Writing Lesson: ‘The Exorcist’ vs. ‘The Shining’

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

Today we look at two defining novels of the horror genre, both of which have been adapted for screen to great acclaim. Adapting a work of fiction for cinema or stage sometimes means chopping it up and stitching it back together again. Other times, it might simply be a question of trimming away the fat and tightening up the plot. Both film adaptations share a great many similarities onscreen, in how their directors create atmosphere, mystery, and suspense. But if we compare the quality of each text’s prose, The Shining and The Exorcist fall at different ends of the spectrum.

When Horror Becomes Farce

“THE MOST TERRIFYING NOVEL EVER WRITTEN” reads the cover of The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty’s horror classic sets itself a high bar before the reader even opens the cover. But the real problem with The Exorcist is that it could have been a great book, if only a decent editor had gotten their hands on it first. Blatty’s prose is frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, because it is badly written, overwritten, tedious, melodramatic, stilted, hysterical and dull. Sometimes, chapter by chapter. Others, page by page. Even paragraph by paragraph. It is also peppered with moments of greatness that, while bright, fail to outshine the surrounding murk. Like a string of pearls dropped down the toilet. Take the opening line to the prologue:

“The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them.”

Opening sentences can make or break a book, and, while this is effective in some ways, it falls short in others. This is a great opening line, but it could be more economical if “blaze of sun” were to become “blazing sun”. The metaphor works nicely, too, and the “pops” of sweat is a nice addition, but this subtle opening belies Blatty’s succeeding loquaciousness.

Blatty gifts us, in the same paragraph, with the following: “He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves.” The simplicity of the first line preceding the stupendous simile cannot be faulted. It is tangible and active and gives the reader an image and a sensation with which to understand Merrin’s foreboding. Something is coming. Ergo, we want to read on, but lines like these are severely lacking throughout the book.

Much later, Chris MacNeil sits in her kitchen, pondering the events of the story, namely the death of Burke Dennings:

Chris looked down at the pages of the book and for a time did not move, did not blink, did not breathe, as the headlong image of an open window in Regan’s bedroom on the night of Dennings’ accident rushed at her memory with its talons extended like a bird of prey that knew her name […]

Where to begin. On the page, this line continues for a further three lines (eight in total), an entire paragraph. Not only is it overwritten, but it doesn’t really show or tell us anything meaningful. We get the sense that Chris is thinking about the circumstances regarding Dennings’ death, but by this point in the novel, this should be obvious. It’s better to say something concisely if you can. Extraneous words bog down your writing, contributing to bloated prose and an overall decline in quality.

Vague writing is also detrimental to good prose. Chris looks at the book “for a time”. How long? It’s like writing, “And then she did something.” What? There are plenty of reasons as to why someone may write this way, but they’re not worth going into. All that matters, is that is confuses the reader, taking them out of the story.

The objective of horror is to confront the reader with viscera and grotesquery, but also to withhold them. Horror is both a physical and psychological genre. When you write in such a vague, telling manner, it becomes difficult to show the reader anything, even when that which you’re showing them is something innocuous. Nothing can be left to the imagination if the reader can’t follow the story.

Furthermore, the “headlong image” rushing “at” her memory also feels faulty. It implies that memory functions like throwing tomatoes at a brick wall, when, instead, memories bubble up from the unconscious, either erupting all at once, or emerging slowly from the black lagoon to give you a fright.

The following paragraph ups the ante to unprecedented levels of melodrama:

[…] commotion in Regan’s bedroom: rappings, rapid and loud and with a nightmarish resonance that was massive and yet somehow muffled, like a sledgehammer pounding at a limestone wall deep within some ancient tomb.

Regan screaming in anguish; in terror; imploring!

Karl shouting angrily; fearfully; at Regan!

Chris bolted from the kitchen.

There are several problems here, namely the abundance of adverbs that proliferate Blatty’s writing. Regan screaming suggests anguish and terror in itself, perhaps even imploration, but we don’t need all three here. Similarly, Karl shouting implies anger, and even fear, so describing it in such a way seems redundant. The abundance of exclamation marks and semicolons throughout the text also cheapens the horror through frequent stops and starts, thereby reducing its effectiveness. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, it’s like laughing at your own joke. The result is that, instead of creating fear, tension, or a desire to keep reading, Blatty frustrates and fatigues the reader again and again. All we can do then is laugh at how badly written it all is – and despair that it simply isn’t the book it could have been. Films don’t often surpass their source material in every way possible. It’s fair to say that directors work much like editors, and William Friedkin was The Exorcist‘s only hope.

The next paragraph is one of the most egregious in the entire book:

Regan with her eyes wide and staring as if flinching from the rush of some hideous finality, her mouth agape and shrieking until, again, the demonic personality possessed her, filled her, the room suddenly filling with a stench in the nostrils, with an icy cold that seemed to seep from the walls as the rapping sounds ended and Regan’s piercing cry of terror elided into a guttural, yelping laugh of malevolent spite triumphant while she thrust down the crucifix into her vagina, then again and again, as she masturbated with it ferociously while roaring in that deep, coarse, deafening voice […]

Specificity is important in good writing, but also restraint, something Blatty rarely exercises (or should that be exorcises?) Here he turns the volume up loud – so loud he breaks the dial off the hi-fi – or whatever sound system they had in the seventies. Batty’s ridiculous semantic choices inspire laughter rather than terror. Just try to imagine someone “masturbat[ing] ferociously”.

