Some stories you discover long after they’ve become iconic.
I’d never read or heard The Shining before, and I’ve never seen the Kubrick movie. But The Shining is a story that has left a mark on our culture, and those kind of stories are always interesting to experience after the fact. Sometimes when you do, you kind of scratch your head, shrug, and say, “It was okay.” Maybe it originated or popularized certain tropes, adn those tropes have either been done to death (or done better than the original). Other times, you experience the story, and at the end you’re left thinking “OMFG that was iconic! I get it now!” The latter is pretty much my reaction to Stephen King’s The Shining – one of the great horror stories of our time.
The set up for The Shining is simple and straightforward. Jack Torrance a talented writer struggling with sobriety as well as writer’s block. His anger got so out of control once, he broke his own son Danny’s arm. He is emotionally abusive to his wife Wendy. He brutally assaulted one of his own students, and lost his job for it. Which is where we find him at the beginning of the book – interviewing for a winter gig as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. He needs the job to survive, and he believes if he can just lock himself (and his family) away fro the winter, he’ll finish his play and earn a new lease on life. Because it’s such an iconic horror story, even those of us who haven’t experienced it before have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. The mood, atmosphere, and impending doom King creates at the Overlook is staggering. This is a story about a family pushed to its limits and beyond. It’s chilling to witness, particularly the disintegration of Jack Torrance.
In short, Jack Torrance is every writer’s worst nightmare, especially Stephen King’s. He’s a monster before the story even starts, and it’s hard to not make the connections with King himself (alcoholism, writer of some notoriety, etc.). Perhaps because of that, King still manages to find a little bit of humanity in him, and despite being an abusive monster, we have a little bit of sympathy for this awful man. Like Danny and Wendy, we almost want to make excuses for him.
What makes matters worse is that Danny is an incredibly special kid, possessing the titular shining. This allows him to see what people are thinking, to know what they’re doing when they’re not with him, to find lost things, and to have premonitions (he sees dead people). And before everyone else, Danny starts to realize what the Overlook is trying to do to his father, and the rest of his family. But because he loves his dad so much, he refuses to abandon him until it’s too late.
The novel is perfectly matched with Campbell Scott’s strong, minimalist narration. King paints with words a growing sense of claustrophobia and impending horror, and Scott’s narration is a perfect mirror to the bare, cold snowed-in setting we’re trapped in. It’s a pretty perfect marriage of story and narration.
In short, The Shining is a horror icon that continues to earn its status, and is a must for horror fans.