Date started: February 10th
Date finished: February 18th
By now, pretty much everybody knows the plot of The Shining, right? For those who don’t, it’s the story of the Torrance family; recovering alcoholic Jack, his wife Wendy, and his five year old son, Danny. The Shining itself refers to the latent psychic power Danny has exhibited from birth, which manifests in the form of Tony, an entity his parents think of as an imaginary friend. After having been fired from the school at which he worked over a violent incident with one of the students, Jack is offered one last shot at redemption, a winter caretaker position in the secluded Overlook Hotel, a place that just happens to be crawling with ghosts from the hotel’s unsavoury past.
Where do I even start talking about a book like The Shining? Its legacy as a horror novel is practically legendary at this point, and many of the big moments are firmly entrenched in society’s cultural consciousness. What I was surprised to find was that much of what I know of The Shining simply wasn’t present. The big one that was in there was REDRUM, which as we all know by now is the reflection of the word MURDER in a bathroom mirror. The biggest surprises to me though, were that the parts that have been passed down mimetically were original to Kubrick’s adaptation. The chilling image of Jack Torrance (almost perfectly embodied by Nicholson in that moment) staring through the door with a snarl of “Here’s Johnny!” sort of happens, but he’s wielding a roque mallet rather than an axe, and he says something completely different.
The other big moment I remembered was the twin ghosts, with Danny riding the tricycle down the Overlook’s hallways. Again, absent.
But, enough about what the book doesn’t have. What it does have is an exceptionally told story. King has always been very good at characters. Jack Torrance is, at his core, a good man who does bad things (in his internal thoughts, Danny even refers to his drinking as the Bad Thing). Rather than being the unsympathetic villain we automatically think of (again, due in no small part to Nicholson’s portrayal), his story is a tragic one of a man torn down by his addictions and only redeemed by his love for his family. Throughout the story, we watch as he descends into anger and madness, but even though I knew how it would end, he was written so sympathetically from the start, I still found myself cheering for his redemption.
The Shining itself is an interesting concept, but aside from a fairly large infodump early on, it generally manifests outside of Danny’s control. He does use it to spy on his parents at times, but it’s mostly used by the hotel itself to confront him with various horrors, such as the drowned woman in room 217. I will say, I was never outright scared by the Shining, but the sequences with the ghosts were well paced, with excellent descriptions of body horror that left me unsettled. These parts were where I felt the book was at its strongest.
That said, there are some weaknesses that I feel I should address. I remember reading On Writing, and agreed with King when he said adverbs belie a new or amateur author. The Shining is chock full of them. They never got in the way of the story in any meaningful way, but there was at least one on nearly every page, to the point where I found it distracting. I actually groaned out loud when an elevator was described as moving ‘vibratoriously’. The other issue is that of the Wendy character. I’ve always enjoyed King for his strong female protagonists such as the wonderful Susannah from the Dark Tower series, so I was a little disappointed to see that Wendy didn’t really come into her own until the last quarter of the book. Up until that point, she existed in a nebulous state as Jack’s wife or Danny’s mother. When she did have her big moment, it was triumphant and huge and I did a little celebration squee. I came to like her a lot, but I was left nervous for a while.
Overall, I loved The Shining. It’s flawed in places, but King has gone on to become one of the greatest storytellers around today, and there’s a lot of that on show here. It’s not my favourite King book, but I know it is for many of his fans, and I can absolutely understand why.