Sunday, April 4, 2010

Twist the Whole Thing

“Cabal” turns nearly everything over. Clive Barker succeeds in making the cops and doctors the bad guys, and the things, the monsters, the Nightbreed under the cemetery, well, not quite the good guys, but the guys the reader roots for anyway.

Boone is at best a confused, guilt-ridden, and weak person. At worst he’s crazy in a dangerous serial killer kind of way. It turns out he’s not a serial killer, but he may not be completely sane either.

The serial killer turns out to be Decker, Boone’s psychiatrist, and for most of this story Decker pulls everyone’s strings in an effort to cover for nearly a dozen murders (more, actually as Decker confesses to Boone) so he can continue his killing spree in a new location. All he has to do is pin his past killings on Boone and slip off to another happy hunting ground. But Boone’s girlfriend Lori won’t buy into the story and Boone won’t stay dead.

Unfortunately the reader is right there with Lori, not believing the story. Decker has found a perfectly willing patsy in Boone, and Boone is happily going along with the idea that he was some kind of mass murderer, but the Nightbreed Peloquin knows Boone is innocent of spilling blood. The exchange between Boone and Decker on pages 47 and 48 is the first twist of the story:

“I killed nobody,” he murmured.

I know that,” Decker replied.

“That’s why I couldn’t remember any of the rooms. I was never there.”

“But you remember now,” Decker said.

“Only because –” Boone stopped, and stared at the man in the charcoal suit, “because you showed me.”

Taught you,” Decker corrected him.

This exchange is chilling, and the reader can happily be carried along by this notion. But the pesky details crop up. Eleven separate murders is a lot of forensics, a lot of timelines, a lot of evidence that has to line up and be verified. If Barker had Decker trying to pin one or two murders on Boone, maybe the reader goes with it. But eleven? There is just too much that has to happen perfectly for Boone to fit into eleven separate murder scenes perfectly. Modern forensics and police procedurals kind of ruin this type of plot point.

Once Boone gets to Midian, once the Nightbreed are fully engaged as part of this story then it becomes a near masterpiece. Clive Barker takes the creatures of the night and paints them as just another species of sentient being. Humans call them monsters, and they do prey on humanity when they can, but so do lions and tigers and bears (oh my) and we generally don’t consider them monsters. Barker shows them as misunderstood and the prey of humanity in their own right. Towards the end of this story Barker sums the Breed up very well: “The un-people, the anti-tribe, humanity’s sack unpicked and sewn together again with the moon inside” (185).

This is a great description for the Breed. They truly are creatures of the night. As Midian is razed into non-existence by the humans Barker takes the opportunity to show all forms and non-forms for the inhabitants. All manner of creatures are described fleeing the onslaught. This was excellent as it showed the Breed as a diverse group of creatures, not just a bevy of vampires or a cluster of werewolves. The creatures are unique and original and truly monstrous, just like humans.

Another great point for this story is that as awesome and supernatural as the Nightbreed are, they can be fought and destroyed by the humans. So many monster stories feature creatures that humans have no hope against, yet humans are the rulers of the planet. The Breed are in hiding because the balance of power, from a sheer numbers perspective, is in favor of the humans. This adds to their sympathy from the reader and helps them root for these creatures of the night.

The title for this story, “Cabal,” does bug me from a strict definition perspective. Boone is renamed Cabal by the Baptizer Baphomet. A cabal, by definition, is a group. Boone is tasked with being the one who rebuilds Midian somewhere else, somewhere more acceptable. So, the reader tries to give cabal the meaning of bringing the many who are Nightbreed back together in one place, but that doesn’t really fit either. Then the reader tries to say the Cabal is Boone from his human days and now Cabal is the Nightbreed creature he has become, but that is only two entities (and really only one). So, one has to guess that Barker just dug the word cabal and that is fine, if a little distracting.

Overall the genius of this story is that the Christian humans are the bad guys. They attack what they don’t understand and the Nightbreed just want to be left alone. Now, the Breed aren’t completely innocent. Peloquin attacks and nearly kills Boone when he first gets to Midian. He sees Boone as nothing more than meat. But this tale is excellent for giving the Breed their place on the hero side of the good/bad ledger.

Barker has always had a gift for creating supernatural creatures of an epic and memorable quality. The Nightbreed of “Cabal” may be his crowning achievement, even more than the Cenobites.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shine On You Crazy Writer

Stephen King’s “The Shining” proposes the world has two kinds of people: those who are psychically sensitive and can feel things beyond normal senses, and those who cannot. This extra ability may seem a gift, and those who have that gift surely have fuller lives and know more things about people, relationships, and how the world works. But everybody in King’s story who has this gift, this “shine,” only witnesses horror and death.

Jack Torrance, by nearly every measure, is not a nice guy. He drinks to excess, he has a temper, and he has problems controlling himself. He has problems with the truth (as illustrated by the way he treats a stuttering student trying to make the debate team). When things don’t go Jack’s way he blames others, especially his wife and son. The reader isn’t surprised The Overlook Hotel chooses Jack to manipulate into doing its dark bidding. This is a character teetering between boyhood immaturity and adulthood; only the character is far too old to be having these kinds of issues. This teetering is also reflected in his precarious balancing act between sobriety and alcoholism. He loses both of those balancing acts.

Jack is a writer. King has used the writer/artist as a protagonist on more than one occasion: “The Mist,” “Bag of Bones,” “It,” and others. Write what you know must be true as King has done well with this axiom. Many people accuse writers of being autobiographical when they put a writer in the protagonist role. However, I hope King doesn’t see a lot of himself in Jack.

