My long-term followers will now be very much aware that I am a self-professed lover of the gothic genre. From Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I have enjoyed pretty much every gothic-style novel that I have picked up, yet, until recently, I had never read a single book by Stephen King.
Now, all I can say is that there is a reason why he is named one of the greatest writers of our time, and I can assure you that these claims are not at all misjudged.
A Bit of Context
Title: The Shining.
Author: Stephen King.
Publication: 1977, New English Library.
My Edition: 2011, Hodder.
Length: 497 pages.
Genre(s): Thriller, Gothic, Horror.
My Rating: 5/5.
Stephen King’s The Shining is arguably his most renowned book, both due to the novel itself, and the 1980 filmic adaptation. Personally, I have not seen this film, and don’t really intend to; from what I’ve heard, it depicts an entirely different story to the one written in 1977, and it is this story that I want to talk about, not the film.
The novel reflects many of the themes originally established by the Gothic, but it goes further. Aside from the Overlook Hotel itself, there is no clear villain in this story: it’s about real people living their real lives. Sometimes, they are good, but sometimes they’re not so good, and this balance between good and evil that exists within all of us is what The Shining is really about.
I believe these stories exist because we sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives: the parent who punches instead of kissing, the auto accident that takes a loved one, the cancer we one day discover living in our own bodies. – King, xii.
King doesn’t only base this novel on “unreal monsters and bogies”, however. In 1974, he made a visit to The Stanley Hotel, which is generally said to be the main basis of the Overlook Hotel, and later became the set of the 1980 film. Jack Torrance, meanwhile, one of the book’s main protagonists, takes a journey already made by King, as both character and author dealt with the pressures of recovering from alcoholism.
As always, I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum here, but I will be going over the basic structure of at least the beginning of the novel, so if you’re thinking of reading The Shining, you might want to skip on to the “My Conclusion” section of this review.
As I’ve already mentioned, the main events of The Shining take place in the Overlook Hotel. This is a historical structure that is completely – and I mean completely – isolated. Jack Torrance is tasked with the role of caretaker during the winter months of the hotel’s calendar. This means that he, his wife, Wendy, and their five-year-old son, Danny, must all move into the deserted hotel and prepare to be cut off from society by the heavy snowfall that will block their only road. It’s the perfect set up for a horror story, and although all three members of the Torrance family seem unnerved by the hotel, their pride and need for the money keeps them rooted in place.
We quickly learn all about Jack’s alcohol addiction, along with his anger issues and troubled past, but as there’s no alcohol in the hotel, and no way to get any, the family don’t seem to think that this will be much of a problem.
We also learn about Danny, and how he “shines”. This small child, who is intelligent far beyond his years, possesses the ability to ‘see’ things that he shouldn’t be able to see. Danny experiences strange visions regarding the Overlook Hotel and often catches glimpses of other people’s thoughts. Yet Danny is still a child, and can’t always make sense of everything that his “shine” is showing him.
Me, I’ve always called it shining. That’s what my grandmother called it, too. She had it. We used to sit in the kitchen when I was a boy no older than you and have long talks without even openin our mouths” – King, 87.
The rest of the book describes a steady decline of sanity as all three of the Torrances suffer from isolation and a somewhat indescribable fear of the hotel. What they don’t realise, is that the hotel itself seems to be alive, and that the longer Danny stays there, it is able to feed off his “shine”, becoming more powerful and, ultimately, able to use that power against them. There’s violence, terror, suspicion, and always that constant question: is it all in their heads?
Going Deeper into the Novel…
I honestly could write hundreds of thousands of words talking about this book, but I won’t, because I have essays that I should be writing, and you really don’t have the patience for that amount of words, so I’ll talk about some of the most interesting aspects of this novel: character development and streams of consciousness.
Arguably the strongest aspect of King’s storytelling is his ability to create and develop characters. What with Danny’s innocence, Wendy’s passive curiosity and Jack’s sense of pride, the members of the Torrance family are all very different, yet equally likeable.
