Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Haunting

A word or two about the similarities and differences between Stephen King's The Shining (which I read last week) and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House - which partly inspired it.

The premise and structure of the stories are very similar. Both feature a giant evil building as a central (perhaps the main) character. Both use as a narrative premise the slow revelation of the true nature of the place. And both feature a character who is corrupted by flattery at the "favor" the building shows him(King)/her(Jackson). This character becomes the evil building's agent at some point before the end of the story, and ultimately self-destructs.

If the measure of a horror story is how scared I was while reading it, then Shirley Jackson wins hands down. I was a bit frightened by her book, not at all by Stephen King's. But that may simply be a function of familiarity: the basic story of The Shining has been a staple of pop culture since Kubrick's great film. As for writing style - well, I like Jackson better. King is a talented writer who really knows how to keep a reader's attention - but I think Jackson handles subtlety better, and that's what makes a story like this.

Which is the first point, really. The main strength of Jackson's book over King's, as I see it, is that it's truer to what I've come to understand to be the main "horror mechanism." I read somehwere (some sort of anthology of modern aesthetic philosophy, I can't remember exactly) that the central device of a horror story is hinting at but withholding the truth until a climactic moment of revelation. The supernatural nature of the events should remain ambiguous for most of the story, until at some climactic moment it becomes impossible for the reader and central characters to deny that something supernatural is going on. That always seemed to me a sensible guideline. In order to create tension, the reader has to have some idea what the boundaries are. Once you're telling a story about something overtly supernatural, then the hero is effectively powerless because literally anything can happen. And at that point, we cease to be interested in the details. A horror story "spends its load," so to speak, the moment we can no longer kid ourselves that we live safely in scientific reality - in a predictable universe whose laws (the everyday ones, anyway) we know. Indeed, the frightening thing isn't so much the nature of whatever the supernatural entity is, it's the idea that such a thing could exist, because by existing it pulls the rug out from under our comfortable surroundings, taking us from the universe we thought we lived in and had learned how to deal with into one we don't know how to work with and over which we have no control. It's the fear of powerlessness that motivates a horror story, and once you've revealed that, in fact, the universe is unpredictable and malevolent, you've tapped into the reader's underlying fear and need to resolve the story quickly.

One of my big complaints about Stephen King is that he never does. The story goes on far too long after the big revelatory moment. And indeed, in one important way The Shining in particular is more magic realist than "horror:" there are confirmations of supernatural goings on almost from the first page, albeit minor ones. Granted, King plays by the rules with the doctor's explanation of Danny's "premonitions" and, to a lesser extent, with the wasps' nest that came back to life (mysterious, admittedly, but not, the reader assumes, completely inexplicable). Unfortunately, it was all given away long before that with Dick Hallorann actually being able to read Danny's mind - no getting around that one. Jackson's novel, by contrast, really does build up to a supernatural conclusion. The vast majority of the novel is misdirection: strange things happen, but nothing so beyond the pale that we can't chalk it up to nerves. Those things that seem inexplicable mostly get explanations soon after - and if not, they're at least described in an ambiguous way ... so that we're not completely sure what we saw. If Jackson has a fault here it's that she never got explicit enough: by the end of the book it's still largely possible to write off the whole affair as Eleanor's dellusions.

King lacks Jackson's subtlety and talent for understatement, and that's a huge detractor from my enjoyment of his books. The big revelation always comes too soon, and large sections of the book always involve an outright confrontation with whatever the malevolent entity is - something that makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief, really, because how do ordinary mortals fight ghosts?

Another advantage I felt Jackson's version had over King's was in her description of the central evil building. For a book that's supposed to be about "the hotel," The Shining is a little light on details. We get probably just the right amount about its history, but far too little about what it looks like, how it's laid out, what it feels like to be there, etc. Even though it's status is a bit more ambiguous, Hill House is more convincing as a "character" than the Overlook Hotel.

However, King's book also has one hugely important advantage over Jackson's - and that's our ability to relate to the character of Jack. Perhaps there are women in the world who feel like Eleanor, I really don't know. To me, she seemed far too rare a creature to bring me face-to-face with my dark side. She's SO feeble and SO pathetic and her circumstances are SO stacked against her that it's a bit hard to relate. Jack Torrence, by contrast ... well, he's someone anyone could be. We've met people like him countless times in our day-to-day existence. Jack is a believable "ordinary guy." King only has to exaggerate his faults a little to make his fall from grace convincing, and this is hugely effective because ... there but for the Grace of God go I.

Another (lesser) advantage to King's book, I thought, was that the malevolent entity is actually a metaphor for something (see the previous post to find out what I think it is). I said earlier that we're not really interested in the nature of the malevolent entity, but that's not quite true. While I do think the main fear to which all horror stories speak is a fear of powerlessness, it helps things a bit if the face on our powerlessness is a metaphor for something we're actually afraid of in reality. In Jackson's case, it's really not clear what that is. In King's case, however, it's quite clear, and the beast the hotel stands for is indeed a frightening one.

So each book works in its own way. It's fair to think of them as retellings of the same story. King's is a bit more involved thematcially, Jackson's psychologically, and Jackson's is a shade better-written. But both are enjoyable on their own merits.


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