A Year in Reading: Jacob Lambert

December 4, 2016 | 8 books mentioned 7 3 min read

coverI took The Shining down from its shelf a few days before Halloween, as it seemed a seasonally-appropriate read. It had sat there for years, Danny Torrance’s blank face staring out from its silver spine, asking me what I was afraid of, what I was waiting for. This will be much different from the movie, it said. Everybody knows how much Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s film. “I think he wants to hurt people with this movie,” isn’t that what King said? And besides, it went on, you haven’t seen it in 15 years.

Book-jacket Danny had a point. And not only was it almost Halloween, but I’d just finished Jack Handey’s brilliantly asinine, irresponsibly funny The Stench of Honolulu. Among the books I’d recently read were Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara, and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers. None of these were exactly “fun,” but they were entertainments, with none of the claustrophobic dread I associated with The Shining. I needed a change of pace, and I couldn’t avoid King’s novel any longer. It was time to get down to brass tacks.

covercovercoverAnd within the first few chapters, it became clear that The Shining was all brass tacks — sharp, blunt, and efficient. I most enjoy King when he scraps his leavening impulses — inexplicable mysticism, mediocre humor, saccharine endings — and lets the darkness rip. The Long Walk and Gerald’s Game are two of his best because almost no light shines through them, and even The Stand — in which, after a trillion pages, good ultimately prevails — ends on a demoralizing note. As a fan of Kubrick’s film, I knew what I was getting myself into, but King’s book was entirely different, a much more human — and therefore, more unsettling — family drama.

As I made my way through, another unsettling drama — the 2016 presidential campaign — was mercifully winding down, and until election night, The Shining was just a way to escape the noise. What better way to distance myself from Donald Trump’s noxiousness than to read about an eerily quiet, snowed-in hotel, written decades before the terms “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” entered the vernacular?

Then, early on November 9th, Donald Trump fucking won. I was about 80 pages from the end of The Shining, and like everything else — large and small, consequential and irrelevant — in the hours and days afterwards, the tenor of the novel changed. I was so unmoored by his victory — by the very notion that someone so vile could be so richly rewarded — that the book and reality engaged in a queasy merge. In The Shining, King conjured a world — albeit limited to the grounds of the Overlook Hotel — in which everything was wrong. Hedge animals came alive; dead guests reappeared; fathers tried to kill their families. Having a sociopathic pussy-grabber as president had more in common with that world than the one I’d been living in.

The Shining is about many things — parental love, the strictures of family, alcohol abuse — but it is mainly about the perils of the mind. In The Shining, there is nothing more dangerous than an unstable thought allowed. And in the wake of the election, it became clear that our minds — both individually and collectively — had become territories as unsafe as anything King could muster. Trump’s more cartoonish supporters had become no less delusional than Jack Torrance, who spends the latter part of The Shining piss-drunk on imaginary gin. Those voters’ nihilism “sent a message,” we were told — as if that message would improve a goddamn thing.

Those of us crushed by the nation’s turn, meanwhile, became dazed Wendy Torrances, at once unwilling to believe what was happening and unable to dismiss it. The hornet’s nest that had sat empty and fumigated — The New York Times puts Clinton’s chances at 85 percent, you know — was suddenly abuzz. All of us — Trump and Clinton supporters both — had become untethered from reality. Or, more accurately, we were all now yoked to a reality that couldn’t possibly be real.

coverIn the end, King’s Shining was much more hopeful than the film, the shadow of which it deserves to escape. This isn’t surprising; King seems, at heart, a warm and caring person, while Kubrick was by all accounts a petty tyrant of his own. So amid my post-election grief, I was heartened by the novel’s ending, which qualifies as “happy” without, as often happens in King — I’m looking at you, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — cheapening its preceding horrors. And that seems about as good as I can ask for from the next four years: to emerge from the ordeal damaged but still whole. This is the limit of my optimism at the end of 2016. Because we’re all in The Shining now.

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is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. I have felt as though we have entered an alternative universe the last few months, with Brexit, Bob Dylan being named a Nobel laureate, and the election of Trump as president. I had several days of shock as well after the election, but it was not Stephen King I was thinking of, but instead certain lines from one of my favorite British poets, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), especially from his mock celebration of ignorance and stupidity, The Dunciad. These lines are from Book the Fourth, and describe the conquest of Dulness, as she ascends the throne:

    Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
    Indulge, dread Chaos, and eternal Night!
    Of darkness visible so much be lent,
    As half to show, half veil the deep intent.
    Ye Powers! whose mysteries restored I sing,
    To whom Time bears me on his rapid wing,
    Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
    Then take at once the poet and his song.
    Now flamed the Dog-star’s unpropitious ray,
    Smote every brain, and withered every bay,
    Sick was the sun, the owl forsook his bower,
    The moon-struck prophet felt the madding hour:
    Then rose the seed of Chaos, and of Night,
    To blot out Order, and extinguish Light,
    Of dull and venal a new world to mold,
    And bring Saturnian days of lead and gold.
    She mounts the throne: her head a cloud concealed,
    In broad effulgence all below revealed,
    (‘Tis thus aspiring Dulness ever shines)
    Soft on her lap her Laureate son reclines.
    Beneath her foot-stool, Science groans in chains,
    And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.
    There foamed rebellious Logic, gagged and bound;
    There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground…

    Though I did not always agree with Obama, being flanked by two presidencies of machismo and willed ignorance, the Obama years are starting to really look like an oasis of enlightenment.

