The Shining – Crazy, Good, Crazy Good

How does one review a book that everyone knows about already (oops)? The Shining is so pervasive that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of it. Cultural osmosis makes that a near certainty. Tack on the fact that most readers have settled firmly on one side of the Stephen King fence. Love him or hate him, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and The Shining proves it. I picked it up, naturally, to review it here. But I also read it for my ongoing Page2Screen series with Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat–look out for our discussion of The Shining next week at KickSeat.com; the episode will cover both the film and book. 

Mentioning the film verges on necessary in any review of The Shining, because so many people are familiar with “Heeeeeere’s JOHNNY” and the like. Stephen King’s original work is plenty present in Kubrick’s film, but as we readers know, books just hit different. This has perhaps never been more true than it is for The Shining, a hard-hitting crescendo of a book that bubbles and boils to an explosive climax. Whether or not you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film adaptation, The Shining is a fantastic read.

Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny head to Colorado’s Overlook Hotel for the winter. Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker at the Overlook, a job he receives from a friend after he gets fired from his teaching job for, y’know, pummeling a student he kicked off the debate team. Jack’s five year old son has a knack for knowing what people are thinking, where lost things can be found, and what will happen in the future. This power–the shining–is fueled by the Overlook, where sinister things dwell in the shadows. As the Colorado winter snows them in, the Overlook begins to take its toll on the family, and Jack begins to lose his grip on sobriety and sanity. 

The Shining is brilliant. It’s a masterpiece of character and a striking psychological thriller. By isolating his three main characters in a creepy locale, King opens doors into gradually degrading psyches addled by the isolation and the terrors running rampant through the Overlook. There came a point in The Shining where I blurted out “Oh, Jack’s crazy” to myself. As I read, I wondered if Jack was crazy the whole time, then I wondered whether I was crazy for not seeing how crazy he was from the get-go. Each successive chapter in The Shining dives deeper into the darkest portions of a character’s mind. Jack, Danny, and Wendy all feel intensely real in a way I’ve rarely experienced through my years-long reading career. 

Movie buffs may not be surprised by this at all. But the movie eschews the psychological-thriller aspects of The Shining in favor of horror. You could argue that’s better for the screen anyway, and that’s fair. The movie has its merits, but the impact of the characters in King’s original novel is far greater than it is in the film. I came to know so much about the characters, even as King threw them into a downward mental spiral. 

The Shining also features an entirely unique character: The Overlook. The hotel is essentially a character itself, constantly changing the way the Torrances think and act. It has a dark presence that reverberates through every page. As I read, at times I could feel the Overlook’s influence lurking behind every word, nudging Jack, Wendy, and Danny to do its bidding. The Overlook is pure tension. Juicy, horrific tension. It’s the embodiment of every bad thought or impulse a human could dream up. It brings these concepts to life and terrorizes the characters within it. Danny is an excellent foil to The Overlook. The hotel wants Danny’s massive power for itself, but it’s that power that gives Danny the mental capacity to resist it (plus his ability to read minds and predict the future). Danny is hunted for his powers and also protected by them, so the hotel finds the path of least resitance to acquiring him. The Overlook feeds on the weaker mind of newly sober Jack Torrance and drives him into a murderous rage in its attempts to stop Danny’s resistance (read: kill him) and absorb his power. It woos Jack, convinces him he is the one it wants, then uses him as a means to an end. The narrative arc of the Shining’s characters is dark, demented, and beautiful. It’s as much a joy to read as it is positively terrifying. 

I wish I had more to offer to the conversation surrounding The Shining. Instead, I feel trapped by my own mediocrity. I know this book is excellent, and I know the characters–Overlook included–are some of the best I’ve ever read. But I can’t pinpoint every little thing that made me feel this way about the novel. Rather than a sum of its parts, The Shining is one cohesive whole that tells an amazing story. I can’t give it much higher praise than that. 

Rating: The Shining – 9.5/10
-Cole

Pet Sematary – Sometimes Read Is Better

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Stephen King’s Pet Sematary plunges readers into a deep well of terror that provides a steady supply of eerie atmosphere, horrifying happenings, and a look into their effect on human relationships. The novel wrestles with death, grief, and human nature, bleeding dark themes onto every page. Pet Sematary transformed me from a hesitant first-time King reader to a horror rookie who can appreciate the power of scares and omnipresent creep-factor. Over the course of the book’s ~400 pages, I eagerly read from chapter to chapter hoping to learn something new about the characters, the small town Northeastern United States setting, and the mysterious goings-on that drive the story to an incredibly satisfying end.

