Stephen King’s name has become synonymous with the horror genre and has defined it in popular culture for a generation. Most people will have heard of Carrie, or IT, the recent years having provided us with revamped, modern interpretations of King’s famous stories. The Shining is perhaps one of the most famous among them and was, ironically, a film that King himself disliked when it was translated onto the screen – and having both seen the movie and read the book, I can see why.
The novel follows the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy and their young son Danny as they take over the maintenance of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado when it closes for the winter. If you have seen the movie and have any pre-built beliefs about the characters in this story, try to leave them at the front page. For one, Danny is much, much less annoying and creepy in the book. Having watched the movie, I came away with the firm belief that if I had a child that creepy I would leave them on the snowy mountaintop and never procreate again. Beyond that, the characters weren’t likeable. The novel offers them a fully human personality with all its faults and flaws, and I found the characterisation to be excellent overall. That’s not to say I liked them all.
Jack Torrance, family patriarch and recovering alcoholic, was a complex and fully rounded individual and I just didn’t like him. He was selfish and self-important, his ego being the trait that the mysterious forces of the Overlook latched onto to warp his mind and control his actions. You see just enough of his potential for humanity and love to pity him, but not enough to erase a history of alcoholism and violence. He loves his family, but he loves himself more, and his inability to look outside of his own interests for too long is a trait that provides him with an innate sense of dislikability. Wendy, his long suffering wife, is more of a sympathetic character, but her lack of comprehension is maddening. Now, if I was where she was, I probably wouldn’t see anything either. We the readers know what we know because we are told what is happening, we are given the details of every premonition, every bloodstain and grisly shadow in the Overlook’s winding halls. Wendy is a wife frightened for the mental and physical health of her husband, and for the safety and wellbeing of her son, whose fits and unnervingly accurate predictions are understandably terrifying her. Then, there is Danny. Danny is the star of the book, and the terror that imbues it. He is a child, barely five years old, who can see and hear things that would drive many adults completely mad. The world can be horrifying through a child’s eyes anyway, even without ghostly brain matter smeared on the walls or nightmares of a weapon-wielding monster murdering you and those you love. The kid has issues, and as he desperately tries to understand the ‘shine’ that allows him to see things other people cannot, and to save his parents from an evil only he can sense, you do genuinely feel for him.
The Overlook Hotel (inspired by but not solely based on a real hotel called the Stanley Hotel which has played host over the years to a few of its own tales of haunting, as do many old buildings) is terrifying and I would never ever want to stay there. A character in and of itself, the Overlook has a sense of shifting, palpable evil about it that is testament to King’s world-building skills. I loved the sense of both snowy isolation and omnipresent eyes watching the Torrance’s every move, and the atmosphere of the writing was superb. A favourite scene of mine, without saying too much, is the first time Jack ventures into the grounds of the Overlook to maintain the hedges. It doesn’t sound scary right? It’s downright eerie. Trust me on that. We see the hotel’s malevolent energy get into the minds of the people inhabiting it slowly, painfully, over time. The pacing of the book is quite slow in places, and we see Jack Torrance’s descent into madness in aching slow-motion as he uncovers the hotel’s dark past in all its horrifying believability. The Shining is a book that reminds you of how many people stay in hotels, how many terrible things have the potential to happen in their seemingly private rooms. Do we ever really know who stayed in the room before us? Who may have died there, on the floor, thirty years ago?
King is a fan of abrasive language, and he has given good reason for this: that is how people talk. Especially in the 70s. Each character sounds different, with their own favourite phrases and words and yes, some of them are offensive. For example, Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s chef and Danny’s fellow shiner, is a character of colour and as you can probably imagine in a book set in the 70s, those aren’t the words often chosen to describe him. As with Jaws, I mention this not as a deterrent against reading the book, but a warning for those who are perhaps more sensitive to things like that than I am.
Overall I thought this book was fantastic, and I’d definitely recommend it to anybody who is a fan of horror. It’s unsettling, and well-crafted, and it sticks with you long after the book is done. Certainly, it’ll make you think twice about the hotels you stay at in future. Maybe read up on them first.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5