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Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

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“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives

Review 118: Secret Lives of the First Ladies

Secret Lives of the First Ladies by Cormac O’Brien

This is a follow-up to O’Brien’s previous book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents, which, while a fascinating book, is a topic that has been covered many times. I have, in fact, two books on this topic, and they both illuminate the hidden idiosyncrasies, character flaws, shining moments of virtue and petty humanity of the 43 Commanders-in-Chief.

The "non-Dowdy" version of Abigail Adams

It was Abagail Adams who exhorted her husband to, “Remember the ladies,” and it seems that O’Brien has done just that. He’s given us a nice concise look at the women of the White House, and it’s a hell of a read.

It’s very easy to forget the First Ladies, and kind of pigeonhole them into the space that reads “President’s wife,” but to do so would be a great disservice to an amazing group of women.

A lot of people remember Hillary Clinton as being a political powerhouse, a kind of “co-President.” But she wasn’t the first, by any means. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, all access to him was controlled by his wife, Edith. She would let no-one in to see him, on the grounds that he was very ill and needed absolute peace and quiet. So, when someone needed something signed by the President, Edith would take it, close the door, and come back a few minutes later with the signed document. The question very quickly arose: who’s really the President?

Helen Taft is another forgotten First Lady firebrand. Without her motivation, William Howard Taft might have been perfectly happy to be a judge, but that wasn’t good enough for Helen. From her teenage years, she knew that she wanted to live in the White House, and she pushed her husband to make damn sure that she did. Once there, even her husband called her the “co-Presidentress” for the amount of involvement she had in the day-to-day decision making that went on. She was a woman of boundless energy, who was never willing to sit still. Oh, and if you like the cherry trees that bloom in DC every spring, you can thank Helen Taft for that. Women like these – Eleanor Roosevelt and Jocelyn Carter are part of their ranks as well – left indelible impressions on the country.

No-one messed with Anna Harrison. No one.

Not every First Lady was so ambitious, though. Some were more populist idols, adored by the public not for their works but for their personality. The most recent example would probably be Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a media icon almost as soon as her husband was elected. But there were others before her.

Dolley Madison threw the best parties in Washington, and was vastly more beloved than her dour and stolid husband, James. It was said that she had no enemies, and even the people who loathed her husband adored her. She stayed in the White House right up until the British showed up at its doorstep and managed to save a few precious items. It’s even said that the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, was more interested in capturing her than the executive mansion, and took her seat cushion from the dining room so that he could come away with something to remember her. Before he had the building torched, of course. After she left the White House and her husband passed away, it was customary for each new President to pay her a visit, gaining a kind of approval from the most loved woman in America.

Ida McKinley's hypnotic powers were well-known in Washington D.C. Only Theodore Roosevelt was able to break her spell....

Or take Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover. Her relationship with her husband would be considered scandalous in this day, and certainly was in hers – she was twenty-seven years younger than her husband, who had been her legal guardian when she was a child. Much to the nation’s surprise, he went from being “Uncle Cleve” to “Beloved Husband.” But that bit of creepiness didn’t stop the nation from loving her. Once in the White House, she became an early proponent of women’s accomplishments, willing to meet and talk to anyone, rich or poor. When Grover ran for re-election in 1892, Frances’ image was the one campaigners used, not his. And why shouldn’t they? In an age before byzantine copyright law, her name and image were already being used to sell all kinds of household goods. Ever eaten a Baby Ruth candy bar? It was named after the Clevelands’ daughter, who was, for her short life, the most popular baby in America.

And then there were the sad stories, the women whose lives in and out of the White House were full of misfortune. Jane Pierce is probably the saddest of these. She never wanted her husband to be President. Every step that he took forward seemed to result in pain for his family. Their first child died after a few days. When Franklin finally got out of national politics and opened up his own law firm, their second child died of typhus. With only one child left to them, Jane held on to him with a manic grip. His death – the only one in a train derailment a short time before Franklin’s inauguration, was the last straw. Jane became convinced that God had killed their children so that Franklin could have more time to devote to his Presidency, and spent her days writing letters to the dead boy, asking his forgiveness. She became known as the “shadow of the White House.”

Julia Dent Grant, who was the only person capable of keeping Ulysses from drinking himself to death.

No less tragic, of course, was the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is best known for being the wife of our first assassinated President. Even before that bad night at the theater, however, she had her share of sorrow. The animosity and hatred that was heaped upon her husband, the terrible strife of a civil war, and the untimely death of one of her sons turned a once vibrant, energetic woman into hysterical, morbid harridan. She held séances to try and talk to her deceased boy, harangued the White House staff, and almost had to be forcibly ejected once Andrew Johnson became the President. What’s worse, her own son, Robert, had her declared insane and had her committed. She won her freedom, but the animosity between mother and son after that was white-hot.

There’s so much more. The relationships these amazing women had with their husbands are also well-detailed, and also somewhat surprising. For all that Bill Clinton was a lecher, he was hardly the first.

Pat Nixon, who really must have loved Richard, though none of us knows why....

Hillary joined a group of long-suffering women who put up with blatant and repeated infidelities in and out of the White House. Some relationships were partnerships, like the Carters, the Hoovers and the Tafts. And some couples were just quietly devoted to each other, like the McKinleys and the Clevelands.

The First Lady is not an elected position. There’s nothing in the Constitution about her, what she can and cannot do, so the job, such as it is, is one that each wife makes for herself when her husband takes office. The effects that these women have had on this nation is immense, and should not be overlooked. So, if you’re interested in knowing more about our Presidents, you could do worse than to give a good look at the women who stood by them.

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“Well, Warren Harding, I have got you the Presidency. What are you going to do with it?”
-Florence Kling Harding

Cormac O’Brien on Wikipedia
Secret Lives of the First Ladies on Amazon.com
First Ladies on Wikipedia

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Filed under american history, biography, Cormac O'Brien, family, history, nonfiction, presidential history, wives, women