Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Shining by Stephen King

I'm going to assume that you have already read Stephen King's The Shining.  Or if you haven't that you already know the story well enough.  A down-on-his-luck writer gets a job as winter care-taker of an isolated hotel in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  He takes his wife and young son along with him.  Once the three are snowed in, he begins to lose his mind.  In the end he tries to kill his family.  His son has psychic abilities he is too young to understand.  The hotel is probably very haunted.

I admired the book when I first read it, three decades ago, and have long considered it to be one of Stephen King's best.  Re-reading it this time, I'd have to say the book is probably even better than I remembered.  If you've only heard about it and never read it, you should. Certainly if you're a fan of horror fiction.  It ranks alongside Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House in my opinion.

I'd like to talk about two things.  The first is how interested Stephen King is in dealing with people confined to small spaces.  He likes to get his characters under the microscope, to confine them and see what they are made of.  Here's the passage from The Shining when the Torrance family goes inside the hotel as the first serious winter snow storm hits:

So they went in together, leaving the wind to build the low-pitched scream that would go on all night--a sound they would get to know well. Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch.  The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact that it was now cut off from the world. Or possibly it was pleased with the prospect. Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.  (page 210-211)

I say this is terrific horror fiction writing.  Is the hotel indifferent, inatimate, or is it alive enough to be pleased?  The people inside are small, insignificant, already eaten by the monster who only has to digest them.   They don't even know what's already happened to them.

Once he has them tapped inside a small space, Stephen King can examine his characters to his heart's content.  The father's alcoholism, the mother's damaged relationship with her own parents, the young son's inability to understand the things he 'hears' are all the main subjects of the book's first half.  The haunted hotel won't really come into play until the last third of the book.

Stephen King would do this again and again in books like Cujo, Gerald's Game, Misery, Under the Dome, but he had already done it in his first novel when Carrie's mother locked her in the closet and when she locked her classmates in the high school gym in the books climatic final scenes.  There's something about being confined that is both fascinating and frightening.  The notion of being locked inside a great hotel is both appealing and unnerving.  Wouldn't it be great to have free run of the entire place?  Wouldn't be awfully spooky at the same time?  To be there all alone.

But The Shining is more than a classic haunted house story.  It's also a thorough portrait of an alcoholic.  In fact, for much of the novel's first half, it looks like Jack Torrance is really the victim of his own disease rather than that of whatever haunts The Overlook hotel.  Everything that has brought his family to the hotel is the result of Jack's drinking.  That they remain in the hotel, that he is so susceptible to the hotel's darker inhabitants are both due to his unresolved issues with drinking.

Because there is no alcohol in the hotel, Stephen King presents Jack as what my friends in AA call a dry drunk.  Jack doesn't drink anymore, but he has never been through the program, never come to terms with his condition.  This affects his wife and his son both.

While I have no first hand experience with these issues, thankfully, everyone I know in AA was in AA long before I met them, my sense is that Stephen King has done a remarkable job portraying what it's like to be an alcoholic who doesn't drink.  Take this passage, a scene shortly after Jack has been in the hotel bar and met Lloyd, the bartender.

All the same, a bitterly powerful wave of nostalgia swept over him, an the physical craving for a drink seemed to work itself up from his belly to his throat to his mouth and nose, shriveling and wrinkling the tissues as it went, making them cry out for something wet and long and cold. (page 238)

In The Shining, Stephen King must be working through his own issues with alcohol, his own issues with what he was like when he was drinking.  This adds a dimension to the story that helps build the overall tension and makes for a much more profound read.  This scary book has some things to say that many readers will recognize.

30 years after I first read it, you can still count me as a fan.

2 comments:

Jim Randolph said...

I've read it more than once but it's been a loooong time. This review makes me want to revisit it. Thanks.

Sandy Nawrot said...

You've done an excellent job of boiling it down to its core themes. I've always loved King for the way he mines all the fears that we have, digging and prodding and pushing the limits. Of good and evil, and how those traits are emphasized under extreme duress. I just never get tired of him. It IS interesting to examine his writing styles over time. In his earlier works, he is more subtle. The kind of thing that comes back around to bite you in the ass, not immediately, but at 2 in the morning. The unanimous vote in my house is that we preferred the plot of the book versus the movie.