Having only started reading Stephen King in the last six months, it’s already been quite a journey. King has certain narrative hallmarks he trades in: coming of age, abused women, alcoholic men, the magical negro (this has often been cited as a problem in King’s works), and the power of the almost holy innocence of childhood to vanquish ultimate evil. The Shining carries all of these, but unlike some of his other novels, it doesn’t gloriously build to a convoluted, head-scratching ending that leaves you wondering if King himself even knew where all of this was going in the first place. He’s so good at building characters and taking the reader on a journey, but sometimes he’s not so great at the final destination. The climax can often read like a pastiche of macabre and overly simplistic ideas, the end result veering off into cornball territory. And though I haven’t read a lot of King’s novels, I’m thinking primarily of issues with the endings of Needful Things (the snake in the can and Gaunt’s transformation), Gerald’s Game (the maudlin letter and the way our heroine comes to rely on another man who just treats her like a silly woman), and IT (the magical boner-inducing, coma-curing bicycle ride, among other things). That’s not to dismiss all that came before those final moments, nor do these issues undermine the hundreds of pages of wonderful writing he’s delivered up to that point.
I digress. I’m here to talk about The Shining, which is perfection from beginning to end. It’s King’s most personal work, reflecting his own struggles with alcoholism through the character of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, father and recovering alcoholic who takes a job as off-season caretaker of the storied Overlook Hotel in Colorado in a last ditch attempt to earn some money, heal some of the wounds he’s inflicted on his family and finish a long-gestating play -- and prove himself not just as a father and a husband, but as a man capable of responsibility, a man of value and integrity. Those with even passing familiarity with the novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation know that the story of the Torrance family doesn’t end well. And although Kubrick’s work is an unnerving and visually glorious piece of classic cinema in its own right, it fails to capture the rich character and soul of the novel -- then again, it’s apples and oranges with these two, and comparing them seems painful and unfair because they’re both great.
Some of the best writing comes from deeply personal and painful places, which is perhaps why King’s The Shining reads so brilliant and hits so hard. There’s an ease to his writing here that I haven’t read in his other works (yet -- this entire article comes with an asterisk because I haven’t read enough of his work to warrant such total judgment), the sort of ease that comes with an exhale, or the way a valve releases pressure, much the same way that Jack must remember to go down to the boiler room and turn the valve a couple of times a day to avoid blowing up the entire hotel -- a metaphor for Jack’s own mounting frustrations, exacerbated by the evil that lurks within the hotel, exploiting the worst parts of Jack to turn him against his family in an effort to absorb his son Danny’s exceptional telepathic abilities.
Jack, his wife Wendy and their son Danny are so rich and complex that they feel tangible, their troubles so heartbreakingly relatable. Jack is haunted by his own alcoholic father, and some of the horror from the story comes from the very real concept of the cyclical nature of addiction and of becoming what you fear the most -- a keen awareness of a parent’s addiction and your own predisposition doesn’t guarantee avoidance. Jack’s repressed paternal issues have been festering inside of him for years, his subconscious worrying over them like biting nails that have already been chewed down to the quick. But mixed in with that worry is also a sort of sad nostalgia, the way Jack recalls the smell of beer like a fine halo mist around his father’s face. He may associate that sense memory with childhood trauma, but he also naturally associates it with good. He longs for a drink to dampen his frustrations with his family and himself, as much as he longs for a drink to try and identify with an ill father he was too young to understand. Unfortunately, because he’s at the mercy of a hotel possessed by evil spirits, he’s driven to drink to weaken his resolve and make him forget the love he has for his own family, so wrapped up he is in matters of self-importance and denial about his own traumatic past. Jack remembers and re-remembers the inciting incident that led him down this path, but memories are merely stories we tell ourselves over and over again, and we have a tendency to re-shape and shift them in order to justify our current narrative.
