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Now he was in a room filled with strange furniture, a room that was dark. Snow spattered against the windows like thrown sand. His mouth was dry, his eyes like hot marbles, his heart triphammering in his chest. Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide. Footfalls. Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.
There have been a few ‘crazy Emmet’ stories relayed to me down through the years, given my characteristic enthusiasm for sundry things occasionally bubbling over into manic rants. One in particular my friends back in Dublin found particularly funny. We were working in a book depot in 2001 and this Canadian fellow had the misfortune to express the opinion within earshot of me that Stephen King’s 1997 television adaptation of The Shining was better than Kubrick‘s. My reaction to this pronouncement was somewhat Torrance-like. The original 1980 movie is one of my all-time favourites, and we’ll get back to that below, so consequently I have avoided the book for years for fear of disappointment.
So if I did not enjoy this book, did I experience a similar emotional upheaval to that time in the book depot?
The story concerns a family on the brink of flying apart. Father Jack Torrance is an abusive alcoholic on the wagon who recently lost his job and is in denial about his role in his misfortune. Wife Wendy tries to see past her husband’s many faults, attempting to force the familial unit to stay together through sheer force of will. Their son Danny is disturbed by the tension in the household – he does not know what the word ‘DIVORCE’ means but knows enough to associate it with the dark silences at the dinner table – but he is also cursed with psychic abilities that only confuse his five year old mind more. He has a spirit guide of sorts called Tony, who his parents write off as an imaginary friend (ironic given their rationale for that assessment actually dovetails quite neatly with the spirit’s actual nature) although their concern is growing that Danny’s relationship with the invisible boy is actually evidence of a mental breakdown.
With all the attendant pressures on the family, Jack decides to avail of an offer from an old friend to become caretaker for a hotel during the off-season. Located in snowbound Colorado, the Overlook Hotel has a dark past buried beneath its refined exterior. Jack begins to study the history of the establishment, while Wendy relaxes at the prospect of some small stability for the near future.
Before the staff of the hotel leave for the holidays, Danny encounters a cook named Dick Hallorann, who shares the young boy’s psychic abilities, which he calls ‘Shining’, and passes on a warning about the Overlook’s nature. There are many ghosts in the building, but he assures Danny for someone with the Shining it is just like looking at pictures – they cannot hurt him.
As the months pass and cabin fever sets in, Danny slowly realizes that whatever lives in the Overlook is far more dangerous than Dick told him. His protection from Tony is wavering, Jack is becoming dangerously obsessed with his role as caretaker and Wendy’s denial blinds her to what is happening to her husband. Danny is all alone in the Overlook.
King is a very problematic writer for me. I keep reading his books in the hope of some day understanding his appeal, but it never really clicks for me. Partly because of his choice of protagonists. They are usually tortured artists with drinking problems who are meant to be blue-collar men of the world I suppose, but seem more deluded than driven to me, selfish instead of inspired. The Shining is yet another clumsily sprawling tale that could do with being tightened considerably. It also features possibly the most irresponsible doctor in fiction. So you’ve been beating your son have you? Oh well, I’m sure that’s all over now. What!?
There there’s the run on psychic asides rendered in parentheses, which stylistically does not work at all. For me this writing is not atmospheric, haunting, or scary. It is just a long, drawn out sequence of unpleasant things happening to unpleasant people. Over and over again.
Kubrick nailed it. I should have stuck to the film.
She tried to call Conor once she left the store, but all she got was a cheery robot directing her to leave a message: he hadn’t even bothered to put his own voice into the system. She told him that he should wake up, she was on her way home right now, and understood what a pointless message it was as soon as she finished speaking. Her voice seemed to echo back at her and she imagined some vast warehouse where they stored all such unwanted messages, a black space filled with the ceaseless murmur of unheeded questions and complaints and pleas.
I have had the beginnings of an idea for a yarn tickling the back of my mind for days now. It is frustrating me because I feel this flush of resentment that so much of my time is occupied by reading and writing for this blog instead of working on my own ideas – until of course the realization hits that this blog is the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of sticking to a writing routine. I am exposing myself to authors I never would have read before, becoming inspired by the constant immersion in stories that rest outside my comfort zone of reading material.
I have to remind myself just how lucky I am.
Security is one of those modern novels that introduces a number of different protagonists to the reader and then interweaves their stories, building to an eventual climax where they all cross paths. Amidon includes a number of scenes in a creative writing class, where the students debate the value of ‘truth’, in a memoir. I was reminded of Todd Solondz‘s Storytelling which also features a creative writing class where truth is an early fatality in the quest for shock value, the real meat and potatoes of non-fiction confessionals.
Edward Inman is a solid, well-intentioned family man who runs a security company in the progressive college town of Stoneleigh. Suffering from recurring bouts of sleep deprivation he finds himself driving late at night instead of sleeping in his own home. His relationship with his wife Meg has cooled and his work excuses him from the marriage bed. Early one morning he passes the son of a former flame, staggering drunkenly home. He gives the boy a lift to his home and upon meeting Connor’s mother Katherine wonders whether his calm and ordered life took a wrong turn.
