One of the most well-known horror novels to date The Shining, writted by Stephen King, is first and foremost a story about a family. Following an altercation with a student, teacher Jack Torrance takes the job as winter caretaker of The Overlook, a daunting pre-war hotel in the Colorado Rockies. For struggling teetotaller Jack it’s the chance to restart his career and spend time working on his long abandoned play script, for his wife Wendy it’s the time to rebuild her family and push the word ‘divorce’ firmly to the back of her mind. Their young son Danny, blessed with a sense of precognition which is charmingly named ‘shining’, is chased through the halls of the hotel in his dreams by a dark figure swinging a mallet, daubing the mysterious word ‘REDRUM’ across his thoughts. To him the Overlook is a place of fear, where shadows and objects move on their own and the hotel’s old occupants have never quite ‘checked out’. As the snow falls the Torrance family find themselves increasingly shut off from the world, trapped inside the Overlook with nothing but their own imaginations to comfort them. But are they truly alone?
The interesting thing about The Shining as a horror novel is that it provokes horror in otherwise mundane items. The hotel itself, with its winding corridors, creaky boiler and empty ballroom is the perfect stage for horror; King could easily leap upon the saddles of Gothic authors before him and have skeletons jumping out of closets, ghosts messing up the cutlery… but the moments of horror in the novel spring from things the reader would otherwise deem normal. A fire hose suddenly takes on the appearance of a snake, a hidden enemy lurks in the tunnel at the end of a playground, jungle pattern carpets twist and turn before the Torrance’s eyes and, perhaps most strikingly of all, the hedge animals that frame the Overlook’s grounds have a tendency to change position whenever their backs are turned. The entire book plays out like a game of hide and seek, with King whispering ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ from the background. King’s trademark of a blurred third person/first person narrative works perfectly for the plot of this book, allowing the reader to sift seamlessly through the thoughts and feelings of the Torrance family, jumping from mental flashbacks to unconscious thoughts and back to the strangeness that is occurring before their very eyes in a way that truly gets the unreality and the claustrophobia of the situation across to the reader.
King takes the normal, the everyday and makes it supernatural, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and essentially allows the reader an opportunity to witness the horrors facing the trapped family in a way that other horror texts, and indeed the novel’s own filmic adaptation, was unable to do. The Kubrick film is shamelessly stylish, with its sweeping camera shots and subliminal jump cuts, and has become, over the years, a totem of the horror film genre. It’s hard to forget the image of those twin girls standing alone in the hotel hallway, or the graphic monstrosity of the old woman shambling, dead, towards the camera. But where the movie misses out is in the relationship between the Torrance family. Jack Nicholson, always superb casting for a more psychotically delicate role, already looks the part of the wolf in sheep’s clothing and spends most of the movie snapping at the ankles of his wife and son, making his descent into madness at the climax of the film (who can forget ‘Here’s Johnny?’) seem a result of his own anger issues, rather than anything supernatural. The Jack Torrance of King’s novel isn’t exactly roses and sunshine: the first few chapters of the novel give the reader a frightening look into his struggle with alcoholism and goes into dark, and often forthright, glimpses of his lashes of anger – the afternoon he assaults his student for letting the air out of his tyres, the moment he grabs his young son for scattering his papers and in his fit of anger, breaks his arm… these aren’t the actions of a good man. King is forward about Torrance’s blind spots and mistakes, and as a result the character is less than approachable to the reader but, unlike Kubrick’s adaptation, where Jack maintains a running aura of dislike towards those around him, King’s Torrance is set up as man who is aware he has become lower than low and is attempting to change.
The winter stint at the Overlook represents a turning point in the life of the Torrance family, an attempt for Jack both to reinvigorate and repent, a return to the ‘happy family’ he is determined to reclaim. Jack’s breakdown is more significant in the book as the reader can actually spot the moment the cracks begin to appear, the times when reality begins to blur and Jack loses his way, lost in the maze of the hotel. There is a bludgeoning sense of failure attached to Jack’s breakdown that the movie just wasn’t able to bring across and the reader feels every second of it through the fear and the unhappiness of his family.
Overall the plot of the book flows smoothly, drawing the reader in. As the centre of the supernatural events within the hotel you’d expect more of a starring role from young Danny, which unfortunately the reader doesn’t always receive, but the moments in which he does take the narration are always cue for a fright. Jack’s inner story often outweighs all others, meaning the characterisation of Wendy leaves something to be desired, but on the whole the portrayal of the family is really the saving grace of the plot and ultimately where you feel the fear begin to creep into the structure. Whilst The Shining may not have readers cowering under their bedclothes in fear, it definitely finds a way to get under their skin.
Best scene: Danny’s frantic game of Grandma’s Footsteps with the hedge animals – chilling stuff.
Best line: ‘Tough old world, babe. If you’re not bolted down tightly you’re gonna shake rattle and roll before you turn thirty’.
Read this if you liked: Psycho, Misery, The Fall of the House of Usher.