the shining book coverKing v Kubrick

Author: Stephen King

Stanley Kubrick’s film edition of The Shining has long been one of my favorite horror movies. Its mood and atmosphere coupled with creepy imagery and high-end acting has captured many, except oddly Stephen King. The reason why becomes obvious when you read the book, which still has that same isolated paranoia but its own separate twist which is far more subtle and drawn out. My first reading of The Shining a few years ago left me lackluster and left the book being donated (a rarity for my hoarding style library). When my husband, though, asked to hear the audiobook version during our daily commute, I gave the book another try, but this time with much lower expectations. And this time, perhaps because I knew not to expect the movie or because of the narrative timber of Campbell Scott, I actually enjoyed the subtle mental horror and the separateness of King’s tale from its iconic big screen projection.

The story starts much the same. Down and out-of-luck Jack Torrance, a vengeful recovering alcoholic, is taking his last chance by traveling with his young wife, Wendy, and son, Danny, to spend the winter in isolation managing the Overlook Hotel during its off months. Snowed in, the most important part of the hotel’s care, beyond keeping pipes from freezing, is the touchy boiler, which if it’s not dumped several times a day will explode and take the infamous jet-setter hotel with it. Que the story’s key differences.

the shining movie

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in the famous 1980 film adaption of Stephen King’s The Shining.

As Jack goes about his duties leaving Wendy and Danny to their own devices, he starts to become enthralled by the hotel’s checkered past and sees this as a way to rescue his waning writing career. The play he was working on suddenly becomes ugly to him whereas, despite his employer’s threats, an exposé of the sordid hotel’s past takes on an all-consuming vision. From gangster hits to torrid affairs to masked balls, the hotel has seen much. What Jack doesn’t know is that it has also retained it.

Meanwhile Danny, a child who has always had the knack to see what others can’t, is having ever more visits from his supernatural friend Tommy. As the snows start to close in, Danny sees things move, sees the past and present merging, and sees how much the hotel wants him and why. He needs to get out, yet he doesn’t fully understand what he sees and knows and as his father becomes more entangled with the hotel’s history, his few chances begin to slip away. Until he discovers dead Mrs. Massey, floating, bloated, in her bathtub, the undead past reviving itself through him.

The story in a way follows what we already know from the film. Evil hotel haunted by ghosts, or perhaps something even greater, that straddles the boundaries of time and comes alive around its unwitting hosts as the snows close in and their escape is cut off. Where it differs starts with the details but then grows. Here, Jack’s alcoholism isn’t just a backstory, but a thing almost as alive as the thirsting ghosts that taunt him at the edge of his vision. It’s an almost beautiful look at the rage and sadness of addiction, Jack characteristic for swiping his now dry lips whenever he is upset. Jack is not ever a man we like, but in the book he is one that we understand better.

We also get a look at some more of his backstory, the horrors he saw of his own father’s and mother’s relationship, and a moving and very extended metaphor connecting his past and his duty and desire to protect his own son through the destruction of a wasp’s nest. This time, the story is certainly more mental (until the end) and much slower as we watch the cerebral side of a man’s devolution, not just from drink but from an inability to fill a dangerous void.

the shining original book cover

First edition cover of King’s The Shining. I once had this edition – and sadly this was the one I gave away.

Danny too is better drawn in the story, but as with some of King’s children, not quite believable for his age. For a six year old, he is as eloquent and able to talk with the adults as another adult, and while his understanding of his parents’ demons is limited, this is more of a put on to try and support his age than something we fully buy into.

Where the story originally disappointed me was its slowness and its more internal concentration than the overt creepiness of the Overlook. We’re well towards the end before the phantoms start to play for real, and for the most part the story is concerned with the unseen, lurking danger. Danny is frightened of the hotel’s odd ability to animate simple objects, a rolled up fire hose being one that I found ridiculous in the original reading, but enjoyed in the Audible retelling. Unlike Kubrick’s film with its final wash of blood through the Overlook and the twin girls, butchered and ready to damn another for eternity, King goes for the unseen and the subtle horror of the everyday slowly morphing into something insidious and controlled by something just out of sight that may or may not be there. Both have their place, but even still the film always remains the stronger of the two. It’s worth mentioning that the iconic two little girls have no place in the book. The big fears between the pages are the fire hose, the reoccurring wasps, the hedge animals on the lawn, the workings of an old clock, and finally a self-running elevator.

That’s not to say that the ghosts don’t eventually come out to play. In the end all of our ghouls get some serious screen time, although the hedge animals that can move and kill like real ones still seem ridiculous. The chef, Dick Hallorann, has a more major part in the book (and more satisfying) and the inescapable danger for Wendy and Danny is more imminent and almost fatal. Also, forget that hedge maze folks. It ends completely differently.

This time I bought the book and put it back with my honored King library. The Shining is actually one of his best books, so long as you take it for itself and don’t expect the movie and look for a recreation of a story that was only loosely based on the original. Instead, enjoy both as they are, two separate yet equally enjoyable expressions of the horror genre going at full strength, taking no prisoners.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden

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