This story works on about three different levels: as a haunted house/isolation tale, as a descent into madness, and as a domestic/family abuse story. All three of these levels provide the reader with horror as King does excellent work personifying The Overlook and painting the Torrance family as believable characters caught up in supernatural events.

First, The Overlook. King based this setting on an actual hotel in the mountains of Colorado The Stanley (though my copy of the novel denies this). As with most haunted house stories The Overlook is big, empty and foreboding. It dwarfs the Torrances and provides an excellent place for imaginations to run to the horrible. Danny Torrance, he who is the strongest with the shine, draws the malevolence of the hotel like bears to a salmon run.

The Overlook is haunted by many ghosts from a good many eras. King never really lets the reader know whether the hotel draws bad people to it, or if the bad people who own the place fill it with their bad spirits and vibes. Either way, the hotel is brimming with restless spirits, and they want one more: Danny Torrance.

Danny is gifted with the shining, or para-psychological abilities. He can call out to other shine-sensitive folks with just his mind, as he does with Dick Hallorann. He has dreams and visions of the future and warnings from a shadow self (Tony). The Overlook is either scared of Danny and wants him out of the way before he can reveal the power there, or it wants Danny’s power for itself. Either way, The Overlook’s endgame is one dead Danny.

The hotel employs Jack, Danny’s father, to accomplish this. From the scrapbook to the hornets to the topiary animals to actually seeing the ghosts at the masked ball in the bar Jack gets drawn into the hotel’s influence.

Part of what makes the hotel as a setting so effective is its isolation. King uses the impending snow and the absolute cutoff due to the snow to ratchet up the tension. Every one of the Torrances, even Jack, has second thoughts about staying up at the hotel when the snow begins to fly. King has given glimpses of what is to come through Danny’s visions (REDRUM) and the reader just KNOWS they should flee. But once winter comes down the Rockies at them fleeing is no longer an option. They are trapped with the hotel and all its ghostly occupants, and Jack is slowly being seduced into doing terrible things to his family.

Without this isolation “The Shining” would not have been as compelling. If Wendy could have scooped Danny up and just driven away a lot of the tension is lost in this story. King chose his location very well.

The descent into madness is truly frightening. The Overlook convinces a man to turn on his own wife and son and try to murder them. This is unnatural in the extreme. Many parents would rather die than harm their kids. King refers to Wendy in these terms in “The Shining.”

The reader believes this father could harm his son and this husband could harm his wife because Jack starts the story as not the nicest person. He’s broken his son’s arm in a fit of rage. He’s attacked a student who sabotaged his car. He’s had outbursts at his wife, was complicit in a car accident while drunk that destroyed a child’s bicycle (luckily not the child too), and when pushed his response is anger and arrogance. A reader can believe this sort of man, this alcoholic self-centered immature lout could be manipulated to do harm to that which he loves as long as the reward is booze and a book deal.

Is King making fun of writers by showing how obsessed Jack is with being acknowledged as a good writer? He might be. Jack does think the sun rises and sets with his writing. He flaunts his finding of the shady past of The Overlook to Ullman, the hotel manager. On some level he has to know this will cost him this last paying job, knock him off this bottom rung of the ladder he is clinging to for life and sustenance. Yet, for Jack, the potential story imbedded in the past of the hotel is worth the risk. For him the story is king, no matter the cost. Well, the story and the booze.

Finally, the family dynamic is huge in this story. Wendy stays with the abusive Jack because her own father was an abuser. It is her norm. In a very real sense she has married her father, and did it to spite her mother. I’m sure many readers can relate to this metaphorical incestuous relationship suicide.

Danny is a bit of a cheat as a character. Because of his shine he can sense and read his parents much better than a character/child has a right to. King uses this to really carve into the reader’s consciousness. We feel bad for Danny when he can sense his parents’ fighting and sadness. In some ways these passages were too telling. When Danny lies in bed and sees the word “DIVORCE” in his mind’s eye the reader is being hit over the head with that knowledge. After Jack breaks Danny’s arm any good mother, and Wendy fits that bill, would be thinking divorce. We don’t need Danny to spell it out for us.

What King does well with Danny is to show a parental favoritism. Despite Jack breaking Danny’s arm when he was three, despite the hornet stings, despite Jack’s moodiness, anger, and yelling, Danny is a daddy’s boy. Wendy laments this several times in this story.

Now, real parents and real kids will deny the existence of favorites in families, but they are there. We all strive to make equal decisions and to treat our children the same, but the reality is that is impossible. Domestic socialism doesn’t work any better than political socialism does. King was brave to include the tight bond between Danny and Jack. Speaking this level of truth added a lot to the Torrance family dynamic. It also made the breaking of the father/son bond and eventual death of Jack that much more tragic.

Overall, “The Shining” is a modern masterpiece. My only complaint is the unknown factor of what causes The Overlook to be evil. Is it a nesting place for evil people? Is it the location? Which came first: the bad hotel or the bad people making the hotel bad? This can be seen as a strength because the reader can make the distinction for themselves, but a bit more along these lines would have been great.

Also, the “shine” that Danny is so strong with loses a lot of its uniqueness in this story as by the end every major player has displayed a level of “shine.” Danny is strongest with it, followed by Dick Hallorann who rushes from Florida to save Danny and Wendy. Jack obviously has it since he has a nice set of conversations with ghost bartenders and past-guests (long deceased). King says all mothers shine a bit, and Wendy displays that as the book builds to its climax. Even Ulmann the annoying little hotel manager appears to see the remnants of Vittorio “The Chopper” Gienelli lying in the doorway of The Presidential Suite. Heck, even a fellow airplane passenger shines at Hallorann as they exit the plane in Denver. Danny’s ability would have seemed more special had he and Hallorann been the only ones who could access that shine.