Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Shining by Stephen King (1977): Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy

Although it may be Stephen King's most famous horror novel and certainly the one that made him a household name, I must confess that for many years, The Shining was not a novel I really liked. It was never a book that I revisited as I did with many of King's other works, although I knew its reputation was stellar. About five years ago I skimmed through a copy and was even more disheartened as it seemed to me—yes, it's true, I thought this—poorly written and conceived. 

Well, I don't know what the hell I was smoking: I picked up my recently-acquired Signet '78 first-edition paperback (only edition with that fantastic, yet easily faded, Mylar cover, thanks to art New American Library designer James Plumeri) on Friday morning, ready to give it another try and... could barely put it down all weekend: this time I got it. I raced through the novel and barely gave myself the time to jot down a note or page number. It is awesome fun to find that a reread of a once-dismissed book is so rewarding. If you haven't read King, The Shining would be a fine intro.

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.

UK paperback 2007

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, wonderful 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).

Holy shit, they made a movie out of it?!

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 favorite 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.


Scared said...

Haven't read this one but always wanted to, now it goes to the top of the list. You ought to get a commission from King.

lazlo azavaar said...

This was my first introduction to Stephen King, and as such holds a warm spot in my heart. I still even have my mylar-covered Signet paperback.

William Malmborg said...

I grew up on stories my Mom used to tell me about when she read this book as a young adult and how is terrified her. Little did she know she was scaring the crap out of me as well with her tales. Once I was old enough I had no choice but to read the book myself. It was like I was finally on a quest that she had been preparing me for since birth, one that I loved so much I want to do it again and again and again.

Anonymous said...

Great review, sir. Love this book! Although I almost wish that I hadn't read it before I saw the movie--the movie just couldn't live up. As a result of doing so, I think I'm just about the only genre fan in the world who doesn't like the film.


Unknown said...

Ah yes. I did a read-along a couple years ago where we reviewed this book. It really is a great piece of work, but there is something about Kubrick's film that makes me love it even more.

Luis said...

I've read a LOT of King, but not this, possibly his most famous book. Maybe because I fear that reading the book would hold no surprises for me because I've seen both movie adaptations. Your review has made me change my mind and put it on top of the to-read list.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for reading everybody. Cool to hear I inspired some of you to read it (try to put the movie out of yr mind--it's hard but I think I was able to). Drop back by, lemme know what ya think!

Anonymous said...

#3 on my personal favorite list of King novels following #1 'SALEM'S LOT & #2 IT.
Of course, I'm LONG overdue for a re-read as I last read it... well, a REALLY long time ago.
When I first read it as a kid in '78 it definitely gave me some sleepless nights.

With all the ridiculously quick turn arounds on remakes & reboots going on in Hollywood lately, I'd love to see a definitive version of THE SHINING made. Though honestly, they'd probably just screw it up even worse this time.
Maybe I shouldn't have worded it like that though, 'cause I really do have some love for Kubrick's version despite his really only taking major elements of the book & then making his own story from it.
The mini-series adaption of '87 an admirable job of staying sticky close to the novel ( yeah, I know, duh (!), King wrote the teleplay ), but some of the casting choices were questionable & I'm sorry but as enthusiastic as he is about the genre in general & King's work specifically, Mick Garris is just a mediocre director. Everything he churns out is just bland.
THE SHINING calls out for a director with a dark vision, but someone who would be willing to stick close to the script. Just as an off the cuff example, I'd love to see what a three hour adaption by David Fincher would look like?

( aka bluerosekiller )

Anonymous said...

BTW, when the announcement regarding the title of King's next novel's release was made two or three weeks ago, I was really disappointed that it wasn't the discussed THE SHINING sequel DOCTOR SLEEP.
Hopefully it won't go the way of the proposed sequel to 'SALEM'S LOT which saw similar discussion by King a couple of decades ago, but ( very ) sadly, never saw publication. Something I STILL sometimes weep over! LOL

( aka bluerosekiller )

Anonymous said...

