Shine On

One of the books that I’ve enjoyed recently is Night Film by Marisha Pressl. In it, Scott McGrath, a down-on-his-luck reporter is drawn into a deepening spiral of intrigue as he investigates the apparent suicide of the famous film director Stanislas Cordova.

You see, it was over-zealousness in a story digging into allegations about the reclusive Cordova (allegations proved false) that started McGrath’s fall from grace. Along the way, he picks up a couple of helpers and the team looks into the death. The engine that drives the story though, is the rich mythology built-up around shrouded Cordova and his legion of fans that analyze every frame of his films — both his production releases and his now-underground horror films. Cordova is a genius, a psychopath, a warlock — maybe all of the above. Pessl uses live links and webpages to make Night Film a “multimedia” experience — one that was lost on me as I read it on an e-ink kindle. I didn’t mind. I really enjoyed this book and it managed to straddle the very difficult line of making the supernatural plausible against the backdrop of the mundane. McGrath’s team is beset with obstacles (hexes?) that threaten their very lives, but they drive on to illuminate what’s really going on behind the shroud. I very much recommend this book — 4 stars out of 5. Would have made my Best of 2013 list if I’d added another book onto it.

night-film_custom-7c965903f63c61e0c0b5f99e565e76a3e8400db1-s6-c30The Cordovites view the world literally through the lens of the famous director, believing Cordova has a special insight into reality, or perhaps insight into a special reality. While I read the book, it seemed clear to me that Cordova was a fictionalized version of Stanley Kubrick, another brilliant recluse, who has very ardent devotees, though maybe just slightly less cultish, perhaps.

Or perhaps not. This aspect of Night Film came to mind the other night while the Beloved was out of town, I watched a documentary called Room 237, which is about certain Kubrick fans that are obsessed — and I mean obsessed — with Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. The folks portrayed in this film have pulled apart the movie frame-by-frame: analyzing every shot, every item in every background, every dissolve convinced that there is hidden meaning within. Importantly, these hidden meanings have nothing to do with the story of The Shining, but were CLEARLY (if you knew where to look of course) an examination of The Holocaust, or the extermination of American Indians, or a psycho-sexual autobiography, or a tip sheet on how Kubrick faked the moon landing footage for NASA, etc.

room-237-final-theatrical-posterThe film is sort of a fascinating look at how easy it is — especially in a digital internet age — to become obsessed with finding the hidden truth. I think these folks share the same sort of motivation that prompts “truthers” of all sorts — 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, Obama’s birth certificate, the meaning of things on LOST, etc. This concept is known as dietrologia – the idea that the truth is never the obvious thing; that the truth is always deeply hidden behind a false façade of normalcy.

shining-03_0Of course, things lurking underneath the “normal” is at the heart of a lot of horror movies and fiction. And that’s no exception for Stephen King’s latest book, Doctor Sleep, which I read when we were up in Cambria last month. Here, King revisits Danny Torrance, the boy who is terrorized in The Shining. In it, it’s 35 years after the events at The Overlook and Danny is working to forge an honorable adulthood after years of being an alcoholic drifter — the alcohol dampens his “shining” and has allowed him to forget the things he sees and remembers. Danny is drawn to a New England town where he becomes a worker at a hospice facility. He uses his shining to help ease people out of life and into the afterlife (his nickname is Doctor Sleep). Danny comes across a young girl (with the truly awful name of Abra) who also shines. A lot. He becomes her friend and mentor and must protect her from a group of creatures (hidden right in plain view) that feed on those that shine. I’ll give you three guesses as to where the final confrontation occurs.

Doctor_SleepI liked Doctor Sleep. King managed to write technically a sequel that seemed like a fresh and original take on an old standard. Danny is likeable but imperfect (an alcoholic with as-you-might-imagine-daddy-issues). Abra is likeable but imperfect (she’s a teenage girl). The story ebbs and flows smoothly and nothing feels contrived, and there are lots of jolts along the way. 4 stars out of 5.

