to pass the time. These stories take up the bulk of the book.

A couple of literary parallels are immediately obvious here – some of them are mentioned in the book, too. The structure of Haunted – that is, the way the true or fictitious stories told by the characters are wedged in between the present-day, real events – resembles the structure of The Canterbury Tales and Decameron. Moreover, the characters of Haunted often mention the holiday taken by Byron and his company by Lake Geneva, where they all agreed to write a horror story – and they all seem to identify with Byron and company. And as regards a couple of plot elements and the way sin/crime and punishment are connected, the novel resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: in Haunted, just like in Christie’s novel, the characters all decide for themselves that they leave their real life behind and trust their fate to complete strangers.

Despite all these parallels and similarities, Haunted is still original and not at all boring – because Palahniuk uses the possibilities inherent in his chosen narrative structure very well and he asks lots of intriguing questions. Reading this book, you might wonder – among other things – about the questions of what makes reality reality, and what makes fiction fiction, and how the environment shapes the way people perceive themselves. (Like I said, Haunted is set in an abandoned theater, and it seems that the setting forces the characters to imagine themselves as if they were the cast for a play, and makes them live their lives according to an unwritten script during the three months of their confinement.) And the fact that the characters – while living through their carefully constructed tragic present – share their true stories with one another can make you wonder how you construct reality from stories, and how you construct another person’s personality from the stories he chooses to tell. (And of course, we mustn’t forget that the real stories told by the characters can just as easily be fictitious stories, or the pumped-up or toned-down versions of the real stories – if that fits the purpose better.)

Haunted isn’t only interesting because of these questions, though. The stories told by the characters are also good and well-told. They are also very dark and frightening, they are full of tension, and they are deeply unsettling and depressing. Also – their effect doesn’t wither with re-reading. I read this book twice so far, and the second reading was just as enjoyable as the first one. In fact, I found some stories somewhat ridiculous the first time around (for example, „Civil Twilight”), but they filled me with dread and anxiety upon re-reading.

Besides all this, Haunted features Palahniuk’s trademark critical attitude and his smart and merciless remarks about consumer society. I vastly prefer Haunted to some of his other work, though, because here all the cutting observations are sprinkled moderately throughout the stories, and not hammered into my face by a single, perhaps too directly critical narrator.

This is a good, very consciously created and very enjoyable book. It’s a book that doesn’t need the kind of cheap advertising I often read about it (for example, about the number of people who fainted during Palahniuk’s public reading of one of the stories, „Guts”) because it can create its effect on its own. And I’m also pretty sure it’s not only memorable because of the extremely graphic and brutal stories it contains – it goes deeper than mere brutality.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Saying that Shirley Jackson’s classic horror story is eerie and deeply terrifying doesn’t even come close to describing the real effect of this novel. This novel is so numbing that its chill goes right to the depth of the heart – even if The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional haunted house-story: it’s more about examining what’s inside the mind and what’s outside, in the so-called reality, and about the way the inside of the mind influences the way the outside world is experienced, and vice versa.

At the beginning of story, we meet Dr. Montague, a determined and naive man, who is fascinated by haunted houses, and wants to spend time exploring them scientifically. Dr. Montague finds the ideal candidate for his explorations in Hill House. Hill House is not exactly an inviting house, the neighbors all talk and think about it with feelings of unease, and it’s been mostly uninhabited in the 80 years that’s passed since its construction because everyone who moved there soon moved out again, feeling that Hill House is just not a place to live in. Naturally, the house has a bit of a dark past, too – but it’s clear from the very first page that Hill House isn’t evil or haunted – contrary to an average haunted house – because people died or dark deeds were done there. No – Hill House was born evil, and it brought misfortune to everyone who had anything to do with its construction or later history.

But Dr. Montague isn’t put off by the bad reputation of the house, he recruits a couple of people and moves in to Hill House with them, with the intention to observe and document anything that might happen. The members of his group: Theodora, a shallow, cute, manipulative young girl; Luke, a relative of the owner of Hill House, a suave, unscrupulous man; and Eleanor, a single woman in her thirties, who spent her youth taking care of her ailing mother, and now, being freed from her decade-long duty, she has no idea how to interact with people because she’s never known anyone and she’s never been wanted by anyone anywhere.

