Classic Books: The Shining

For aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives? Do they not drive all of us to words and acts that we regret from time to time?

Stephen King, from his introduction to The Shining, 2001

You know this story even if you haven’t read the book. Jack Torrance is a man with the past: an ex-alcoholic, he has been fired from his teaching post for assaulting a student. A wealthy friend lands him a job looking after the Overlook Hotel when it is closed over the winter and cut off from the rest of the world. It’s the perfect place for Jack to relax, finish his play and rebuild his relationship with his wife and son.

Except that Colorado’s Overlook Hotel has a past, too. It’s been owned by dodgy businessmen and Mafioso types, been used as a brothel and gambling hell and witnessed countless murders and suicides (the previous holder of Jack’s position, Delbert Grady, killed his family and then himself). This history is revealed to Jack in a scrapbook he discovers in the basement (a classic King device for giving backstory: he also uses it in Misery). Gradually the hotel has come to take on an evil, pulsing life of its own: accumulated ‘as secret and silent as interest in a bank account.’

There was a dozen trucks in the loading bays out back, some laid one over the other like bad time exposures. In the east wing ballroom, a dozen different business conventions were going on at the same time within temporal centimeters of each other. There was a costume ball going on… Men talking about Neville Chamberlain and the Archduke of Austria. Music. Laughter. Drunkenness. Hysteria. Little love, not here, but a steady undercurrent of sensuousness. And he could almost hear all of them together, drifting through the hotel and making a graceful cacophony… He could almost… no, strike the almost. He could hear them, faintly as yet, but clearly – the way one can hear thunder miles off on a hot summer’s day. He could hear all of them, the beautiful strangers. He was becoming aware of them as they must have been aware of him from the very start.

It’s the classic idea that buildings take on the characteristics of their owners – and the Overlook has been owned by some very nasty people. The mystic and ex-scientist Rupert Sheldrake termed the phenomenon ‘morphic resonance’. The Overlook’s chef Halloran explains it more prosaically and accurately: ‘It seems all the bad things that ever happened here, there’s little pieces of these things still laying around’. Normally this manifests itself in ‘penny-dreadful horror slides to the more psychically aware guests’. Unfortunately, Jack’s five-year-son Danny has ‘the shine’; a power that enables him to read minds and see the future to a certain extent. His great psychic power is like a key in the ignition. As the winter draws in, the Overlook changes from a pleasant and spacious holiday resort to a carnival of nightmares.

Here in the Overlook all times were one. There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party-favors in each other’s faces. It was a not-yet-light morning in June some years later and the organisation hitters ruthlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly. In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.

During his stay in the Overlook Danny is put through terrifying ordeal after terrifying ordeal, from being strangled by a corpse in a bathtub to being chased through the Overlook’s playground by the spectres of dead children. But his father becomes increasingly fascinated by the hotel, spending hours poring over old receipts in the basement, and considering writing a book about the resort. There’s something in its dark glamour that intrigues him. As Danny says: ‘It’s tricking Daddy, it’s fooling him, trying to make him think it wants him the most. It wants me the most, but it will take all of us.’

The Overlook’s seduction of Jack Torrance is a masterful, drawn-out process: you can’t highlight a definite tipping point in his development from a troubled but essentially decent man to raving psychopath. Arguably the process begins even at his job interview, when he begins to sympathise with the previous caretaker. As if in premonition of his own fate, Jack thinks: ‘Poor Grady, feeling it close in on him more every day, and knowing at last that for him spring would never come.’

Once inside the Overlook, the hotel begins to affect the play he is working on, warping its tone and themes (King does this in a much more subtle way than Kubrick, who simply has Jack type out the same moronic sentence thousands of times). He loses weight and gains a ghostly pallor. He begins to rationalise the actions of his abusive, drunken father. But the hotel really claims him when it pushes him off the wagon (the alcohol has been cleaned out shortly before the Torrances moved in, but the hotel simply provides more).

