Spirit Matrix

‘The Shining’ By Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books, October 2023, 88 pp.

The writing mind is a haunted house ringing with the voices of the dead.

When I told her that I’d never seen the film, Dotti was astounded. It was raining. From beneath the awning, the air was washed with streaky neon and headlights. Dorothea Lasky was dressed brightly, characteristically. She was exhorting me in her particular fashion, an alternating current of insistence and surrender (you have to see it . . . but only if you want to . . . but really you have to). It was less a process of convincing or recommending than a neat infection with the germ of her enthusiasm. I’d met other people who were obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but none before Dorothea Lasky convinced me that there was anything for me in that haunted house.

Dotti and I met five years ago in our shared capacity as authors shelved in the Occult section of the bookstore. We’re witches, both poets and public-facing sorceresses. While she’s better known as a poet and essayist, Lasky also composes, along with poet Alex Dimitrov, one half of the duo known as Astro Poets, a collaboration in which they approach horoscopes as a poetic form. She’s the author of a dozen books, including her most recent collections from Wave Books, Animal (2019) and Milk (2018). We were leaving a reading one evening when, apropos of nothing, I found myself in the beam of her fervor for The Shining, an experience I have since learned is common among her acquaintances. On a recent podcast she said that she talks about The Shining so often and so passionately that her editor finally encouraged her to write a book about it already.

Knowing that the film’s Overlook Hotel features so prominently in the landscape of Lasky’s imagining made me curious enough to watch it in the hopes of catching her spark. The movie itself is so sick, sumptuous, and nauseating—not just the gore but much more the noxious perfume of Jack Torrance-via-Nicholson’s misogyny and racism, and my disorientation over what was intended and what was imprinted there by Kubrick and the allowances people make for masculine genius. And what about the Shelley Duvall of it all? Her performance as Wendy was famously provoked by Kubrick with a campaign of verbal and psychological abuse. The real horror she went through in making the film is yet another ghostly presence.

In short, I had been avoiding The Shining. When I finally resolved to watch it, I did so with my best approximation of Dotti-colored glasses. I always thought of horror movies like the kind of haunted houses that I hate, the kind you pay to walk through where costumed teens in heavy makeup moan and jumpscare you. But I realize now that The Shining is the other sort of haunted house, a structure that catches and holds on to spirits. All the noise and violence of the haunting is just the effect of them writhing around in there.

From “Self Portrait in the Hotel”:

They drove me here and locked me in
A tiny yellow room
They said to be quiet
But I am not able
To be quiet
Any longer

I’m endlessly fascinated by spiritual technology, like this hotel as it appears in Lasky’s text, and, presumably, in Stephen King’s original; I wouldn’t know, I haven’t had the pleasure. The mystique that surrounds the movie’s occult symbolism lends itself to further legend-making and the collective creation of this spirit matrix.

In the collection, Lasky takes on many of the infamous (and some of the less memorable) floating personae who occupy the Overlook Hotel, borrowing their first-person perspectives in a kind of reverse possession. The woman in the bathtub rises up and looms at differing angles over several of the poems; the eerie sisters do the same in “Twins.” The man in the bear suit appears and disappears throughout. One is left with the sensation of walking through a hall of portraits, Lasky’s eyes peeping out from each one. She even peeks out from inside Danny Torrance’s stuffed lion, perching for a moment on the young boy’s shoulder and borrowing its button eyes. She places each mask very lightly over her own and puts it down just as easily as she took it up.

From “Hunger”:

I was starving but I didn’t dare eat
I just sat there waiting for dinnertime
So someone could cut me
A few apple slices
I had spent my whole life
Feeling this way again

These speakers are caught up in an endlessly repeating loop of horrors that are actually quite beautiful if you look at them through Lasky’s eye, trained as it is on form and color. No matter how hideous the scene, you’re seeing it through a kaleidoscope.

From “Red Rum”:

Lipstick is one of the very finest elixirs
It has a soft consistency
And can write on glass
Red rum is sweet
And candied
With cherries from the
Bottom of the bottle

There’s a notion of ongoingness that pervades the hotel and the collection, both. Horrifying loops play in perpetuity just as patterns repeat themselves maniacally on the hotel carpets and wallpaper in the film. Not pictured: the infamous pages of the manuscript about Jack and work and play.

From “Rug”:

I love the way that the purple and green
Go up the steps to where she is
And all you see
Are these undulating phalluses
And little spots of semen
Where I left them

Of course there is that red and orange
And black, all done up
Like a honeycomb

Lasky writes in her essay “A Belief in Ghosts: Poetry and the Shared Imagination” (2016):

I was recently on a tour of a collection of art objects in a very old museum, and the art historian who gave the tour was talking about some of the portraits, about how now we might have a portrait on the wall today, but in the past people kept cloaks or cloth over their portraits. It was thought that a portrait or art object was not something that you looked upon daily, because the act of seeing, of vision, was bidirectional. So, that when you looked at something, it looked back at you, and changed you.

What we find in this collection is a series of bidirectional self-portraits of just that sort: each ghost is a persona inhabiting a poem, inhabiting a room in the hotel. They are visceral apparitions—filled with desire and yearning, fleshly bodily things. The eternal residents of the Overlook Hotel have a real place in the shared imagination of millions of people, all co-creators of the unreality that exists there.


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