The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
Say what you will about Stephen King (and trust me, an awful lot has been said), but one thing you certainly can’t argue with is that the man is prolific. He’s written somewhere in the vicinity of three bajillion words, encompassing a vast writing career that just keeps going. There’s something to be said about the amount of story he just keeps cranking out, and certainly the man can be appreciated for the fact that he just keeps churning out story after story after story, even after all of this time. His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1973, and not even a major life-threatening accident has done much to slow down King’s pace.
Another thing that is hard to argue, when looking at King’s legacy, is his success. His books have all done very well, especially in light of the fact that they often fall into the dreaded “horror” genre, and stories that he began decades ago have enough life of their own to receive continuations years later. While there are many that complain about King’s style, his impact has certainly been felt, spawning a series of authors taking some level of inspiration from his work the same way that he was inspired by those that came before him. It would also be remiss to ignore the numerous movies, whether complete originals or adaptations, that found their way to the silver screen after starting out as keys furiously pounded away on King’s typewriter.
It is one of those stories that I’m looking at this week. A story that not only survived the years to get a sequel (which will be discussed next week), but one that received a film adaptation often heralded as one of the best films of all time. And while Kubrick may have altered the story for the film to make it work into his style of storytelling, the pieces that started it all were all set by King. Without further ado, lets take a look at:
The Shining, by Stephen King
For those that are somehow unaware of the story behind The Shining, it is the story of the Torrance family, their task as caretakers for the Overlook Hotel, and the horrors that are found therein. On its surface, The Shining is a simple ghost story, weaving a tale of a haunted location and how it warps those who have taken up residence within it. However, especially in the hands of a younger King, one more heavily playing towards the visceral horror audience than he has been of late, that isn’t all that’s there. King plays with the standard horror angles of the haunted house genre, but throws in plenty of the paranormal flavor that marks his early writings to craft an original take on the genre.
The main characters of The Shining are the Torrance family. There’s Jack, the father and writer with a history of abuse and alcoholism, who has been bouncing from job to job and trying to make amends for the mistakes of his past. His wife Wendy is struggling to make a life with her husband and son, all the while fearful of what one could do to the other. And finally, there’s Danny, the young boy who looks up to his father in spite of their personal history, and who is stricken with clairvoyance. This group of three is rounded out with Dick Hallorann, the hotel chef who first shows the Torrance family around the Overlook, but eventually becomes an advisor to Danny, having a bit of the “shine” of his own.
Of course, the humans are far from the only characters in the book, as the Overlook Hotel (and its grounds) certainly counts as a character in its own right. The hotel, which is perfectly mundane when there is plenty of foot traffic in and out, takes on a life of its own during the closed-up winter months. Danny’s abilities magnify the hotel’s powers, but the spirits of the place focus mostly on Jack, luring him away from his sanity while drawing him back towards the dangerous aspects of his own past. The hotel pits itself against the humans, bringing its full arsenal of spirits and psychic tricks to bear, trying to make at least one of the Torrances part of its own continued, tortured existence.
For all intents and purposes, The Shining takes place in our world, albeit one where the paranormal is lurking just below the surface for many of us. It’s a hallmark of much of King’s writings, and that familiarity helps draw his readers in. The bulk of the story also takes place during the long winter, inside the Overlook Hotel, which gives an overall claustrophobic feeling to the story, and helps fill the reader with a sense of dread about how the Torrance family might find escape. After all, with the mountain roads mostly shut down around the hotel, the cast of characters is kept small, and the options to get away from the Overlook are few and far between. A haunted house story often needs an air of entrapment, and placing The Shining in a mountainous winter setting keeps the family, for all intents and purposes, tied to their location.
One thing that King sometimes seems to struggle with is how his resolutions sometimes seem to come out of thin air. That isn’t the case with The Shining, as he laid the groundwork well in advance for the moments that helped Danny and Wendy find their freedom. Yes, you might call into question Hallorann’s return, but again, this is a novel where clairvoyance is a key component, and where Danny’s connection to Hallorann was already established. The thought that one might get a “feeling” that the other is in danger is no stretch of the imagination, or at least cannot be any more of a stretch than a world where spirits are actively able to create alcohol out of thin air and topiary animals come to murderous life. Over the course of the story, Jack is beaten down, and his own past failings are brought before him in haunting detail, along with every dark thought he’s ever had towards his wife. No one is able to escape the Overlook unscathed, but it is the Overlook itself, or rather unstable machinery within it, that leads to our characters finding what freedom they do.
The pacing of The Shining is strong, especially for a third novel. King spends enough time at the beginning allowing the reader to get to know the characters before plunging them headlong into the terror of the closed-up hotel. He takes moments throughout the story to give hope spots, pausing in the carnage to give the Torrance family (specifically Wendy and Danny) a breather before stepping up the pace again. When it comes time for King to reach his conclusion, he presses straight through, until the finish, finally letting up only in the final moments, allowing Danny, Wendy, and Dick to see what has occurred.That said, King’s pacing is also set in such a way that, once you start seeing everything fall apart, it’s hard to pull back. He tries to bounce from quieter moments to times where the dread is high, but he never quite lets off the gas enough for the quieter moments to truly feel safe. Letting the safer moments actually feel safe, giving the story a chance to breathe, or even allowing the Overlook to work its insidious tricks, albeit in far more subtle ways against the entire family, would have given the audience a chance to lower their guard, making the eventual punch that much stronger.
Reading The Shining in 2014 was an interesting voyage. On one hand, it was looking at how a writer, who has clearly changed their style, was producing works at the start of their career. It showcased a King that wanted to push more towards visceral, physical horror, before he turned towards more of the psychological aspects of his recent works. It was also a way to look and see, perhaps, a bit of an autobiographical main character, with Jack, the writer, battling alcohol and struggling with his emotions towards his child. The enclosed space of the story almost forces the reader to dive into Jack’s head, and try to see things from his perspective.
On the other hand, reading The Shining recently, as a father myself, made me wonder exactly what so many other readers wondered before me, “What happened to Danny?”. Admittedly, I don’t have anywhere near the demons lurking in my life that Jack had in his, even before the Overlook, but I can’t fathom anything that would make me lash out at my child the way he did. For me, probably the most powerful scene of the book comes near the end, when Jack has the strength to not only realize what he’s doing, but he gets control long enough to try to get Danny to safety. The Shining may have been a story about a man broken by a demonic hotel, and the family that barely escaped, but it was also about a man finding the strength to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect those he truly valued the most.
As for that question about Danny? Come back next week, as I’ll be taking the time to look at the answer.