The novel version of Wendy is a far cry from Shelley Duvall’s fawn-like portrayal -- she’s a woman who is exhausted from the toll of her husband’s alcoholism and the strain it’s placed on their family both financially and emotionally. She’s not the kind of woman to shrug away the time Jack broke Danny’s arm; in fact, she brings it up fairly often, if not vocally, then with worried looks that annoy her husband. And like Jack, she’s also worried about the parent-child cycle, afraid of becoming her domineering, insecure mother, whose jealousy over Wendy’s relationship with her father tore their family apart. Wendy is constantly teetering on the precipice of inciting the very thing she fears, by worrying over it so much that she just wills it into existence, the way we often do as an almost subconscious act of ripping off a band-aid; fuck it, let’s just give in and see if our fears are so founded.
There’s a saying I heard when my own father would sporadically attend AA meetings, that alcoholism is the only disease you can be mad at someone for having. It’s a selfish disease and a self-inflicted one, but at a certain point it stops being a choice and starts being an addiction that spreads like a virus, infecting everyone around you. The hotel seems to function virally in the same manner, taking hold in one person before spreading its sinister effects around. Poor little Danny is in the middle, caught between not only his parents, but between what he knows is best (leaving the hotel) and what they think they know is best (staying). There’s a war between rational and irrational thought: the rational ideas of needing stability and a future for the family, and Very Important adult concepts that are beyond Danny’s grasp, and then there are the irrational ideas, like evil spirits who invoke a murderous rage reflective of his own father’s inner demons. As a child, Danny is too young to grapple with and reconcile these concepts, nor can he really elaborate the way he’d like to. But he is incredibly bright and clever, more so than in the film version, which paints him as a little boy, wide-eyed and mouth often agape, unable to hold much in the way of conversation. He’s smart but naive, as bright young kids are, and his telepathic understanding of the relationship and feelings between his parents is heart-crumpling. Danny’s abilities serve as a supernatural function, of course, but they also work as a metaphor for the way kids sadly intuit problems between their parents, a kind of perception that only a naive person who hasn’t lived or experienced much could really possess.
And while the characters are so rich, the most startling revelation of The Shining is just how poetic the entire novel is. King has often quoted the poet William Carlos Williams in his novels, most notably IT, and you can see the influence in the rhythm and language of his writing here, which feels more elegiac and graceful, the writing more purposeful, as if not even a single conjunction should be wasted. King also frequently uses parentheticals to interrupt character thoughts, but these parenthetical interruptions are not only more recurrent in The Shining, they’re far more unnerving, placed jarringly mid-thought or even mid-dialogue, in a manner more suited to modern poets like Williams or E.E. Cummings.
Aside from this startlingly gorgeous poetic angle, what I least expected was to find myself sobbing at novel’s end. You’ve made it this far, so a spoiler warning seems absurd, but I’d like to share with you some of the final words from the Overlook Hotel head cook to young Danny, from the last page of the novel. So much of the way we ingest media is selfish, and even as a critic I’m writing reviews in a selfish manner, often obscuring the reasons why I personally connected with something by trying to slightly generalize or broaden my reasoning for an audience, and reconciling my individual reaction with a technical understanding. I’m not supposed to be writing about myself, I’m supposed to be telling you why a movie is good, but the truth is I’m pretty much always writing about myself. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. It’s my opinion, it’s why I connected with something, it’s why that something meant something to me. I’m just not going to divulge my life history, and instead refract that personal connection and understanding through lenses that are appropriately technical and analytical, more social and less singular.
But when I read this bit from Dick Hallorrann to Danny, I got that feeling -- the feeling you hope for when you watch a film or listen to a song, where a shiver radiates from your spine and takes hold of you because you feel as though this particular piece of media is peering into your soul and speaking directly to you. I feel like an addict, always chasing this feeling in a movie theater, and I didn’t expect to find it in a Stephen King book, of all places, but here it is, and I’ll leave you with it:
“The way things should be and the way things are hardly ever get together. The world's a hard place, Danny. It don't care. It don't hate you and me, but it don't love us, either. Terrible things happen in the world, and they're things no one can explain. Good people die in bad, painful ways and leave the folks that love them all alone. Sometimes it seems like it's only the bad people who stay healthy and prosper. The world don't love you, but your momma does and so do I. You grieve for your daddy, and when you feel you have to cry over what happened to him, you go into a closet or under your covers and cry until it's all out of you again. That's what a good son has to do. But see that you get on. That's your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what.”