Just read (and watched): 'The Shining' by Stephen King

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?). And finally, here are all the entries about Stephen King books specifically.

 me, when a coworker writes in an email, "do we need a call to discuss?"

me, when a coworker writes in an email, "do we need a call to discuss?"

Continuing my crawl through Stephen King's works, I've just read The Shining, and semi-accidentally watched Stanley Kubrick's film based on it for the first time as well. Knowing it is widely considered to be one of King's most popular books, and knowing there was a classic film accompaniment, this is one of the novels that I was most excited to read during the early parts of my foray into King's bibliography. 

the_shining_book_cover.jpg

The Shining (1977) is Stephen King's third novel (following Carrie and 'Salem's Lot, both of which I read in 2016), and it seems pretty agreed-upon that it's scarier than either of those first two books. One of the reasons I wanted to start reading King is that I had never really been scared in a horror or terror type of way while reading a book before; there were tense or psychologically thrilling moments in plenty of books I'd read in the past, of course, but I was pretty interested to see how scared I could get while turning pages. Turns out, you can get decently scared if the writing's done right.

King builds a base level of innate tension and fear in The Shining via early character development and narrative descriptions of The Overlook Hotel, which serves as the story's primary setting and a character in itself. The novel focuses on the Torrance family: parents Jack and Wendy and their gifted son, Danny. Jack has a recent alcoholic past, though he's currently sober, and he was fired from his teaching job at a Vermont prep school after he assaulted a student there. Jack's alcoholism makes for a poor cocktail with his short temper -- we get harrowing accounts of how he accidentally broke his son's arm while drunk, when Danny was only a toddler, and of his assault on a high school student who he'd caught slashing his tires in the school parking lot after a fair amount of shared animosity between the two. Jack is described as "seeing red" in these moments, and it seems plausible that his temper could snap with enough build-up, even if alcohol weren't involved.

Wendy has considered leaving Jack many times in the past while dealing with his terrible drunken behavior, but hasn't been able to pull the trigger. She doesn't have a reliable place to go, or family to fall back on, partially due to a strained relationship with her mother; Wendy's distaste for the thought of retreating to her mother's place affects later decision-making as well. Danny, who has the ability to shine, can feel his parents' thoughts from time to time, so he comes into contact with words like DIVORCE and even SUICIDE at an age certainly too young to learn about such things. While he doesn't fully know what those words mean, since he's only five or six years old, he does understand how bad and scary they are due to the context in which his parents think about them. Danny is also often "visited" by an "imaginary friend" named Tony, who shows Danny certain "visions" -- sometimes they're peeks into the future, and sometimes they're images that help him solve trivial dilemmas (i.e. Danny knows his father's trunk of writing papers is located in the basement when it goes missing after the family moves to Colorado). 

With his family teetering on total financial brokenness due to his lost employment, Jack accepts a job to be the winter caretaker for an old hotel called The Overlook in the Rocky Mountains. It's a remote hotel, about an hour away from the fictional town of Sidewinder, CO, via roads that are inaccessible during winter due to heavy snow. The job consists of heating portions of the hotel each day, keeping up the beautiful hotel grounds, making sure The Overlook's old, troublesome boiler doesn't explode, and making any minor repairs that happen as a result of bad weather -- as the hotel manager, Mr. Ullman, states, it's Jack's job to make sure the "environmental elements don't take hold" while The Overlook is shut down for business.

 me, when a coworker says on that call, "can we get that on the site this week?"

me, when a coworker says on that call, "can we get that on the site this week?"

Jack, Wendy and Danny arrive at the hotel during check-out day in fall, the day when all guests and employees clear out of the hotel at the end of the booming summer season. Not only will the hotel not have any guests or employees aside from Jack during the winter, but the Torrance family likely won't come into contact with anyone at all for several months considering the inaccessibility of the hotel from any nearby towns.

From the get-go of this engagement, there is a general sense of unease surrounding the family's stay at the hotel. Danny has already seen visions via Tony of something called REDRUM ("murder" spelled backwards; this reveal comes much later) at a spot that he thinks is The Overlook, and he carries with him a feeling that the family won't do well in their temporary home. But these fears are assuaged by his parents seeming very happy at The Overlook from the beginning. Jack tends to his caretaker duties and Wendy settles in without too much unease; the family gets along well and rides through some negative situations, like Danny suffering a bunch of wasp stings late one night (an incident that serves as a revealing character study for Jack).

But King masterfully writes in a sense of worry for the reader. On check-in day for the Torrances, Danny meets the hotel cook, a man named Dick Hallorann. He has the shine as well, although not to the degree Danny does, and he actually explains the phenomenon to Danny for the first time, as the young boy has never met anyone else who shares his gift. Hallorann tells Danny that he may see some unpleasant things while he's at The Overlook (and specifically mentions to stay out of Room 217), but that he doesn't think these things can hurt Danny in real life. He says they're "like pictures from a book" and they'll go away if you close your eyes and think them away.

Slowly, Jack starts to fall victim to the effectively haunted Overlook Hotel. King doesn't write this story as a generic haunted house, though; ghosts aren't floating around the halls, but The Overlook instead "reveals" itself to our main characters in different ways. Danny has visions here and there, so he sees things of increasing terror (things that do hurt him in real life) over time, while Jack uncovers a binder filled with old news clippings and stories that tell the hotel's sordid and dark history. Jack reads about murders that occurred in the Presidential Suite, murders that Danny already knew about because he had "seen" the aftermath of those killings merely upon setting foot in that room. Gradually, Jack begins to develop a strange fondness for the hotel amongst his initial distaste for it, and as he learns more and more about The Overlook, he begins to have internal dialogues during which he sympathizes or cares for the hotel more so than even his own family. It's scary enough to imagine yourself locked in an enormous hotel with only two other people for a period of 4-6 months; when one of those people is a short-tempered recovering alcoholic with a violent streak, the suspense is omnipresent.

 me, as that call is finally nearing its end, when a coworker says, "should i schedule another 30 minutes to continue working through this?"

me, as that call is finally nearing its end, when a coworker says, "should i schedule another 30 minutes to continue working through this?"