These four people move in to Hill House, and from that moment on they are all exposed to the subversive, mind-corrupting atmosphere of the house, and they start to experience uncanny phenomena, too: doors and windows left wide open close on their own; there’s a spot near the door of the children’s room where the air is strangely cold; and the view from the windows is not the view that should be visible according to the laws of physics.

And this is terrifying enough, but it’s not the main point – the main question is what goes on inside the minds of characters, and what kind of relationships and power/mind games develop among them: how Eleanor, lonely and awkward, tries to win the affection of the others; how Theodora, easy-going and careless, plays with everyone’s emotions; how Dr. Montague tries to create and maintain order and sanity among his guests; and how Luke, ever the womanizer, tries to seduce both women at the same time.

The ominous events scattered here and there among all the psychological battles of the characters are not central and especially: not surprising – because everyone already takes it for granted that something will happen in Hill House. And indeed: the atmosphere of Hill House is extremely oppressive and menacing, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hill House provided a home to a score of ghosts – but a couple of questions do arise: do the mysterious, inexplicable events happen because the guests are attuned to them? Or do they happen because Hill House is truly evil? Does anything supernatural happen at all? Is it perhaps all just collective paranoia? Or is it that one of the four characters is just playing a cruel game or joke on the others? And if so – who is the master of the game, who is the joker?

I don’t wish to take away the – dark and helluva cold – pleasure of answering these questions during reading, so I won’t go into more details – that’s for sure that Shirley Jackson provides the reader with plenty to think about, while subtly and precisely describing what a – supposedly – haunted house does (can do) to the human mind. And in the end this is much more than a simple-scary horror – this is an impressive, well thought-out and well (what’s more: beautifully) written ghost/insanity story, one which leaves you wondering whether the things that do happen are brought about by a real ghost, or by the lunacy of the characters.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Recently I came across the title of this novel in several different places all over the web, and in these cases, though I’m not a particularly mystical person believing in signs, I tend to think that perhaps these coincidences happen for a reason, and I should take a closer look at the book in question. This I promptly did. I checked what this novel was about, became enthusiastic and ordered it almost immediately. As this is a very complex novel both in terms of content and structure, this blog entry will be rather long and will contain spoilers.

House of Leaves is a multi-layered novel. The narrator of the outer story is Johnny Truant, an apprentice to a tattoo artist, living in Los Angeles. When he’s not working, he spends his time doing drugs and chasing women with his friend Lude. In Lude’s apartment building lives a mysterious old man called Zampanò who dies one day and leaves behind a huge trunk full of papers. The trunk somehow ends up at Johnny’s place, and initially Johnny disregards its contents. Soon, however, he starts to read parts of the text written on the pieces of papers, and it’s not long before he begins to realize the connections among the bits and pieces. From here it’s only a short step for Johnny to become completely obsessed with Zampanò’s text, and he ends up compiling the material and creating the novel titled The Navidson Record. He also adds his own, highly personal notes to those written by Zampanò himself, and completes the book with the story of his own obsession with the novel.

To make matters even more complicated, The Navidson Record itself is not a regular, linear, story-telling kind of book either. The Navidson Record tells the story of a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, Will Navidson who moves with his family to a nice old house somewhere in the Virginia countryside, but soon it turns out that their cozy new home is in fact an immense, constantly changing, uniformly dark and cold labyrinth. Navidson, a man never shying away from dangerous situations, is intrigued, and organizes several expeditions to find out more about the labyrinth of his house. The events of these expeditions are covered by ample video footage, the characters themselves keep their own video journals, and photos are also taken of everything important. All these videos and photos are then organized and edited to form a movie called The Navidson Record. And the novel called The Navidson Record is as much about the story of the Navidson family as about the making of the movie and about the way the movie was received and interpreted by different audiences.

