Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining
By Stephen King
Copyright 1977

Stephen King’s third book would cement his reputation as THE up and comer in the book industry in the 1970s. It was his first New York Times Bestseller. It was made into a hit movie that ranks as one of the truly great horror films of all time. As a book, it ranks as one of his finest works.

Jack Torrance is down on his luck. He’s been fired from the Vermont prep school where he taught English for assaulting a pupil. He’s a recovering alcoholic with a wife and a five year old son whose arm he broke in a drunken rage less than a year ago. The book opens with Jack interviewing for a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains of Colorado.

The job was arranged for him by his friend, Al, who used to be a drinking buddy until they experienced a horrible scare one night. Al comes from a wealthy family and he sits on the board of directors of the Overlook.

Jack hopes to spend the winter repairing his marriage and finishing a play he is writing that he hopes will be the financial salvation for his family.

Jack and his family arrive on closing day. They are informed that they will be cut off from civilization other than a CB radio after November. Jack goes off to learn about the hotel’s boiler and his other responsibilities. Wife Wendy and son Danny get a tour of the kitchen from the Overlook cook, Dick Halloran. Halloran recognizes that young Danny Torrance, just five years old, has the gift of “The Shine.” He has precognition and is susceptible to the residual effects of prior horrible acts.

Halloran gets Danny alone and explains to him how he sometimes knows what people are thinking, knows where to find lost objects, and knows what people are thinking. Halloran shines as well, but not nearly as strongly as does Danny. He warns Danny that there are things in the hotel that he will see. Scary things. He tells Danny their not real; just pictures in a book. He warns Danny to avoid two places: Room 217 and the topiary shrubs. Those places, he says, are dangerous for people who shine.

The last of the hotel staff leaves and Jack Torrance shuts the door behind them. The Torrance family is alone in the Overlook Hotel. They settle in for the winter.

Things start to go bad with a seemingly un-supernatural event. Jack bug bombs a nest of hornets and places the nest with the (supposedly) dead hornets in Danny’s room as an ornament. One night, the hornets awaken and climb out of the nest, stinging Danny. Jack doesn’t understand it. He was confident he killed all of them.

Wendy takes Danny to a doctor in a nearby town before the snow flies. There’s no harm done by the wasps. Danny confides to the doctor that he has a secret friend named Tony. Tony shows Danny things. Sometimes Tony is wrong, but he’s often right like when he showed Danny where his father’s missing manuscript was located. He also tells the doctor that prior to coming to the Overlook, Danny showed him a mirror with the word, REDRUM written in red.

After examining Danny, the doctor talks to Wendy and delves into some 1970s pop psychology. He tells Wendy that Tony is a construct of Danny’s mind that helped him deal with the tension within Jack and Wendy’s marriage. Now that the tension has dissipated, Tony is fighting to remain relevant to Danny.

While Danny and Wendy are in town, Jack discovers a scrapbook in the basement of the Overlook. In it are clippings that reveal all of the sordid, horrible history of the hotel. Women committing suicide. Gangsters getting wiped out in gangland hits. Questionable ownership. It’s all there and is all fascinating to Jack Torrance.

Danny and Wendy return to the Overlook and the family settles in. One afternoon, Jack is out on the front lawn and notices that the topiary has moved. He watches it and hears another move. When he looks at that one, yet another one advances at him. Jack, like Danny, realizes that supernatural forces are at work at the Overlook. The fear spurs Jack's first strong urge to drink since coming to the Overlook.

Danny continues to see visions. He is obsessed with the old fashioned fire hoses in the hallways that he is certain are snakes. Room 217 and it secrets fascinate him as well although he has not yet entered. Danny is plenty scared and Wendy suspects it. She asks Danny if they should leave the Overlook. Danny, not wanting to be separated from his father, says they can’t leave him.

The Torrances make one last trip into town before the snow flies. Desperately wanting a drink and in a surly mood, Jack decides to call Ullman and tell him about the scrapbook. He calls Ullman and baits him into a heated argument by suggesting that he might write a book about the Overlook and its ugly past. The conversation ends with Jack feeling an unhappy self satisfaction in getting under Ullman’s skin.

The Torrances return to the Overlook and the snow begins to fly. They are snowed in and cut off from the world. It will be April before they see civilization again.

Time passes at the Overlook. Jack works on his play, does hotel maintenance, and spends hours in the basement, going over old receipts and studying the history of the storied Overlook Hotel. Danny continues to struggle with the hotel’s torments.

One day, curiosity gets the better of Danny and he grabs the pass key to room 217. He goes in and discovers the horror that lies within. It grabs him and shuts the door.

Hours later, Jack and Wendy find Danny in the hallway. He has bruises on his neck as if someone tried to strangle him. Wendy immediately accuses Jack of attacking Danny. She takes him back to their apartment and leaves Jack in a mental daze.

Angry, Jack wanders into the hotel bar which is dry. He has an imaginary conversation with the bartender, Lloyd, who sets up 19 imaginary martinis for Jack to knock back. As his fantasy plays out, Jack can hear the Big Band music of a bygone era playing in his head. In an imaginary drunken state, Jack takes a roque mallet and destroys the CB radio. Now the Torrances are completely isolated and alone.