Jack develops a desire to become a part of this rich history of The Overlook, the history he's learned so much about. At one point, after Danny is injured by a vision he had in Room 217, Jack deliberately sabotages a chance of his family leaving the hotel; it starts to become more clear that Jack, in moments, acts as an agent executing the hotel's will. The hotel wants the Torrances to stay, because the hotel "wants" Danny and his powerful abilities, and it's using Jack as a tool to get his son. In these moments, Jack's thoughts alternate between the dedicated family man that he is at the beginning, doing everything with his wife and son in mind first, then violently changes his mind and acts upon these urges that are effectively fed to him by the hotel.

Enough snow has fallen by now, with nightly storms bringing more and more bad weather to The Overlook, and the Torrance family is going to have to ride out the winter one way or another. Wendy and Danny become much more candid in discussing Danny's visions -- at the beginning of the story, Danny's parents were clueless about his gifts -- and begin to live in more and more fear of what Jack might do at any moment. Jack begins to visibly crack and they worry he's lost his mind. Things do finally topple beyond repair when Jack has an extended vision of his own, a night during which he gets drunk and dances with people from The Overlook's past at an all-nighter party while Wendy and Danny hole up, hiding in their apartment within the hotel.

By the time this happens, it's a totally acceptable thing that The Overlook is somehow able to produce gin for Jack to drink; it's totally reasonable that Wendy and Danny can hear the party raging on as they attempt to sleep through the night; at points down the line, it's totally reasonable that the hotel is able to free Jack from a heavily locked door that Wendy trapped him behind. King masterfully builds up the hotel's "powers" throughout earlier parts of the story in a drawn-out way without ever feeling too long. Everything has a purpose here.

Jack attacks Wendy using a roque mallet and hurts her badly; Wendy stabs Jack with a kitchen knife and hurts him worse, but it's clear at this point that the hotel has effectively taken control of Jack, and it's going to take more than that to kill him/(the hotel). Before this, Danny urges Dick Hallorann to come to his family's aide by shining a cry for help to him all the way in Florida, and Hallorann arrives just in time to experience Jack at his worst. Jack nearly kills Hallorann as well, but they both manage to survive as they hear Danny facing Jack down one-on-one elsewhere in the hotel.

Danny grows an incredibly sad amount during this story for such a young boy. By the time he faces down his father in a hallway of the hotel -- a recurring vision he's had and been terrified of each time -- he's actually quite calm. As calm as a young boy could be in that situation, I suppose. While his father is chasing him down, Danny has a vision where he falls deep within his own brain/soul/heart/whatever and discovers that his imaginary friend, Tony, is more or less a version of himself from the not-so-distant future. He realizes the figure that resembles his father is effectively a collection of all of The Overlook's evil in man-form. These realizations help him defeat Jack mentally, in a way; he speaks directly to The Overlook when he speaks to Jack, and for a moment he's actually able to reach his father. Jack has a moment of realization that he's totally been defeated, before the hotel regains control and continues the reign of terror.

But Danny remembers something important: the boiler hasn't been touched in a while. Jack/(the hotel) take off to the basement to tamp the boiler down, which hasn't been attended since the winter caretaker was busy terrorizing his family. Danny regroups with Dick and Wendy, and he knows the boiler is going to explode no matter what; Dick shares a shine with Danny and realizes this as well. The three of them escape barely in time to watch the hotel explode behind them, falling to pieces and taking Jack with it.

From a bird's-eye level, The Shining is a pretty consistently terrifying book. Jack's slow demise is expertly written, and it's extremely clear that Jack is as much a victim at the hotel's hands as either of his family members. I enjoyed every last drop of this book, and it's one I'll read again in the future; it's also got me interested in King's sequel, Doctor Sleep, which was published an insane 36 years after the original, in 2013.

the-shining-movie-poster.jpg

Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining is best described as a completely separate beast. It certainly uses the book as a jumping-off point, but King's story is much more of a slow burn where we see Jack's gradual evolution from a man trying to become a better husband and father into a monster. Kubrick's take is a much more straight-laced house of horrors; Jack's character is never likable to begin with, and Wendy is portrayed is being much more passive and less able than she is in the book.

While I prefer the book to the film, I can also see why the film has become such a classic. Our local Alamo Drafthouse had a screening of it recently, while I was in the middle of reading the book, so I went to that since I figured my opportunities to see it in a theater were generally pretty limited. I clearly didn't mind the spoilers, since I made that decision -- but there's weren't really any spoilers, anyway. The film has its own climax and conclusion, borrowing less from King's story the further it goes on, and the most terrifying events that lead to the end are quite different.

The Shining -- in book and movie form -- would come very recommended from me. I would absolutely take the time to experience these as separate pieces of media, though. Since the stories are fundamentally quite different, I don't necessarily think it matters which you experience first. I might even suggest watching the movie first, but allow your mind to go into the book with a clean slate on the characters. I found myself with a distaste for Danny and Wendy's characters in the movie because they weren't at all how I imagined them while reading, so perhaps the opposite order is best here.

The Shining is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.