Some Thoughts After Rereading The Shining

I just finished a little reread of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and I wasn’t going to write about it here, but two things changed my mind. Firstly, I like to write about something I’ve been thinking about during the week and this qualified. Secondly, Aaron Cahill, a lovely guy and a constant supporter of my ‘long-past-their-sell-by-date’ blog endeavours, also announced that he was rereading it. 

So that was like Karma or something.

So, yeah, this post will be mostly about The Shining so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. But maybe come back next week, if this one is not for you. I’ll be on some other tack. Though God only knows what that will be. 

Whatever occurs at the time, as per usual.

Some history first. My best guess is that I bought the novel ‘The Shining’ in or around 1978, when I was fifteen. I had been casting around for some reading that engaged me a bit more and, without really knowing anything about King, I picked up two of his novels in Broderick’s bookshop at the bottom of O’Connell St. in Sligo. The other one was Salem’s Lot. I have a strong physical memory of these books because they were both really poorly bound and they both fell apart in my hands while I was reading them.

I found both books to be unputdownable. I was fascinated by the way dialogue and paragraph and narrative could be randomly and savagely interrupted by some other thought, like a TV channel being changed without warning. My breathless reading of The Shining started a life-long affair with Stephen King’s writing.

Then came the movie.

I saw the movie with Brian McGill in The Savoy in Sligo on the Saturday night it came out. I was due to catch the train to Dublin first thing the next morning to start college. My first time ever to be away from home. So, it was an odd evening. The film didn’t go down too well. I really like it now but, back then, it seemed slow and uneven and weirdly uneventful (which it certainly is not).

Now we’re up to date. 2020. I’ve seen the movie a gazillion times and even had coffee in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, where King had some formative inspiration for the novel, but I had not revisited the book since I was a callow youth. On the prowl for something to read, earlier this week, I found a more modern copy on John’s bookshelf and had a peek inside. That was it. I was off once more to The Overlook Hotel, high above fictional Sidewinder in the not fictional Rockies.

So… how was it Ken?

Interesting. It was interesting.

The first thing to say is that King’s style and power was still evolving and growing and although the concept was world-beating, the writing is occasionally a little – dare I say – clunky. Younger Stephen seems to have had some kind of minor fixation with breasts because they get an impressible amount of shout outs throughout the text. 

Some of the scary imagery just doesn’t work for me. Most notably the topiary animals who periodically and literally spring to life. For me, that was too absurd to be chilling. Similarly, the boiler in the basement seemed strained, with no pun intended.

As somebody who has tried a bit of writing since I first read this book, I can now entertain myself by imagining the thought process that started King on this road. You take Shirley Jackson’s ‘Haunting of Hill House’, with its malevolent structure and its psychic visitors, and you massively up the ante. The house becomes a vast hotel. The psychic presence a little boy. It’s a genius conceit.

But here’s what I really want to try to say.

After this second reading, I would say that The Shining is, for me at least, one of Stephen King’s most important books. People who know me through writing will know that I am always banging on about the ‘little drop of blood’ that needs to go into one’s writing to give it intrinsic value. There must be something of the writer’s soul buried in the work for it to reach us. Pure cold story will not do. And, for me, on this second reading, Stephen King has opened a vein and bled into this book.

It is, through and through, a story of alcoholism and fear.

When I am writing, in my own low-wattage way, I don’t usually know the actual point of what I’m doing until I get to the end. Then I go back and rewrite it, informed as I now am but what I am doing. To my mind, King could have written this book as a supernatural horror story and not known until late-on that he was pouring all his own fears and insecurities in there as fodder for the story machine. I don’t know, I’m only speculating. But the overriding impression for me now is that the writer is a man who has known alcoholism (he makes no secret of it) and who has probably feared where that might take him. This fear drips off the pages in this book.

I’m lucky in that alcohol has not played a starring role in my family history. I thank heavens for that. But anyone who has lived in a small town will know the sight of the main breadwinner of a household stumbling home from the hostelry, singly focused on getting in the door. Anyone from a small town will know that thought that goes something like, “I hope he falls asleep quickly.”

Stephen King famously has little regard for Kubrick’s film adaptation of the book. This surprised me initially because so many King adaptations are well below-par and, love it or hate it, Kubrick’s endeavour is striking and innovative and pretty damn wild.