I wrote about Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow earlier (this post is not available in English yet) that it was the first book I’d ever read which wasn’t only telling a story about something, but in a way became the same as its material, the reality it depicted. Now I’ve come across another such novel: House of Leaves. And in a sense this novel goes even further than Gravity’s Rainbow. Because apart from the fact that the novel itself is like a labyrinth (or more precisely: it’s not like a labyrinth, it is a labyrinth), it steps out of itself and literally eats itself into the reader’s mind, knows in advance every thought of the reader, and includes all possible reactions to the novel, and every possible interpretation a reader might come up with.

A single example would suffice here. One chapter deals extensively with different labyrinths and with the architectural characteristics (or rather the lack of any distinct characteristics) of the Navidson house. This chapter is in itself already a labyrinth. One footnote leads to another, which in turn leads to yet another, but after working yourself diligently through all the footnotes, you won’t see any clearer, as the footnotes don’t tell you about what the house is like, but about what it’s not like. It also happens that more references lead to the same footnote, and the chapter also contains parts of texts which are mirrored or in other ways distorted, so by the time I carefully digested the unbelievable amount of information contained in the footnotes, I could hardly recall where I started from. And even though the chapter isn’t particularly long, it took me almost three hours to read it, and I could hardly wait to read a more linear, more text-like text.

As it turned out, Johnny, the outer narrator (and first reader and compiler) of the story reacted to this chapter in the same way. In one of his footnotes in the next chapter, he describes the same frustration I felt, and voices the same desire to read something which doesn’t hurt the eye and the mind as much as the previous chapter. Our wish does come true: the next chapter is the exact opposite of the „labyrinth chapter”: the pages usually contain only a couple of lines of easily readable text, there are hardly any footnotes, and most of the paper is soothingly blank.

However, two things are worth mentioning. One is that what little text does appear in the otherwise blank pages is most emphatically not soothing, and considering some of the events in this chapter, the labyrinthine text of the previous one sometimes almost seems like a nice and easy read. The other, even more disturbing thing is the realization that the reader I so readily identify with and whose emotions while reading The Navidson Record I so strongly share is no other than Johnny Truant, who starts out in his introduction to the book with the description of how this novel changed his life for the worse, and who suffers from increasingly serious mental disorders as he progresses with the compilation and reading of the story.

Reading House of Leaves is like doing an investigation (despite the fact that this is definitely not a detective novel). I don’t read too much crime fiction, but when I start reading a crime novel, I never strain myself too much (or at all) to come up with the solution on my own as I know that I’m not a talented investigator, so usually I just let go and let the story entertain me. House of Leaves, however, doesn’t let me lean back and feel good. It involves me and forces me to identify with the characters from the very first page, and as I’m already Johnny (and Will Navidson and Karen Green as well, for that matter) I cannot simply sit back and wait passively in the hope that perhaps the others will go ahead and solve the mysteries, I must try my best and do everything I can from the „outside” as a reader. (As if there were such a place as the outside in this novel.) Therefore I read many especially complicated passages two or three times in a row, and read even those footnotes with a relentless (manic) faith that contained nothing more than a list of several hundred architects, buildings or movies, hoping that sooner or later I will find a sign which could be the key to the whole story.

Reading House of Leaves is also similar to reading a detective novel in the sense that the novel is full of signs which entice me to follow them; moreover, the novel constantly forces me into making uncomfortable decisions, and it never turns out whether I made the right decisions. For instance, somewhere towards the beginning of the novel, in a footnote about one of Johnny’s footnote the (entirely fictional) editors give us a piece of advice, saying that if the reader wishes to follow their own instincts she can go ahead with reading the main story, however, if she feels that knowing more about Johnny’s background might help her in the interpretation of the story, then she can jump ahead to the appendix and read a collection of letters Johnny received from his institutionalized mother. I turned to the appendix but when I saw that the letters took up 60 pages, I decided to leave them to the end, partly because I wanted to follow my instincts, and partly because I was more interested in Navidson’s story than in Johnny’s (as I am Johnny, the reader, so I surely know enough about myself – at least this is what I thought).

