A terrifying beginning to a writer’s career.
WAS THE TYPE OF KID WHO MEMORIZED ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRIES. BY AGE SEVEN, I WOULD INFORM ANYONE WITHIN HEARING DISTANCE—MY MOTHER, TEACHERS, STRANGERS ON THE SUBWAY—OF RECENTLY GLEANED TIDBITS, INCLUDING THE LATIN NAME OF THE GREAT WHITE SHARK (CARCHARODON CARCHARIAS), THE DATE OF THE JURASSIC PERIOD (150+ MILLION YEARS AGO) AND THE DANGERS OF MESSING WITH A MOZAMBIQUE SPITTING COBRA (INSTANT BLINDNESS).
Every Christmas morning brought ever fatter tomes beneath the tree—books on dinosaurs, minerals, ancient Egypt. Their subject matter may have varied wildly, but they were all crammed with clean, hard facts. Back then, storytelling existed for me solely in the realm of movies, most of which I saw at the nearby air-force base, which screened a bizarre mix of horror, kung-fu and concert films on Friday nights. Even my first attempts at writing fiction—adventure stories penned in school notebooks—were really film outlines: short on description and heavy on action and exclamation-point-ridden dialogue.
All of that changed the summer I turned 13. My best friend Ernie’s family invited me to spend 10 days at their Georgian Bay cottage, a tiny palace of wood panelling, shag carpets and a black-and-white TV that picked up one channel. I packed a few Ripley’s Believe It or Not! compendiums to supplement our daily rounds of fishing, swimming and heavily contested games of euchre, but I knew I’d need a backup book, especially if it rained.
What to bring? I headed to the local Coles bookstore, five-dollar allowance in hand, to buy my first novel. Since I loved scary movies, I hit the horror section first.
The rows of lurid book covers adorned with misshapen monsters, crumbling mansions and blood-dripping knives looked promising, but I kept returning to a paperback displaying a single faceless boy, the image no bigger than a silver dollar, against a simple grey-andblack background.
The novel was The Shining, by Stephen King, and because it was the late 1970s, it was still possible to not recognize his name. The novel’s plot— about Danny, a psychic h
Each month, we ask a Canadian novelist to share a story about a significant “first” in his or her life. James Grainger chose to write about the first time he bought a book and how it changed his life. His debut novel, Harmless, is out this month.
boy trapped with his family in a haunted snowbound hotel—immediately tweaked my imagination, maybe because my father, like Danny’s, worked in a hotel.
Two days into our trip, the rain came down and out came The Shining. Ernie, an avid non-reader, hit the sack early in anticipation of the next morning’s fishing expedition. As the rain pattered on the low roof, I opened the book and perused the pages of rave reviews: The Chattanooga Times’ “THE SHINING WILL CURL YOUR HAIR AND CHILL YOUR BLOOD” sounded especially promising in the days of perms and feathered bangs. I was ready.
But the novel’s opening line didn’t match the hype: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.”
Jack Torrance thought? “Who cares what he thought?” I muttered. “What did he do?” I read on, waiting for the first appearance of a ghost or Jack’s psychically gifted son, but the opening chapter focused exclusively on Jack’s interview with the Overlook Hotel’s “officious little prick” manager and his toady assistant.
I can’t say my blood was chilled, but I was curious about Jack Torrance. Why was he so desperate to land the position of hotel caretaker, a dreary job that would strand him and his family 40 miles from the nearest town for the entire winter? He was obviously smarter than the men interviewing him, yet—nasty private thoughts notwithstanding—here he was sucking up to them. There were also hints about Jack’s past struggles with alcoholism, his failed teaching career and some intriguing backstory about a former caretaker who’d murdered his family.
The sense of menace grew as the novel introduced Jack’s wife, Wendy, and five-year-old son, Danny, who was plagued by terrifying premonitions about the Overlook, delivered via an imaginary friend named Tony who lived in the boy’s throat. Wendy’s fears were more earthly: She wanted to keep her husband sober and protect her emotionally damaged son from Jack’s rage.
By the time the ghosts appeared and Jack began his rapid descent into madness, I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice that the rain had stopped and Ernie’s parents were fast asleep—which meant I had to brave the dark hallway to the bathroom.
That night, The Shining scared me silly. But for all of the novel’s Gothic trappings, its power lies in its evocation of the believably dysfunctional Torrances, a family literally haunted by the past—their own and the hotel’s. I was starting to see what the novel can do better than any film or TV show: illuminate, in rich, believable detail, a character’s private thoughts, memories, fantasies and fears.
The Torrances were my introduction to the drama of the inner life, and I couldn’t have asked for more fitting guides. The surface similarities between their situation and my family’s were striking. Until I was seven, my father had worked as a head waiter at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel—one of the largest and grandest hotels in the British Empire when it was built in 1929. I remembered the staff Christmas parties in the hotel’s palatial Imperial Room and my father’s stories of serving such luminaries as Robert F. Kennedy and the shah of Iran.
But, like Jack, my father had lost his way. He was smart, charismatic and funny, but some deep, unarticulated wound and grievance against the world had driven him to domestic violence, gambling and alcoholism, a masculine code of silence imprisoning him in a cage of anger and guilt. He quit his job at the Royal York and became sporadically employed, and my brother and I came to dread the sound of his key in the door of our apartment late at night.
It was as if King had inserted my father into a ghost story and given him a new name. And if my dad was Jack, my mother was Wendy, his long-suffering but enabling wife who endured her husband’s abuse in a vain attempt to keep her family together.
This left my brother and I as the sibling versions of Danny, the gifted boy who sees the domestic catastrophe coming but can do nothing to stop it. The “shining,” Danny’s supernatural psychic vision, is a brilliant metaphor for the hyper-intuition of children living in homes haunted by alcoholism and abuse, their senses attuned to every change in the family’s emotional atmosphere.
Not that I made most of these connections at the time—even King, now a recovered alcoholic, says he was the last person to realize he was writing about himself in The Shining— but that powerful identification with the characters was life altering. I put down the novel with a new sense of mission: I wanted to be a novelist—to create worlds as rich as the terrifying but familiar world King had evoked in my imagination.
I kept that adolescent vow, enduring the years of false starts, bad writing and rejection before publishing my first work of fiction, a collection of short stories, 10 years ago. There are no haunted hotels in my work, but versions of Jack Torrance—damaged charmers flirting with the dangerous ghosts of the past—haunt the pages of everything I write.