It came as no surprise when this month’s Hodderscape Review Project title dropped through the letterbox and turned out to be Stephen King’s classic novel, The Shining. With this month seeing Hodder & Stoughton publish the book’s highly-anticipated (by me!) sequel, Doctor Sleep, it was the obvious book to get us all in the mood. I may have mentioned before that I’m a big fan of King, so it was with great joy that I dived in, happy to have an excuse to re-read one of his early books.
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
Jack Torrance is a dry alcoholic with a temper problem. Recently fired from a good job teaching English in a Vermont school, he is now reduced to taking hand-outs from his friend and fellow drinker, Al Shockley. Al owns a stake in the Overlook Hotel, a Colorado resort hotel that caters to the rich crowd during the summer months, and closes completely between September and May, snowed in and lonely on its perch, high in the Rockies. The hotel needs a caretaker during those long lonely months, and Jack takes the job, his last chance to get straight and provide for his family – beautiful wife Wendy, and five-year-old son Danny. As the winter closes in, and the Torrance family is cut off from the rest of society, it becomes clear that something malicious is roaming the halls of the Overlook Hotel, something that wants to get its claws into young Danny, whose ability to "shine" has awoken long-sleeping demons.
‘You got a knack,’ Hallorann said, turning to 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.’
Like many people of my generation, my first experience of Stephen King’s The Shining was actually Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the novel. To say the controversial film version has coloured my handful of readings of the novel would be an understatement: Jack Nicholson’s inimitable brand of crazy infects Jack Torrance on the page so that the two are almost inseparable, while Danny Lloyd’s finger-waving, "Redrum"-chanting Danny is second only to Harvey Stephens’ Damien Thorn in the "scariest child performance ever committed to celluloid" stakes. That said, I’ve always preferred the source material to the film adaptation, and this re-read has done nothing to change my mind on that score.
At its core, The Shining is a haunted house novel. The house, in this instance, is the Overlook Hotel itself, of course, but the premise still holds. When we first meet Jack Torrance, he is being interviewed for the winter caretaker position. The hotel has a history, one that the manager is unwilling to divulge, but which Jack gleans from Watson, the foul-mouthed maintenance man, and Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef. Like any big hotel, it has its history of scandals and deaths. But the Overlook is different; invested with an evil sentience, it sees the power of Danny’s "shining" and uses every trick in its armoury to take it for itself. The old dead woman lying in the bathtub in Room 217 (a scene which, even now, sends shivers up my spine); the wasps’ nest whose inhabitants come back to life; the topiary animals which have a life of their own, to name but a few of the horrors the reader will encounter during their stay at the Overlook.
Initially, the story centres on Jack Torrance. Short-tempered, but essentially a good man, he sees his stint in the Overlook as a last chance to get himself on track and keep his family together. The subject of divorce has already raised its head, following an episode where a drunken Jack broke his young son’s arm. Jack’s weaknesses – his temper, and his constant thirst – make him an easy target for whatever malignant force inhabits the hotel. As Jack slowly loses his mind, and succumbs to the hotel’s siren song, the focus of the story shifts to the other two members of the Torrance family, particularly the youngest member, whose imaginary friend, Tony, has shown him dark and frightening premonitions of what might happen when they’re cut off from the rest of the world. Danny’s unique ability to "shine" is, ultimately – and to Jack’s jealous dismay – what the hotel is after. As a result, many of the horrors we see – Mrs Massey in Room 217, the topiary animals, the dreams of the familiar Shape swinging the roque mallet – we see through the eyes of this innocent little boy, a trick which magnifies them in the reader’s mind, leaving horrific impressions long after the book has ended.
King charges the story with a sense of claustrophobia – no mean feat when the setting is a 110-bedroom luxury hotel. As the snow falls, then drifts, and the Torrances are cut off from the nearest town, Sidewinder, Jack’s increasingly irrational behaviour turns more towards outright insanity. Frequent intervals of clarity, in which we see this man’s love for his family, make the downward spiral all the more frightening. We get a sense of the world closing down around us; nowhere to run and, following a number of "accidents", no way to contact the outside world. I’ve read The Shining maybe three or four times prior to this outing, and I still find something new every time; this, for example, is my first time reading the story through the somewhat sleep-deprived eyes of fatherhood. The relationships between Jack and Danny, and Wendy and Danny take on a new meaning with this new experience under my belt. My own son isn’t much younger than the Danny Torrance of the book, and that serves to make the young boy’s terrifying experiences all the more traumatic for me.
The Shining stands the test of time better than most. As relevant today as it was when it was first published over 35 years ago, it is also as deeply disturbing and outright frightening as it has always been, even for today’s hardened reader. The pop culture references in which King delights are in place, though his earlier novels seem to be less littered with them than his more recent ones; but rather than dating the work, they give it a sense of time, and take us back to a period when the world was a simpler – not to mention much larger – place. The isolation helps in this regard, so that it’s a novel driven by the three people at the heart of its story rather than by any outside influences that might mean nothing to the modern reader. King delights in the use of a clever trick which gives us some insight into the minds of the protagonists, as brief flashes of thought interrupt the flow of the narrative, often mid-sentence:
His heart thudding slowly in his chest, he took his pictures and then set the camera down to wait for them to develop. He wiped his lips with the palm of his hand. One thought played over and over in his mind, echoing with
(You lost your temper. You lost your temper. You lost your temper.)
an almost superstitious dread. They had come back. He had killed the wasps but they had come back.
In all the hype that now surrounds the name of Stephen King, it’s easy to forget just what The Shining is: it’s the third novel of a young novelist – not yet thirty years old – who is still in the process of making a name for himself. Like Carrie, it relies as much on human nature as on the supernatural for its scares – Jack’s descent into madness is certainly down to whatever is haunting the Overlook, but it’s his fragile state of mind, his damaged self-esteem, and his constant need for a drink that opens the door to whatever is trying to get inside. It’s this meshing of natural and supernatural that grounds not only The Shining, but the vast majority of King’s novels, in some version of reality (don’t forget that Dark Tower that holds all these different realities together). It is this sense of realism that makes The Shining the fine horror novel it is: it’s plausible, it’s memorable and, most of all, it provides us with a cast of characters with whom it is very easy for the reader to relate.
How do you sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written? Or, for that matter, add anything new to the debate? Suffice it to say that The Shining should be top of your list for haunted house stories, for great horror fiction, for great fiction. The latest paperback edition from Hodder is a beauty to behold, and includes not only a brief extract from Doctor Sleep, but also a short, but interesting, foreword from King, which goes some way towards explaining the origins of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism and the effect it had on the story King wanted to tell. If I had one complaint, it’s the bafflement that a book that has been in print constantly for over thirty-five years can still have a significant number of typographical errors. That said, it won’t ruin your enjoyment of this gripping story which will make you want to keep all the lights switched on, and pray that you’re in any room but 217 the next time you check into a hotel. While Stephen King continues to produce some of the best novels, in any genre, that you’re likely to find in your local bookshop, it’s sometimes easy to forget about these early gems. If your first thought upon hearing the book’s title is the vision of Jack Nicholson’s crazed eyes staring through that ruined door panel ("Heeeeere’s Johnny!"), then do yourself a favour and give yourself the fright of your life.