Book Review – The Shining by Stephen King

Originally published in 1977, The Shining marks Stephen King’s third major novel after Carrie and Salem’s Lot. While these first two efforts demonstrated King’s capable storytelling abilities, it was with The Shining that the author broke out and showed how horror stories can do more that just make readers shivery and jittery; like any other genre of literature, they can speak to the fundamental truths of life, including antonyms of horror itself, such as beauty and love.

As the author himself states in the introduction to the latest hardcover reprint: “The ghost story, the horror story, the uncanny tale – all of these are such filters.” The most effective stories are the ones that resonate with reality, but what distinguishes novels from real life are the filters of plot, characters, and narrative. Sometimes life is too radiant to look at directly with the naked eye (and sometimes it’s too horrifying), and so we need metaphor and analogy to help us understand it. The Shining is a story about a family and domestic abuse, and this review will consider how King transferred the dread and pain from such situations into a haunted hotel. We will examine the plot, characters, and prose. There will be spoilers.

Jack Torrance, family man.
Jack Torrance, family man. Illustration produced for the Folio Society edition (link above).

Plot

Jack Torrance gets a job as caretaker of the Overlook hotel during its off-season in winter. He is joined by his wife, Wendy, and son, Daniel (aka Danny, or “Doc”) as they keep each other company while being snowed in at the grand and historical Rocky Mountains resort.

Early on we are told of Danny’s special ability, called “the shining” by Dick Hollarann (the Overlook’s chef), which grants him telepathy and limited precognition. The central premise of the story is that Danny’s shining enables him to see the Overlook’s sordid and ghastly past brought to life before him. It is implied that the Overlook itself contains a malevolent spirit, awoken by Danny’s powers in the same way a new battery can power up an old electronic device. In order to keep Danny at the hotel forever, the Overlook manipulates Jack into falling back onto his old drinking habits, eventually becoming a psychopath bent on murdering his family.

On the surface The Shining reads like a haunted hotel story, with ghosts inflicting their sinister will onto human victims, and yet as you read this book the most terrifying pages are absent of any ghosts or evil spirits. In fact, the most unsettling paragraphs are when Jack is thinking to himself, and drawing twisted conclusions regarding his marital, familial, and financial situation.

The main driving force of this story is not a spooky hotel, but rather Jack’s self-perceived failure and inadequacy as a husband and father. Prior to the events of the book we learn he was a former alcoholic; an imitation of his father. Combined with his temper his actions had led to him losing a teaching position at a private school and even hurting Danny seriously on one occasion. It was an old friend that got him the job as a caretaker, and the lack of control over his own life is what leaves Jack feeling impotent and worthless.

The core element in every horror story has ties to real-world fears. Dracula was about the invasion of the foreign, Frankenstein warns about losing control and scientific responsibility, and The Turn of the Screw highlights paranoia and insanity (two fears that have since been properly diagnosed within the medical field). The Shining is about what happens when the fractured ego of a short-tempered man manifests itself into acts of violence against those closest to him. Though the setting is fictional and singular, the theme is, unfortunately, all too common in the real world.

"Those closest to us are the ones that disappoint us the most."
“Those closest to us are the ones that disappoint us the most.”

Characters

If we were to subtract the malevolent spirits of the Overlook from the equation, the tenor of the narrative would be little affected, because the characters would remain consistent.

Wendy and Danny are the victims of the story, though they are far from being helpless. Their points of view are important, because it is through them that we understand how truly depraved and psychotic Jack becomes by the end of the book.

Wendy is the faithful and dutiful wife, standing by her husband through much ordeal and tribulation. The closest she got to divorcing Jack was when he broke their son’s arm in a drunken rage, but she gave him a second chance, because she loves her husband but more so because she loves Danny. It is through her perspective that we first see Jack as a potential time bomb, as she knows what he is capable of and his weakness for drink.

The ghosts never mess with Wendy, her fear is strictly in regards for her son’s safety, but the metaphor here is clear: the Overlook manipulating Jack is akin to an alcoholic husband coming late at night and in a bad mood. She is cautious around him as his mood deteriorates, and she looks for all the familiar signs of alcohol, which the Overlook eventually provides. For Wendy, Jack is unpredictable and dangerous, and this was true before they came to the Overlook.

Danny Torrance is the second victim of the story, though he is not the typical innocent child. His shining abilities have given him insight over the years, enabling him to understand how adults think as well as the things they worry about, lending him more maturity than the average five-year-old, and this is a subtle part of his character development.

On top of having to worry about being murdered by his father, Danny is forced to confront very mature thoughts. His shining reveals to him that sometimes parents stop loving each other, that mothers and fathers have their own fears, and that no one lives forever. These all may sound trivial, but for kids these lessons can affect a reaction ranging from unsettling to traumatizing, and that is where the anxiety for Danny’s character stems from: a child who is learning cold and hard truths, including what it’s like to live with a father who loses control of himself sometimes.

That is why The Shining is a memorable story. It’s not just about characters dealing with ghosts, but with things that bother anyone who has ever grown up.

If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Narrative

The Shining belongs into the category of “King’s earlier works”, and certain narrative techniques are discernible here. Gone are the newspaper articles, as King’s goal here was to tell a more intimate and personal story, and to that end we get the signature style of character thoughts interrupting the omniscient narrative.

I call it the “signature style” because no other author has used it as consistently and effectively as King, and it is most definitely one of the markings of why he’s a top-tier storyteller. The way King interjects a character’s thought so seamlessly into the narrative makes them all the more believable, not just for the technique’s sake but for what King chooses to reveal about the character. Sometimes we don’t even get exposition or plot details, but rather mundane observations such as what a character thinks about another character’s clothes, or random memories of the distant past. These thoughts can simultaneously tell us about a character’s personality while also adding to the tension by revealing their anxieties, and the way they are presented as almost a part of the omniscient narrative makes it feel all the more natural, and thus all the more creepy.

Another key feature of King’s prose is its economy. Rarely is a sentence ever wasted, and every single one in the entire novels serves some purpose, whether it be foreshadowing, revealing a secret thought, setting up atmosphere, or serving as a metaphor to make uncomfortable feelings tangible. Because of how effortless King draws his characters’ portraits, he doesn’t have to waste time getting us to like them, and can immediately proceed with the story. We instantly relate to Jack on page one because we’ve all experienced the hope and desperation that comes with job-hunting before; we can sympathize with Wendy because we understand what a mother’s love is like; and Danny is a faithful reminder of what childhood innocence and naivety was. Being an effective storyteller means you have more time and space to do other things, and King has used his words in the best way possible: to completely immerse the reader in a world where ghosts are real.

In Conclusion…

Everything that needs to be said has been said about both Stephen King and The Shining. The former is a masterful storyteller and the latter is a masterly told story. I would recommend this book to just about anyone who likes speculative fiction. It has only three characters (and an ill-defined antagonist), but it observes the cardinal rule of quality over quantity; Jack, Wendy, and Danny are so full of life that it’s easy to forget you’re reading fiction and not a biography, even when the ghosts show up.

Some say we are afraid of what we don’t understand. King’s work suggests that sometimes we are most afraid of what’s right in front of us, the terror that is naked and fully comprehensible yet out of our control. Never has this feeling been better exemplified than in this story, The Shining.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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