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.