The Shining: Stephen King

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, and Anchor, 1977, 497 pages.

“Now his ears were open and he could hear them again, the gathering, ghosts or spirits or maybe the hotel itself, a dreadful funhouse where all the sideshows ended in death… It was a living sound, but not voices, not breath. … [T]o Danny it was…the sound of the hotel, the old monster, creaking steadily and ever more closely around them: halls that now stretched back through time as well as distance, hungry shadows, unquiet guests who did not rest easy.”

The Overlook Hotel, built in 1909 and perched high in the midst of a stunning Colorado landscape, caters to a wealthy clientele. Jack Torrance has been hired as a caretaker to look after the hotel during the winter months when it is closed, when heavy snow can cut it off from the rest of the world. Jack is desperate for this job: he needs to support his wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny, and thinks that this is where he can finally finish the play he has been writing.  

But in spite of its magical setting, the Overlook is not a quiet place. It has had a chequered past, and belonged for a while to someone reputed to be part of the Mafia. Over the decades, people have been killed or have committed suicide within its walls, incidents that were hushed up.

The scandals may have been buried but the ghosts still haunt the Overlook, especially during the quiet winter months.

As the Torrances settle in, they begin to realize that they are not alone. Every midnight, there are sounds of a masquerade party from the ballroom. The elevator, which Wendy refuses to use, starts to go up and down of its own accord. And who is that woman in room 217?

The centre of the story is Danny, who has the “shining”, the gift of second sight and the ability to read people’s minds. Danny has foreseen the damage that staying in the Overlook would do but is unable to influence his father’s decision.

He is proved right. The hotel is a malevolent presence, getting stronger as winter sets in, and it wants Danny because of his gift. Without Danny, it can “do no more than present penny-dreadful horror slides to the more psychically aware guests who entered it. Without Danny it was not much more than an amusement park haunted house, where a guest or two might hear rappings or the phantom sounds of a masquerade party…But if it absorbed…Danny’s shine or life-force or spirit…into itself—what would it be then?”

Like a predator, the hotel picks on the weakest link: Jack, a recovering alcoholic with a hot temper and a lot of insecurities. Jack finds that the empty bar in the hotel is mysteriously stocked, and the ghost barman gives him limitless credit. He is informed that if only he could deal with his troublesome wife and child, he could become manager of the hotel. The hotel plays on the roiling anger that Jack carries within him. Here be monsters indeed: the man that Danny and Wendy love turns into the person they need to fear most.

You have probably seen Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. Kubrick had his own take on the book, and although his film is based on the novel, it does not entirely follow it. The novel is much more nuanced, especially the characterizations of Jack and Wendy, who are far more three-dimensional than they are in the film.

The story is told from the perspectives of Danny, Jack, Wendy and Halloran (the Overlook’s cook, who also has the shining). The narratives are interspersed with thoughts (in italics) that come unbidden to the mind.

Being inside Jack’s mind is painful: you can see the man slowly disintegrating, giving in to his anger and self-pity. Jack has had a difficult relationship with his abusive father, whom he loved anyway, and some of that leaks into his relationship with Danny. There are moments of lucidity where Jack understands what is happening: he realizes that he is the weak link, that the hotel wants Danny, the son he loves. In these moments you can see the man he might have been—but not for long. The Overlook brings out the worst in him.

It is Danny, however, who is at the heart of the book. He is incredibly wise and perceptive, and privy to the thoughts of the adults around him, not all of which he understands. The Overlook terrifies him, but in the end he is the one with the strength and determination to face down the demons.

Stephen King knows how to tell a good story, and he keeps up the pace. At first, there is the real—and human—threat of violence as Jack’s temper slowly turns to rage against his family. Then there is the supernatural menace: not just the ghosts that populate the Overlook, but also the animal-shaped hedges in the topiary which come to life to hunt Jack and Danny when they are outside in the snow. But what I found really sinister was that the hotel itself is evil.

If you enjoyed the film, read the book—and this is from someone who loves the film. The book is much more detailed and far more layered. It scared and haunted me, and I stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish it.

The Shining is more than just a ghost story: there are lessons here about the darkness we carry within us and the way we choose to deal with it.

Buy from UK / USA

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