The Stephen King Project – The Shining (1977)
The story goes that the now-famous, fictional Overlook Hotel is based on the real-life Stanley Hotel where Stephen King stayed one night with his wife Tabitha. The hotel was closing for winter the next day and the Kings were the only guests, inspiring King to write about a family trapped in a remote hotel for the winter. I think we can all be glad that they enjoyed that night away…
Jack Torrance is a writer and teacher who lost his teaching job because of his short temper. With a history of violence and alcoholism, Jack has trouble finding work until he is offered the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. Right from the first scene with Jack, we see the type of man he is – one who resents any kind of authority figure and does not take responsibility for his own actions. He is unlikeable from the outset and it is an example of King’s skill that the reader can come to feel some empathy for Jack, to understand him a little, if not forgive him.
Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, Jack followed in his old man’s steps. Even breaking his infant son’s arm in a fit of temper wasn’t enough to sober him up. Eventually though, he does get on the wagon and it is a Jack struggling for sobriety and trying to stitch his family back together who accepts the position as caretaker and moves into the hotel with his wife, Wendy and son, Danny.
At first, all is well. Jack and Wendy are closer than they have been in years; the break from the past is good for them all, and it even looks as though Jack might finish the play he has been writing for years. Things look hopeful and they may even have turned out well if it wasn’t for Danny. Five-year-old Danny has The Shining – in other words, he’s psychic. He can read minds and see the future and has the most powerful shine that Dick Halloran, the chef at the Overlook, has ever seen. Danny’s gift seems to activate all that is evil in this old, awful building. The hotel wants Danny and it’ll go through all three of them to have him.
I’ve read this book a couple of times in the past but despite that, the overwhelming sense of dread still dragged me under. As soon as Jack picks up the old drinking habit of wiping his lips, I found myself thinking ‘get out, get out, get out,’ to the whole family.
On the surface, The Shining might be a ghost story, but the real story is the tragic falling apart of a family. Don’t get me wrong, there really is something evil in the Overlook and there are ghosts and scares aplenty (don’t go in room 217!) but that evil might not have been able to work through a different, better man than Jack Torrance.
That’s the genius of this book. It’s fairly long (although not massively so, especially compared to some of King’s other novels) at 447 pages in the paperback edition, but there are only really three characters and one main setting. In ‘Salem’s Lot, King went wide, showing snippets of action from all over town. In The Shining, he goes deep, dragging you down into the psyches of the three main characters. Jack’s fight against alcoholism and his efforts to keep his temper in check, to be a better man than his father was. Wendy’s desire to save her marriage, her jealousy of the bond between Danny and Jack and her resistance to becoming like her mother. Her fear of her husband and for her son. Danny’s pain and fear and love for his parents. These characters feel as real to me as some people that I’ve actually met.
Unexpectedly, there were one or two places where I stumbled over little details that I felt could have been improved. A few cases where the same word was repeated in close proximity, moments that didn’t quite ring true, times where I felt it could have been just a touch more polished. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t been reading so critically, though, as King is one of the few authors with whom I can usually turn my writer’s brain off.
This is a fantastic, horrifying story and if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to do so. I very much doubt you will regret it.
The next book that was published by Stephen King was Rage, published by Signet in 1977 under the pen name Richard Bachman. Rage is no longer in print after Stephen King himself requested that it be pulled from publication. The book is about a teenage boy who shoots his teacher and takes his classmates hostage, so I’m sure we can all appreciate why it was pulled.
I’ve been thinking back and forth on whether to include it in this project or not. On the one hand, I want to read and review it because it’s a work by my favourite author and sort-of hero. I also do not believe that the book is in any way dangerous or to blame for the actions of any troubled teens who may have read it. However, ultimately, I decided not to include it for a couple of reasons.
One is simply practicality. Copies of Rage are not easy to come by and they are expensive. Now, since these are all second-hand copies, none of that money makes its way to Stephen King so I don’t see why other people should profit so heavily from a book he chose to pull from publication.
The other reason is that I have to assume that the author himself no longer wants people to be reading this book, and that is why he chose to withdraw it. I’m not sure that I agree with his decision or his reasoning but since I only know details from second and third hand sources, I can’t hold a properly informed opinion. Even if I did, that would have no bearing on King’s position. So, I will respect what appears to be King’s wish and will not include the book in this project.
So, next up, it’s Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories which I am very much looking forward to. I love short fiction and horror seems to lend itself especially well to the form.