Learning from the masters: Stephen King and The Shining
Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.
Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:
Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.
This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.
King has written scarier books than The Shining—Pet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.