November 2, 2009

Rabid Read-Along: "The Shining" by Stephen King

Title: The Shining

Author: Stephen King
Published: originally by Pocket Books (1977)
Pages: 683
Genre: Horror
ISBN 0743424425
ISBN 13:

After getting back into reading this decade, I realized I had a lot of catching up to do. It's one thing to read books that interest you, and read recent releases when you can get your hands on them, but it's quite another when you must also pile on all of the classic stories from decades past that you never bothered to read for whatever reason. Daunting at times. Thankfully, the true classics make it a very easy journey because of the quality of the work put into crafting the tale. The Shining counts as a classic novel that was mercifully accessible and ultimately enjoyable for a guy like me who hadn't read it yet.

I really should have read this sooner. Shame on me. At least now I can appreciate the line from Friends, where Joey tells Rachel why he keeps his copy of The Shining in the freezer--"Y'know, I mean I never start reading The Shining, without making sure we’ve got plenty of room in the freezer, y'know."

If for some reason you haven't read the book yourself, or at least watched the film or TV adaptation, I'll quickly sum it up for you. Jack Torrence gets a new job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains through the winter months, while it's shut down for the season. He's alone in the historic hotel as the sole employee for the time, save for having his family (his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny) with him. Jack's on a rebound of sorts after losing his teaching job in disgrace due to his alcoholism, and wants to use the seclusion of the Overlook to finish his stage play. But there are evil forces at work in the hotel, and have been for a long time in its storied past, and Jack's son, Danny, has an extrasensory ability--the shining--that enables him to see the forces at work trying to tear his family apart. And with the strains the family has already gone through, their stay at the Overlook threatens to be a slow descent into hell.

I'm really glad, in hindsight, that I watched Stanley Kubrick's film before I read King's novel. That's because the stories are quite different overall, and I would likely share King's distaste for Kubrick's interpretation had I fallen in love with the book first. King focuses as much, if not more, on the family's inner turmoil and struggles to maintain a semblance of normality throughout the novel, as opposed to the supernatural entities threatening to turn Jack into a raving maniac. Whereas Kubrick, it turns out, forgoes all development of Jack Torrence as a character and instantly presents him as a foreboding presence in the story, as much so as any ghosts looming in the halls of the Overlook. The book really shows Jack's struggle against his own anger, his drinking, his inadequacies, and his failures. In retrospect, the film fails to do this and Kubrick seems to prefer turning the Overlook into an amusement park of poltergeists.

Despite being a classic, it's not without its minor flaws. Stephen King has a particularly way to tell his stories, which sometimes includes odd use of language in scenes that are meant to draw out a lot of tension. It's part of his vernacular, I guess, and it's forgivable. And while the backstory is appreciated and adds much more dimension to the characters than anything a film adaptation could provide, there were moments where it felt like it droned on a bit much.

The key to what makes this novel so gratifying is character. The chills and spills are good and what you love in a scary story, but the key to a memorable, quality tale of terror is character development. King could have held back a bit and still had a very good story, but this is ultimately a story about a haunted family, rather than a story about a haunted hotel. Jack wants to do right by his family, but he is his own worst enemy. Wendy wants to keep her family safe, but risks their safety at times in order to simply keep the family together. And Danny, for such a young and impressionable kid, is forced to grow up a lot sooner than he would like to because of both the family strife and his own blossoming "shine."

For anyone who enjoys stories about haunted houses, and yet has not gotten around to this book yet, you're in for a treat. For psychological thriller fans, this book has a lot of offer. For detractors of the horror genre, I dare you to read this book and call it terrible. For people who want to read the classics of dark fiction, make sure you have this book on your reading list. As for myself, I feel like I've witnessed up close one more reason why Stephen King is such a damned good storyteller.

One thing outside the book itself that I found distasteful was the pervasive attitude towards the horror genre in other reviews for this novel. It's unavoidable among critics, I suppose, but I'm still disappointed when I read comments like: "Stephen King is considered a horror writer, but this novel doesn't fit into what I define as horror;" "This was very well-written for the horror genre;" "I thought it was going to be just another horror novel, but this was actually good." Oh boy. Not the most informed opinions, would you agree?

Read Along with: Bibliophile's Bookshelf; Stella Mutatina


  1. An excellent review of an excellent book. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it; it is one of my personal favourites. I love the chapter where the topiary bushes come alive. I was really disappointed when this scene was omitted from the movie, I'm sure it would have made great scary viewing. :)

  2. I was pleased to see the bushes alive in the TV mini-series. Granted, they weren't spectacular effects, but at least it kept loyal to the novel.

  3. I wonder if I would enjoy the movie more? I liked the book a lot but I must admit some of the child abuse and history on Jack were hard for me to handle.

    I do love King though, next year I want to finish reading his Dark Tower series and I might attempt another standalone too.

  4. Well, with that being the case, you may actually like the movie more since it really glossing over a lot of the family history.

    And if you're looking for another stand-alone King novel, my sister and her mother-in-law swear by Rose Madder.

  5. Great insights here. I really try to separate the movie and the book. We share many of the same opinions on King's work, flaws and all. I'm so glad I gave it another chance!