But I think I can understand a little better now why King might not have much time for that movie. As much as the book is ultimately a thinly veiled metaphor for the horrors that alcoholism can wreak on a family, so equally the movie is not. Oh, there is booze there and it plays its part, but it is not the root of everything, it is not the point. And Jack Nicholson’s Torrance becomes ever more elevated and dominant as his possession advances while the Torrance of the book becomes a shambling incoherent mess of a thing, a drunk through and through.

I greatly enjoyed my rereading of The Shining. It’s not perfect but nothing ever is and the imagery from the film rather pervades the book, such that’s it’s hard not to see Nicholson when it’s Torrance standing there.

Not everyone's cup of tea, this, but still a very good read. There is more going on than meets the eye and that's always a good start for a good book. 

Walking the Second Beach

Took Friday afternoon off I did, in true Yoda fashion, and hopped in the car and headed for Sligo to meet my old pal and to have a walk with him on the Second Beach at Rosses Point.

We were lucky with the weather. The sun shone us out and back and it was only on the final part of the return march that the wind fired in a squall from across the bay and the rain came on in drenching waves. 

We sheltered at the side of a car which was fortuitously parked at a good angle on the side of the road. It shielded our lower halves from the driven rain and our jackets looked after the top halves. There was a middle-aged couple in the car having sandwiches and a flask of tea and they were happy to loan us the side of their car in this way for five minutes, even going so far as to ask us if we wanted to climb in, though we knew they didn’t mean it really.

Social Distancing was easy; the nearest people were mere dots on the horizon for most of the time. You can tell the knowledgeable walkers on the Second Beach because they veer sharply to the right and away from the oceanside when they draw near to the cliffs at the end. They know what the novice visitor does not – that there is a busy stream than flows constantly through the golf course, down across the beach and into the tide. There is an easy crossing up close to the dunes. Nothing fancy, some rocks and a plank of wood, but if you try and cross it further down it’s deceptively deep and fast-running and you will get your socks wet. Follow the locals, veer to the right. You won’t go far wrong.

The second beach ends at the base of a small cliff and a rocky outcrop down to the shoreline. You can walk further but we didn’t. It gets a bit slippery over beyond. We’d come far enough.

We had so much catching up to do that the beach nearly passed me by. I got so engrossed in the conversation that I almost forgot to take it all in. The wild windswept blue sea, the sky, the lands across the bay. I only noticed the extreme erosion on the way back and, as I sit here and think about it, I can’t even be sure that the always-constant metal buoy was still there embedded in the sand as it always has been. It must have been, right? I’m mean it’s never not been there, for as long as I can remember. I guess the chat was so involving that I walked right past it. I guess that was it. I hope it’s still there, I used to like trying to climb up it when I was little and succeeding when I was bigger. At the end of the beach part of the walk, I had to stop and look around for a moment. Just to imprint it a little harder on the retina.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this post isn’t actually about much. There won’t be much detail, narrative, sense, or insight into anything useful. I drove to the beach in my old hometown, had a nice walk and a great chat and came home again. It did me a power of good but to try to explain why would be boring and a bit pointless. Anyway, you know why. It was the beach. It was a friend. It was a walk. You have all the tools to figure it out.

Rosses Point has always seemed a tiny bit ‘other-worldly’ to me. I think it’s because there’s so little down at the beaches to define it as particularly Irish. There’s no shops or administration buildings or anything like that. Just an abandoned beach store, long disused, and a hut for the lifeguards. Apart from that, you could perhaps be anywhere. It’s kind of a blank palatte of sea and sky on which you walk and dream a bit if you like.

A beach walk is a good thing. There’s the theme of this post. I knew it would show itself eventually.

And the Second Beach in Rosses Point has always been a part of my life, back from when I was very little. It is a wonderful place, expansive and bright. If you’re round that way, go and take a walk up and down it. 

Or any beach, for that matter. You’ll see what I mean.

 

Keywords – For Us

There were two apparently unrelated occurrences this week which got me thinking about the uncanny connection between them. Then I drew a conclusion and then I discounted the conclusion as being overly sentimental. Then I went and revised that opinion too.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy old week, here in Ken’s head.