In a scene reminiscient of Fitzgerald, Jack dances with a beautiful woman at some kind of 1940s burlesque. This is how the hotel gets him: it offers Jack a dissolute decadence formerly closed off by his status as a family man. Having ‘failed as a teacher, a writer, a husband, and a father’ and ‘even failed as a drunk’ Jack sees ‘his last and best chance’ as ‘to become a member of the Overlook’s staff, and possibly to rise… all the way to the position of manager, in time.’ Or as Danny puts it: ‘He wants to be one of them and live forever.’

‘Perhaps the Overlook, large and rambling Samuel Johnson that it was, had picked him to be its Boswell. You say the new caretaker writes? Very good, sign him on. Time we told our side.’ The remarkable quality of the last three sentences is that we don’t know who is speaking: Jack’s localised third person narrative segues seamlessly into the voice of the hotel. But King’s real achievement in characterisation is gained by use of his classic device, the italicised parenthesis: he uses this to get deep into the minds of his characters and communicate thoughts

(like this)

that flash across the underside of the mind; thoughts that perhaps we’d rather not acknowledge. The hotel speaks to Jack in this way for the first time while he is trimming the hedges (You weren’t hired to philosophize, Torrance); it speaks to Danny in more hostile terms (GET OUT OF HIS MIND, YOU LITTLE SHIT!) The use of King’s parenthesis trick creates an effect of fearful disorientation. King uses textuality here in a way remarkable for such a supposedly light novelist: as the hotel’s power grows, fragments of dialogue and prose break up the text like ghosts piling through the woodwork.

Several stick in the mind. Echoing Goya, a recurring couplet goes: (This inhuman place/makes human monsters); another, adapted from Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ reads: And the Red Death held sway over all. During another basement session with Jack, we get a line from Eliot: (In the room the women come and go). This is from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and King quotes from Eliot throughout his work. (If King is the ultimate horror novelist, T. S. Eliot is the ultimate horrorpoet: he shows us fear in a handful of dust.) There’s also this prose poem, scribbled on the back of a menu: ‘Medoc/are you here?/I’ve been sleepwalking again, my dear./The plants are moving under the rug.’ There is something indefinably chilling about these lines.

King did not like Kubrick’s film adaptation. While King prefers a slow build, Jack Nicholson’s lead is visibly unhinged from the very start. Kubrick also seems to have leaned too heavily towards the view that the Overlook’s ghosts are the products of Jack’s claustrophobic and disintegrating mind. Yet as Jack himself observes, his son is scared of imaginary monsters but there is no lack of real ones: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, child abuse. Jack adds his own demons to the hotel’s already substantial complement.

The novel is about ghosts, but also about fathers and sons. King got the idea when he was a struggling writer trying to support two young children (Jack’s combination of fraught poverty and big dreams is very well drawn) and has said that when he wrote about Jack Torrance he was really writing about himself. In his introduction to my edition, he describes The Shining as a ‘crossroads novel’.

Another part of me wanted to go deeper – to admit Jack’s love of his father in spite of (perhaps even because of) his father’s unpredictable and often brutal nature. That was the part I listened to, and it made a big difference to the novel as a whole.

He also says: ‘[The] truth is that monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.’

I like Kubrick’s ending better. He lets Jack’s family escape, and the last shot is a slow close-up of a photograph on the Overlook’s lobby wall. As we get closer, we see that it is a photograph of Jack Torrance hosting a masked ball. The camera pans down to a caption. The image was taken in the 1940s.

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6 Responses to “Classic Books: The Shining”

  1. jessica Says:

    beautiful breakdown of one of the greatest horror novels of all time.
    i esp. love the medoc quote.

  2. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy By maxdunbar Now this is a great piece of news for Stephen King obsessives like myself – remember the novel that Jack Torrance was writing in the film version of The Shining? […]

  3. Simon Langley Says:

    This is the best King novel I have read, certainly different to his later stuff. It is a very haunting book and far scarier than the movie.

  4. Enduring Love « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] having so much to do concentrates the mind. Still, it can’t be easy. King’s novel The Shining grew out of the harder side of parenthood, and in his classic Playboy interview, he recalled his […]

  5. Cystal Says:

    I actually liked the movie more and I know many people would disagree with me on that. Stanley did a great job with The Shining.

  6. alex22362 Says:

    There is no way, ever, that King is a light novelist. Excellent article.

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