Craft Study: The Shining by Stephen King

the shining

Title: The Shining
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Horror
Age: Adult
Part of a Series?: Yes (this is Book 1)

*I checked this book out of my local library as part of my MFA studies

I am much less versed in the horror genre (I have to be very careful about what type of horror I read or I will have nightmares) and when I was thinking about how to summarize this book, this is what I came up with: A young family moves to be the caretakers of a hotel. The youngest member of the family–Danny–is a strong psychic. When odd things start happening and Danny’s dad starts acting strangely, five-year-old Danny is the one with the best grasp on what is happening. Well, he sees what is going on, at any rate. Strangeness and scariness ensues as winter closes in around them and they struggle to survive whatever is going on.

Not bad, but it doesn’t really capture the scope of this book. So here’s the Goodreads summary:

Danny was only five years old but in the words of old Mr Halloran he was a ‘shiner’, aglow with psychic voltage. When his father became caretaker of the Overlook Hotel his visions grew frighteningly out of control. 

As winter closed in and blizzards cut them off, the hotel seemed to develop a life of its own. It was meant to be empty, but who was the lady in Room 217, and who were the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why did the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive? 

Somewhere, somehow there was an evil force in the hotel – and that too had begun to shine…

Much better. Gives me chills just thinking about all the scenes in the book that it evokes in my memory.

Overall Impressions:
This book was amazing. And terrifying. BUT…not really terrifying in the way I expected, which actually made it easier for me to read than I had anticipated. I “used” Stonecoast as an excuse to “have” to read this book (even though I had other options for the scene pacing seminar I was going to take). Stephen King is, after all, one of the most well-known modern writers and I have NEVER read any of his work. I’m a scaredy cat that way. After reading it, however, it all boiled down to this: I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

The Nitty Gritty:
As I said, this is the first Stephen King book that I have ever read. I have always been scared away by the reputation he has and by how scary his books-turned-movies are. Boy was I wrong to avoid him. This book was captivating from beginning to end. The characters were detailed and rich–including the character that is the hotel. Seriously. Mr. King turned a building into a character. A character with history. Sure, it was a bit one dimensional, but it actually needed to be to fulfill its role in the story. (Yes, I realize that most of the rest of America already knew this, either from the book or the movie or the remake, but I had been living under a rock as far as the horror genre is concerned. No scary movies, books, ghost stories, etc. Prior to reading this book, anyway).

You’re probably wondering if I’m a horror-phobe and I liked this book, then how scary could it be? Well, it was the scariest thing I’ve read, and may stay that way for a long time. But what is important about it is the TYPE of scary that it is. It isn’t the type where you are lulled into a false sense of security and peace only to have something jump out at you from out of nowhere. It isn’t the sort of scary where you feel like you should start locking your doors and checking for “real” serial killer type monsters under bed and in the back seat of your car. And it isn’t the type of horror where you believe there is no possible hope of success for the protagonist (such as how I feel when trying to watch The Walking Dead with my husband). No. This book is the kind of scary that is a slow, creeping dread, based entirely on the idea that you care about the characters, they have a chance to survive, but the odds are severely stacked against them. You want them to survive, and you know they might, but you can’t help but feel that they don’t really have a way out of their bad situation. (And for me, the fact that it is supernatural, and therefore less plausible than say a serial killer, makes it easier for me to deal with.)

As for the craft I learned from reading this book, well, there were lots of things I noticed, but as I was reading it for a seminar about “scenes that move” (Amy Tibbets, Stonecoast MFA Winter 2013 graduate), I tried to focus on the way Mr. King built his scenes. While there were definitely some slower scenes, they were relatively few and were sprinkled amidst fast—but appropriately—paced scenes.

As I read the book, I noticed that he used brief, easy-to-understand sentences. This is not to say that he lacked the description that is frequently found in longer sentences. He simply used no more words than were necessary to say what needed to be said. Most of the time. As with most long books, there were times that I wished he had chosen a different pacing–both with wanting the book to speed up and slow down. However, his “scenes that moved” were always beautiful in the brevity and precision of the word choices.

He also did an excellent job of creating unique, distinct voices for each of his characters. While I would not previously have said that strongly individualized characters would help build strong scenes and intense pacing, I believe that this is in fact one of the key factors for King’s scenes moving forward. With strong characters, you can create movement through the interactions between characters, which in turns creates movements from one scene to the next, keeping the pacing moving forward at a steady pace.

Finally, the thing that has stuck with me most over the past two and a half years is the idea of variety. He didn’t always have short sentences or long sentences, short scenes or long scenes, but he had all different lengths. More specifically, he used the length of the sentences to simulate the emotions the characters were feeling. If a character was walking across a room, needing to reach the other side as quickly as possible, but feeling a sense of dread, then the sentences and scene would be long, forcing the reader to slow down and really begin to wonder if the character would reach his or her goal. And by matching the scene and sentence pacing to what the characters are going through, it makes it easy for the reader to become immersed in the book, the pages flipping quicker and quicker, the story advancing towards it inevitable ending.

Goodreads Rating: 4.12 (638,860 Ratings)
Amazon Rating: 4.7 Stars (2,926 Reviews)
My Rating: 5 Stars
I loved it and wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it. I will probably read it again at some point in the future and it expanded both my willingness to explore outside my comfort zones and, specifically, to explore the horror genre.


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