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The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson

I purchased this book on a whim because of my research on Stanley Kubrick. I didn’t do it for any reason other than it sounded like an interesting book due to some factoids I found while reading about The Shining. This book was Kubrick’s original intended adaptation into a horror movie. After Barry Lyndon did underwhelming at the box office domestically, Kubrick decided that he wanted to do something more mainstream. No one wanted to watch period pieces, but horror movies were all the rage in the late 70s, especially after Rosemary’s Baby. From there, we were introduced to genre defining films like Halloween, Carrie, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Kubrick read this book first, but when he came across The Shining, which was written by Stephen King, he decided to go with that story for his film due to its plot. What is interesting is he hired the author of this book, Diane Johnson, to help him write The Shining. 

I don’t know about you, but I like books with small stories like that behind them. What’s interesting about this one is that the story came after the fact. Johnson didn’t write this book in order to possibly be adapted, and she may not have ever suspected that it would get its notoriety for what could have been. Even with that label of “almost a Kubrick movie”, it isn’t like the book is extremely popular, even in a “cult following” sense. There isn’t much online regarding the book, and there isn’t even a digital print available, save for a copy that was uploaded onto the Internet Archive. Even with little fanfare, you should go out of your way to read this book. 

N is a young woman on the verge of thirty. She married young and slowly began to realize how much she was ill-prepared for married life. In order to assist the young mother, she and her husband, Gavin, who she refers to as Gavvy, allow his parents to send his childhood maid, Osella, to assist with raising the kids. As N is able to drift further away from her family, she finds herself wanting more and more freedom. This leads to her engaging numerous intense affairs; one of them with one of the partners of her husband’s law firm. As her infidelity is discovered and her status in life worsens due to her decisions, she continually finds herself trying to rationalize and shift blame over the deterioration of her family and personal life. 

What we are able to observe is someone who wants better for themself but does not have the correct tools to do so. N has fled from every problem she has ever faced, and because of this, when her life gets into worse and worse shape, she is only able to keep on escaping her plight through her affair and her school work. Osella is replaced by Ev, her forty-year-old roommate who watches over the kids while doing her best to handle her drinking and relationship problems. Osella and Ev are both black women, and N finds herself shaking her head at their plight while also taking advantage of her social status in order to dump her responsibilities onto them. N believes that just observing the atrocities that the two women go through is enough for her, as when they need actual help, like when Osella has her nervous breakdown, or confronting Ev’s countless issues with her own life, N does nothing. Osella and Ev both do horrible jobs raising the kids and cleaning the house. Gavvy and N both comment on how filthy the house is when they are married, but N hangs on to Osella due to her having some freedom. Ev has her own abandonment issues, with an ex-husband and an abusive boyfriend, and she allows her own issues to seep into the family dynamic that N has built, but it allows N to continue her affair and reap the benefits of having time away from her home. 

N, or Mrs. Hexam, is a pathological liar. She lies to get ahead of any situation. Because of this, she finds herself alienating all of those around her. She first does this by beginning her affairs, and after Osella has a nervous breakdown and attempts to kill her, she begins to see the injustices done against her more than the injustices that she commits against herself and her children. N is the narrator’s name; her first name is never revealed to us, and her last name, Hexam, reveals that there may be some sort of curse following her. What we have to do as readers is to figure out what the real horror is compared to the imagined one that N builds for herself, especially when her fantasy life begins to crumble around her.

When the book begins, we are informed that someone has vandalized N’s front door. She and Ev live in squalor, and N states that when the murderer finally comes and kills her and her family, the screams will not be noticed due to the other screams that go on in the housing project. She and Ev cannot be honest with one another. Ev lies about her issues and plights, attempting to make N not worry and fuss over her, and N escapes into the arms of her lover, Andrew, who is married to an old acquaintance, Cookie; N knows her from her days married to Gavin. Both of their men treat them like trash, with Andrew cutting off his relationship with N to salvage his marriage after proclaiming his love for her, and Ev’s boyfriend constantly giving her empty promises of a better life while constantly beating and abusing her. They both sit around waiting for their misfortune through the entirety of the novel, up until Ev ultimately dies after an attack, but the coroner lists it as pancreatitis, developed from her years of heavy drinking, while N spirals out of control through the final pages of the book. N proclaims that if someone is trying to kill her, then she must have done something to deserve such a thing because no one is murdered for no reason. This is when we start to unravel the moments before the eight days that the novel is set in.

