This review forms part of the Hodderscape Review Project. Since The Shining is well over thirty years old, I’m assuming if you’re read this review, you’ve at least seen the film and probably read the book.
Last month saw me review Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, a book I had thoroughly enjoyed some ten years ago. For this month’s book Anne and the team at Hodderscape sent me even further back in time, to a book I read at the age of 15, some 25 years ago. Stephen King’s The Shining, arguably his most famous book.
When it plopped through my letter box, I must confess to being slightly disappointed. I’ve had a King phase (I think most people do), but consider him an author I’m no longer that interested in reading. Having been out of vogue for a number of years, King seems to have undergone something of a critical reappraisal. Where he used be derided for clunky prose, and fatuous storylines, these days he is acclaimed as one of the finest proponents of the genre. (For a similar rehabilitation, note the career of the Pet Shop Boys).
Each new novel King produces these days is acclaimed as a return to form, but on the odd occasion where I bite, I’m left with a bitter taste. Under the Dome comfortably makes it into the worst five novels I have read in the last five years. This month King is back, with Doctor Sleep, a novel that is garnering excellent reviews and fresh analysis of King’s career because it is a story about Danny, the child at the centre of the Shining.
And here I am.
One thing that struck me as I read is that nearly every memory I have of the book has been obliterated by the Kubrick/Nicholson masterpiece/interminable bore. I could swear that I remember reading pages and paragraphs filled with ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, only to find that the phrase doesn’t appear in the book at all. I have created the memory of reading it. I don’t remember a mallet, I remember a fire axe. I found I couldn’t remember who dies and who survived. Well I could, but I was wrong. This is possibly the most scary aspect of my King reread. My memory cannot be trusted, how much of the rest of my life is based on fabricated memories?
So, the book itself. In the main I enjoyed it. It is terrifying and tense in a number of places. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness is masterfully handled, as is the character of Danny, the boy who can read minds. There were many things I hadn’t realised as a fifteen year old, that gave the book greater resonance. Stephen King’s own battle with alcoholism for one, but also the need for peace and quiet that comes with being a parent. On my first read, Jack is only a monster, but now I can see the human side of him.
The job at The Overlook is his chance for redemption. He can find the solitude to write again. Can he prove he can hold a steady job, stay off the drink, control his temper? He has the chance to make his life right. This makes his self-sabotage all the harder to watch. The idea of man under pressure unravelling due to cabin fever is compelling. It is not only the boiler that’s going to blow.
Even when he hurls the snowmobile’s magneto into the wilderness, I had some sympathy. What parent would give up their one shot at putting life on track, because their child has seen ghosts? You may sympathise, you may comfort, but you are unlikely to travel through treacherous conditions, three to a snowmobile, to a town where only destitution awaits.
Ironically, perhaps since King is a supernatural horror writer, I found the supernatural elements the weakest part of the novel. They added many pages of reading without, for me at least, adding much to my enjoyment. Curiously I was fine with Danny and his Shining, but the idea of a malevolent house just didn’t really capture my imagination. At the end of the day, apart from the ghosts, all the house does is shout really offensive things at people. OK, there’s the hedges too, but the Overlook as villain felt weak, compared with Jack’s psychological unravelling.
I have mixed feelings too about the novel’s climax. The death of Jack and his partial redemption really struck a chord, but the final battle felt somewhat anti-climactic, and what were the chances that of the four people at the Overlook that day, only Jack would be the one to die? The final pages are trite, tying a neat bow around everything. Except now we know the story hasn’t finished. Doctor Sleep promises to tell the story of Danny grown up, and with the tagline, ‘Life Father, like son.’ , it’s going to be a hard book to resist.
Doctor Sleep is out now, and available just about anywhere you can buy books.