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Book Review: The Shining, by Stephen King

Ghosts and alcoholism drive a writer crazy during a winter stay at a sinister hotel.


The Shining

Doubleday, 1977, 447 pages



First published in 1977, The Shining quickly became a benchmark in the literary career of Stephen King. This tale of a troubled man hired to care for a remote mountain resort over the winter, his loyal wife, and their uniquely gifted son slowly but steadily unfolds as secrets from the Overlook Hotel's past are revealed, and the hotel itself attempts to claim the very souls of the Torrance family. Adapted into a cinematic masterpiece of horror by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, featuring an unforgettable performance by a demonic Jack Nicholson, The Shining stands as a cultural icon of modern horror, a searing study of a family torn apart, and a nightmarish glimpse into the dark recesses of human weakness and dementia.




I am a big Stephen King fan. (He's now passed Charles Dickens as my most-reviewed author.) Most of my favorite King novels are his older ones, the classic horror novels like Salems' Lot, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and of course, It and The Stand.

The Shining is one of his few classic thrillers that I'd never read. It was just like old times, reentering Stephen King's world where everyday objects can cause terror just sitting there, and a simple phrase, repeated often enough, becomes a mantra of horror.

Jack Torrance is an alcoholic who's been on the wagon for five months, after having pretty much made a wreck of his personal and professional life. Thanks to a rich friend, who was formerly a fellow drunk until they both had a sobering come-to-Jesus moment on a dark highway, Jack has one more chance: a job as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Mountains. (Yes, this is one of King's few novels not set in Maine.) He brings his wife, Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny with him to stay at the Overlook, which shuts down over the winter because the roads become impassable and the hotel is completely isolated from the outside world.

Danny is a precocious child who has visions and can sometimes hear people's thoughts. His parents are kind of aware of this, though of course they don't really believe that he has psychic powers. However, at the Overlook, he meets Dick Halloran, the hotel chef, who immediately recognizes Danny as someone else with "the shining." He warns Danny that some bad things have happened at the hotel over the years, and it might make him see things, but what he sees can't really hurt him.

He's wrong, of course.

As winter sets in and the Torrances are trapped in the Overlook, the ghosts come out, and Jack Torrance slowly comes apart, possessed by all the demons he thought he'd banished when he quit drinking.

On the surface, this is a perfectly good thriller about a haunted hotel with some very nasty ghosts, a damaged, tormented writer struggling against his dark half, and a psychic little kid. But while Danny assumes main character status at a certain point, The Shining is really about Jack. Jack is an alcoholic with a violent temper. Only a year earlier, he broke Danny's arm — accidentally, but because he was drunk. He lost his last job after beating up one of his students while stone cold sober. You'd think this would make Jack completely unlikable and unsympathetic, especially if you've seen Jack Nicholson's portrayal of him in Kubrick's movie. But in fact, Jack is actually not a bad man. He's an abused child who grew up with the impulse to be an abuser himself, but he fights it. He really does. He convinces his wife to give him one last chance, and if it weren't for the evil lurking in the Overlook Hotel, he probably would have made it.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone that, while this is definitely a book of supernatural horror, the Overlook Hotel is a metaphor. It's the story of Jack Torrance fighting his alcoholism and his abusive nature — and finding that the monster is too big for him to win. It never absolves Jack for his actions, though. He may be weak, but King makes it clear that Jack had plenty of chances to stop his downward slide. It starts with a shortening of his temper and progresses until he's listening to the voices telling him to kill his family, but it's incremental and Jack is a collaborator in his own fall. Like any alcoholic, you can feel sorry for him and see that, without the bad influences, he'd actually be a good guy, and still recognize that he put one foot on that path, and then another, and another.

King is very good at this. He's good at the supernatural horror with all its blood and guts and violence, but he's also good at weaving human relationships, complicated and messy, into his story.

It should also be noted that King has been open about his own struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction earlier in his career, and he wrote The Shining while he was still hitting the bottle himself, hard. Irony or self-awareness, you be the judge.

There are a few things he's not so good at, though. One of them is writing children. Danny Torrance is five. He's supposedly a genius, and he also has psychic powers, but still, some of his understanding of what's going on around him goes well beyond preternatural awareness, and in the climax, facing his deranged, possessed father, he delivers a soliloquy that is, frankly, just plain unbelievable in the mouth of a five-year-old.

