A Review of “The Shining” by Stephen King

Quite Coversimply put, The Shining is the best horror story I have ever read. It scared the hell out of me.

Over a period of time, I have noticed certain standard “motifs” in horror stories. One of these I call “The Lost Child”. Such stories will typically involve a child, who can see what the silly grownups cannot see (or, even if they do see, don’t acknowledge because it goes against reason and logic): and who fights, however high the odds stacked against him/ her are. Danny Torrance is such a boy.

Danny can read minds. He can see the frightening thoughts inside his Dad’s and Mom’s heads (“DIVORCE”, “SUICIDE”) but is powerless to do anything about it. Danny does not know that he has a gift; he takes it as a matter of course, until Dick Halloran of the Overlook Hotel tells him that he “shines on”.

Jack Torrance, Danny’s Dad, reformed alcoholic and struggling writer, is trying to put his life back together after a tragedy. He gets what he sees as the ideal chance when he lands the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel for the winter. In the snowed-in hotel with only his son and wife Wendy, Jack assumes that he will get enough quality time to be with his family, patch up old quarrels, and write that breakout novel.

But the Overlook has other plans. The hotel, which feeds on and grows in strength from the evils committed on its premises, wants Danny-permanently-to join its crew of ghostly inhabitants. And to do that, it needs to get to Jack…

Jack, struggling with feelings of inadequacy and guilt (he once hurt Danny very badly in an alchoholic rage) is easy meat for the hotel.  Their agent is the one-time bartender, who once killed his wife and daughters in the grip of the hotel’s darkness.  Jack slowly reverts to the old behavioural habits of his alcoholic days, frightening the life out of Wendy: only the addiction this time is to his mind, and is much more dangerous – something which she cannot imagine.

Danny, meanwhile, has the run of the empty hotel.  His exploration of the seemingly interminable corridors of the hotel is not without its chilling moments: however, he survives on the reassurance Halloran has given him that the horrors of the hotel “are like pictures in a book that cannot hurt you”.  However, Danny slowly comes to understand that with his special powers, he is more vulnerable than others – and that he is on a collision course with his dad.
1352715739-the-shining-corridor
The novel slowly grows in horror, starting with mild unease, moving up through sweaty palms and dry mouth, to pure, gut-wrenching terror. Jack’s slow slide into madness is paralleled by the growth in power of the hotel’s dark miasma, and Danny’s extraordinary capabilities. We are on a roller-coaster ride into darkness.

The world of grownups is often frighteningly incomprehensible to young children: these fears seldom die as we grow up, but remain dormant in our psyche. There are very few of us who does not have a ghost in our childhood somewhere. It is when the writer invokes this ghost that story gets to us. King does a masterly job of awakening that child, and putting him/ her in the midst of childhood terrors through the alter ego of Danny Torrance, lost in the cavernous corridors of the Overlook.

The hotel corridors are a fantastic metaphor for the human mind: they are long, they have to be navigated safely, and you do not know what is hiding around the corner.  They symbolise Jack’s slowly decomposing mind and Danny’s slowly awakening awareness of his own capabilities.  At the same time, they are a very common component of dreams and childhood nightmares.

There are a lot of passages which literally creeped me out in this novel (the topiary animals, the fire hose in the corridor, the woman in the bathroom to name a few). As King has said elsewhere, the monster behind the door is more frightening than the monster slavering at you: this book is full of such monsters. More importantly, you will keep on remembering your own boogeymen while you are reading; and long after you finish, you will feel the urge to look behind you.

Horror stories are a form of catharsis. As King says, the writer takes you to the body covered under the sheet: you feel it, and are frightened. At the same time, you are relieved that the body is not you.

A true masterpiece.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

France is seen as the seat of European culture, the temple of free speech: so when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by armed gunmen on the seventh of January and four famous cartoonists murdered in cold blood, international outrage was instantaneous. People took to the streets with placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a mark of solidarity: international leaders condemned the atrocity: and a massive rally was taken out in Paris on eleventh January where the leaders from forty nations participated. The attack was seen, rightly, as an assault against freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo rally

(Image courtesy: The Guardian)

The attackers were Islamic terrorists, and the reason for the attack was Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons purportedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda immediately. And predictably, the “Islam versus the West” debate started.

Most of the Islamic nations condemned the attack: some leaders even participated in the rally. However, the West’s tired old saw of “Muslims not doing enough to condemn and combat terrorism” started coming out in print, visual and social media. Muslims as a people were immediately placed in the dock and Islam as a religion was once again accused of fomenting terrorist ideas in its basic tenets.

