Series: The Shining #1
Published by Anchor Books on 24th June 2008
Genres: Adult, Horror
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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.
Despite being a longtime fan of the singular Stephen King, I feel that my acquaintance with his work is depressingly lacking. While I’ve read plenty by him, I have yet to get to some of his most celebrated and/or popular contributions. I consider myself a fan of the man, but how can one consider himself as such if he has yet to read the Dark Tower series, or The Stand?
I picked up The Shining, so famous today and yet untouched by myself, on a whim, primarily because it had suddenly come to my attention that a sequel had been written. Seeing as how very few of King’s works has ever played recipient to a bona-fide follow-up, I figured that my reading of one of his most famous pieces was long overdue, especially given its treatment by other mediums of entertainment.
I have, of course, seen Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. Who hasn’t? It’s a classic work of cinematic horror, and one of the few “older” frightfests that genuinely disturbs me whenever I see it. This, unfortunately, imposed a bit of a problem on my reading of the source material, because much of that iconic flick has become so permanently ingrained in the cultural imagination that it’s difficult to accept the lack of so many a notable scene, regardless of its status as the original.
No “Here’s Johnny!”
No “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
No “Come play with us, Danny.”
Of course, this isn’t any fault of the author. In fact, I can now understand in some ways why King has been so dismissive of Kubrick’s film since its release, despite its status as being a definitive piece of work in both the horror genre and in the general Hollywood canon.
Both, I think, are fantastic. Both tell a particular story and both tell it well. They simply go about it in very different ways.
King’s original is, as one may expect, rife with stream-of-consciousness devices, the occasional bit of corniness, and plot developments that border on the fantastical, all helped along by plenty of over-the-top scenes rife with violence and the supernatural.
I can understand that King is a polarizing author. The above characteristics either make him an endearing storyteller of fascinating power or a ridiculous hack who buries his good ideas in schlock and inanity.
Personally, I adore the man. His books are utterly captivating, easy to pick up and difficult to put down. It’s been some time since I’ve devoured a book as quickly as I did this one, and doing so reinforced my love of King’s style. His incessant use of flashbacks and short reiterations of interwoven thoughts and memories is absorbing, seamless (though one must admittedly get used to it first), and instantly effective at building a sense of dread.
King is a master at captivation. No matter how ridiculous his tales, no matter how frustrating his overabundance of explanation, he knows how to keep you at attention. He knows how to entertain, to play the crowd and keep their eyes focused on him and him alone. And this is because he knows how to scare.
The Shining did something that few books before have ever managed to do: frighten me. No matter that I had seen the film numerous times already. No matter that I had at least a general idea of what would happen throughout the story. No matter that it was only words on a page and not visceral images captured by the camera lens. Through only his pen, King manages to make the darkness of my room eerie and uncomfortable. His imagery and sense of scene is effortlessly able to construct a clear picture in the imagination, stark and ghastly and ugly. He knows when to keep it subtle, to play on the fear of the unseen and the unknown, but he also knows when to fling the demons into the light, to allow them to be inspected and scrutinized and made flesh. Reading this book, as with any other King book, is to have a silver screen clear in your mind, filled with the ghostly terrors of a wicked fantasy made distinct.
King also knows how to exploit the inherit fright in the everyday. The vicious gore and otherworldly specters are nothing to laugh at, to be sure, but the worst terrors are those that come from the grounded and unimportant. Under his hand, King makes empty hallways terrifying, exploiting that sense of unease that comes with quiet and solitude to excellent effect. Suddenly, the sounds of an elevator moving between floors becomes a great deal scarier than the appearance of an angry ghost. Suddenly, in the more irrational parts of your mind, you are afraid, because you are there. You are not in bed staring at a page of dreams and fancy. No, you are in that enormous and empty resort, hearing the mechanical whine of a machine that should not be running, and you are terrified.
What helps further this is the sense of sympathy brought on by the group of people so unfortunate to be trapped in this very situation. They stand out, certainly, but also function as skins that one is able to slip into and become. The Torrence family as a whole is so much more real here than in the film. Each is, at one point or another, easily connected with.
Jack is a great deal more likeable, though still a simple thing to hate when the clock strikes and all hell breaks loose. Nicholson’s portrayal turned the character into an uncomfortable, short-tempered twat from the start, whose eventual defeat by his son elicits little, if any, sympathy. King’s original mold is one with definitive, infuriating flaws, but one also with clear traits of love and regret. There is a sense of humanity to his past and to his (initial) treatment of his family, and the eventual loss of his sanity turns his tale into a tragic one.
Wendy, meanwhile, is much the same as Shelley Duval’s interpretation of the character, though perhaps a tad less hysterical. She too has her faults, but she exhibits a level-headedness and intelligence throughout the whole of her ordeal that her shortcomings are easily forgiven.
Danny, last of all, is so much more complex within the novel than he is on screen, with a mixture of natural innocence and unnatural maturity that makes him immediately compelling. Getting inside of his head and his visions is fascinating and gives the story much of its suspense. My only complaint is that I dread seeing such a sweet character turned into something much more monstrous in Doctor Sleep. Though I suppose to expect anything less from King would be foolhardy.
Despite its length, The Shining is a remarkably quick read. It’s frightening, it’s complex, and it’s a wild ride. True, the author can get bogged down in tedious descriptions and exposition, and lose the power of his subtlety with the inevitable climax of extravagance that tends to make an appearance near the end, but the plot is no less compelling because of either tendency.
Just be prepared for a very different vision than Kubrick’s.