In the end I read the letters in the appendix of course, but now I have no way of knowing in what ways my reading experience would have been different if I had read them at the time when the footnote I mentioned directed me to them. One thing is certain: if I had read the letters then (in time?), I would have received an explanation for a sign appearing only once in the novel, a sign I noticed but couldn’t interpret without knowing the contents of the letters. If I had known then, before reaching the 100th page of the novel what this particular sign (might have) stood for, I’m sure I would have reached very different conclusions as to the whole novel in general, and the identity of the characters in particular. But, again, there’s no way of knowing which of these would have been the „correct” reading method, and I tend to think there would have been no single correct method at all. As Johnny writes in the Introduction:

See, the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction. Zampanò knew from the get go that what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same.
I can suddenly imagine the cracked voice I never heard. Lips barely creasing into a smile. Eyes pinned on darkness:
„Irony? Irony can never be more than our personal Maginot Line; the drawing of it, for the most part, purely arbitrary.”
(Pantheon Books, New York, 2000, p. xx)

And indeed. It wouldn’t have made any difference if, being aware of the contents of the letters, I had interpreted several parts of the novel differently, or if I had taken the whole novel to be ironic, as I’m sure that House of Leaves still would have made a huge impression on me, since for a novel to have effect it doesn’t matter at all whether something in the book is real or (doubly) fictional, or whether something is to be taken literally or ironically.

By the way, if you happen to have the impression that House of Leaves is not an easy read, you are right. Following the multiply embedded story-lines, the footnotes which sometimes meander through several pages, and the visual and typographical oddities is at times not at all easy, in fact, reading this book is often a truly frustrating task which requires considerable effort on the reader’s part. On the other hand, however, House of Leaves is such a fascinating read, engaging my attention from the very first page, and never letting it go until the very end, that I didn’t for a moment regret all the time and energy I needed to invest into this novel.

(Now I paused for a second and tried to decide whether my last two lines were contradictory or not, and I came to the conclusion that they weren’t. Why couldn’t a novel be difficult to read and fascinating, frustrating and stunning at the same time? Why couldn’t it force me to face myself and my own reality, and at the same time make me forget myself and enable me to get truly lost in a fictional world? House of Leaves is such a novel.)

But House of Leaves isn’t just a terrific, cleverly constructed novel which makes utmost use of such postmodern literary techniques as fragmenting the story and jumbling the chronology of events. It is a beautifully written, unspeakably heartbreaking and unsettling book as well. I don’t know if I make you more curious about the book, or if I totally discourage you with this, but House of Leaves was one of those two books last year which didn’t simply brought me close to tears, but could actually make me cry. More than once.

Which is all the more surprising for me as it rarely (virtually never) happens that a novel in which the form, the structure and the way the story is told are as important as the story itself can induce such emotions in me. I love postmodern literature, and I can get really enthusiastic about a clever, stylistically, structurally or narratologically unique novel, and I can merrily ignore the story itself, but this is simply not the kind of literature that could break my heart. House of Leaves is as clever and postmodern as it comes – and still manages to break my heart. This is the kind of book it is. It resolves all, seemingly inherent contradictions; it withstands all easy, ready-made interpretations; and it proves on its own example that two, apparently mutually exclusive characteristics can be equally true at the same time.

The Shining by Stephen King

It was during winter, with a snowstorm raging outside when I first read this novel at the age of fifteen, and probably the circumstances of the reading had a lot to do with the huge impact the story had on me then. A large part of the story takes place in winter, with deep snow covering the world, and as a young and empathic reader I became so engrossed in the novel and I was so terrified that I was positively scared to look out of my window, for fear that the hedges in our garden might come to life as well. Now I read the novel for the third time, and even though I was still terrified at certain points, my previous youthful enthusiasm is as good as gone – perhaps I’m getting to be too old for King.

Probably most of you know what the story is about, but let me sum it up briefly: Jack Torrance, the (ex-)alcoholic, unemployed teacher and writer gets a wonderful job: he will be the winter caretaker of the Outlook Hotel which is situated high up in the Colorado mountains. Jack hopes that during the quiet winter months he will be able to finish the play he’s working on and perhaps start a new life in the spring after. He takes his wife, Wendy and his talented son, Danny with him as well, but their tranquillity is disturbed by the real or imaginary ghosts haunting the infamous Outlook more and more often, and slowly but steadily the family peace and Jack’s sanity are torn to shreds.