  2. You’ve convinced me to come aboard with this read, Jacob, if only because it seems like siding with the book-as-real-life view instead of the movie-as-real-life view is the best way to avoid freezing to death. (Maybe due to climate change?)

  3. “This isn’t surprising; King seems, at heart, a warm and caring person, while Kubrick was by all accounts a petty tyrant of his own.”

    Judging each man by his work I can safely say that Kubrick was an Artist who added considerable weight to America’s film canon, while King is a flagship hack who provides a useful service for people who need to kill time on beach towels or during long-haul flights.

    The article-writer’s reading of each man’s respective supposed personality strikes me as an extension of the intellectually insecure Populism that reduces everything… from aesthetic judgments to consumer choices to politics… to the undisciplined litmus of Likability. Ironic, then, in light of the essay, that the vulgarian Trump was buoyed by the same wild curve of American Populism that informs the article’s anti-Kubrickian paean to King (and, btw: we’re just lucky, this time, that the Populism trumped a warmonger with a terrifying record that’s more than 20 years long, if her fans only had the will or time to read the copious mainstream literature… or paid attention to her corporate speaking engagements).

    As a food critic, my ten-year-old Daughter knows what she likes and the candy industry knows why she likes it, but what I want her to develop is a sense of what she *needs* and also the knowledge that the populist snap-judgement of what is Likable is usually aided by deliberate seductions/ illusions.

    Way back, when I was in school, my greatest teachers were rarely the most Likable ones… in fact, the most Likable teacher I ever knew was a charming, funny, “warm, caring” and laid-back guy who never gave a “bad” grade, drove to school on a motorcycle, had a Marlboro Man mustache and was famous for sleeping with his prettiest students.

    In 1987, film critic Bill Blakemore, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, made a compelling case that Kubrick’s version of The Shining contained a hidden theme a little deeper than the horror genre’s standard subliminal (which is usually something about promiscuity and divine retribution): the Native American Genocide. Suffice it to say that in the current (and worsening?) era of Populist anti-Intellectualism, such theories are loudly derided and the Content-Providers who give us Easy Reads and Feel-Good flicks with “hopeful” endings are King.

    Populism is a tasty, bipartisan cultural poison.

    Eat your broccoli.

  4. Moe Murph scratches chin, ponders how much Augustine is paid by the word for his scold-spew of questionably capitalized bilge.

    P.S. Spell-check is always a good idea.

  5. Hey Moe:

    I’m not really terribly interested in you, to be brutally honest, so why are you so interested in *me*?

    Yes, my opinions differ from yours… which is not quite illegal.

    Yes, you’d rather not read them. Suggestion: don’t.

    Your unhinged hand-waving and floor-stomping is becoming silly.

    Re: your spell check riff: please lead me to the errors in my text; I usually try to be careful about that but if something slipped through, let me know and I’ll send you a check for every error you ferret out. Buy yourself something nice.

  6. Steven Augustine – You seem very offended with even Mr. Lambert’s opinion that Stephen King might be a caring person. It’s the sort of inane, ridiculous thing that I worry about Trump being offended with, and because of this, worrying about the safety of America and the entire world, when his arrogance has the power to act on those offences. Who knows what this guy will be offended by. So even if Mrs. Clinton is a “warmonger” she still seemed like a much more rational person to me compared to Mr. Trump. But reading that someone thinks Clinton is a “warmonger” is helpful to me to understand why someone possibly voted for Trump, so I appreciate reading that. But he doesn’t even believe in global warming!! As if billions of people on the planet and their needs and wants for surviving are POSITIVELY impacting the planet?!?

    Anyway, you could do far worse than Stephen King’s books and Stanley Kubrick’s films, either way.

  7. @CB

    “Steven Augustine – You seem very offended with even Mr. Lambert’s opinion that Stephen King might be a caring person.”

    Hey, not “offended” by it… I just noted the irony that praising the lower-middlebrow content factory (Mr King) for being “caring” (how could one actually know unless one actually knew Mr King?)… while painting the Actual Artist (Mr Kubrick) as a cold fish of heartlessly cerebral calculations… is sort of a Populist move! One I’d actually expect of… (drum roll)… TRUMP. Can you imagine Trump praising Kubrick and dissing King? (whatever his actual feelings on the matter).

    So, yeah: this kind of double-irony (in light of your comment) is the sort of weird deformation we’re seeing lots of this year. When I was a kid, “Liberals” were very eager to cite Media’s Orwellian misuses of language and were staunch supporters of “dialogue” and “free speech” and the “Conservatives” were the spittle-spraying, floor-stomping, death-threat-hurling scary people…

    The lines have blurred!

    And, in any case, it is VERY hard to offend me without actually throwing a punch (or rocks) in my direction. And I’d MUCH rather read Harlan Ellison (if we’re doing “genre”) than Stephen King).

    PS The sad truth is: many, many Americans don’t seem to be terribly worried about The Wars, on average; was War even a serious campaign issue?I think lots of people voted against Hillary because they’re bone-tired of having grinning professional phonies, who don’t give a damn about the “99%”, give the same old box-ticking speeches. Maybe the “deplorables” are closer to total ruin, economically, than the average college-educated Clintonite and therefore can’t afford to indulge in the luxury of the fantasy that Clinton was what she was pretending to be? I think for them, I suppose, Trump’s trick was more effective.

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