Katherine herself is at her wits end with her increasingly silent and feckless dropout son. Connor never tells her where he goes at night, sleeps off his drunk during the day and becomes aggressive when she asks him to find work. She is tired of being a mother to a young man who treats her with so little respect. Katherine remembers how she used to have passion and dreams before her spirit was crushed.
Angela is a college student secretly having an affair with her writing instructor Stuart. She shares the class with Mary Steckl, daughter of the town drunk who was accused by Meg Inman of indecent exposure. What began as a police complaint led to Meg’s growing political career, inspired by the charges against Steckl being dropped. Mary has had to live with the reputation of her father ever since. She is vulnerable and isolated, with only Angela feeling the smallest measure of sympathy for her in the classroom pecking order.
When a young woman is assaulted, the perception of Stoneleigh as a safe town is finally shattered. Accusations are levelled and paranoia runs rampant. The debate started by Mary Steckl in the writing class is shown to be a microcosm for the concerns of the town at large – discover the truth, or invent a lie salacious enough to entertain the mob.
Stephen Amidon‘s story has a light Ballardian touch, showing how the close-knit lives of this small community exist in isolation from one another courtesy of technology. The structure of the family unit itself is at stake, with the ambiguous climax symbolically representing the threat posed to it. Thematically the book addresses the compulsive need in modern society to protect families from the outside world, even at the expense of any real engagement with others.
Amidon perfectly captures the uses of fear in political discourse, as well as the fragility of the family structure itself. The story is gripping with the competing narrative strands woven together convincingly.
For everywhere folk have again taken out the Christ they’ve kept hidden since Catholic days. Now, in every village and hamlet, you can see braided garlic and the holy images repugnant to the monster of Ropraz hanging from the window frames and catches, from lintels, balconies, railings, even from secret doorways and in cellars. Crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries. On hills, beside country roads, the object dominated since Reformation days is erected again. The vampire fears the symbol of Christ? “There, that’ll make him think twice! And the dog is loose.”
History is peppered with tragic accounts of rampant superstition in small communities leading to fevered accusations of witchcraft, vampirism and demonic possession against people whose lives were then destroyed by the enflamed mob. I once had an English teacher who claimed that women accused of being witches were in fact proto-feminists. I find that doubtful. To my mind those accused by the community were most likely already isolated from the other folk in the area, nevermind what they thought, or believed in. Victims of history if you like, our knowledge of the past passed down to us from the dominant narratives of those who dominate.
Jacques Chessex here presents a semi-fictionalised account of actual events. The town of Ropraz in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by tremendous fear after the body of a young woman, the daughter of a local justice of the peace who had passed away from meningitis, is discovered to have been disinterred and interfered with in the graveyard itself. The young Rosa Gilliéron mutilated corpse was found by her own father only two days after she was buried. Ropraz itself having already been moved to great despair by the tragic death of the beautiful girl is incensed at the monstrousness of the crime. The body has been sexually molested, chewed on and even had organs cut away by a sharp blade. Only a fiend could be capable of such a horrific crime. The people take to their homes, arm themselves and whisper to one another at night of the Vampire of Ropraz.
After shock comes anger and a desperate need for swift justice. Accusations are thrown against innocents, family feuds are reignited, suspicion falls on medical students, butchers and well-known criminals. The police are unable to find the culprit and then as the winter snows melt further outrages are committed against two more girls, thought safely resting in their graves. The vampire seems to be on the move, striking out to find more amenable hunting grounds in neighbouring towns. Word of the crimes reach newspaper readers across Europe, Catholic superstitions return to Protestant Switzerland and no one can tell where the fiend will strike next.
Then a man known as Charles-Augustin Fevez, a drunk with an exaggerated gait due to a dislocated shoulder, is identified as the culprit. Found molesting a cow in a stable, the leap from bestiality to bestial savagery is an easy one to make in the eyes of the public. The vampire of Ropraz has been found and the people want revenge.
What follows is a fascinating account of mob-justice and early psychiatry. The descriptions by Chessex may take artistic licence with certain details, certainly this is a more lyrical record than usually found in history books, but he shows a keenly felt personal interest in the scapegoating of Fevez by the community that never wanted him. Not that any argument protesting his innocence is made – this book is more interested in how a human can be made into a monster to excuse the crimes of the people around him. The small towns in Switzerland are in this period crippled by poverty and misery, with alcoholism, incest and mental illness found everywhere:
They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam
There can be no justice, only the exacting of a brief vengeance before life trundles on.
Where before Fevez was an anonymous stable-hand, he is become a celebrity of sorts. A lady in white bribes a warden to be allowed to spend time with Fevez in his cell on several occasions. In a strange inversion, Fevez becomes alike to the virginal innocents he is supposed to have ravished. Chessex ends his tale with the troubled man from Ropraz gaining immortality from an unexpected source.
A very curious record of a grotesque and bizarre historical event.