Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Before and After Books: The Shining

I realize I am making a rather large leap from my first Before and After Book to my second, The Shining, by Stephen King.  I can only hope you'll stay with me on this one.

I discovered Stephen King when I was about 13.  I was with my uncle in an airport waiting for my cousin's flight.  When we found out there would be a delay, I wandered into the gift shop, looking for something to do while I waited.  I have always been an avid reader, so I thought perhaps a paperback would do the trick.  The name Stephen King caught my eye.  At that point, I had seen bits and pieces of the movie Salem's Lot.  I'm not a horror movie fan unless the plot and characters are well-defined (which in most cases, they are not), but the name recognition was enough for me to check King out.  I picked up a book of short stories entitled Night Shift.  King is known for his novels, but I tell you no one can rock a short story like this man.  I was hooked at the introduction by John D. MacDonald.  I felt like MacDonald knew me and was talking to me about writing.  Next came the foreward by King.  I found myself liking him immensely before I had gotten to the first story.  Some of my favorites from this collection include "Sometimes They Come Back", "Quitters, Inc.", "I Know What You Need", and "Children of the Corn".  Some of these stories were turned into movies or parts of movies with different degrees of unsuccessfulness. 

My original copy of Night Shift.  I love that my 13 year old self wrote my name in this book.

Back at my hometown library about a week later, I went searching for King.  I was delighted when I found out there were all kinds of books waiting for me there on that bottom shelf.  I had also seen bits and pieces of the movie The Shining when I was younger.  It never made much sense to me.  If you've read the book and seen the movie, you understand why.  I doubt anyone ever found himself sympathetic with Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrence.  Creeped out, yes. Sympathetic, no. Unfortunately, that's what the brilliance of this book hinges on.
I first read the copy the library had.  I picked up a paperback copy a little later because I knew I'd want to read it more than once. And I have.  Many times.

The opening line of the book has stuck with me for years - "Jack Torrence thought: Officious little prick."  I was immediately drawn into the situation Jack Torrence finds himself in as he interviews for a job that may be his last chance to save his family, his writing career, and his soul.  He has lost his teaching job for hitting a student.  His writing has become a frustration.  He is struggling with his drinking and controlling his temper.  But he is a man who loves his wife and son and is desperately trying to hold himself together.

The Shining is a tragedy.  My heart ached for Jack Torrence, an abusive alcoholic and struggling writer.  This book changed me because I had simply never read anything like this before.  It was my first experience with the anti-hero, a main character who you shouldn't in theory sympathize with, but find yourself rooting for anyway.  This is my favorite type of character.  Books and other entertainment are so boring when the hero is always good and does the right thing.  What's interesting or complicated or real about that?   Jack Torrence was the first anti-hero I had ever met. 

Another part from the book that has stayed with me through the years is when Jack stumbles upon a nest of wasps on the roof of The Overlook Hotel. This part did not translate into the movie.  What a pity.   As Jack is stung removing it, King sums up the situation Jack finds himself in a neat little package.  "He felt that he had unwittingly stuck his hand into The Great Wasps' Nest of Life. As an image it stank.  As a cameo of reality, he felt it was serviceable."

My infatuation with King grew from there.  I was ready to move on to all those other books on that shelf in the library.  He's so prolific that once I caught up with those books in print, I never had much of a wait before he had something new waiting for me.  In high school and college, his latest novel was always wrapped under the tree for me.  A few of my favorites are Carrie, Cujo, The Stand, Thinner, (written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), It, Pet Semetary, and Different Seasons (four novellas - three of which were actually turned into very good or excellent movies - Stand by Me (which was adapted from The Body), The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil). 

The underbelly of human nature was exposed to me in The Shining at a time when I was ready to see it. Jack Torrence doesn't succeed in overcoming his demons.  It was the first time I remember feeling like someone was telling me the ugly truth in a book.  It changed my taste in reading material.

 I haven't kept up with King's new books in the last ten years or so.  Again, he's so prolific and I've been busy exploring the many different avenues that were opened up to that 13 year old reader at the airport.  Sadly, I don't have as much time to read as I did in high school and college. One day I may go to my present local library and catch up on the number of books waiting for me.  It will be like meeting up with an old friend. 


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