Though it is shaped as a detective novel, the plot and the crimes aren’t important. What is important is observing N’s analysis of each situation she is placed in. She describes an event where a man chases her housekeeper Ev out of a pool that is housed in a community where her uncle lives. She confronts the man, and when he threatens her as well, she informs her relative that she is going to call the cops. After he convinces her that the attacker is actually a good neighbor and that informing the police would only cause trouble for him, she fantasizes about getting revenge on the stranger. It occupies days,  and she comes up with stories she could tell the police in order to inflict maximum punishment. Mrs. Hexam is clearly deranged, and once we figure that out, we start to wonder if she is really being stalked at all, or if it’s just something she has developed inside her own head. 

She finds herself angry at things she can’t control. But, she also finds herself too scared to approach doing anything that can construct actual, positive change in her life. 

I think that’s the reason why Kubrick chose Johnson to assist him with developing The Shining. The main argument you come across when you see people discussing that film online is if there are supernatural elements or if the family inside the Overlook actually invented these fears inside their own heads. This novel isn’t far from that mark. N paints herself as a benevolent and loving mother while her actions show a very different character. Jack Torrance is a similar character. He paints himself as a struggling writer who wants the peace and quiet of the hotel to help him with his writer’s block, but in actuality, he began abusing his son well before the family arrived at the Overlook. N’s life began to fall apart well before the “murderer” in question began to stalk her. Her waiting for her inevitable demise is a way for her to cope with her life choices while also keeping a safe distance. She can still be the victim while still going about her life, using and discarding those she sees fit. By no means are the things against N justified. The men in the novel treat the women horribly as a whole, and I think Johnson is trying to say something here, especially considering the time it was written, the mid-seventies. But Mrs. Hexam’s reactions to these atrocities does nothing to better her own plight.

One other thing to note: though N thinks up dastardly things in her head, they are not far removed from what people say on a day-to-day basis. We all have a bit of N inside of us, even if we don’t like to admit that to ourselves. 

Though it isn’t a detective novel, it is definitely a horror novel, and like The Shining, it tries to scare you more with what goes on in our heads rather than what goes on in reality. Oftentimes, it’s ourselves that try the hardest to point to the wrongs we have received in order to justify our shitty behaviors. N does this with no fear or regard for what it does to those around her, even herself. 

Who is the murderer? Who is the shadow? These questions aren’t as important as N wants you to believe. That’s something to remember any time you are reading something with an unreliable narrator. People distort their narratives to get you on their side. What you really want to observe in regard to this book is how fast N starts to fall once she realizes that there’s no hiding who she really is from the outside world anymore. That is the moment she decides to burn the entire thing down, and she doesn’t care who is affected. The freer she becomes, the uglier her demeanor becomes as well, and they both begin their descent at the beginning of the novel and don’t crash down to their resting place until you hit the very last page. The ending has N actually happy that she went through so much turmoil, because at least she can admit to there being some relief in being a shadow. There’s a thinness to it that the rest of her life doesn’t provide, and when we feel bogged down so much with our everyday lives, who doesn’t want to feel like a shadow? A dark silhouette that can cause havoc and fear, but also does not deal with the consequences of the actions themselves.

This one isn’t hard to find. It is out of print, so there isn’t a digital copy to purchase, but there are plenty of used and new ones on Amazon, and you can always check out your local UBS to see if they have a copy there. For those of us who are really struggling and can’t afford books at the moment, you can find an online copy here, you just need to create an account for the Internet Archive and you can borrow it, depending on availability. I highly recommend it if you are into dark and twisted books, as I am. 

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