I love The Shining. I’ve probably seen it more times than any other film. Watching Jack Nicholson go totally unheimlich and attempt to murder his family in an eerie, empty hotel in the middle of nowhere just seems to have a calming effect on me.
Greatest horror movie ever made? I’m still going for The Exorcist or John Carpenter’s The Thing here, but The Shining is still awesome. You’ve got Jack Nicholson giving that grizzly, unrestrained performance, perhaps the most iconic of his career; you’ve got blood gushing out of an elevator; the bar scene; “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; and those amazing Steadicam sequences with Danny Lloyd on the tricycle.
There’s this interesting story about the genesis of the film—almost certainly apocryphal; you’ll see why in a minute—which I really like.
Director Stanley Kubrick is scouting for his next film project and going through stacks of novels piled up on his desk. His secretary is in the adjacent room and every now and again keeps hearing a thud on the wall. Kubrick, disappointed with the novels he’s reading, is launching the unfortunate paperbacks at the wall a couple of pages into each. They’re that bad. This keeps going on with alarming regularity, until, suddenly, silence. Kubrick’s secretary, her curiosity now piqued, takes a quick peek into his office, and finds him totally engrossed in Stephen King’s The Shining.
King himself (who hated the movie), doubts the veracity of this story, because, by his own admission, the novel starts off extremely slowly (his reasoning here being that since Kubrick was so impatient with the other slow-burners in the pile, it’s unlikely he would have been so accommodating with King’s).
Now ever since hearing this story, the little Shura Council in my mind (fret not; no Islamists here) has passed a new law: any novel which fails to pull me in within the first few pages gets the wall treatment (in all honestly, I usually just put the offending book down gently, rather than throwing it at the wall).
One friend of mine feels compelled to finish any novel he picks up, especially classics (“I’ve expended so much effort reading this thing so far, and all those critics and literature professors can’t possibly be wrong, so I just have to finish it; maybe I’m missing something”).
Well, I’m no longer doing this. Classic or not, if you’re not grabbing (and keeping) my attention from the get-go, you’re getting the wall/gentle put-down treatment. I’ll probably need nine lifetimes to go through all the books on my to-read list, so slow-burners just aren’t going to cut it.
The main thing a novel should do is to “take your attention”, Panorama Action-style. I’m giving you my time (I’m talking to the novelists here) so the very least thing you should do is extend me the courtesy of keeping me entertained throughout.
As any Hollywood producer worth his salt will tell you, the main thing here is to keep “bums on seats”. And this applies to all storytelling, whether you’re a screenwriter, filmmaker, novelist, or just some dude regaling his buddies at a cafe with a cool story over tea and shisha.
Tolkien got it spot-on. Explaining his reasons for writing that impossible epic, The Lord of the Rings, he said: “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.”
That’s all I want from a book. The rest is just details.
So here’s my own little wall of rejected classics. I put all these down at various points; two of them halfway through, one roughly a quarter of the way in, one almost just before the final page—and one, after the first sentence. This was the final set of classics I attempted before instigating my new rule.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The last novel published during Hemingway’s lifetime, it won him both the Pulitzer and Nobel Literature prizes. It must be good then, I thought. Wrong.
Hemingway described the writing process as follows: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Wow. Great quote. But I just didn’t feel that reading this novel.
The Nobel Prize committee awarded Hemingway the 1954 literature gong “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea”.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, and a pretty typical example of Hemingway’s spare prose style:
“They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen.”
I think I’m going to be sick (sea-sick?).
This isn’t how an alcoholic should write, surely? (Hemingway struggled for years with severe alcoholism and depression; eventually, in 1961, he put the barrel of a twelve-gauge Boss shotgun into his mouth, pulled the trigger, and blew his brains out).
Now I can see why a lot of people are enamoured with Hemingway’s simple, honest, perhaps moving, style (“The hardest thing to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings,” he once said). But unfortunately I wasn’t. My own favourite prose stylists, Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and Salman Rushdie, are a world away from Hemingway. For them, prose is not about honesty—it’s about magic.
At just over 100 pages, this is a pretty short book. I had read up to page ninety-something, so didn’t have that much to go. So it’s a measure of how much I hated the novel that I couldn’t bear to persevere with the remaining ten pages or so and simply gave up.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness? More like Heart of Boredom.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now blew me away when I saw it, and when I found out it was based on this book, I knew I just had to read it. “The book is always better than the film” as we all know.
Not in this case.
At almost 200 pages, this is another short one. But halfway through and I was nodding off at the library. So like a bad date, I changed my mind about taking this one home. The less said about this book, the better.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
A novel replete with religious references, featuring a sea voyage to hunt down a sperm-whale, a mad captain, and dense, allusive language. This should be love at first sight.
Ishmael is a bit of a non-entity as a main character, so Captain Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, godlike man”, whose entry into the novel was built up rather nicely (he appears almost half-way through), was meant to save the day. Sadly, by the time he appears, he’s way too demented and erratic to be even remotely interesting. Almost a parody.
I also found Mellville’s use of the semicolon (with which I’m having a not so secret love affair at the moment), highly idiosyncratic, and his attempts to capture the speech mannerisms of sailors, both laughable and annoying.
And by the time I’d put down the book, there was still no whale.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Wow. Certainly a contender for the greatest ever start to a novel penned in English. Sadly, it’s pretty much downhill from here. Despite the beautiful language, the word-play, the invented words, this just didn’t work for me (nothing happens!).
And I’m afraid I just can’t take any character seriously whose name is Humbert Humbert.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Having endured clips of a few BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I would never ordinarily read this trash. However, an ex bought this book for me so I had to at least make an attempt with the bloody thing. I didn’t get far. This is how it starts:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I beg your pardon?