I have been a fan of Stephen King for like forever. And I have to admit, I tend to like his earlier stuff more than his later books. So would you believe I'd never actually read The Shining
? And to this day, I have not seen the movie! (I've got it queued up on Netflix.)
It would be wrong to say that I went into the book completely unspoiled, though, since The Shining
(and especially Kubrick's adaptation) is such a part of popular culture now that I could hardly have avoided absorbing the gist of the story and many key scenes over the past thirty years. So I knew more or less what it is about: a man takes his wife and son with him to a remote hotel he is supposed to watch over the winter, and while they're all isolated in this old, haunted hotel, he goes completely off his rocker and tries to kill them.The Shining
is classic King in the best way: it's spooky, it's full of eerie and freaky moments, but it's more full of characters
. King creates characters and then pretty much lets them run wild on the page, and somehow corrals them back into the story in time for the climax. He has a habit (particularly noticeable in his really big books) of going off on tangents to describe minor characters' childhoods or the significance of a particular brand of pop or the entire six-month history of events that led up to some enabling plot device, and this means his books are often, well, a little bloated. But I have always found his writing enjoyable, and even the unnecessary stuff that could get trimmed by a more ruthless editor. The Shining
is a little bit padded out, but only a little. We don't just learn about Jack Torrance, the once up-and-coming writer who's now turned into a barely-employable wretch thanks to his alcoholism and anger management issues, and his wife and preternaturally perceptive five-year-old son Danny. We also get to learn about Jack's rich former drinking buddy, and Dick Halloran, the black chef who has a "shining" (ESP-like powers) like Danny, and the prissy, unctuous manager of the Overlook Hotel, and of course, the Overlook Hotel itself and all its ghosts.
The Overlook Hotel is a character in its own right. It's an old hotel up in the Colorado mountains that's closed over the winter as it becomes virtually inaccessible once the snow starts. Jack Torrance, who got fired from his posh prep school teaching position after he beat the crap out of a student, comes to the Overlook to watch over it during the long winter months. He brings his wife, who had been just about to divorce him when he quit drinking, and his son, who is a genius with an uncanny ability to know what people are thinking, find lost things, and know what's going to happen before it happens.
The Overlook Hotel turns out to have been previously owned by some very shady characters, and some Very Bad Things happened in its posh but aging interior. Jack finds this out, but he also finds out that the hotel isn't just haunted. It has a mind of its own, and it wants him, and more importantly, it wants Danny.
This part of the book is the least explained, because King usually leaves the supernatural stuff unexplained. The hotel is evil, and it wants Danny dead, and it can turn people crazy and do other things. How, why? It doesn't matter, it's King-land, weird shit happens.
But what makes this book more than just a haunted hotel story is that like most of King's fiction, the supernatural stuff is not the real source of horror and danger. The Overlook Hotel is a metaphor for alcoholism and domestic violence. In fact, the book practically hammers you over the head with this. Everything that led Jack Torrance to the murderous psychopathic state in which he is stalking his wife and son through the hotel with a mallet is a direct result of his alcoholism and his unwillingness to deal with his temper. King does a fantastic job of making Jack a likable guy. He is not
evil, he genuinely loves his wife and son, he is genuinely horrified and disgusted and ashamed by the things he's done under the influence of alcohol and anger. Yet King also makes it clear that Jack is responsible for the things he does. Demons or not, they are demons he conjured himself, and as we see him losing his mind, surrendering bit by bit to the Overlook Hotel, we can see him rationalizing, willingly
giving himself over to it, even if he gives every appearance of being dragged kicking and screaming.
I thought this was true to life and a brilliantly illustrated metaphor on every level, and no less impressive for the fact that King wrote it back when he himself was a raging alcoholic. He's always been a writer where you can see that the demons he writes cut close to the bone.
This is a great bit of classic King, and while it didn't quite make my "King favorites" list, it's definitely up there with his other thrillers I really liked back in the day like The Dead Zone
, Salem's Lot
, and Cujo
. It's not perfect and the story wobbles a bit (and Danny is way
too precocious and articulate, even for a gifted, psychic five-year-old), but it's a good book.