Recognizing that the world hardly requires yet another commentary on this particular modern horror classic book and it’s equally classic horror film adaptation, I am nevertheless throwing all to the wind and talking about both right here. Folks who know me well understand that I very much enjoy Stephen King’s books, and hardly anyone knows (until this moment) that I had somehow gone through roughly ten years of reading his works without ever having gotten around to The Shining. I have chosen here to… poke about at some things that I find interesting in both works rather than ‘review’ them in the proper sense.
Is it necessary to say ‘spoiler alert’ for two pieces of media more than thirty years old? Probably not, but I just did, so be warned.
First, the book: What struck me while reading this for the first time was the way it begins as a very human story, a trait King is extremely talented at portraying. For the first hundred pages or so, we’re just hanging out with the Torrance family, and while there are foreshadowing moments of uneasy things to come, for the most part we’re just getting to know Jack, Wendy, and Danny. They are far from a perfect family, largely due to Jack’s violent and drunken unpredictability, however at the time we meet him, there is the sense that he has turned a new leaf and seems to really be fighting to give up drinking for the first time in his life. Sure, there have been major wounds done to his family (largely swept under the rug, though tensely present in Wendy’s every thought), but all that unpleasantness is seemingly behind them and Jack wants to get back to being a good husband, loving father, and hard-working writer.
I describe this section of the book as being so ‘human’ because King is comfortable with just letting us hang out with these characters for a while and get to know them. We see hints of Jack’s temper (albeit only in his thoughts) during his meeting with the arrogant hotel manager Stuart Ullman, but outwardly Jack keeps his cool, indicating a conscious effort to change and better himself. Wendy is a sweet, mousy, rightfully protective mother rattled by the past sins of her husband, hoping beyond hope for Jack’s transformation to be permanent and true. Danny is brilliant for his age, and talented in a way even he doesn’t realize early on, and yet there are many scenes where he is still very much a curious, playful five year old. It is in these beginning pages that we really develop a fondness for this family unit, which makes circumstances all the more devastating when they are torn to pieces.
To paraphrase a comment from an interview I recently heard with Joe Hill: real horror isn’t scary until you care about the people having horrible things done to them. That formula proves to be quite true in The Shining.
Speaking of getting to know and love characters, the shnerky, jovial old Dick Hallorann is a delight, and shines (HEH-HEH) some comic relief and hopefulness into this heavy tale. He is immediately likable, easy to relate to, and becomes the kind of character you rather wish you knew in real life. He is Danny’s deepest and only trustworthy confidant (though they are also confidants, I’m throwing out Wendy here for her lack of understanding of her son’s power, and the imaginary Tony for his sinister intentions and lies). Dick Hallorann is the most sympathetic person in the entire story (by which I mean he shows the most sympathy and human warmth to others) and makes the hard choice to save the boy, even though he realizes it could very well be his own demise. But the bond Dick makes with Danny is strong, and deeper than friendship, though they have only spent brief moments together in person. Perhaps more than any other, you find yourself rooting for Dick to succeed in the end because his actions are so noble and selfless.
Alright, but enough about the characters, Gainesy. Isn’t this supposed to be a scary book?
Right you are, and the scares come aplenty, though in differing ways from the film (which I’ll get to shortly). Perhaps the most unsettling element in the book are the ghosts (or demons… or whatever they are) within the Overlook Hotel that whisper mad things with increasing frequency into Jack Torrance’s brain. He spends many hours in the cellar (seated next to the ancient, precarious boiler) reading mysterious scrapbooks containing news-clippings of horrible things that have happened at the hotel over the years, and it is in these solo escapades that his mind begins to unravel. Oh, sure, there’s the decomposing bathtub lady who strangles Danny, the two dead mafia men with their brains splattered across the walls of the Presidential Suite, and the thorny hedge animals in the courtyard who come to bloodthirsty life, but the deepest horror comes from Jack receiving demonic, violent thoughts towards his family. When he finally snaps and lets the hotel’s whispers overtake him completely, shit gets real.
One final element I realized is how a large portion of the book is Danny-centric, where is the film is very Jack-centric (with Wendy being the most minor character of the trio in both versions). So much of The Shining is sympathetic towards Danny’s honest fears and trying to understand why Mommy and Daddy aren’t getting along well. He is actually more brave in the face of dreadful visions that his shining talent presents to him than he is with the very common fears of a young child uncertain if their parents will stay together. Danny has sufficient psychic ability to peek into Wendy or Jack’s thoughts (as he reveals to Hallorann), and yet his pure sense of young morality keeps him from doing this too often as he worries he is intruding in an unfair way. This sort of depth is what makes Danny seem so genuine, and his thoughts are so true to his age. King has a theme in many books of being sympathetic towards children in terrible situations, and he interprets their thoughts in a way that feels very familiar and true.
So, to bring this back around, The Shining is (I feel) better described as a human story that happens to end in horror. It is, at it’s heart, the story of a family struggling to hold things together in the aftermath of violence, drunkenness, and pain. Ultimately, they end up in the worst place that a family in that position could have gone: stranded in a snowy prison inside a hotel with a dark history of causing people to go mad. It’s funny the way things in our culture become well-known for certain qualities, when often those qualities aren’t even the point. The Shining is arguably King’s best-known work, and a household name for the horror genre. But while it is scary, there is much, much more going on between these pages, elevating it (in my mind) to a great piece of literature that supersedes genre.