Then, some interesting viewpoints started coming to light – interestingly enough from the liberal West, questioning the very sincerity of the protests. The first of this kind of article I read was about the “pencil cartoons”, a host of which appeared after the carnage. Many of them showed pencils regenerating after getting cut: pens and pencils in combat against guns and swords: and coming up trumps while weighed against guns and bombs. While these were not very offensive (though repetitive), there were others showing Islamic terrorists being bombarded with pencils, pens and brushes. The political theme of the second set was clear: “enlightened Western intellectual power” against the violent firepower of the “uneducated” Middle East. And in many of the cartoons, the terrorist was shown as a hawk-nosed, turbaned, scowling Arab – a familiar caricature in the West since the colonial times.

pencils

(Image courtesy: http://www.redflag.org.au)

Soon, another set of criticisms came up, about the participants in the Paris rally. Many of the nations expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo had notorious track records on free speech: Israel had jailed journalists in Gaza, Saudi Arabia had jailed and lashed a blogger for alleged blasphemy, and Egypt, Bahrain, Russia etc. also had less than pristine records on the right to free speech. Even USA had tried to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera and the case of Julian Assange is still alive as a huge embarrassment for America and Britain.

The third set of criticisms was about the magnitude of the outrage. The murder of twelve people in France created such a huge outcry, while the killing of around 2000 people in Nigeria by the Boko Haram was largely ignored. Inevitably, the Third World claimed that the skin colour of the victims was in direct proportion to the furore – that the killing of black and brown people did not matter.

The final set of criticisms was against the cartoons themselves. Charlie’s cartoons were meant to shock and disgust; they were grossly insulting religious figures and the religions themselves. Many people think that there is a limit to free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed it long back.

***

I personally was also shocked to hear about the attack, and condemned it immediately in my own small way by posting a review on the Goodreads website.

I am usually not in favour of anything which purposefully harms religious sentiments. In India, we have so many religions so sometimes we have to walk on eggshells: and respect for all religions is taught from a very tender age. So when the purportedly anti-Islam cartoons were first published, I never paid much attention, except remarking privately it was in bad taste.

But now things are different. When the guns of intolerance are trained on artists, it is time for all of us who are interested in art and literature to take up arms – and by that I do not mean guns. The written word packs more power than a thousand guns – and when it is combined with laughter, the power increases hundredfold.

So let’s join in solidarity with the slain cartoonists, and ridicule these extremists and their dictatorial version of religion to death.

I have since then had the chance to view many of the cartoons. Most are in extremely poor taste; many are overtly sexual; and almost all of them are insulting to some degree to some group. But I have to say one thing – they are impartial. Charlie Hebdo has no sacred cows. They were not a Western institution insulting the East – they were irresponsible and arrogant mavericks making irreverent fun of anything and everything – including the French government.

I do not consider that Islam or Muslims in general are responsible for the terrorist attacks, any more than Jews in general are responsible for Israel’s war on Gaza or Christians for George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq.  I also do not agree that it is a question of “the intellectual West” against the “extremist Arab” – this is a simplified viewpoint which ignores the complex ground realities in the Middle East.

I do not endorse the French claim that their country is the centre of the freedom of expression – according to me, the French law prohibiting Islamic women to wear the veil is as restrictive as the one forcing all women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Racism and intolerance are not the sole province of the so-called theocracies and dictatorships; they are present in democracies also. However, the main difference is that in democracies, one has the freedom to criticise everything, including the powers that be – this is all the more true in Europe, and France is in the forefront of this freedom. And Charlie Hebdo is the shining example of that.

As a member of a democracy which leaves a lot to be desired in the department of the freedom of expression, I salute Charlie Hebdo.

As a member of a multi-religious nation, brought up on the sanctity of all religions and the importance of not insulting any religion, I condemn the cartoons insulting religious figures.

I do not agree to what Charlie Hebdo is saying, many a time: but I will defend to death, their right to say it.

Another Year…

Happy New Year to all!

As another year slips by, should we be sad that we are that much closer to the inevitable end or happy that we have passed one more milestone on this wonderful road of life?  I personally do not know.  As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about death, about that point of time when I will finally cease to exist: when the window to the world that is my consciousness will close.  Maybe writing (and any form of creative activity) is a defence against this ultimate unknown.

I have been away for some time now from this space: one of my periodic bouts of inactivity, when I am unable to write anything serious.  I have started about two or three posts in the past three weeks, but all of them got stuck midway.  It was then that I decided that I should take a break.

Also, life intervened: my marriage completed a quarter of a century on December twenty-seventh, and we took a trip up to the charming seaside town of Khor Fakkan to celebrate.  Two days of sun, sand and the sea; eating, sleeping or just chilling out; quality family time.

I have been watching the amateur Malayalam drama competition conducted under the aegis of the Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi – this also eats into the available free time.  There is a play almost every night.  Most of them are of a surprisingly high quality, considering the fact that the participants are all part-timers with strenuous day jobs.  The festival goes on up to the 6th of January.

So hopefully I will be back with my regular weekly posts from next Friday onwards.  My friends who visit Sacred Space regularly – please don’t go away!

Once again, have a wonderful year.