Protagonist Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine on the heels of a job offer at a nearby university’s medical center. On the day of their move, Louis, his wife Rachel, and children Ellie (5) and Gage (2) meet their neighbor Jud Crandall. Jud’s lived in Ludlow his entire life, and he strikes a friendly, pseudo-father-son relationship with Louis. The two drink beers on Jud’s porch and shoot the breeze almost nightly, and Jud eventually brings Louis and his family to the eponymous Pet Sematary, a graveyard kept (and spelled, notably) by children for the pets they’ve lost, many of which were killed by trucks speeding down the main road where Louis and Jud reside. It’s after this incident that Pet Sematary reaches a boiling point that only rarely cools to a simmer. Rachel is visibly shaken by the place while Ellie is intrigued and starts asking questions about death. An accident at Louis’ medical office kickstarts a series of events that intertwines his life with the Pet Sematary and turns the creepiness up to max volume. Turns out Native American burial grounds don’t take kindly to being trifled with–but that’s all I can say before giving away the book’s juiciest and scariest moments.

King’s shining prose won me over almost immediately, cementing Pet Sematary as a quality reading experience. He condenses lofty ideas into short, digestible sentences. He keeps the reader interested with effortless descriptions of Louis’ train of thought. He introduces supernatural elements so smoothly that they feel tangible. It feels dumb even typing this about an author who’s written more than 50 novels, but it’s true. Every paragraph serves a purpose, whether it’s exploring a motif or driving the story forward at a breakneck pace–there’s nothing missing here, nor is there any excess fat. King weaves his tale with Goldilocks-zone accuracy: it’s juuuuust right.

That paragon prose empowers King and his story to present vivid imagery and starkly accurate portrayals of family life, friendships, grief, death, and sanity (or lack thereof). Pet Sematary, told through the lens of Louis Creed’s psyche, offers a darkly radiant panorama of addled minds and the power of death over the human brain. As the nefarious events of the novel unfold, each character deals with them in ways that feel undeniably true to form. When death pops up around a corner, Ellie, a child, grows curious. Rachel remembers the traumatic death of her sister. Louis and Jud tell each other stories and do their best to keep one another afloat in grief-stricken waters. Every relationship and conversation in Pet Sematary rings with authenticity; never once did I feel disconnected from the novel due to a stray cheesy line or over-the-top description. Just as he does with his prose for readers, King gives his characters exactly what they need to keep the story compelling.

All that said, I thought Pet Sematary’s single shortcoming was the protagonist himself. Louis Creed is a Doctor who has a new job, a loving wife (sure, they fight once in a while), two kids, and a friend in Jud Crandall. But he’s the shallowest of the cast, to the point where it becomes easy to read Pet Sematary as a self-insert novel, the main character becoming a link between the reader and the world. Some may prefer this approach, but I wanted a multi-faceted Louis over the one-dimensional conduit who lends his senses to readers on their Pet Sematary journey. Still, this is a matter of preference, and despite my misgivings, I breezed through the book.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pet Sematary for me was that I enjoyed it so much even without overwhelming supernatural or fantasy elements. Don’t get me wrong–they’re plentiful. But instead of a horror onslaught, King gives readers a steady drip of scares that builds to a steady stream. By the novel’s conclusion, readers are subjected to a terrifying deluge of scares and unsettling imagery. They’re effective moments, but their impact is multiplied tenfold by King’s restraint. Once again, he gives us exactly what we need–no more, no less.

I read the last words of Pet Sematary and noted a distinct connection to one of the book’s earlier moments. The novel’s final moments are as powerful as those that built to it, and Pet Sematary is punctuated by a deftly written conclusion that left me rattled, with an intense and newfound appreciation for the King of Horror.

Rating: Pet Sematary – 9.0/10
-Cole

A First-Time Stephen King Reader Walks into a Pet Sematary…

…and the punchline is an 850-ish word essay about his inaugural experience with The King of Horror, which Google tells me is one of Stephen King’s nicknames.

