This Inhuman Place
Makes Human Monsters
(A Book Review of Stephen King’s The Shining)
Acclaimed by both readers and critics, Stephen King’s third novel, The Shining, published in 1977 on the heel of two previous runaway bestsellers Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, is regarded as one of the greatest contemporary haunted house stories written in the history of the genre and quickly became a literary benchmark in Stephen King’s early career. Adapted as a motion picture in 1980 by the legendary Stanley Kubrick it went on to become a hit — a horror movie masterpiece in its own right — and later on a cult classic.
The novel begins with a fresh start when Jack Torrance takes over as caretaker of the sprawling, snowbound Overlook Hotel for the winter months; he considers the isolation the perfect atmosphere for finishing his novel. His wife Wendy thinks it will be great for their son Danny, who has been having some emotional problems, and a chance for the family to bond. But soon the family realizes that all is not what it seems at the hotel.
The Shining is an absorbing novel, setting the gloomy and unsettling mood from the very early on. At its surface the book is a study in isolation. King first initiates the reader with a feeling of claustrophobia as he focuses on the Torrances, a family of three, as its major characters. By placing them in the colossal Overlook Hotel, where a powerful, evil presence haunts every corner, in the shadow of the Colorado mountains — and as they’ll be cut off from any possible human contact due to the extreme cold weather eventually — King heightens the twin themes of isolation and the feeling of being locked in, building the level of tension to an unbearable degree.
For all the book’s vaunted scary moments (dare you enter Room 217!), I think one of the main concerns most often ignored by readers looking for a cheap thrill is King’s possible scenario of a family’s accelerating road to perdition and the dark underside of marital life. Yet I believe this is where King excels most: that even with the allure of the supernatural he can still paint a starkly realistic slice of life. Much of his book, as shown by a recent reading of Carrie, features a dysfunctional family where young people are often portrayed as growing up without caring parents, or if they have a mother and father, they are perhaps better off without them. The grotesque depiction of a husband and wife relationship where pent-up hostilities finally seethes to the surface resulting in a true desire of the husband to kill the wife (or vice versa), as seen in the novel, seems to be taken from much of today’s tabloid headlines.
It is by making the mundane horrors of child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, and spousal abuse so terribly plausible that the author effectively able to take us one step further over the edge to where the reader will readily accept that anything can happen to the Torrances. And if bad things can befall good people like them, why couldn’t they occur to anyone of us?
Much of the book’s terror emanates from the everyday world being destabilized by the supernatural. Though atmosphere, tone, and setting spell the usual elements used in just about any horror fiction, King’s modern language that never gets in the way in the pacing of the story and investment in the inner life of his characters force the reader to believe in them and their situation.
Through Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic given to fits of temper and rage, we see the slow degeneration of a good man into a murderous psychopath chased by real and imagined ghosts of his past, plagued by problems that he might not be able to provide for his family and measure up to be a good father to his son after all painstaking attempts. It is through him that we are given the full, bloody history of the Overlook as he becomes more and more obsessed with it. His descent into madness is heavily signposted but handled convincingly. In Wendy we see the typical loving wife, yet when pushed to the limits will fight back and do whatever it takes just to protect the people she loves, specially her son. King depicts young Danny as being in as much danger from his own mentally unbalanced father as he would from his recurring supernatural visions called by Dick Halloran, one of the novels likeable minor characters, as the shining. The true horror of the situation is almost experienced by the reader through Danny — a further proof to King’s ability to call up the things that scare children to make the reader feel those fear firsthand. There are things that he is too young to understand, yet he has to deal with them nonetheless.
How King exhaustively details the violent and gruesome history of the Overlook is another strong aspect of his writing, making it not only as the backdrop of the plot but also the fourth, sometimes unnoticed, major player in the story. His hair-raising description of the hotel’s menacing rooms, hallways and environs makes you feel that something is creeping right behind you all the time, but vanishes quickly in the shadows once you turn to have a look.
Right after finishing the book, I hurriedly watched how Stanley Kubrick interpreted it in cinematic form. Where atmosphere and tone is concerned, I think the film perfectly captured it, but it’s hard not to notice Kubrick’s blatant alterations with King’s story and characterization. Nonetheless, I love them both with a passion of liking oranges and apple, each hard to compare to the other but equally delectable. Well, I rest my case by saying that books and films are two very different mediums of artistic expression whereas one paints a picture with words, the other puts word in your head using pictures. Nevertheless, it’s one of my favorite filmed adaptations of King’s work.
In the end, what makes The Shining an enduring “masterpiece of modern horror” is how King makes this haunted house tale into something almost everyone can easily relate to; unlike the Gothic permutations of other horror writers, most notably the tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Even three decades after it is published, it still retains a shocking display of both cerebral and visceral suspense grabbing you by the nerve-endings right from the first page, never to release you as it drags you into the Overlook’s hulking passageways of shadows.
PS. [Spoiler Alert!]
In the wake of the news that Stephen King is planning to do a sequel to The Shining, tentatively titled as Doctor Sleep, there’s this brief part near the novel’s denouement where Danny talks to Tony, revealing in passing that Tony is Danny’s future, which is an interesting thing that isn’t even explored any further in the novel. I like that bit and whether or not it’s deliberate in the part of Uncle Stevie it (might) opens up an added dimension making the grounds for a potential sequel (somehow) feasible.