First thing: That box of photo albums in the corner.

They’ve been there a few years now. They were Dad’s so I thought I’d better look after them. In his later years, he collected all the old snaps in these albums. They come in all shapes and sizes and there’s no theme or chronological sense to the contents. Random photo beside random photo. The Sixties right up close to the Two Thousands. I glanced through one or two the other day. Everybody was much, much younger than I thought they were at the time. Some of them evoked memories but the ones that did not were perhaps the most interesting. 

That’s me there, what was I doing? Why can’t I remember that? A beach, a picnic, Sunday afternoon. Wait, how do I know it was Sunday afternoon? I must remember something of it after all.

Second thing: Being side swiped by an old song on the CD player in the car.

My pal John makes me a compilation CD of old songs now and again, just for fun. I keep them in the car, and, after initial plays, I give one a random rerun now and again. John has an uncanny knack for landing on old songs that I like.

The other day, driving somewhere and fed up with golf controversy and general whataboutery, I stuck one of the CDs on. What did I get? ‘Run for Home’ by Lindisfarne. And, suddenly and quite remarkably, there I was, on the beach from the photograph. Sunday afternoon, Lissadell House, Sligo. Drive one road into the house estate, drive out the other. Never going near the house itself, straight to the small quiet beach. I had my beloved transistor radio and as I walked in between the dunes, that song was playing. No question, a strong memory evoked. It was in the charts in 1978 so I was close to fifteen years old. That surprises me. I must have been a reluctant participant in the beach excursion by then, the little radio my saviour. I was probably sulkily listening to some chart show and wishing I was anywhere else. The details are sketchy, as you can tell, but the song and the location are clearly bound together. In truth, the strongest memory I have of it all is how far out the tide was and how grey and light blue everything was coloured. Mum and Dad were there, of course, and it was nice to see them again, quite clearly, if only in my mind’s eye.

Conclusion:

Reliving the memory as the song played, trying to interrogate it for more information, I concluded what I often do and what many have done before: that we keep our departed loved ones alive through our memories of them and, when we remember them, they live again for a little while in that memory.

Not a new or original thought but not a bad one either.

Discounting the conclusion:

But wait. You’ve lapsed into sentimentality, Ken, and perhaps it’s not wise to let it stand. Imagine when you are dead and gone, Ken, and someone remembers you fondly and smiles, as we can hope that someone occasionally will. Do you then magically spring back to life and move around and think and feel and love again? Alas, no. And what is life? Most of the definitions I’ve looked up are too scientific or too philosophical to entertain here. Let’s just settle for something like this: Life involves an element of doing stuff. When someone thinks of me after I’m gone, will I hop up and start doing some stuff? 

Don’t think so.

So, therefore, this notion of bringing people back to life by remembering them is sentimental at best. I saw a photo and heard a song and that was nice, but nobody was resurrected, were they? So, get a grip, Ken, keep at least one foot on the floor.

Revised opinion:

Having coldly ‘logic’ed it all away, I felt a bit like I had lost something in the wash. Some little bit of sentimental comfort, perhaps. But, no, more than that. I can be cool and sensible about all this, but I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There is something to this, whatever it is. When we think of our loved ones who have ventured on ahead, they do come back. They may not rush out and fill the coal bucket, but they are still back, in some way in some respect.

Thinking about it some more, I think the words ‘For Us’ might be the keywords here.

When we think our friends and family who have died, when a song evokes them, or when a photo imprints their image once more on our retina, they come back. They come back ‘For Us’. This is undeniably true. Since the photo and the song, my Dad has been riding shotgun with me in the car, pointing out landmarks, suggesting possible alternate routes.

And so, pushing the idea a bit further, there is perhaps some comfort, too, for those who have gone. They may well be beyond such earthly considerations as the ones we speak of but there could still be a sort of comfort to be had. It is the comfort they take before they go. The knowledge that they will continue to be evoked in conversations and stories and memories and, yes, in photos and in songs as well.

Whether there is comfort to be had beyond that, we cannot know. But if it comforts us to think there might be (and there might be) then why not have a little of that too?

It’s almost too hard to get a grip on all this stuff in regular words and sentences. It’s complicated and a bit messy too.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing that poetry is for.