And with this book, I think King was probably working out a few of his own issues. He was an alcoholic when he wrote The Shining. He’s seen the Kubrick film become the “canon” for the story, even though it’s quite different in parts and in tone than the original novel. King has made little secret of his dislike for the film’s treatment of his material and its popularity in the zeitgeist must irk him. I think with Doctor Sleep, King has reached out to take the reins of the Torrance family’s story back from the deceased, reclusive director.

Or maybe he just wanted to write a good, scary story. Maybe, but that’s too simple — there’s got to be a deeper truth behind the surface, right?

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16 thoughts on “Shine On

  1. I’ve never sat through all of The Shining or Clockwork Orange, but 2001, Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus are all favorites of mine. I imagine somewhere there is a devoted group of fans that pick apart the significance of every scene in those movies as well. Analyzing every frame of the Space Odyssey would be quite an exercise.

  2. In grad school English I knew people who pulled apart novels like Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and analyzed them page by page before drawing some interesting conclusions about them. (Both novels are gay romances, according to one school of thought. Of course, if you mention that in other venues, you could get your head handed back to you on a thesis binder.) I’ve always found the imagery in the film “The Shining” fascinating, so I can see why fans might do the same to it. I may give “Room 237” a viewing if I can find it online without having to subscribe to Netflix again.

    (I must now disclose an awful secret: I hated King’s novel The Shining when it first came out. I’ve always preferred the movie. I’ve wanted to read the new novel but was afraid I would have to wade through the turgid prose of the first book again. If you say it’s good however, I’ll give it a shot.)

    • HG — I remember reading The Shining when I was a teenager, but to be honest, it didn’t make a giant impression on me. I remember liking it, but other earlier King novels made more lasting impressions (The Stand, Misery, Pet Semetary).

      There was also a mid-90s miniseries that ABC put together with Steven Weber and Rebecca DeMournay that was was more faithful to the source material. King was involved with that one.

  3. I never did read the novel The Shining, although I have read just about everything else King has written. I remember as a college student being scared out of my wits by The Shining movie. Very well done indeed. The thought still gives me shivers.
    I did read Dr. Sleep and enjoyed it immensely.

    I think I will add Night Film to my list!

  4. I read the first chapter (free) of Doctor Sleep and it wasn’t enough for me to figure out what the hell it was about–thanks for this! I may read it now.

  5. Stephen King is, at his most basic level, a teller of stories. Doctor Sleep is a perfect example, as was The Shining. Let’s hope no one decides to make Doctor Sleep into a movie. The Shining was a mess of a movie and Jack’s portrayal was more fool than monster.

    • BD — there have been some good King adaptations, but I agree that Jack missed the mark with Jack Torrance. Part of the disturbing nature of the novel was that his slow loss of himself over the course of the winter — Nicholson’s Torrance already seemed messed up from the start.

    • One of the disturbing aspects of The Shining was that Jack lost his humanity over the course of the winter — I thought Nicholson played his Jack Torrance as already too disturbed at the start.

  6. I liked Doctor Sleep as a catch-up with Danny and how he handled (or didn’t) his shine, but thought The True Knot was one of Steve’s wimpier evils. I never for a moment thought they’d best the shiners. Still, Dan mentoring as he had been mentored by Dick brought the story full circle which always satisfies.

    • SS — I thought the same thing about The True Knot as well — they were opportunistic parasites (preying on kids, always on the run) and a well-informed group would have run them to ground. I thought this was interesting from a storytelling perspective. They were dangerous, but not TOO dangerous.

  7. I will immediately add Night Film to my list Steve, that looks great. I feel like I should read The Shining book before diving into the new one, but it looks fantastic. Roger Ebert wrote an interesting review of the Shining movie, seeming to imply that Danny’s “psychic vision” was hallucinations picked up from being around his father’s insanity.

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