He returns to the apartment to find Wendy has calmed down, but that Danny is in a nearly catatonic state. As they are arguing over whether or not to leave, Danny comes out of his fugue and screams, “It was her!” Jack turns to Wendy and looks suspiciously. Wendy is taken aback and Jack knows she wouldn’t harm Danny. Nonetheless, he feels some self satisfaction in watching Wendy’s shock when, instead of the accuser, she is the accused.

Jack gets the pass key and heads for 217. He is angry at Danny for going into a guest room which he knows is off limits. He’s also curious to see what’s in 217 because he’s read about the middle aged woman with fading beauty who checked into that room and left in a body bag – a victim of an appointment with a razor blade.

He arrives in 217 and finds it as it should be with just one exception: the bathmat is on the floor and is wet. His anger at Danny rises and he goes to pick up the bathmat. He smells soap. He looks into the tub and discovers the horror of room 217. He flees. He later tells Wendy that there was nothing there and admonishes Danny to stay out of forbidden areas.

That night, the Torrances are awakened by the sound of the elevators running. They go to check on them. Jack insists that it is just a short circuit. But when the elevator stops on their floor and the door opens, they find confetti and party favors on the elevator floor. The Overlook’s ghosts are starting to party.

Wendy wants to leave. She’s determined to do it and tells Jack to go to the maintenance shed to check on the snow mobile. Jack dutifully checks the snow mobile. For reasons he can’t fathom, he yanks the magneto from the snowmobile’s engine and throws it over the hill.

He returns to the Overlook and sits down before his unfinished play and decides it’s all crap. He can’t identify with the main character – a school boy abused by a school headmaster jealous of his privilege and his scholastic ability. He finds himself identifying more with the schoolmaster.

He pushes it aside and returns to the basement to delve into more old papers and receipts. He passes the hours there.

Meanwhile, Danny is in the lobby. He finds an old clock and winds it up. He is immediately sucked into a vortex where Tony is waiting for him. Tony shows him what his father has been up to and tells Danny that the hotel wants him – not his father. The hotel is using his father to get at Danny because Danny’s powers can bring the ghosts of the Overlook to life. Danny uses his shine to contact Dick Halloran and scream for help. Before departing, Tony tells Danny he will remember what his father forgot. He shows Danny the word REDRUM one more time before reversing the letters, so they spell MURDER.

Jack leaves the basement and heads for the bar. When he arrives, he finds the party has started and Lloyd is at his accustomed place behind the bar. The martinis are real and Jack downs many of them, getting fitfully drunk. As he watches the revelry, he is approached by the ghost of Delbert Grady, the former caretaker. Delbert tells Jack that his son has not been a good boy and has tried to bring outside parties (Halloran) into the mix. He goes on to say that his own children didn’t like the Overlook and one of them tried to burn it down. He “corrected” them. Jack must now “correct” his own family.

Wendy goes to find Jack and Jack is on the prowl to find Danny. They encounter each other in a hallway and Wendy manages to knock him unconscious. She and Danny drag him to the walk in refrigerator and lock him in.

But the hotel’s will will not be thwarted. The ghost of Delbert Grady unlocks the refrigerator and lets Jack out. Grady says the collective ghosts of the Overlook are beginning to doubt that Jack is of “managerial timber.” Jack sets out, roque mallet in hand, to prove them wrong.

Wendy is about the hotel, looking for Danny who is in hiding. Along the way, she encounters several of the party guests -- ghosts from a bygone era finding new life with the young boy who shines brightly for their benefit.

Meanwhile, Dick Halloran has come on the fly all the way from Florida and is making his way toward the Overlook. He battles the topiary animals and makes his way into the hotel. He is shouting for Danny when he is accosted by Jack who smacks him hard across the jaw with the mallet, knocking him unconscious. Jack heads for the apartment to “correct” Wendy.

Wendy sees him coming and tries to reason with him, but is forced to lock herself in the apartment. Jack has beaten her badly. As Jack is breaking down the door, she locks herself in the bathroom. As Jack is breaking down that door, Wendy grabs some razor blades from the medicine cabinet. When Jack reaches through the broken door to open it, she cuts him. Jack decides to seek out easier prey in Danny.

Jack wanders the hallways of the Overlook, his personality now completely dominated by the malevolent spirit of the Overlook. He screams for Danny to come out and take his medicine. He finally finds Danny and corners him. Precocious child that Danny is, he tells Jack that the hotel made him drink because it was the only way it could get at Jack and it simply wants Jack to kill Danny so he and his powers can join the ghosts of the hotel.

The last bit of what’s left of Jack’s personality surfaces and he tells Danny to run. But Danny remembers what his father forgot. Just as the hotel resumes its domination of Jack, Danny tells him he forgot to dump the boiler. Jack, in a panic, leaves Danny and heads for the basement, hoping against hope that it’s not too late to keep the hotel from exploding.

