The Shining by Stephen King

I first read The Shining in 2010; an isolated dip into King's writing between my period reading his books as a teen and young adult, and my rediscovery (and indeed further exploration), of King with my lady since 2015.

Though it was Under the Dome which prompted me to get back into regularly reading King, I do remember being surprised ten years ago by how good The Shining was, and upon a second read with my lady, the charm certainly hadn't faded. Indeed, my lady has apparently checked into The Overlook Hotel four or five times (once in German), and thoroughly enjoyed; or at least was utterly captivated and horrified by, each new visit.

Jack Torrance is on his last chance. At one time a promising writer with literary aspirations, a beautiful wife and a young, gifted son, his alcoholism nearly cost him his marriage, while a fit of rage cost him his teaching job. Now, desperate to clean up his act, finish the play he hopes will bring success, and become a better husband and father, he's taken the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Wendy Torrance, though still worried about Jack's attitude, accompanies him to the hotel with their five year old son Danny, hoping that the six months away from distractions and drink will help matters improve.

But Danny senses there is something wrong about The Overlook, an air of evil and menace imbued into the building itself, visions of violence, and dreams of an awful apparition and the word "red rum." Danny's dreams are not to be taken lightly, since Danny has what the Overlook's friendly chef Dick Hallorann calls "shining", the ability to sometimes know what people are thinking, or what will happen in the future, and with the Torrance family snowed in in the Overlook Hotel for the winter, that future might be grim indeed, since Danny's talent is of especial interest to The Overlook, and with Jack as its chosen tool, The Overlook is quite prepared to tear Wendy and Danny apart to get it.

When I read The Shining in 2010, I remember bracing myself for some of the reputed inequities of King's early writing, overly verbose prose, a slow meandering plot, and lots of digressions to explore the experiences of peripheral, and usually unpleasant, characters. What is odd, is that none of this materialised.

The Shining is for the most part a tightly plotted, extremely tense horror story, told exclusively from only four perspectives, the Torrance family and Dick Hallorann, and for the most part, the build up and pacing are simply superb.

The style is descriptive, and intensely thoughtful, although rarely to the point of unnecessarily wordy. Some have disliked King's fondness for adverbs, and it is true that on some occasions, such as when the old elevator in The Overlook is described as wheezing vibratoriously, they go a little too far, though on other occasions, I actually enjoyed traversing the lesser known parts of English; the word hepetiticly, as a synonym for jaundiced, should definitely be used more often, especially in horror.

Despite, and often because of King's touch with language, the pace of the story is also masterfully delivered. There are more than enough shocks and disquieting moments during slower, more character focused passages, usually in the forms of Danny's dreams or frightening hints about Jack's personality or past to make sure the tension never slackened. Indeed, the only sections I found slightly draggy were the long, rather dry recounting of The Overlook's history (mostly from old newspaper clippings found by Jack), and the summarised details of Jack's play, matters which, though tangentially important to the plot and setting did feel as if they could've been dealt with more succinctly.

That being said, when directly dealing with its characters, including The Overlook itself, the rhythm just kept on pounding. Though there is more to The Shining than your average haunted house story, there is no denying that The Overlook is definitely a character in its own right, with its own moods and feelings and desires, a fact which makes it all the more terrifying.

Among the more human cast, Jack is probably the character we spend most time with. King once stated that in an early draught of The Shining Jack was a total monster (like his Kubrick film counterpart), a one dimensional abusive alcoholic with a ten story inferiority complex. However, King apparently had the revelation that the book would be far deeper, not to mention scarier, if Jack actually was a good father who loved his son.

This is what makes Jack so fascinating, and an almost tragic character, that, despite one horrible incident of child abuse towards Danny, and some scummy behaviour towards an (admittedly irritatingly smug) student which lost him his job, Jack is often shown to be a thoughtful and caring husband and father, trying to get the better of his own demons.

Yet, King goes one step further with Jack, since while The Overlook obviously presses Jack's buttons, there is also no denying those buttons are there to be pressed. Jack is not literally possessed, despite the ghostly visions, voices in the head and presence of The Overlook, he is simply twisted into the worst version of himself, with all of his rampant frustration, self-delusion, and destructive desire to control brought to the fore. Indeed, the horrible thing is while Danny's cry of "you are not my Daddy" to Jack at the end of the book is entirely accurate, Danny could equally have said "you used to be my Daddy”.

Of course, Jack's experiences as a struggling, penniless writer with an alcohol problem and violent temper are directly related to King's own life (King's said so himself). One reason why I suspect King always maintains that Jack is "a good man", and as much a victim of The Overlook as any who have died within its walls. Whether this is true, I don't know, but one question which still troubles me is whether Jack would have cleaned up his act if he hadn't gone to The Overlook, and it's the fact that I simply do not know the answer, which makes Jack such a compelling character.

