Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Shining - Stephen King


I first read Stephen King's The Shining at university, in my Gothic Fiction unit of my Literature degree. I came to the book with preconceptions, the famous bits of the Stanley Kubrick film. But although these scenes gave me a pretty good idea of where the story was going, none of the most memorable scenes of the film come from the book. I was familiar with Jack Nicholson's particular brand of crazy, and read the book just expecting it to build up to that moment. This time around, I took the book as it is, watching the struggle of Jack Torrance, who, if not exactly a good man, is a man trying to be good.

In case you're unfamiliar with the story, The Shining takes place at the Overlook Hotel, a popular Colorado tourist resort in the summer, but in the winter an undesirable place, cut off from the rest of the world. Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker, and moves in with his wife Wendy and five-year-old son, Danny, a bright young boy with a very unusual talent. Danny knows things that he shouldn't know, sees things that no one else can see, a gift that Mr Halloran, the Overlook's cook, refers to as "shining."

In a great gothic novel, the setting is a character in its own right, and the Overlook Hotel certainly is that, with its history of dark deeds and sinister deaths, and its isolation. It's one thing having characters separated from the outside world in centuries past, in ruined castles with dark, dank dungeons. But in America in the twentieth century, how isolated can the Torrance family really be? If you're the owner of a hotel in the Colorado mountains, and you're employing someone over the winter months, you'd make sure they can't get stranded there, right? The Torrances arrived at the Overlook by car, the hotel has a telephone, a radio and a snowmobile. But as the story goes on, Stephen King takes away these connections with the outside world, one by one, by a combination of natural and supernatural means.

The Overlook has a malevolent personality, and Danny's "shining" feeds it, make its powers stronger. The Shining contains several features of a conventional haunted-house story: the clanking elevator in the middle of the night, the topiary animals that move, the thing in room 217 - but its real terror is the way that it works with the Torrance family's own inner demons. And boy, does Jack Torrance have a lot of those! What marks Stephen King as a master storyteller rather than merely a horror writer, is the way that he makes us care for his characters before throwing terrible things at them to cope with. Jack Torrance is a troubled man: a recovering alcoholic with a deadly temper, clinging desperately to his pride. A former private school teacher, Jack lost his temper and his job, and what keeps him at the Overlook long after he and his family should have fled for their lives is his need to be provider and head of the family, his terror that this is his last chance and that if he messes this up he might never get another job. The Shining shows a family that has been under a lot of pressure, but is emerging from a dark period with a glimmer of hope - and then cruelly snatches that hope away in the story's terrifying finale. Jack's memories of his childhood and the darkness in his more recent past foreshadow the events in the book's finale, posing questions about addiction, inherited behaviour and fate. The real horror of The Shining is that it is unclear how much of what Jack becomes is natural, and how much is supernatural.

The Shining now has a sequel, Doctor Sleep, now available in paperback.

6 comments:

  1. YES YES AND ALL THE YESES. This is a brilliant review! That's what I've loved about the King novels I've read so far: the way they start quite slowly and peacefully, letting the characters and the settings really get under your skin before they start to slowly ramp up the strange happenings and malevolent tension. What feels like a gentle beginning is actually King really making sure you care about these characters before he starts tormenting them. >:)

    I'll be rewatching the movie at some point, to see if it improves with mental distance from the book - but I don't think it'll ever topple the original novel for me, cult classic or not.

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    1. I have read a few Kings and that's true of all of them so far - it's the people. I read Doctor Sleep too, and although I didn't think it was half as good as The Shining, it was satisfying because of the characters' "journey" (I hate using that phrase, things like The X Factor have made it into a ridiculous cliche, but it's appropriate here.) I'm sure I'll be reviewing that very soon.

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  2. I've never read The Shining because I'm a total scardey-pants and I've never been overly bothered about it but you and Ellie have me totally convinced! Honestly, I was reading this on my phone when I nipped out to get lunch and I was *dying* to get a copy, even though I know that I would scare myself silly!

    The only thing that made me not buy it right away was that Andy is away tonight and for a lot of tomorrow and I was worried that I'd forget how much of a wimp I was and would get sucked in and just start reading it when I was home alone and then would end up spending the next 48 hours awake and freaking out at every single noise. Our house is detached too so there are basically windows to the outside on all of the walls and I do not have the energy for prowling around them all night. BUT you have me sold - I will definitely read The Shining this year!

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    1. Yay, we've won you over! I'd never planned to read it before it was a set text for uni, because I thought I knew all about it from the famous bits of the film (and before that, from the Simpsons' parody of the famous bits of the film) but I'm so glad I did. I read two Stephen Kings for different modules that year and they were among my favourite books from that year. This time around I found it more heartbreaking than actually scary, although it certainly has its moments. It's more than just a horror novel - it's some really good storytelling. Hope you enjoy it and don't get too freaked out.

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  3. Oh mn, I love this book so much, and you've really nailed a lot of stuff about why its SO GOOD. It just really is. And soooooo much better than the film because DETAILS, and also I'm very wary of topiary animals now...

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    1. I still haven't seen all of the film. I've seen from the "Here's Johnny" bit onwards, which we were shown in uni - I wonder why they made the story go that way when the book was so perfect! - and somehow I am very familiar with other bits though I don't remember ever seeing them. Popular culture osmosis, probably, and the Simpsons. But it's the details, and the backstory and complicated characters that make this so good.

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