I remember liking the book, but have LOVED Kubrick's movie ever since I first saw it. A very different, more restrained horror story, full of quiet but palpable dread rather than the overt manifestations of King's book, and I think the better for it. Still, I should read the book again before offering an opinion on it. One of these days, maybe.

The more literal-minded mini-series should be avoided at all costs, though.

Nathaniel Katz said...

The Shining is a fantastic novel, by far my favorite of King's. It's also one of the (relatively) few books that have managed to scare me. And it did it twice (dead woman in 217 and the elevator coming to life).

highwayknees said...

It's my favorite King too. I still can remember the chills and "unputdownableness" I got reading it back in the original PB mylar release. EPIC. It was only my second King read after Salem's Lot. I love the film too ,but remember being disappointed about the loss of the topiary beasts . The maze was an excellent way round that of course though. And if done today it would be all CGI and awful-so I guess it's a passage best left to every reader's individual imagination! And I think if he wrote the sequel it would be a sure way to make me pick up a King PB again! (I stopped reading him years ago, after I figured he'd run dry and predictable- without any interesting plots up his sleeve.)
Hell-I might even be tempted to go for the Hardback! Naw... I still have no faith. I admit- I'm afraid he'll ruin it!

Darkeva said...

Hi Will, I'm glad to hear you gave "The Shining" another try as I think it's good! lol What I particularly liked was that you used all the different covers that have come out over the years. I found your critique of King's prose to be sensible, because you backed up your points and explained them. Good point about including the moments that did scare you, though. And I did see the film before I read the book, which influenced my point of view. Love this one. I find that my favourite of King's is a book called "Rose Red," which was made into a film with Julian Sands. The film, of course, takes place after the events of the book, which largely focuses on how the house got to be so haunted and the characters in the book don't appear in the film at all, but anywho, just thought I'd share that.

Hope you have a great weekend!

Anonymous said...

Got the signet first recently. Seen the movie many times. Love the book more, the unmanned elevator is my favorite. glad to see this rleview. JP

Aylmer said...

Funny, my experience with it was almost the opposite. I loved it so much as a kid (12 or 13), that I've always been hesitant to return for a second reading lest I'm disappointed.

I've never looked at topiary the same since. Never understood King's dislike for Kubrik's movie.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Possibly the most overrated horror novel of the 20th century...thankfully we could rely on Stanley Kubrick to transform it from garbage to gold - great review though Will.

Will Errickson said...

Shaun, that was precisely my feeling... till this reread. Something about the novel clicked into place for me this time.

Thanks for reading and commenting, everybody!

Anonymous said...

Me again, Will. Just stopping by to let you know that I enjoyed this article so much that I posted a link to it in the latest "issue" of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

Check it out!


Anonymous said...

I had problems reading this first time around. Couldn't suspend disbelief, so I put it down and forgot about it. Strange, but ten years later, I found it hugely enjoyable. And very haunting. Skoob1999

Jeff P said...

I was in high school when this book came out. I'd read "'Salem's Lot" and loved it, but it's safe to say I adored "The Shining". There's something about limited settings that really works for me (King later put this to good use in "Misery"). And the delicacy of the family relations, Danny's innocence, Jack's anger and guilt, are what make the book so effective. It's not the spooks, it's their effect on good people.

I also adore Kubrick's film, though it's certainly a different animal. Gone is the emotional heart of the story, replaced by Kubrick's chill indifference. Yet, it works and amplifies the terror in a very effective way I can't quite explain. All I know is I'm never bored watching it, and I've seen it many times. The air of dread in it is almost palpable, thanks to the colors and editing and Steadicam and music. I really think it's a masterpiece and someday will be recognized as such.

BTW, the very first paperback edition of "'Salem's Lot" DIDN'T have King's name on the cover, much like the first paperback edition of "Carrie". I can't remember where it was I read him writing about how crestfallen he was about his.

Mike said...

I'd like to see the prologue and epilogue ("Before the Play" and "After the Play", respectively) put back into the book where they belong.