Although this seems like a regular ghost story, King managed to make much more of his material (though not as much as he lays claim to – but more of this later). The strongest point of the novel is the way King creates awfully ominous and claustrophobic settings and atmosphere. The characters of the novel know from the very beginning that the Outlook is cut off from the rest of the world every winter for four or five months because of the snow, and they have some forebodings about the hotel, but they still accept the long isolation, saying that this job might be the last chance for Jack to start again after losing his previous job. They believe that they are clever and well-prepared people who will be able to live just fine without the outside world and who won’t get on each other’s nerves – but of course the reader is much more clever than them and knows in advance that this is not what’s going to happen. And our superior knowledge fills the novel with a terrible and ever-increasing sense of tension: on the one hand, we can hardly wait for the first snow to fall, for the Torrance family to be finally cut off from the world and for the emotions and rages to erupt; but on the other hand, we keep hoping that they might have sense enough to run from the Outlook and return to the normal world when it is still possible.

After a certain point, of course, there’s no turning back for the characters. When winter sets in, the Torrance family is closed in – and not only in the Outlook but also in the more and more unbearable company of their own consciousness (and subconscious), and they are forced to face the memories, dreams, hallucinations and plans which keep surfacing from deep inside their minds and which slowly puts them out of joint with reality and normality.

Of course the several horroristic, creepy though sometimes a bit banal elements of the novel (moving hedge animals, ghosts in the bathroom, ancient elevators going round all by themselves etc.) can be frightening in themselves, but the most frightening feature of the novel is that it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when normality gives way to insanity. There is no single moment, no single event which starts off this change. The change happens gradually and you can’t even know for sure when the process becomes irreversible. This makes the story especially hopeless, since it’s possible that for instance, Wendy thinks she could still save her family when in fact it wouldn’t be possible anymore even if she could find their way out of the snowed-in hotel.

Apart from all this, it’s not hard to notice that the Outlook, besides being a haunted house, is the typical literary representation of the Freudian model of the human mind: the ground floor and the spaces inhabited by the family represent the ego; Jack’s mental degradation starts in the cellar, the world of hidden things, which stands for the id; and the final dramatic fight between Jack and Danny takes place on the highest floor of the hotel, the empire of the superego. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t go any deeper into the analysis of the Freudian symbolism of the novel. King himself doesn’t do this, either, but by mixing the haunted house theme with a whole lot of popular Freudian elements he managed to make the atmosphere of the novel rather special.

Besides his great ability to create a creepy atmosphere, King’s ability to draw characters is worth mentioning, too. And it’s not only that he can create wonderful protagonists – his supporting characters are also great and he can draw a character in a single sentence. For instance, there’s an episode in the novel where one of the more important characters is travelling by plane. The plane gets into a snowstorm and several passengers get sick. King mentions a man who pukes into his magazine by mistake. A flight attendant helps him and says: “don’t worry, I can understand your feelings. I feel the same way about Reader’s Digest myself.” This single sentence uttered by the flight attendant is sufficient for me to imagine her and the life she might have. And even though she is a character who never makes a reappearance in the story, I feel that her life contains the possibility of a separate novel – and I feel that King knows this, too.

Having said this, it seems a bit of a contradiction that it’s also because of certain points in King’s characterization that I don’t appreciate this novel as much as I did earlier. This is what I hinted at when I wrote that in my opinion, King didn’t make so much of the novel as he assumed.

King happened to make the major mistake of writing a preface to this 1977 novel in 2001. In the preface he mentions among other things that he considers The Shining a huge turning point in his career and that while writing this novel he realized that he had two ways before him: he could either go on writing clever horror stories, or he could dig deeper and attempt to create an evil protagonist who is not only a two-dimensional character but a „real” person with a past, good and bad personality traits and very human weaknesses. King thinks that in creating Jack Torrance, he managed to create such a character, and he seems to find the key to his character in the single fact that Jack’s father treated him in a brutal and unpredictable way when he was a child, yet, he kept loving his father and even though he was afraid of his father, he still considered him a god-like figure.