Is this horror or comedy? Or both? Blatty’s written style and semantic choices contribute here to a conflict of tone, driving us away from horror and into the realm of farce.

There are innumerable problems in this paragraph alone. For one, it’s all a single sentence. Long sentences can be great, but when they’re too long, they become nothing but a chore for the reader. Equally, Blatty’s use of adverbs make little sense and abstractions like “hideous finality” and “malevolent spite triumphant” only clutter the page. The reader can’t conjure a workable image from such abstract ideas. There’s nothing for them to grab hold of. Imagine trying to climb a wall slick with oil. There’s probably a way of getting around it, if you sit and think about it for a long time, but in the end it simply isn’t worth it.

The Terrifying Power of Subtlety

While Stephen King is notorious for book bloating, the quality of his writing is often superb. You might call him the Hemingway of horror. The first line to Chapter Thirty of The Shining reads, “He took the elevator up and it was strange, because none of them had used the elevator since they moved in.”

This is great because it immediately suggests a sense of unease. Why hadn’t they used the elevator before? It’s obvious, without stating as much – they’re staying in a spooky hotel. Ergo, why would they want to explore any further than necessary? Especially when they’re could be undead old ladies waiting to strangle your children in every room, as young Danny Torrance had already discovered.

This chapter works so effectively because of the knowledge gap between Jack and the reader. We’ve already visited Room 217 with Danny. It was very frightening. But here we follow his father Jack’s perspective, and thus, everything is left to the imagination. Ambiguity is the writer’s greatest tool for evoking horror and fear. The most frightening thing is not knowing.

Blatty’s Exorcist has its moments of brilliance, but The Shining is consistently effective without lapse. We an debate all day how Kubrick’s film both improves upon the novel yet loses the essence of the story, but King’s writing isn’t at fault. Imagine this innocuous image: “The shower curtain, a pallid pastel pink, was drawn protectively around the long claw-footed tub.” There is more horror in what is unseen. It seems harmless enough, but we must ask, why has the curtain been drawn? Jack doesn’t know.

And for the first time he felt his new sense of sureness (almost cockiness) […] deserting him. A chilled finger pressed gently against the base of his spine […] joined by others and they suddenly rippled all the way up his back to his medulla oblongata, playing his spine like a jungle instrument.

A lesser writer might give us that which we expect to see – the old woman that Danny saw, reclining in the bathtub. But King holds back deliberately, as when Jack draws back the shower curtain, he finds that “The tub was dry and empty.”

King’s descriptive power is on show too. “Relief and irritation vented in a sudden ‘Pah!’ sound that escaped his compressed lips like a very small explosion.”

It’s so tangible and real. And the simile accentuates the sound and the image so perfectly. King then goes on to describe the bathtub in further detail, almost as if Jack were trying to put his fear out of his mind by focusing on the object in front of him. But the mind, especially when afraid, never works the way we want. Once we see something, we cannot un-see it. The bathmat on the floor catches Jack’s attention. It’s out of place and should have been down in the linen cupboard with the sheets and towels. Why then was it there if the rest of the room was unmade?

This is the key to great horror. King builds fear by subverting expectations and offering alternatives ranging from the logical to the flimsy. It must have been left out by a maid rushing to get home. That’s what Jack tells himself. What other explanation is there? “He brushed the tips of his fingers back and forth across it. The bathmat was bone dry.” King pulls the same trick here but succeeds in making something so deceptively harmless seem strange and ominous. And then Jack smells soap.

And not one of those postcard-size bars of Ivory they provide you with in hotels […] The scent was light and perfumed, a lady’s soap. It had a pink sort of smell.

Great writers evoke the senses in their description to put the reader in the place of the character. Here the tension continues to build. We feel something must happen soon. All the signs are there.

There was a sudden rattling, metallic sound behind him […] The shower curtain which he had pushed back to look into the tub, was now drawn.

King continues to restrain himself. The sound and image are terrifying. The reader can empathise with Jack so easily. Again, we don’t see anything happen, but King suggests it to us.

There was something behind the pink plastic shower curtain. There was something in the tub […] He could see it, ill defined and obscure through the plastic, a nearly amorphous shape. It could have been anything. A trick of the light. The shadow of the shower attachment. A woman long dead and reclining in the bath […]

Events play out differently in the film, where Jack sees instead a young woman in the nude and proceeds to kiss her. Only when he opens his eyes does he see that she’s a walking corpse. Here Jack sees nothing. We expect him to “step forward boldly and rake the shower curtain back” but he can’t bring himself to do it. And no one could blame him. He instead “turn[s] with jerky, marionette strides, his heart whamming frightfully in his chest”. King peppers in Jack’s inner monologue as well, to drive home the terror. Jack leaves the bathroom only to find the door to the room has been closed: “(It won’t open.) But it did.”

Within the space of a few pages, everything has changed for Jack Torrance, and King ends this chapter by returning to the beginning.

But he didn’t take the elevator back down. It was too much like an open mouth.

There’s a reason Stephen King is the master of horror.

Written by Michael Conroy

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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