Danny: Initially, Danny concerns himself with the typical problems of a child. He misses his friends from back home and doesn’t want his parents to fight. He also struggles a lot with his language, misreading words and asking a lot of questions as he learns more about the world around him. As the novel goes on, however, he abandons these questions. Words now seem to make sense to him, and he becomes wiser. He learns more about his parents and, in a way, seems to become their equal.
Wendy: For most of the book, Wendy was my least favourite character. To me, she felt a little underdeveloped, overly passive and just not as interesting as Danny and Jack. Just as her son and husband develop, however, Wendy does, too. She becomes less passive and learns to fight, her maternal instincts evoking a new kind of energy in her.
She was soft. When trouble came, she slept. Her past was unremarkable. She had never been tried in fire. Now the trial was upon her, not fire but ice, and she would not be allowed to sleep through this. – King, 405.
Jack: Jack’s journey is perhaps the most obvious one, because it forms a general downhill spiral. He begins as a man a looking for a new start; he’s made mistakes in the past, but he has put them all behind him. He is determined to do right by his family and give them everything that they deserve. Obviously, this doesn’t stay his main concern, as the hotel seems to place a barrier between his affections for his wife and son. Driven by the primal urge for alcohol, he seems to turn into something that isn’t quite human.
Yet Jack’s journey isn’t entirely linear, either; throughout the novel, he is fighting. He fights the need for a drink, he fights his own instincts, and he fights the hotel. If there’s one thing that’s initially made clear, it’s that he doesn’t want to be anything like his father. This relationship is unpicked as the novel goes on, and King considers the complexity Jack’s past, as he realises that he still, in a way, loved his father.
Streams of Consciousness
When I say “streams of consciousness”, I’m talking about King’s writing style. He often disrupts the narrative, as well as sentences, to insert thoughts directly experienced by the speaker. These help to reveal underlying concerns the characters experience, but also their growing panic as these streams of consciousness become more unpredictable, and also more frequent.
Danny, you okay doc? . . . Oh God oh God your poor sweet arm . . . and that face transformed into . . .
(momma’s daced face rising up from below the table, punched and bleeding, and momma was saying)
(‘from your father. I repeat, an enormously important announcement from your father. Please stay tuned or tune immediately to the Happy Jack frequency. Repeat, tune immediately to the Happy Hour frequency. I repeat-‘
A slow dissolve. – King, 249.
This may seem a little confusing, but I quickly found that not every bracketed deviation needed to be fully understood, as the narrative still seems to make sense without them. If nothing else, they give insights into the pure mania of the human mind. Let’s be honest, I bet you don’t understand every thought that you have – our thoughts are wild and unorganised, and so are the characters’ in The Shining.
As you may have guessed, I quite enjoyed reading this book. There is a lot to it, and it may be one that, in the future, I am able to reread and view from an entirely different angle. I’ll admit that, initially, my reading progress was rather slow, but this is the first book that I’ve read for pleasure during the university term for quite a long time, and I didn’t want it to distract me from the books I was actually supposed to be reading. That said, I read the last one hundred pages very quickly, across a few hours.
I remember once considering the difference between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. I think my conclusion was that ‘terror’ concerns a build up of events. That creaking floorboard, eerie silence, and the thought of being watched – they all make up what I’d define as ‘terror’, whilst the physical act of suspense being broken would be called ‘horror’; when a drunken man attacks his wife and a dead woman rises up from a bathtub, wrapping her clammy hands around a small boy’s neck, that’s ‘horror’. The Shining offers us both, and does so pretty superbly. For most of the novel, we have the ‘terror’ drawing us in and creating what feels like a very real fear of the Overlook Hotel. Then it’s within these last one hundred pages that you really start to see the ‘horror’ coming out.
It’s honestly one of the best novels I have ever read. That’s all I can say and, really, all that I need to say. If you haven’t read it, and it even slightly appeals to you, I urge you to go and get yourself a copy; I promise you, you will not be disappointed.