How do we love The Shining? Let us count the ways. Ghostly bursts of plaster dust. A low, rhythmic sound in the background: redrum-REDRUM-redrum-REDRUM. A sense of something evil swirling inward on itself, like a whirlpool of black ectoplasmic energy. The experience of being inside the actual consciousness (come out and take your MEDICINE!) of a frightened little boy. Echoes of Shirley Jackson, of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," and of creepy folktales ("Hansel and Gretel," "Bluebeard"). The Shining, a tale of writer's block and ghosts who urge a man to murder his family, was written in a frenzy. Stephen King imagined the whole novel in his head while sitting up all night in the dark, in the very Colorado hotel where the story takes place. He then "transcribed" it in a burst of sustained energy. In 1977, this was the first widely-read novel to confront alcoholism and child abuse in baby-boomer families--especially the way alcoholism, failure, and abuse are passed down from generation to generation. The heart of the book is not the evil hotel, but father-son relationships: between the writer, Jack, and his father, between Jack and his psychic son.
Time alone will tell, but The Shining may well turn out to be one of the best horror novels ever written. And that Jack Nicholson movie? As King has said, "I have my days when I think I gave Kubrick a live grenade on which he heroically threw his body."
The Dark Half
In 1985, 39-year-old Stephen King announced in public that his pseudonymous alter ego, Richard Bachman, was dead. (Never mind that he revived him years later to write The Regulators.) At the beginning of The Dark Half, (1989), 39-year-old writer Thad Beaumont announces in public that his own pseudonym, George Stark, is dead.
Now, King didn't want to completely jettison Machine Dreams, the Bachman novel he was working on in 1985. So he incorporated it into The Dark Half as the crime oeuvre of George Stark, whose recurring hero/alter ego is an evil character named Alexis Machine. Beaumont's pseudonym is not as docile as Stephen King's, though, and George Stark bursts forth into reality. At that point, two stories kick into gear: a mystery-detective story about the crime spree of George Stark (or is it Alexis Machine?) and a horror story about Beaumont's struggle to catch up with his doppelganger and kill him dead.
In a way, The Dark Half can be seen as a companion piece to 1987's Misery (which became a fine 1990 Rob Reiner film). Misery is about a writer kidnapped by a violent fan who tries to channel his imagination to please his ravenous readership. The Dark Half is about the equally sinister grip in which the writer's own ravenous imagination holds him.
In Misery (1987), as in The Shining, a writer is trapped in an evil house during a Colorado winter. Each novel bristles with claustrophobia, stinging insects, and the threat of a lethal explosion. Each is about a writer faced with the dominating monster of his unpredictable muse. Paul Sheldon, the hero of Misery, sees himself as a caged parrot who must return to Africa in order to be free. Thus, in the novel within a novel, the romance novel that his mad captor-nurse, Annie Wilkes, forces him to write, he goes to Africa--a mysterious continent that evokes for him the frightening, implacable solidity of a woman's (Annie's) body. The manuscript fragments he produces tell of a great Bee Goddess, an African queen reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard's She. He hates her, he fears her, he wants to kill her; but all the same he needs her power. Annie Wilkes literally breathes life into him.
Misery touches on several large themes: the state of possession by an evil being, the idea that art is an act in which the artist willingly becomes captive, the tortured condition of being a writer, and the fears attendant to becoming a "brand-name" bestselling author with legions of zealous fans. And yet it's a tight, highly resonant echo chamber of a book--one of King's shortest, and best novels ever.
Stephen King's idea for It (1986) came from a favorite childhood image--the entire cast of "The Bugs Bunny Show" coming on at the beginning. He thought of himself as bringing on all the monsters, one last time--Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf, the Crawling Eye, Rodan, space aliens. The monster called It takes all these forms and more, causing bloody havoc of all kinds for many years and many pages.
The fight against It is joined by a group of adults who spent the late 1950s being "The Losers"-- troubled, outcast children. They grow up to be winners, mostly--one is a bestselling horror writer much like King (or perhaps his friend and collaborator Peter Straub). But to defeat the big evil threatening their hometown of Derry, Maine, in 1985, they have to go back--deep into their childhood memories to regain the talent for magic that helped them fight It in 1958. The story flashes back and forth between the two titanic battles of 1958 and 1985. King says It is for "the buried child in us, but I'm writing for the grown-up, too. I want grown-ups to look at the child long enough to be able to give him up."
This huge, baggy beast of a novel is a favorite of Stephen King fans--second only to the vast The Stand. King is like the pointillist painter Seurat--if you stand too close to the little dots, the picture falls apart, and it looks meaningless. That's why he makes the storyscape so BIG.
Stephen King's second book, 'Salem's Lot (1975)--about the slow takeover of an insular hamlet called Jerusalem's Lot by a vampire patterned after Bram Stoker's Dracula--has two elements that he also uses to good effect in later novels: a small American town, usually in Maine, where people are disconnected from each other, quietly nursing their potential for evil; and a mixed bag of rational, goodhearted people, including a writer, who band together to fight that evil.
Simply taken as a contemporary vampire novel, 'Salem's Lot is
great fun to read, and has been very influential in the horror genre. But
it's also a sly piece of social commentary. As King said in 1983, "In 'Salem's
Lot, the thing that really scared me was not vampires, but the town
in the daytime, the town that was empty, knowing that there were things
in closets, that there were people tucked under beds, under the concrete
pilings of all those trailers. And all the time I was writing that, the
Watergate hearings were pouring out of the TV.... Howard Baker kept asking,
'What I want to know is, what did you know and when did you know it?' That
line haunts me, it stays in my mind.... During that time I was thinking
about secrets, things that have been hidden and were being dragged out
into the light." Sounds quite a bit like the idea behind his 1998 novel
of a Maine hamlet haunted by unsightly secrets, Bag of Bones.