King also suffers from classic White Liberal Guilt (he has admitted as much himself), so in his earnest attempts to deliver realistic and sympathetic representations of victims of abuse and racism, he has a tendency to use unfortunate tropes. This is particularly evident in the character of Dick Halloran, who is a textbook case of Magical Negro. You could say that King was fairly enlightened, and at least well-intentioned, in 1977, but he does it practically every time a black person shows up in his books.

The Shining still has everything people who like King's books enjoy, and avoids most of his more annoying habits (like ridiculous amounts of padding, or gratuitous use of aliens).

Movie Reviews: HERE THAR BE SPOILERS!



The Shining (1980)



The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel is one of the most famous horror films of all time. It's a long movie, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, with plenty of time for Kubrick's signature steadicam work — following the Torrances up the winding highway into the Colorado mountains, following Danny as he Big Wheels through the hotel corridors, lingering on faces to watch the play of emotions across them.

Stephen King was not very happy with Kubrick's adaptation. Considering how many really crappy movies have been made from King's books (Christine, Cujo, Pet Sematary, THE RUNNING MAN!!!!!!...), it's kind of amazing that the one directed by Stanley frickin' Kubrick is the one King openly panned, but I tend to agree with King's assessment:


Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn't believe, he couldn't make the film believable to others. What's basically wrong with Kubrick's version of The Shining is that it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that's why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.


In the book, Jack starts out as a decent, albeit damaged, man desperately trying to be a good husband and father, and as the Overlook Hotel gets its hooks into him, he gradually unravels. In the movie, Jack Nicholson goes from asshole to psychopath in no time flat; he seems a hair's breadth away from unleashing on his family from the first scene. Nicholson played one of his most memorable roles as Jack Torrance, but he really only seemed to come alive after Torrance goes off his rocker.

Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers were the other major names in this movie. Kubrick also changes them in significant ways: in the book, Wendy is not exactly a butt-kicking Action Girl, but she's no doormat, while Shelly Duvall tiptoes around like a dog perpetually waiting to be kicked. But I was most irritated by Kubrick's treatment of Crothers. As I mentioned above, King already made Halloran a Magical Negro, but Kubrick added to the injury an insult that wasn't in the book, and made Halloran a Dead Negro. In the book, Halloran returns to the Overlook Hotel in time to help save Danny and Wendy; in the movie, he returns in time to... die pointlessly.

(Incidentally: I was curious about what ever happened to the kid who played Danny. Turns out that was pretty much his one role; he eventually became a science teacher. Don't you love the Internet?)

As a film, Kubrick's The Shining is certainly a nice piece of work, but Stephen King is right that it skipped right over the soul of the book and the whole metaphorical subtext and just made Jack Torrance a violent alcoholic who goes crazy, with the supernatural element turned into hallucinatory freak-outs that leave open the possibility that the Overlook's ghosts are all in Jack's head.

The Shining (1997)



The Shining (1997)

This 1997 TV miniseries was a much more faithful adaptation of King's book. In order to get it made, Stephen King actually had to promise in writing to stop bad-mouthing Kubrick's film.

Since King was involved in this remake, it's not surprising that it follows the book much more closely, and the characters are all King's, rather than Kubrick's. Rebecca De Mornay is more assertive and less cringing than Shelly Duvall, and Steven Weber is a perfectly personable fellow we can actually believe loves his family. (Batshit Steven Weber is somewhat less convincing than batshit Jack Nicholson, but then, who isn't?)

I liked this adaptation for its faithfulness to King's novel, and it's a perfectly good movie, but it doesn't have Kubrick's artistry, for better or for worse. The CGI hedge animals, for example, were not really an improvement on Kubrick's hedge maze.

I also felt this version was dumbed down for a TV audience, especially with the heroic tearjerker ending. It is worth watching if you want to see King's book on screen, but Kubrick's version is more deserving of being seen for its own sake.



Verdict: The Shining is one of King's better books, possibly one of his best. It's quintessential King. The horror is both supernatural and human, there is quite a bit of subtext, and (unlike many of King's novels) it actually has something like a decent ending. If you've only seen the Stanley Kubrick movie, you should read the book for more depth and less artsy visuals, and a character who's more believable in his madness than Jack Nicholson's demonic ranting. If you haven't liked King's later books, this would be a good starting point to sample his classic horror novels, back when he was writing drunk better than most writers write sober.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, and Cell.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, horror, movies, netflix, reviews, stephen king
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