According to King, this contradictory relation between Jack and his father accounts for the way Jack behaves as an adult and also explains his insane actions. According to King, this tortured relation instantly makes Jack’s character very deep and human and makes his evilness more frightening.

But according to me, this is not the case at all. Indeed, Jack is frightening and human at the same time, but I don’t think that the special relation he had with his father makes his character particularly deep. In fact, I think the way King depicts this relation, in, for instance, Jack’s memories of his father, or the way he re-enacts this relation in the relationship between Jack and Danny is direct, unsophisticated and very much cliché-like. The parallels are too direct and the events of the past which, resurfacing in the present, assume a symbolic meaning are simply popular Freudian ingredients and not deep at all.

And this is absolutely fine by me, and I consider The Shining a good book, but I believe it’s vain of King to assume that he has it in himself to go into Dostoyevskiyan depths. King is a wonderful storyteller. He can give me the creeps all right. He can create engrossing characters. But he is no psychologist (or only a popular psychologist) and it’s slightly ridiculous of him to pretend that he is.

(If I hadn’t read the preface, I probably wouldn’t have written the last couple of paragraphs at all, and I would have appreciated the novel higher. But by explaining himself away, King very cleverly managed to draw my attention to the faults of the novel and his abilities as a writer, and now I don’t consider The Shining such an extraordinarily good novel anymore – simply a good one.)

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I read The Wasp Factory for the second time last year. I first read it when it was published in Hungarian three or four years ago, but then early last year I came across several reviews of and rather heated discussions regarding this book, so I thought I might refresh my memories.

The Wasp Factory tells the story of sixteen-year-old, rather strange Frank, who happens to be the murderer of three innocent children. Frank was a victim of a curious and unfortunate incident as a child: a dog bit off his genitals, therefore the boy suffers from inferiority complex and feels like an eternal outsider. Of course his sense of not being able to fit in is further enhanced by the fact that he lives alone with his father in a small island off the coast of a small Scottish village, he does not go to school, and what’s even more, officially he doesn’t even exist, as his father, for some mysterious reason, failed to register his birth with the authorities.

Frank also has a brother, Eric, who could have become an excellent physician had it not been for a terrible scene he witnessed as a university student. On account of this incident, he became somewhat deranged and then dropped out of university altogether. Then he took to harassing the kids and dogs in the neighborhood until he was finally locked away in a mental institution. At the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father learn the news that Eric has run away from the institution and is now probably on his way home. Eric’s journey serves as the frame for the novel.

While Eric is on his way home, we get to know the previous history of their family, and we also get a detailed account of Frank’s three murders, the Wasp Factory and the mythology surrounding it. The novel ends with a surprising twist, and the new information we learn at the end of the novel sheds quite a different light on Frank’s childhood accident. As a consequence, his life turns into a new direction, and the end of the story is in fact the beginning of Frank’s real life.

Reading the novel for the second time was a strange experience. As I went along, the details I thought I’d already forgotten came back vividly, so the oft-mentioned brutal, sadistic, stomach-churning and sickly details of the novel came as no surprise to me. True, it’s not easy for any book to shock me, and I don’t recall ever laying a book aside because it contained a couple of disgusting or horrifying scenes. Therefore the morbid scenes were not the ones that most engaged my attention when I read the novel – not even when I read it for the first time, and even less so now.

What I most enjoyed about the novel now was its humor, its style and the references I quite probably overlooked when I read the novel for the first time as I had no idea they could be important. But now I was aware of the outcome, therefore I also knew which references I needed to pay most attention to. I was surprised to find how often Banks refers to Frank’s gender, which may be considered the key to the novel. For instance, right at the very first page we find a seemingly casual note to the effect that Frank is absent-mindedly scratching his groin.

As regards the humour of The Wasp Factory, I consider the phone conversations of Frank and Eric, and the description of some of Frank’s adventures exceedingly funny. For instance, the way Frank exaggerates in the account of his fight with the intrepid giant rabbit is a case in point. By the way, I don’t know if the similarity is intentional, but Frank’s sadistic personality, his rituals and his self-critical, ironic way of storytelling reminded me of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and particularly to Holden Caulfield to a great extent.

