A ter­ri­fy­ing be­gin­ning to a writer’s ca­reer.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By James Grainger



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.

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