Inspiring Older Readers
The Shining by Stephen King
This is the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. Of course, I’ve seen many of the films based on his early books and The Shining stands out for Stanley Kubrick’s direction and the career-defining performance by Jack Nicholson, who in the role of Jack Torrance set the template for deranged possession.
But in truth the film and the book, despite sharing a common storyline, are very different experiences and I’m delighted to say that I enjoyed the book as much as the film. King is a skilful writer and so much more than the pulp novelist I’d rather assumed he was. Plenty of other people have recommended I should read King but until now I’ve been a bit dismissive and not really taken too much notice of them.
The Shining is frequently described as a ‘horror’ novel but I think that is a rather crude way of categorising what is in fact a complex psychological thriller that whilst having supernatural overtones also touches tellingly on the nature of depression, mental ill-health and the tensions that these states can create in family situations.
Unlike Nicholson in the movie, Jack Torrance in the novel is a complex character, a flawed man trying to be good. He struggles with his drink problem and the temper outbursts that firstly leads him to break his child, Danny’s, arm and then gets him fired from his college teaching role. Looking to make amends and to provide for his family Jack takes the job of winter caretaker for the prestigious Overlook hotel in the Rockies.
Jack, Danny and Jack’s wife Wendy arrive just as the summer staff are leaving and the grand hotel is left in their care as the snow begins to fall and the family are left isolated and alone. We know by this point that there’s something special about Danny – his imaginary friend seems a bit more than just the usual lonely child’s companion and when he meets the outgoing chef, Dick Halloran, we discover that Danny has ‘the shining’. This is an ability to communicate telepathically with others with the gift (including Dick) and to be super-sensitive to an unseen world and possibly even ‘see’ future events.
Despite its grandness the Overlook has a chequered past – many dreadful deeds, death and debauchery have taken place in its rooms over the years and the spirit of the hotel is malign – something we could guess because of the dreadful fate which befell a past winter caretaker. Danny starts experiencing visions and dreadful encounters with spirits determined to do him harm but he remains remarkably resolute for a young child. What we become aware of, almost creeping up on us however is the way the house starts to take control of Jack, who is the obvious psychological weak-point in the family.
Before he succumbs completely to the evil in the house Jack fights against it but isn’t strong enough to stay on top and gradually sinks into madness – destroying the CB radio and snow-mobile in the process.
Danny sends a psychic distress call to Dick Halloran who returns to try and help Danny and Wendy as Jack stalks them through the hotel with a roque mallet. The story moves to its conclusion as the injured Dick helps them escape as Jack finds himself in the basement with a boiler that’s about to blow………
King is clear about his influences here and doesn’t try too hard to hide them. It’s pretty obvious that Shirley Jackson’s classic of house possession, The House on Haunted Hill, plays a key part, as does the frequently referenced Poe story, Masque of the Red Death.
I found this an atmospheric and tightly constructed novel despite being some 400 pages in length and for me the supernatural elements were less intriguing than the portrait of a mind disintegrating – some of the very best stuff here is in the personal relationships between Jack and Danny or Jack and Wendy and often the best dialogue is to be found there too. What King does well is to create a sense of knowing dread in the reader and we can see, or at least, guess what’s coming. As a reader you have to repress the desire to cry out and say ‘No! Don’t do that…It’s going to end badly!’ He’s also good at creepy secondary characters too – the revolting hotel manager who hires Jack, Stuart Ullman, is truly repulsive.
In an odd way I was delighted to find that I’d been missing out on a fine writer by not taking Stephen King seriously before now because it means there’s plenty to catch up on. I fully intend to put that right by getting hold of some of the other early novels and having them in my reading pile for when the dark nights start to close in.