Shine On, Horror Diamond

Author: Stephen King

The Shining CoverIt’s so easy to forget why we loved the things we did as a child.  Even as a teenager, perception is skewed by hormones, naiveté and a vocabulary far larger than our life experience.  I read The Shining for the first time when I was around 12 years old – I read it again last week.  Oh, what a difference a few decades makes.

They always say you can’t go home again.  And it’s a risk to re-read something you loved before you were fully formed – perhaps the depth or characters or situations you found so profound as a teen will seem pedestrian and dull now.  It was a chance I was willing to take, and one that paid off in a marvelous way.

The Shining tells the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance.  Jack and Wendy are taking 5-year-old Danny to a huge mountain hotel for the winter – The Overlook.  You see, Jack is an aspiring writer who has been dismissed from his job teaching at a prep school in Vermont.  A friend does him a favor and sets him up with this caretaker gig at a swanky hotel that gets snowed in for four plus months in the winter and needs TLC during that time.  The idea is that Jack can concentrate on writing – and not drinking.  It seems like a wonderful, horrible idea.

Stephen King wasn’t yet a household name when The Shining was published in 1977.  It was this book that took him from writer to Writer.  As the Torrances set up housekeeping it becomes increasingly obvious that there is something very wrong with The Overlook.  But can they really afford to walk away from this, their last chance?  No, they really can’t.  Wendy knows that it’s a matter of masculine pride for Jack (for whom such things are very, very important), Danny (who’s got an impressive little ESP thing going on) knows that his parents need something new so

The Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel, upon which The Overlook was based.

they can maybe be happy together and stop thinking about divorce, and Jack knows that this is his last shot to be a writer, to be a man, to fix his messes.

From the first pages of The Shining we begin to form a mental picture of every member of this family.  Jack, with his temper and his drinking and his delusions of grandeur.  Wendy with her jealousy over her son’s bond with his father, her weakness when it comes to Jack and her latent protective instincts.  Danny with his “shine”, the one who feels and knows everything before the rest of the family.  This family oozes dysfunction and a low threshold for any sort of manipulation by outside forces.  Their shaky foundation is a perfect playground for The Overlook, a hostile place with a violent past and a long, long memory.

King creates his setting with tender loving care, making sure to inhabit The Overlook with menace, temptation, and the promise of dreams fulfilled.  As the wind howls and the snow flies we feel the isolation of this family and the deepening hold it and the hotel has over Jack and to a lesser extent over Danny.  The longer they are closed in, the more the hotel wants – needs – to capture that magical shining that lives in a very scared, deeply sensitive little boy.  It also knows exactly how to capitalize on the weaknesses of both of his parents.

Stephen King by Pinguino

Stephen King

I have to admit that I messed a whole lot of subtext the first time I read this book.  All these years later I know I didn’t see what is obvious from the beginning to an adult – Jack Torrance is not a good man.  He may have some noble aspirations, but from word one he is the wrong man for this, and probably any, job.  I felt sorry for Wendy the first time around, this time I was less willing to overlook her voluntary blindness to her husband’s unstable inner core.  It was Danny, who I remember as being primarily acted upon, that most impressed me.  He is just so beautifully written.  His abilities feed him information that is far above his ability to process or understand.  While on occasion he acts a little older than 5, for the most part King makes absolutely sure to filter his experiences through his very young brain and has him act appropriately.  His attachment to both parents as well as his willingness to do anything – anything – to keep them from splitting up rings very true even as events take a turn for the very scary and very weird.

The Shining was the first book I ever read that made me scared to get up and go to the bathroom when the house was quiet and sleeping.  It still has the same effect.  There is such an aura of creeping menace throughout that when the explosive scenes arrive the reader is already on the same edge as the Torrance family.  I re-read The Shining while I waited for my turn at the many years later sequel, Doctor Sleep.  I’ve been told it isn’t necessary to read one before the other, but I’m glad I did.  Not only did I get to experience one of the best horror novels of all time again with fresh, albeit old and farsighted, eyes, I am also very eager to see what does become of young Danny as an adult.  5 out of 5 stars and a strong, must-read recommendation for any horror fan.

— S. Millinocket

photo by Pinguino

Sue Millinocket
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