The Inbetweeners Book Club reads The Shining

the shining title

the shining characters

Jack                  Danny                  Wendy

Jack Torrance – a man of many masks: a writer, a father, an ex-teacher, a recovering alcoholic, all topped off by a vindictively violent temper – interviews to become The Overlook Hotel’s winter-season caretaker. He just manages to get the job through an extravagantly rich ex-drinking buddy. He speeds home in his dying old Volkswagen to tell his family the good news.

Danny – five years old and mysteriously ‘knows things’ – already knows that his Daddy landed the job. From a sitting position on the sidewalk, he precipitately plops over into a trance. Tony, his metaphysical playmate, shows him a grim, grizzly, indeed gory future at the Overlook:

REDRUM! REDRUM!

Wendy, the wife condemned to type up various men’s manuscripts, is genuinely empathetic and compassionate to a fault. Although Jack violently broke her son’s arm, got fired for maliciously beating a student half-dead, he gave up drinking, and that makes him alright – a divorce is no longer necessary. Plus, she has nowhere else to go. Her future is clear: at The Overlook she’ll cook, clean, and care for Danny.

As the snow begins to fall around them, their ideas of the future begin to mix with the past horrors trapped within the walls of The Overlook. As the horrors grow in number, King’s writing thrills with its compact imagery. His images begin as mundane, domestic objects that become symbolic of a character’s fears. For Danny, it is the nozzle of a firehouse. When these objects suddenly become animate, all the fears that the images represent become more real than ever.

Having recently read The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and Gone Girl (2012), the Inbetweeners have new insights on The Shining. In 2003, King wrote an introduction to his own publication of Hill House. In this short essay, he argues that ‘The Haunting of Hill House is a masterpiece of ‘Bad Place’ fiction’. He confesses he has consciously attempted to add The Shining to his list of masterful ‘Bad Place’ novels.

King also observes that characters trapped in these Bad Places have an intensified interiority. In Hill House, each character appears to experience supernatural phenomena in his or her own way, removing the possibility of an objective explanation. However, the narrative style suggests that only Eleanor has truly supernatural experiences in the house. Except for the beginning and the closing paragraph of the novel, the narration focuses on her. We read her unspoken interior perspective of all the ‘events’ that terrorize her and her companions. Overall, the stylistic emphasis is thought, how her thoughts and interpretation of events lead her to tragedy.

The Shining takes subjective horror to a supernatural extreme. Danny’s mysterious knowledge comes from a telepathic ability called the shining. With this ability, he can communicate with Tony, read the thoughts of anyone, and can even speak to others over great distances. Artistically, Danny’s telepathy removes any ambiguity between subjective and objective experience, which gives legitimacy to supernatural events. For example, when Jack denies that he saw the hedges move, Danny pries into his father’s thoughts and reveals his lies. By the end, it is no doubt that The Overlook is one ‘bad place’ with its own desires and homicidal hedges.

With this comparison in mind, we can see how Hill House and The Shining influenced American horror’s most recent success, Gone Girl. In both the book and the film, Nick’s first question as he stares at Amy’s head is ‘What are you thinking, Amy?’. Gillian Flynn continues the pathological preoccupation with subjectivity but removes the supernatural elements. Instead of an uncontrolled subjectivity that leads to physical atrocities, the ‘psychotically sensitive writer/ character’ has complete control of his or her world; they know how to kill anyone and how to always get away with it. Flynn makes the plot ambiguous and the characters its puppet master. Further, she has done away with the singular Bad Place, and has expanded the trope to many Bad Places. Amy drags Nick through a treasure hunt of Bad Places. Clue-by-clue, he must solve and understand each place in order to regain power over his fate. From the Inbetweener’s recent reading, we can begin to appreciate how Gillian Flynn has carried on the tradition of American Horror, with all its Bad Places.

Come to the Oxford Public Library, a Not So Bad Place, for Halloween sweets and book talk this Sunday, October 26th, at 2 pm.

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