My Year of King, #3: The Shining

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

If you're tracing my Year of King journey (and why wouldn't you be?) you'll know that I was a little disappointed in 'Salem's Lot this time. That experience made me very concerned to read The Shining. I wasn't sure I could stand it if The Shining, which I remember being one of King's best books, and one of the few that actually scared me for real, was not as good 30 years later. But crisis averted! The Shining still stands as a true masterpiece of the genre, and one of the best books of the 20th century, in my humble opinion. <BIG SIGH OF RELIEF>

In case you have somehow not read it, or have only watched the Kubrick movie, here's the breakdown. Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny move into the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado as winter caretakers. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, is fresh off of being fired for physically assaulting a student at the exclusive prep school where he was an English teacher. An old drinking buddy arranges for him to get the job at the Overlook, and the plan is for him to spend the winter doing minor upkeep while finishing a play that he's been writing. No sooner do they arrive to take the tour at the end of the season that the scary begins. Danny, unbeknownst to his parents, has what he comes to call "the shine". He can read people's thoughts, can speak telepathically with other people who "shine", and can sometimes see the future. He can also, unfortunately, see visions of the bad things that have happened in the past, and the Overlook has seen its share of tragic events over the years. Once the snows come and strand them in the hotel, without any communication with the outside world, the malevolent forces in the hotel start to work on Jack and Danny in terrifying ways, culminating in an explosive ending.

If you have only ever seen the Jack Nicholson movie, don't think you know The Shining. Kubrick took the source material and adapted it for the time, including the limitations of the special effects industry of the 1980s. While there are many elements in common-the hotel itself, REDRUM, and Jack's eventual insanity-the book and the movie are different enough that reading it will be worth it. Also, the book is WAY scarier than the movie. Both highlight this idea that the most terrifying monsters are the ones that live within all of us, there are truly terrifying scenes in the book that just aren't done sufficient justice in the film, if they are present at all.

This is the second of King's books where he explores the idea that buildings become repositories for the evil done in them, and that as that evil grows it brings more madness and mayhem to the characters who live/work/visit said building, until the building itself becomes a malevolent force in its own right. In 'Salem's Lot is was the Marsten House, which soaked up the psychic energy of the people who had inhabited it, and reflected that back to anyone who ventured in. King develops this idea further in The Shining, where the hotel itself becomes a character, with an evil spirit that acts of its own will to entrap and destroy Jack and his family.

Like many of King's characters, you can't help but feel sympathetic towards Jack, despite the fact that he ends up being the villain of his family's story. I suspect I found him slightly less sympathetic this time than I did when I read this 30 years ago, because the casual sexism that probably seemed super authentic back then was just irritating now. I hope and pray that there aren't too many people who still hold the same views of marriage and gender roles that Jack does in the novel. But that was a minor annoyance and didn't take anything away from how creepy and scary the plot becomes. King also further develops his "children as heroes" theme, with Danny being the most well-developed child character so far, more so than either Carrie or Mark Petrie from 'Salem's Lot.

Because I'm reading in publication order, I have to jump to the first of the Bachman books next, Rage, which is really only a novella at a slim 149 pages. But after that, it's on to The Stand, my favorite of King's book, the one I consider his magnum opus, the one that I think is highly underrated because book snobs consider it "just" a genre novel. It is almost 1100 pages of tiny print goodness, and I can't wait to read it again! But it's gonna take me a minute!

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