Heart of Darkness
For fans of Stephen King, and I am a life-long, card-carrying one, The Shining has a very special place in the best-selling author’s heart-stopping hierarchy of thrills-chills-spills: like so many other readers, (King calls us his “constant readers”), I couldn’t sleep for nights on end. You closed your eyes, and there was the lurking, lurching monster about to break down your door and swallow you up in a single gulp.
The novel was scary enough, but Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of it ratcheted up the fear factor so high that I don’t remember being able to breathe through it. Or do I mean, I remember every breath I took because it was short and shallow and careful in order to keep the monster at bay. And a meaner, scarier monster than Jack Torrance, played unforgettably by Jack Nicholson, did not exist. Has not existed.
When you meet him, there’s nothing to suggest that’s there’s anything off-kilter about Torrance. He sits there, an author who needs some time and space for the words to begin flowing, in the lobby of Overlook Hotel, along with his wife and son. Yes, he’s happy to be caretaker. Yes, he’s aware of just how isolated the snow-bound countryside can be. And no, there’s nothing to worry about.
I won’t be giving out any spoilers if I tell you just how beguilingly Kubrick leads us down the primrose path. How a little twitch becomes a little niggle, and then the unease starts building. At a placid dining table sit the wife, played by the fragile Shelley Duvall, and their little boy, who asks if he can go out to play. Won’t it be fun, he asks, all innocence. Yes, it will be fun, she says.
We already know that the fun and games are over. Of one kind. The other, which takes these three down the labyrinth, deeper and deeper, is just beginning. Ghostly, menacing figures start appearing. Past sins come visiting. And by the time Torrance has flipped all the way over, and is chasing his family down the empty, echoing hallways of the hotel, the terror is full-blown.
Why the book (1977) and the film (1980), resonated so heavily, and is to be found in most horror-lovers’ library, is something that King’s best works lock into with such simplicity: yes, there is evil that is to be found in other spheres of the universe, but the blackness that can reside in the human heart is the most frightening of them all.
Those who were on set remember the feelings impacting the actors: from all accounts, Duvall was the most affected, and it took her a long time to get over the shoot. Kubrick was famously exacting, demanding many retakes of the most difficult scenes. Imagine cowering behind a door being slashed through by a maniac, and having to do it over and over again. “Heeeeeere’s Johnny”, that long-drawn out phrase which Jack playing Jack sang out, was the stuff of nightmares. And still is.
Today, the sequel, Doctor Sleep is out. I will catch it and let you know how I’m doing on the sleep front. Hush. There be monsters.