Indeed, while I am getting tired of the trope that men who are physically or sexually abused as boys grow up to be monsters, Jack Torrance is one of the rare exceptions who is real enough to avoid being a caricature.

Danny, Jack's son, is also someone with his own journey. One rather odd thing with Danny, is that despite some poetic descriptions of Danny's psychically sensing other people, and some down right disturbing visions Danny has around the Overlook (usually Danny's perspective gets the most scares) I did sometimes find King's depiction of Danny a little jarring, often because, even whilst writing Danny as an almost supernaturally bright and quiet five year old, King would either include language which did not sit well with a child's perspective (such as when Danny notices clouds being pregnant with rain), or when Danny would understand some concepts extremely well such as divorce (both learned from a child at nursery and also picked up from Wendy and Jack's minds), and then have some more normally childish gaps in his understanding, like referring to Jack's drinking as doing "the bad thing".

While I found Danny's point of view the most compelling in terms of writing style, often it was hard to get a handle on Danny as a person in his own right, beyond simply being a peculiarly grown up psychic five year old. Then again, since the plot is partly built around Danny being a peculiarly grown up psychic five year old, this probably didn't matter as much as it might had there been a larger cast of characters.

This was not the case with Danny's mother Wendy. While The Shining slightly shows it's age with Wendy having no real career outside the home despite being just as educated as Jack, and the assumption that she does most of the house work, although being a good husband, Jack does help her with the washing up. Yet, Wendy goes way beyond her role as simply wife and mother. Indeed, my lady noted that even though King did go through a period of writing female characters as "wet tissues'', prone to cry at the drop of a hat and be generally overwrought, Wendy definitely isn't one of them. Protective of her son, genuinely in love with Jack, yet unsure whether to stay with him, with her own trouble past in the form of a deeply unpleasant mother, and above all an absolutely awesome part in the climax, I can see why King objected so strongly to the screamier, far less competent Wendy in the Kubrick film.

Dick Hallorann is the book's final character, and even though we see less of his perspective, King is just as careful to make him a very real person with his own cares and journey, whether coming to terms with mortality, or being black, having to experience both covert and overt racism. Though some reviews mention disliking the depiction of racism and racist language, since said language was always coming from the perspective of racist characters, I didn't have as much issue with this myself, uncomfortable though it was, indeed King's even able to make a loud mouthed, bigoted passing car driver a figure of fun.

My only minor issue in terms of race, was the way that King in narrative voice occasionally used Dick's ethnicity as a synonym for his appearance, for example speaking of his "black hands", on the steering wheel of a car. That being said Dick is simply just a plain likable, relaxed and truly human character, and the tale of his short odyssey, journeying across America, occasionally getting help from others with a little shining of their own, all to save a small boy who he met for less than half an hour is such a breath of fresh air, that I found myself ironically far more angry at the racists Dick does encounter, for being such gigantic arseholes to such a nice guy.

The finale when it comes is truly fantastic, it's much to King's credit that so much is predicted, particularly in Danny's visions, and yet what we get is no disappointment. My only minor niggle with the finale is that (unlike in the Kubrick film), the word "red rum" does not make an actual appearance, and thus King's constant use of it as a motif (something enhanced by Danny Lloyd's iconic croaky-voiced performance in the film), didn't quite have the payoff it needed.

Red rum aside, so much in the finale just plain worked. In particular, I applaud King for having seemingly simple events which other authors would skip through quickly, like the wounded Jack pursuing an equally wounded victim slowly up a flight of stairs, and then giving them a nail biting, skin crawling tension, teasing out every last nasty detail for just the right amount of time. I also absolutely love not being able to predict who would live, and who die.

Indeed, where other bloody horror novels have a whole bunch of red shirts to wander off alone, King's very small cast here makes every motion, every hint at violence, every swing of a weapon feel all the more vital.

The Shining has been called the book which catapulted King into the big leagues, and it's not hard to see why. Whilst scouring the net for reviews, most of the negative opinions I encountered were simply from people who preferred the Kubrick film, and so missed the ghostly little girls, hedge mazes and bloody elevator. The book however, has more than its share of iconic freaky aspects of its own, I'm never going to see blue carpets with black leaves, paper party favours, or topiary hedge animals in quite the same light again!

Despite its slightly dated setting, some uncomfortably realistic racism, and a couple of minor digressions, The Shining is quite simply a damn good horror story, combining natural and supernatural, complex characters and a fantastically creepy atmosphere into one huge pile of awesome! I suspect that like Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, and Poe's Mask of the Red Death (both of which King references), The Shining will remain a classic for decades to come, and one which (like my lady), I might well return to in the future myself.

9/10 You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave

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