Posted in Life, Reading

Things That Sting: Thoughts on The Shining


Last week, I took a random walk on an empty trail. In between errands to the library and the grocery store, I pulled my car over and stopped on the side of the road by a little hiking trail I’d only been on once before, deciding to take a stroll with nothing but my cell phone and my journal for company. Noting the absence of other cars, I texted my husband letting him know where I was. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon in a nice neighborhood, but still… safety first.

I set out on the two-mile path, listening to the birds and the squirrels, enjoying the breeze on my face and the crunchy feel of my sandals on the dirt. I stretched my legs, took deep breaths, enjoyed the oneness with nature, mentally patting myself on the back for taking this spontaneous jaunt off the cement and into a few minutes of peaceful meditation.

Coming upon a picnic table, I decided to stop and write in my journal. Write what? It didn’t matter. Maybe I’d pen a poem or try to capture the flit of feather and shuffle of leaf that provided such a soothing background to my solitude. Or, more likely, I’d put to words that self-congratulatory feeling I’d been having over my decision to go for a walk. Oh how intelligent I am! Oh how thoughtful! No one has ever had such a brilliant idea as this! It’s amazing how many of my former journal entries sound this way.

I’d yet to put pen to paper, though, when I crossed my legs beneath the wooden table, getting comfy for whatever witticisms I was about to write, and glanced down. Why did I glance down?—Out of habit? To perfect the angle of my crossed legs? To make sure I didn’t kick the imaginary person sitting across from me? To check for monsters?—Whatever the reason, I glanced down, and there on the metal bar beneath the table, not three inches from my bare knee (bare because I was wearing shorts because while it was January, it was also Austin, Texas) there was a stinging thing.

“Stinging thing” is not the scientific name for the fuzzy, mohawked caterpillar wriggling so close to my bare skin. It actually has many names. Megalopyge opercularis seems to be its formal title, but it goes by puss caterpillar in some parts and in others (including where I grew up) it’s called a tree asp. But no matter what you call it, it’s a nasty little fellow. The venomous spines in its “fur” pack a powerful punch to human skin, causing severe pain that can radiate up the affected limb, bringing on burning, swelling, headache, nausea, rash, and difficulty breathing. I’ve never been stung by one myself, but I remember the time my mom laid her wrist on a tree asp on the top of our gate when I was a little girl, and the memory is the only deterrent I’ve ever needed to keep me from messing with them.

It's not as harmless as it looks.
It’s not as harmless as it looks.

The second I saw that hairy bug, everything changed. Gone was my feeling of peace and serenity, gone the happy chatter of birds. All of a sudden the trees were alive with things that sting and the snapping of twigs no longer brought images of squirrels. Maybe a dark cloud really did pass by overhead at that moment or maybe my goosebumps just made it seem true; either way, the warmth of the sun had left me. My unplanned walk in the woods suddenly seemed impulsive rather than spontaneous, foolish rather than carefree. Everything around me screamed danger.

I closed my journal, carefully lifted my legs over the table’s bench, and walked swiftly back to my car, cell phone in hand, arms held close to my body, shivers all over.

What, you must be asking, does this have to do with The Shining?

First, you should know that I’m talking about the book, not the movie. And if you’ve read it, you probably understand.

Reading The Shining, which I’m a hundred pages from finishing right now, is like noticing that tree asp over and over and over. The Shining can make a sunny day feel dark. It can take an innocent thought and turn it into something sinister. It poses disturbing questions that hang over your head long after you’ve closed the book and made dinner, questions like, What’s really going on in the heads of my loved ones? and How close are any of us from snapping? Stephen King’s story gets into your mind, into your bones, into your sleep. It sucks you in until you look up from the page (or wake up from your nightmare) and blink into reality (are you sure?) and wonder how long you’ve been gone.

And that’s what I love about it.

Page by page, this amazing work of horror is cementing itself on my list of favorite books. I read it slowly on some days and then in great quick bursts on others because I simultaneously never want it to end and can’t wait for it to be over. I love the Jack Nicholson movie (and reading the book is not making me love it less) but there are more—so many more—things that sting in the original, including wasps, which are absent from the movie but play a prominent role in the book. That’s one insect whose sting I do know first hand, and every time those flying fiends are mentioned, I feel creepy-crawly all over.

One hundred pages to go. One hundred pages until the sun comes out (hopefully) for good. I don’t think I’ll go on any more solo hikes until I finish.