It says a lot about what you view as literature when you’re surprised to find Stephen King included in a list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. But he’s in there. And he deserves to be, if only for The Shining, his disturbing tale of marital tension, telepathy, and madness. As there is likely not an adult in the English-speaking world who hasn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation, I feel compelled to let you know – for those who haven’t read it – the movie is quite different from the book. In some ways, it’s better, in that the movie had Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, Shelley Duvall as his wife, and Kubrick at the helm. In the film, Nicholson’s mental deterioration is shocking and undeviating; the book, on the other hand, is more of a psychological thriller, posing some difficult questions. Such as: What, exactly, is madness, and where does it come from? There are certainly external forces at work here (more about those later), but are the seeds of insanity simply buried within us, waiting for conditions to ripen and allow the madness to bloom.
The book begins with Jack Torrance, a writer and a recovering alcoholic, being interviewed for a job as the winter caretaker for the The Overlook Hotel, a secluded mountain resort in the Colorado Rockies. Jack hopes that the isolation will give him a chance to finish a play he’s been working on but the fact is, this job is a last chance for him to save his marriage. Although Jack’s a loving husband and father when he’s sober, when he’s drunk he can be abusive and violent. Once he accidentally broke his son’s arm; an argument with a student which ended in fisticuffs lost him his job as a teacher. Wendy, his wife, has considered leaving him but now that he’s stopped drinking, she’s agreed to try again in spite of her misgivings.
Their five-year-old son, Danny, is a bright, thoughtful child with the ability to “see” things . . . things that happened in the past, and things that may or may not take place in the future. His clairvoyance lets him hear his parents thoughts, listen in on their whispered conversations. He knows about his father’s drinking – the BAD THING, he calls it – and worries about a possible DIVORCE. His “invisible friend”, Tony, is often part of Danny’s visions; as the Torrances are making plans to leave Boulder for his father’s new job at the hotel, Tony shows Danny a series of dark images involving destruction, blood, and the word REDRUM, pronounced “red rum”. “Be careful, doc,” Tony warns him. Be careful.
As you might expect, given the author, The Overlook is perhaps not the ideal location for three people to be snowbound for the better part of the winter. First of all, once the snow falls, the hotel and its inhabitants will be completely cut off. The nearest town, Sidewinder, is 25 miles away, and the roads are closed in the winter. The phone lines are likely to be down, leaving only the CB radio as a method of contacting the outside world.
Also, the hotel has a grim history. According to the manager, an “officious little prick” named Ullman, a previous caretaker named Delbert Grady went crazy and murdered his wife and two daughters, before killing himself with a shotgun. A woman committed suicide in Room 217. There’ve been so-called “ghost sightings” over the years, which Ullman brushes off as hysterical nonsense, but it gives everyone, including the reader, a chill.
The Torrances arrive at The Overlook on the last day of the season. Guests are departing, staff are getting ready to pack up and leave. The manager gives them a tour of the hotel, during which they meet the chef, Dick Hallorann, who shares some of Danny’s psychic gifts. Recognizing the gift in Danny, he takes the boy aside and tells him his grandmother called it “shining”. He explains that there are some bad things in the hotel, but they can’t hurt him. Just look away, he says. But if ever there is real trouble, Danny should send out a call to him, telepathically, and if Dick hears it, he’ll come.
Once Dick and the rest of the staff leave, the Torrances are left alone in the large, empty hotel. Jack attends to the chores he’s been assigned, the most important being keeping an eye on the boiler in the basement. He’s been warned that if the pressure is allowed to build, the whole place could blow “sky-hight”. Wendy cooks and cleans, and keeps her promise to Hallorann to keep the kitchen in mint condition.
Danny plays with his toys, and does his best to keep hopeful, in spite of occasional feelings that all is not well. He knows his father is struggling not to drink, and that his mother worries about both of them. He begins to “see” things – frightening images like blood and spattered brain tissue on the walls of the Presidential Suite . . . a dead woman in the bathtub of Room 217 . . . a firehose that turns into a snake. He’s not the only one – while trimming the topiary hedge animals, Jack notices that they’re quietly changing positions and appear to be about to attack him. He writes it off as something similar to the DTs, although he hasn’t had a drink for months.
Eventually it becomes clear that Danny’s psychic presence is exciting the supernatural activity that already exists in the hotel. The Overlook becomes a character in itself, a demonic force that seeks to subsume the child by working through the father. Long-dead characters – Grady, the demented caretaker, Lloyd, a phantom bartender, Lorraine Massey, the suicide – appear in various forms and urge Jack to “correct” his wife and son. The hotel bar, dry as a whistle, appears to him to be stocked with every kind of booze imaginable. He gets drunk and once he’s drunk, he’s not Jack the responsible father any more . . . he’s Jack the monster we remember from the film. “Here’s Johnny!” (That line, by the way, never appears in the novel.)
In his excellent book on the craft of writing (On Writing, Scribner: 2000), King describes his teenage fascination with horror movies, in particular the string of Roger Corman films loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe. I reviewed two of them, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, in this blog three weeks ago. A third, one of Corman’s best, is The Masque of the Red Death, Poe’s tale of a group of nobles who take refuge in an abbey in order to escape a fictional plague sweeping the country. King includes an excerpt from that story right at the beginning of the book. The point of the excerpt becomes clear when Jack, poring over old newspapers and scrapbooks stored in the hotel’s basement, comes across an invitation to a masked ball, dated August 29, 1945. “Dinner Will Be Served At 8 P.M. Unmasking and Dancing At Midnight”. Jack, however, never gets to see behind the mask. And in the end, it destroys him.
Stephen King has made no secret of the fact that he was disappointed with Kubrick’s version of The Shining. He hated Shelley Duvall in the role of Wendy – Duvall is an acquired taste, I agree – calling her “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”. But it’s the character of Jack that veers most noticeably from the novel. As King says, the character has no arc: “When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy.”
I agree. There’s a psychological depth to the book that never comes across in the film. In the novel, we learn that Jack’s alcoholism and anger issues stem from an unhappy childhood with a terribly abusive father. Throughout the book he is constantly trying not to become the person his father was and is truly horrified in a final lucid moment when he realizes he’s about to kill his son. “Run away,” he tells Danny. “Quick. And remember how much I love you.” In the film, Jack never has a moment’s remorse – when he finally freezes to death in the snow we can only heave an exhausted sigh of relief.
Five years ago, Stephen King wrote a sequel to The Shining. It’s called Dr. Sleep and it catches up with Danny as an adult, psychologically traumatized by the events at The Overlook. King said it was a “return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror”. It won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.
I plan to read it. One of these days.
This is the Stanley Hotel, a 142-room Colonial Revival hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, that served as the inspiration for The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Built in 1909, it has a long history of paranormal activity. King and his wife spent a night there in 1974. It was near the end of the season and he and Tabitha were the only guests. He woke up the next morning with the basic plot of The Shining firmly in mind.