Danny and Wendy find each other and join Halloran who is beaten, but serviceable. They flee the hotel, get on the snow mobile and start down the mountain. Halloran stops at the maintenance shed to get some blankets and finds himself with the sudden urge to kill Danny and Wendy. He shakes it off and heads back to the snowmobile. Meanwhile, in the Overlook’s basement Jack is desperately trying to dump the boiler when it explodes. The Overlook burns as Danny, Wendy, and Dick head down the mountain.

The book flashes forward almost a year. Wendy is recovering from the beating Jack administered in the Overlook hallway. Danny is fishing in a Maine lake and Dick Halloran is working at a hotel in Maine. Wendy received $40,000 in life insurance and Jack’s old drinking buddy has offered her a lucrative job in Baltimore. They all promise to stay in touch. It's a bittersweet ending for Wendy and Danny Torrance.

The Shining was King’s third novel and ranks as one of his best. It’s top notch horror by any standard. The book incorporates elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and the more contemporary, Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco. There are moments of creeping terror and long, action driven narratives that are exciting and thrilling.

In his third novel, we see King introduce a technique he would go on to employ often. In his narrative, King writes what is actually seen and/or heard. It is followed by a parenthetical phrase standing alone as a paragraph that serves as an almost subliminal message. For instance, as the ghosts of the long ago masquerade party scream, "Unmask!” King writes in lower case, just below the quote “(and the red death held sway).

While King's second book, ‘Salem’s Lot was an exceptional book and is heralded as a worthy modern revision of the classic vampire story, The Shining is a monumental step forward from that book in the development of Stephen King as a writer. The haunted house story is the cornerstone of horror. It’s been done thousands of times. Sometimes it’s excellent as in the case of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Sometimes it’s entertaining if not exceptionally deep like Marasco’s novel, and often it is just a remix of old clichés and archetypes that offers nothing new (like the screenplay Rose Red which King would author more than 20 years later and stack every cliche in the genre in this poor effort).

The Shining has plenty of the things that go bump in the night. It incorporates total isolation which is not an uncommon ingredient in horror. King uses the archetypes but gives us the hotel itself as the malevolent force. The ghosts are its agents, but the hotel is the enemy.

Jack Torrance is a sympathetic character which makes him tragic rather than evil. He has a family he is trying desperately to support. He’s made a mess of his own life because of his addiction to alcohol. He is trying desperately to do right by them and to rebuild his own career and self esteem. Unfortunately, the demons in his head find allies in the demons that haunt the Overlook and he is overpowered. His death is not a victory. We are sad for Jack when he dies, his life unfulfilled.

Wendy is a complex character as well and not always sympathetic. She has stood by her man in bad times. But she can’t bring herself to trust him completely. No matter how hard she resists, she can’t help but sniff Jack’s breath for alcohol. When Danny is injured, she’s quick to blame Jack. As a character, she’s not a bad person, but serves to add to Jack’s torment because he so badly wants her trust, love, and respect and never gets it.

King perhaps makes Danny a little more mature than even the most precocious five year old. His understanding of complex events, of complicated adult emotions, and the supernatural nature of the Overlook is beyond what a five year old should be able to comprehend. This is perhaps the chief weakness in the novel, but it is minor. The compelling narrative carries you right past whatever weaknesses exist within Danny as a character.

The Shining established Stephen King as a major force in horror fiction and was an important factor in resurrecting the moribund genre in the mid 1970s. It was his first hardcover bestseller. Three years after its publication, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used it as the blueprint for a movie many regard as one of the finest horror movies ever made. That movie would establish Stephen King as a bankable asset in Hollywood.

In 1997, King would realize a long ambition to write a teleplay of his own based on The Shining. The result was a three part television miniseries that was much closer to King's vision than was Kubrick's. It was not bad, but not nearly the movie that Kubrick made. It's obvious that Stephen King knows how to write incredible fiction books and Stanley Kubrick makes incredible movies. King, despite how he felt about Kubrick's treatment of his novel, should have left it alone. Kubrick never tried to write a novel better than Stephen King. Stephen King should not have attempted to make a better movie than Stanley Kubrick.

The Shining is a must read for any fan of horror. It should be read by those who appreciate a good novel of any kind. While a large segment of literati still look down upon horror stories as dreck, they are closing their minds to a well crafted, well written story. Not only is The Shining a great horror story, it is a great novel.

1 comment:

  1. I've never seen Wendy as being anything other than sympathetic, personally. Sure, WE know that Jack is at heart a good man, but we've got the benefit of peeking inside his head from time to time; Wendy has no such magical knowledge, and can only trust the evidence at hand. And I find it hard to blame her for that.

    This is part of the reason why I don't have the problem a lot of fans of the novel have with Shelley Duvall's portrayal of Wendy in Kubrick's movie. She plays Wendy as somewhat weak, and somewhat wishy-washy; those attributes are exaggerated in comparison with the Wendy of the novel, but they ARE there in the novel.

    And frankly, I find Duvall's Wendy to be a bit more heroic, simply because she is obviously scared out of her mind. Wendy in the novel is scared, too, but she's relatively composed. It seems like a real achievement for Duvall's Wendy to not have just crumpled like a piece of paper, but she didn't; she just fights through the fear, because there really isn't much of a choice.