Operation Backlog Completion 2024
Oct 152014
Book cover of The Shining by Stephen King

Yes, that’s right. I never read a book by Stephen King until I started The Shining for class. I had a very vague familiarity with it, but I didn’t know most of the details (basically I knew the movie adaptation had Jack Nicholson with an axe, and even then I wasn’t positive I had the right title), and I definitely didn’t know it was a ghost story.

I also had no clue what the title meant, so I found that pretty interesting. I never would have guessed it referred to psychic powers.

So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, but once I got into it, I liked it a lot. Unlike the last book I read for class, The Shining had genuinely disturbing moments. By the end, I was anxious and distressed, and I finished the rest of the book in a single sitting so I could find out what happened.

The Shining centers in on one of my favorite horror techniques–a character’s gradual descent into insanity. (There’s a reason H.P. Lovecraft is my favorite horror author.) Or… maybe it was about possession. That’s another one of my favorites. It might be a mixture of the two, and it does provide some ambiguity about how much of the madman at the end was Jack Torrance and how much was the Overlook Hotel. If possession, it’s not a rushed takeover, but a gradual, subtle technique… finding his vulnerabilities and picking away and his defenses to bring out his inner darkness.

The Overlook Hotel is another living place, like Hill House and Hell House. It directly references the first in one of its most striking personified moments, as Jack thinks:

“The Overlook was having one hell of a good time. There was a little boy to terrorize, a man and his woman to set against one another, and if it played its cards right they could end up flitting through the Overlook’s halls like insubstantial shades in a Shirley Jackson novel, whatever walked in Hill House walked alone, but you wouldn’t be alone in the Overlook, oh no, there would be plenty of company here.” (King 414)

And said “company” drew my thoughts right along to Matheson’s Hell House. Both houses appear to have remnants of their old, corrupt inhabitants lingering around. The ballroom/party where Jack sees Derwent, Grady, and the others reminded me of the scene in Hell House where Edith is tormented by specters of the people who once gathered there. Although we never learn a lot about Derwent, it was easy to imagine him as a Belasco figure.

Of course, if we’re talking about places that are alive, how can I not reference my favorite horror town, Silent Hill? While Silent Hill doesn’t drive its visitors to do terrible things (even Walter Sullivan was twisted by the cult, not the town itself), it digs into their minds and mixes their pasts with the town’s own history.

Silent Hill's Jimmy Stone, with a picture of him as the Red Devil

Pyramid Head came from James’s mind… with a little inspiration from the cult.

The Overlook is much more malevolent, but it does just as good a job at mixing Jack’s past with the hotel’s past and even the play he’s working on.

Only two things disappointed me about The Shining. First, I thought the George Hatfield incident was going to have more relevance than just being another dark moment in Jack’s life and the reason he needs a job. Second, there were some scenes where I felt Jack went back and forth a little too much. I enjoyed his struggle between staying true to himself and falling prey to the Overlook, but a few times he switched sides so often in such a short period of time, it felt repetitive.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the novel. It balanced the supernatural and psychological horror aspects quite well, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys those types of stories.

Works Cited
King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Anchor Books, 1977. Print.
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  8 Responses to “The Shining: My First Stephen King Novel”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed your first Stephen King novel! I started reading The Shining years ago and never finished it, but then this week I read it in 3 days and couldn’t understand why it took me so long to read this novel because it really is one of King’s best.

    I also am a huge fan of the gradual descent into insanity and King does it so well. I love the Poe reference he uses throughout the novel as well, which allows the reader to know a bit of what’s coming, but not entirely. Jack’s madness is a creeping thing that is planted into his brain, but it really slithers out during the stay at the Overlook. The other characters have their moments where they feel crazy as well, and I love how incredibly human they all feel despite being surrounded by ghosts and other terrors.

    • Oh yes, I really enjoyed the references to the Masque of the Red Death!

      Yes, I agree. And I think their humanity is very important in a story like this. When the world is going crazy, or the characters themselves are going crazy, its success often depends on how connected the reader feels to them.

  2. The Shining is only the second Stephen King novel I’ve ever read, the first was Carrie, which I read for my earlier SHU days. So don’t feel too badly about not having read more. I also think I shared your misconceptions about the story, since this was the first time I’d read it as well and I also remember something about Jack Nicholson.

    It was rather amusing to me to see that you also quoted the section about The Haunting of Hill House in your post because I quoted it in mine, too 🙂

    In my opinion, the gradual descent in to insanity is one of the more terrifying forms of horror. Nothing is quite so uncomfortable as believing yourself to be going mad, and then questioning whether or not you really ARE going mad, and then deciding the rest of the world is mad and you are sane, and then deciding that maybe you really are going mad, and the whole cycle continues.

    I was also mildly disappointed that the George Hatfield incident didn’t have more of an impact on the story, other than to show us that Jack already has problems, and is already haunted by mistakes from his past.

    • Well, people tend to raise their eyebrows when I’d say I’m a horror writer but I haven’t read anything by Stephen King.

      When crazy characters (and their descent into insanity) are written well, it’s fantastic. 😀

  3. I like how you bring up the ambiguity between how much of the mad man was Jack, and how much was the hotel. For me, Jack had enough ‘darkness’ in him before he ever stepped foot in the Overlook that I saw the hotel as more of an accelerant for Jack’s inner demons than a cause. It made Jack really unlikable for me (though this is the ‘unlikable’ that well written bad characters get, rather than poorly written characters.) Especially when it came to Jack’s alcoholism, The Shining hit a little too close to home for me. I’ve dealt with alcoholics all my life, and this struck me as a really honest and uncomfortable portrayal of it, which for a horror, is a job well done.

  4. Out of Stephen King’s 63 novels (at the time of this comment) I’ve probably read 45 or so (with seven or eight on my shelf waiting for me to read). Stephen King’s IT is the single most influential novel for me as a writer. Until now, however, I had not read The Shining. I’m not all that into ghost stories, but I have gained more of an appreciation as we’ve progressed through this course.

    This particular novel, as you said, balances the supernatural and psychological aspects well. I didn’t expect that considering the movie shows Jack descend into madness fairly quickly, which I assume had to be done because of how quickly the story needed to be told compared to the book. Jack has a much more gradual descent in the novel, and he’s characterized better as well. By the end of the film, Jack is essentially evil, and I’m not sure if I even remember any redeeming qualities. The book, however, shows Jack isn’t all evil, and he even regains control of his mind long enough near the denouement to tell his son he loves him and to run away. For this reason, I enjoyed the novel more than the movie. Characterization can make or break a character, and while Kubrick did a good job in his interpretation, I feel King did a better job.

    • I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve heard some people say similar things–that they found it difficult to believe the movie’s Jack really cared about his family, while the book conveys that much better.

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