Even though my favourite novel by Banks (though not by Iain, but by Iain M.) still remains (and I guess will always remain) The Player of Games, I don’t have any objections against The Wasp Factory either. It’s an interesting and well-written novel, about which I only regret two things.

One is that I consider the ending a bit hasty: I find it strange that Frank’s father reveals his long-guarded secrets so easily, and that Frank himself accepts that a new life will start for him, without making any fuss whatsoever. He even manages to explain in a few sentences how his past actions and murders directly stemmed from his perturbed identity. I might just accept that this is explanation enough, but I certainly would have liked to dwell somewhat more on these details.

And the other thing I regret about this novel is that the sickly details and its scandalous reputation might frighten several readers away, when – despite all its flaws – it certainly deserves to be read. (And in fact I’m not at all sorry about having read it twice, either.)

Night Shift by Stephen King

I like Stephen King’s writings in general, and he has some novels I am absolutely fascinated by (such as The Dead Zone), so I started reading the short stories in Night Shift readily and with great expectations, as I know that King can be a wonderful storyteller. Unfortunately this collection was a bit of a disappointment for me. Among the 20 stories contained in the book, there are some which are awfully banal, pathetic, or simply ridiculous, and of course there are a few masterpieces as well, but the bad or uninteresting stories are in majority, so on the whole the collection made a rather negative impression on me.

What disturbs me most is the fact that King does not hesitate to borrow from the oeuvre of other authors (or should I say: steal from them?), and he does it in a completely unimpressive way. The very first story of the collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a perfect example of this: the story is painfully similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Rats in the Wall”. The resemblance surprised me all the most as this is the only story by Lovecraft I have read so far, and this suggests to me that perhaps King builds upon Lovecraft’s work in some of his other stories as well, only I am not aware of it. Being a lover of postmodern, of course it is not the free usage of other texts which irritates me, but the fact that King does not seem to add anything of his own to his sources, so for me this is not a postmodern game, but a rather sorry example of copy-paste writing.

Apart from building heavily on other writers’ work, King also repeats himself a lot. I do not see why a book of 20 short stories needs two separate stories about rats, vertigo, haunted cities, or machines come alive. True, these are very rewarding topics for a horror-writer, and I also admit that the corresponding stories deal with ancient or quite modern human fears, but I believe that one well-written story would have sufficed in all these themes, and then perhaps I would not have felt as if I had only been wasting my time with reading another boring story of yet another ghost-ridden town or rat-scare.

In his introduction to the collection, King writes that in every work of fiction the single most important factor is the story, and not even the most intriguing characters, the most unique style or the most eery tone can help if the reader is not spellbound by the story itself. I do not agree with this idea, but King’s claim certainly shows that he is aware of his abilities and the limits of his talent. I usually think that King is correct in his self-assessment and his major talent lies in creating a story, however, in Night Shift the best tales are the ones that do not entirely depend on the story value, but rather depict a certain mood or state of mind (such as “Night Surf” or “The Man Who Loved Flowers”), deal with the relationship of the characters in a mature way (“The Children of the Corn”), or are marked by atypical narration (“Strawberry Spring”). In these stories one gets a few flashes of King’s true genius: his great ability to conjure a distinctive atmosphere in his work and his talent to create wonderfully absorbing characters in a few simple sentences. I have a strong suspicion that these stories will stay with me much longer than the less-than-interesting, less-than-unique pieces which are more strongly centered around the events themselves.

However, a collection of 20 which only contains 4 or 5 good pieces is not satisfying for me. I do not like to waste my time reading a lot of unexciting stories just to come across a gem every once in a while. And anyway, I expect more than this from Stephen King.

Of course King himself does not claim to be a literary genius, and the stories in Night Shift can prove to anyone in doubt that King is indeed only a literary craftsman in most of the cases, someone who usually knows how to put a story together to make it work, but who can hardly be called an artist. Again, this is not a fault in itself, but here the pieces King uses to build his stories are often far too obvious, and this spoils the reading experience.