9781982115982_p0_v3_s1200x630It’s admittedly difficult to kick off a piece like this knowing full well that Stephen King has a body of work large enough to be called a pantheon (58 novels!) and a following loyal enough to produce curated meme listicles, “read this if you like Stephen King” listicles, and other clickbait about the guy’s storytelling prowess. Case in point: Stephen King has a fanbase that rivals the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, and for good reason. As a first-time Stephen King reader, Pet Sematary (review to come) acted as the Jud Crandall to my Louis Creed, leading me into a world of creepy spooky stuff that I don’t fully understand.

I closed out Pet Sematary with a newfound appreciation for an author whose work I should’ve started reading years ago. And it’s still early, but to borrow some corporate jargon, I have three key takeaways.

Practice Makes Perfect Prose

There’s no way around it: the dude can write. Pet Sematary boasts a heavy plot and complex themes, but King navigates those rough waters with breezy prose. His writing bears telltale signs of a seasoned veteran. King can describe human thought and stream of consciousness with unmatched skill. When you write as much as King does, you’ll inevitably learn a few tricks of the trade, and that firm grasp on the craft of writing radiated throughout my first foray into King’s work. I won’t belabor the point here, but check out my coming review for more on the technical aspects of his writing.

On a more conceptual level, King’s wordsmithery does wonders to destroy barriers of entry into the horror genre. Despite the wishes of Will, The Quill to Live’s resident horror expert, I’ve steered wildly clear from anything remotely scary because one time I watched The Conjuring and couldn’t sleep for three days. Pet Sematary may not have prepared me for a deep dive into the vast pool of horror writing, but it’s moved the needle from “Absolutely not” to “tentatively excited about the genre’s prospects.” King’s prosaic guidance into an unfamiliar branch of literature opened my eyes to new possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, he convinced me that the horror genre can play host to meaningful explorations of difficult concepts and lofty themes.

Motifs, Mo’ Problems? Not Quite

Speaking as a reformed Fantasy purist with a years-long preference for Young Adult writing, I’ve read my fair share of books that simply present ideas without deeply exploring them. Now, following my reformation, I’ve ventured into new literary territory and learned the difference between merely presenting concepts and actually grappling with them. Pet Sematary fortified my relatively recent love for complex adult (no, not that kind of adult) fiction thanks to King’s thematic prowess.

Reading Pet Sematary, I felt the crushing weight of death on my shoulders. It’s omnipresent through the novel, and it rears its head in unique, intriguing ways. The doctor protagonist’s no-nonsense attitude toward death balances exquisitely with his wife’s terror at a minuscule hint of it. His young daughter’s reluctance to accept it as a possibility rests in the middle of her parents’ views, neatly filling in the spectrum.

When death rears its ugly head, which happens at various points in various ways, I feel prepared to analyze the events through the lenses Stephen King so elegantly builds. His motifs rise in volume chapter by chapter in a deft crescendo of prose that feeds directly into the novel’s climax.

King treats all of his motifs with equal care. And while death plays a starring role, others join the fray to create a food-for-thought tapestry that’s punctuated by the terrifying story that lies beneath.

Creepy>Scary

It’s one thing to make me jump in my seat with a well-timed scare, and it’s another thing to inject a sense of looming dread and doom into every paragraph. In Pet Sematary, King does both quite well, but his appreciation for balance makes this one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

There were three very specific moments in Pet Sematary that scared me enough to raise my heart rate and compel me to look around the house for intruders. These scares are spaced out and surprising, even when I sensed something scary around the next narrative corner. I literally hesitated to pet my own cats as I read the book.

The story that resides in between these scares, though, is violently eery. King weaves a narrative that’s laced with horrifyingly unsettling moments, concepts, and occurrences that had me on edge, turning digital pages as fast as I could.

This probably boils down strictly to personal preference, but King’s foundation of creepy atmosphere sprinkled with truly jump-worthy scares is a recipe for page-turning greatness.

(Read the) Rest in Peace

Pet Sematary expanded my literary horizons into the realm of horror, and I have King’s skilled craftsmanship to thank for it. Reading one of the lauded author’s titles has me amped up for more, seeking that next rush of adrenaline, thought-provoking concept, and layered prose. If you’re somehow on the fence about Stephen King, do yourself a favor and jump down to the “I’ll give him a try” side.

-Cole