Original 1977 hardcover
Do I even need to recount the plot and the characters? Jack Torrance is a struggling writer, trying to create believable people and conflicts in his play, when he's had no shortage of conflict in his life. His alcoholism has put serious rifts in his relationships with his wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny; he's lost his job as prep school English instructor; he's also had two very grave moments of violence. But all that, he hopes - they all hope - that's in the past now that he's hired to be the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, thanks to an huge favor from an old drinking buddy who's cleaned up. Sitting high atop a frigid, panoramic Colorado mountain, the enormous hotel is closed for the season and the only occupants will be the Torrance family.
Jack's feelings of inadequacy are front and center in the opening chapter, in his humiliating job interview with that infamous officious little prick, Mr. Ullman (one of my favorite scenes in the book is when Jack calls Ullman and tells him he's going to write a book about the history of the Overlook and Ullman freaks the fuck out). But Jack knows it's time to do right by his family, and taking this job is the classic point of starting over. He's not drinking and he's writing again, but Jack's about to go on one hell of a dry drunk, and have one motherfuck of a writer's block.
UK hardcover 1977
As for "the shining" itself: Danny's psychic power comes in the form of Tony, a little boy a bit older than Danny who appears inside mirrors and as a tiny shadow down a midnight street, always with some bit of information that Danny would have no other way of knowing. It is this ability of Danny's that the Overlook "wants," so it "employs" Jack's troubled past as it spurs Jack on to murder his family, to truly own the Overlook and inherit its foul nature. You almost ache for Danny, who so wants to please his parents, his daddy most of all (which makes Wendy feel guiltily jealous), who wants his daddy to be well and not do the Bad Stuff. King is great at getting inside kids' heads, their goggle-eyed yet strangely rational perception of the strange adult world that surrounds them.
Thematically, The Shining is one of King's richest. Yes, the Overlook Hotel is a repository of human evil; Jack knows this when, in the basement, he finds the scrapbook containing clippings of its unsavory past. Generations pass on their faults; sons pay for their father's transgressions. Abuse becomes a family trait. These are all very much in the grand tradition of haunted house and Gothic tales. Jack's creativity suffers; the real first sign of his madness is a complete 180-degree reversal of his feelings towards his play's characters. The relationship between Jack and Danny is mirrored in the memories of Jack's relationship with his own father, as both are fraught with a heartbreaking mixture not only of love and concern, but also of violence and alcoholism.
It is the back-story in which King *ahem* shines, as he reveals what he wants when he wants for maximum impact. There's the Overlook's blood-drenched past, of course. We get glimpses throughout the novel of Jack's fearsome father, as well as harrowing moments from his drinking days with a colleague. The tortuous memory of accidentally breaking little Danny's arm plagues him, as does his beating of a debate student of his whom he had to kick off the debate team because of a stutter. Both Danny and this student had destroyed something of Jack's: Danny, as a toddler, pours beer over the manuscript of Jack's play, while the student slashes Jack's car tires. He was drunk when abusing Danny but sober when attacking the student, but no matter: it's all Jack Torrance.
UK paperback 1984
The novel is easily one of the most "unputdownable" - wretched word - I've ever read, at least it was this read. The pacing is relentless, lulling you at one moment and then shocking you the next. Suspense wracks up in the final chapters by interlacing chapters on the family's last stand against Jack - or whatever he is at that point - with Dick Hallorann's journey through the snowstorm, the Overlook head cook who also has "the shining" and is heeding Danny's psychic call. But still, we must ask: are there faults in The Shining? Of course. King's writing can be thin in places, too familiar, too pedestrian; there are times where a character's feelings of horror are told to us, instead of simply letting the horrific scenarios speak for themselves. The constant italicized interior thoughts, or maybe too many flashbacks. That final chapter, perhaps (King has intimated he may write a sequel).
But these are to quibble; when you're reading King you know you're not getting an elegant flight of poetic prose or a delicately composed novel of modern manners and foibles. Fuck no! You're getting shrieking blasts of icy terror happening to real people. That might sound like one of the myriad cheesy critical blurbs from the first page ("REAL SCARE-ABILITY!" "DELICIOUSLY SHIVERY READING!" "BACK-PRICKLING!") but I don't know how else to phrase it. My moments of fear? When the wasps come back. When Jack hears his dead father's voice on the radio. When the unmanned elevator starts to clank into use. When Danny enters Room 217. When Wendy turns around and sees Jack. When the long-dead masquerade party guests screech "Unmask! Unmask!" and reveal rotting insect faces...
Mmm, now that's good horror, from a good little boy.