Reading ‘The Shining’ at 19 and 49

the shining-newMy friend Mamie and I have embarked on a shared read of The Shining. I wanted to re-read it prior to starting the new sequel, Doctor Sleep, because it’s been so long since I read it. So far I have gotten to Chapter 20, which is about a third of the way through. I had forgotten how much stuff happens before the really really bad stuff happens, but that’s Stephen King for you. He builds the suspense with a plethora of quotidian detail and just a few hints of what’s to come, so that when the shit hits the fan you are totally invested in the characters and the situation.

I first read The Shining back in the mid-1980s. I was working part-time at the local newspaper as a sports stringer. Part of my job was hanging out in the office at night to take phone calls from coaches reporting their game results and box scores. The office was closed, of course, so I was alone in the building and usually didn’t bother turning on any extra lights other than the ones that burned all night and were more than adequate to see and read by.

I was 19, maybe 20 years old. I was already head-over-heels in love with newspapers and journalism, and I loved being alone in the building, where I could snoop around in the advertising department’s clip art library, play with the waxer (for page pasteup, not legs and eyebrows) and the old Linotype headline writer, and look at the pictures everyone kept on their desk. (Yes, I was a weird kid who grew up into a weird young adult and then … well, you can guess the rest.)

I would usually be there until about 11 p.m. or midnight, and there was lots of waiting time between coaches’ phone calls. I always brought along whatever book I was reading at the time. I locked the doors while I was there alone even though this was a small town (about 9,000 people) and there was little chance of anything bad happening. I was never afraid to be there by myself. Except…

Except the night I brought along The Shining. It isn’t particularly scary at first, as you know if you’ve read it. I mean, now we know what to expect from a Stephen King book so even when you’re reading the opening chapters of Under the Dome or 11/22/63  you are already mentally on edge for the horror to start, but back then I hadn’t read much of his stuff (there really wasn’t much of his stuff yet to read) so I didn’t know that.

The night I’m thinking of, I had gotten to the chapter I just finished reading tonight, Chapter 19, when young Danny has an encounter in a hotel hallway with a fire extinguisher. I won’t say more, but if you’ve read it I know you remember. I sat there at my desk in the newsroom of that empty, quiet-but-not-silent building, and reading every paragraph of that chapter was an agony of terror and anticipation. I kept forgetting to breathe and then gasping more air into my lungs. When the phone rang, I yelped out loud.

As I started re-reading The Shining this past Monday, I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed because it was unlikely the book would affect me the same way now. Not only am I older and have more experience of the world, I already know what happens in the end. I told myself it would still be interesting to re-read from a more analytical perspective, to see how King’s writing has developed over the years and how he structured the story, etc etc etc.

Well, forget all that. Chapter 19 scared the bejesus out of me at 49 just as surely as it did at 19. I could scarcely stand reading to the end of the chapter and when I finally got there, I had to put the book down and do something else. I will not be reading any more in this book tonight, or any night after dark. We can analyze and theorize and intellectualize all we want about books and writing. Stephen King still scares the pants off me, and I hope he always will.