What you got, son, I call it shinin on
— Dick Halloran, The Shining
I had been wanting to read The Shining for a long time, ever since I watched the Kubrick movie years ago. I was interested to see if the mood, tension, and the oppressive presence of the Overlook Hotel would be such a strong force in the novel. My expectations were both met and exceeded. The way King brings the Overlook to life through its bloody history and monstrous projections of long-dead ghosts sends chills down your spine. It feels less like a mountain resort, and more like a gateway to hell; a living, breathing thing that swallows up the unfortunate souls that visit there.
The core of the story revolves around the Torrance family, who follow their patriarch Jack to become winter caretakers of the hotel. A caretaker is necessary, because high in the Colorado Rockies when deep winter sets in, the hotel becomes snowbound and prone to damage from high winds and heavy snowfall. Jack is a former alcoholic and a former schoolteacher with disturbing rage issues. He is a writer, who hopes to use the winter solitude to finish the play he’s working on and mend the ties between his family, burying the past in a blanket of white. His wife, Wendy, is worried about Jack. Their marriage like most has not been perfect, and while she hopes that the winter will help them all heal, the prospect of being all alone together gives her a bad feeling. Not the least because the previous winter caretaker, Grady, had killed his wife and daughters in a fit of insanity.
Danny, their son, once had his arm broken by Jack when he was three years old as his father pulled him sharply away from a mess he had made. This has made Wendy extra protective of him. Danny is special. He has a friend that only he can see, Tony, who gives him visions and premonitions. These sometimes violent insights don’t always come true, but they are true often enough that Danny is scared when Tony shows him visions of a dark figure chasing him with a mallet.
Danny’s developing psychic abilities let him see things that aren’t there, know where lost things are, read and talk to people telepathically, and sense feelings and emotions. When Danny meets the hotel’s cook, Dick Halloran, he recognizes someone with the same gift as him. Dick calls this a “shine”, something that his grandmother had before him, which allowed the two to have conversations “without ever moving their lips”. Dick warns Danny that the hotel can sometimes be a scary place for people like them. That Danny might see things, horrible things, but not to worry that Dick doesn’t think the things can hurt him.
It is this gift that makes Danny so appealing to the presence of the Overlook. A massive psychic power trapped inside its walls for a whole winter. The “manager” of the hotel would rather Danny stay there forever instead, and will go to any lengths to posess it. Danny’s power acts as a kind of amplifier for the Hotels apparitions, giving them a physical form and strength that they did not have before. Though their power is not enough. To kill Danny they need help from someone already in the physical world, someone that can get to Danny. Someone who is weak willed and prone to losing control. That’s where Jack Torrance comes in.
The way King develops Jack’s inner demons is much more subtle than Nicholson’s portrayal in the film. Maybe it was just because of Nicholson’s malevolent presence, but you expect him to fly off the handle at any moment. That the Jack Torrance in the film is already batshit crazy under the surface. Jack Torrance in the novel is a flawed family man doing the best he can. Struggling with alcohol and anger problems inherited from his abusive father, Jack experiences three major failures that put the family in their current predicament. His alcoholism almost cost him his life, barreling down a darkened road. His rage almost cost him his marriage, when he broke Danny’s arm as when the child was three years old. And it cost him his well-paying teaching job when he assaulted a student.
These demons and resulting feelings of self-loathing were the perfect footholds in his mind for the Overlook to take hold. The tragedy of the story is that Jack never really had a chance. The family has many opportunities to avoid their fate, and the story may well have gone differently if Jack simply worked the caretaker job by himself. He may have come out the other side with a fresh outlook on life and a completed play that would become successful. Danny’s powers would not have awoken the hotel. Perhaps Jack would not have been consumed.
Wendy Torrance is also much better developed than Shelley Duvall’s portrayal in the film, because she is a main point of view character. The inner conflict between her love of Jack and her need to protect Danny and herself can lead to some frustrating decisions, but she herself acknowledges when she is being irrational. Divorce is not so clean cut, especially not when your partner is an alcoholic with anger issues. And it becomes impossible when you are trapped together and your partner is trying to kill you. Wendy’s psychological and physical strength when grappling with an insane Jack later in the novel is a great representation of a mother drawing upon superhuman strength to protect their child.
The Shining is a classic King novel, full of slow building dread, rich character development (Dick Halloran is a personal favourite, especially when he shows up in IT), and many Checkov’s guns (the boiler, the snow mobiles). As in IT), King includes a rich history of depravity for the Overlook Hotel through old files that Jack finds in the basement. As always King sometimes has a tendency to ramble on at some points, but as always the extra development and background is worth it in the end. And the ending of The Shining is one of King’s better endings, which are usually a bit lackluster.
Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters