It is impossible to ignore the massive influence Stephen King has over the horror genre. Whether you’re a fan or not, his presence remains intact, stronger than ever, and though he’s hinted at retirement several times, he seems content with an “I’m just getting warmed up” attitude. Cool, bring it on, and best of luck to you, sir. That kind of confidence means more books to read. After a mid-career slump, it seems King is back doing what he does best: scaring the crap out of people. Perhaps he’s feeling inspired by the success of his super talented son, Joe Hill. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, especially if it means more kickass books for us to read.
My first encounter with King was The Stand. A friend of my father loaned it me after I begged him to let me read it before Dad got his hands on it. I asked him if it was as good as the Hardy Boys books I was tearing into at the time, and he just laughed and said it was a lot better than that. My father was kind enough to let me read it first, and I discovered his friend was right, it was better than the Hardy Boys, and soon I was asking Mom not to buy me Creepy and Eerie comics anymore (yeah I know … DUMB decision, but hey … I was like thirteen years old, give me a break), I wanted books by this Stephen King guy. I read ‘salem’s Lot, then The Shining. As much a favorite ‘salem’s Lot is to King fans, it’s not a favorite of mine. Blasphemous? Maybe. I’ll agree it’s a damn good book, but compared to The Shining, it doesn’t come close for me.
My purpose for reading The Shining again was twofold: It’s been a really long, long time, and I wanted to see if I could recapture some of the Stephen King magic that inspired me to write my own stories. The magic, of course, is how King manages to make the story personal, and how his characters move the plot, connected to the narrative, to a logical yet unpredictable ending. Certainly enough time had passed to read it again, but I was unsure if my memory of the book would help or hinder my need to get what I wanted out of the experience.
Technically King’s third novel, depending on which name he was using at the time, The Shining saw a marked difference in King’s writing style. While Carrie was more of an epistolary story, told with newspaper articles, interviews, and the like, and ‘salem’s Lot was told in a modern-for-its-time omniscient style that fit the story quite nicely, The Shining utilised a close 3rd person narrative structure that gave King the freedom he needed to get deep inside his characters’ heads while remaining omniscient when he needed to shift point-of-view on the fly. The key word here is ‘personal’. When one ventures into the haunted house, it’s best to realize the horrors you most often find are personal, and King was no stranger to this concept. It’s important to note at this time that King was following the Write-What-You-Know route very tightly at this point in his career. He was suddenly a wealthy full-time writer who could afford all the luxuries that money provides, including dabbling in little vices like booze and drugs. We’ve all heard the stories of King’s early drafts of The Shining turned in to his editor smeared with blood from his nosebleeds, his cocaine addiction carrying him through most his writing at that time.
Sometimes, the demons you chase are your own.
This is probably the best time to mention the tons of criticism King has received over the years concerning his usual choice for a protagonist for his novels – the writer, or teacher, and sometimes a writer who teaches writing, or at least teaches literature. Here we have a writer who was a teacher who has spent much of his life writing and teaching, becomes hugely successful only to be criticized time and time again for using that profession repeatedly as his go-to profession because it’s what he knows best. The criticism is rather unfounded, because when it comes to writing about writers, there’s probably no one better than King. What else is he supposed to write about? Not only does he know the profession, but he’s able to bring his A-game by making his writer characters well-rounded, compelling, and extremely likable. If he has to use his own life to make this happen, then so be it, he’s still better than most writers when tackling these kinds of characters, and most of the criticism sounds more of a jealous coveting of the ability than any real critique of his style. In other words, unless you’re able to find better examples of writers using a writer as character, then perhaps it’s best to focus your critical analysis on other aspects of King’s writing he doesn’t excel in, and of course, this is usually quite subjective.
King’s characterization in The Shining is the strongest readers had seen from him at that time. By maintaining a close 3rd person perspective for each of his leads, we are able to get inside their heads, oh so close, so very close, and in some cases, we are so close to the horror that it can’t help but to heighten the sensation. Readers are sometimes perplexed by King’s delineation of his characters here, as Jack Torrance is not the protagonist of the story, but the catalyst of the supernatural events that turn Danny and Wendy into survivors of the evil of the Overlook. Once the hotel pulls its Shirley Jackson mask on, Jack shifts from catalyst to victim, while Danny and Wendy take off their victim nametags to become survivors, or rather, passive protagonists merely reacting to the horrors submitted against them. This passivity doesn’t last for too long; as the horrors mount and the Overlook consumes Jack, they are forced into action instinctually. King forges a strong bond with the Overlook and Jack, culminating in his discovery of the hotel’s sordid past, and the wasp’s nest, which remind Jack with painful memories of the kind of life he’s led so far, his troubles with frustration and anger, and his bouts of alcoholism. Jack kills the wasps in the nest and gives it to Danny as a gift, something cool to place in his room. Jack sees the wasp’s nest as a way to strengthen his bond with Danny, while the Overlook sees it as a way to wedge itself deeper into the family, especially Danny. When the dead wasps return, we see what the Overlook is capable of, and from that point we know its intentions are malevolent. The Overlook at once becomes the antagonist of the story, and we know that no one is safe, including Jack.
King’s power comes from his ability to make his characters relatable. Even Danny, much younger than the reading audience, is a character we can get behind, even if he’s a little shell-shocked and shattered by the events that unfold.
—but at other times Tony would appear at the very limit of his vision, calling distantly and beckoning …
It had happened twice since they moved to Boulder, and he remembered how surprised and pleased he has been to find Tony had followed him all the way from Vermont. So all his friends hadn’t been left behind after all.
At Danny’s age, we need our friends, real and imaginary, and there’s nothing as cold as being in a place where there’s no one around your own age, someone to talk to, someone to be your friend. We can all relate to this feeling, and at once we know this is more Danny story than any of the other characters.
And then I found myself at Room 217. There are two parts to this story, one early on in Part III, then revisited at the end right before Part IV. Certainly a major highlight of the entire book, these two chapters illustrate the power of King’s storytelling prowess quite nicely. Earlier still, Halloran explicitly tells Danny not to go into the room. He also tells Danny that if he should see something that isn’t right, something that scares him, that it’s probably not real, and he should shut his eyes and know that it’s not really there. In Danny’s mind, seeing things that aren’t real isn’t a good thing. It could lead to LOOSING HIS MARBLES, bringing on THE MEN IN THE WHITE COATS to take him away. When Danny first visits room 217, the passkey in his pocket, we already know the power the Overlook has. Danny definitely knows this from his first hand experience with the evil wasps. King uses that fear to strengthen our connection to Danny, allowing Halloran’s cryptic warning to serve as yet another harbinger of doom. In the first part, Danny feels he is being chased by the firehose down the hallway, perhaps brought to life by the wasps, obviously now residing in the hose. At the end of the chapter we realize it was only Danny’s imagination. The second time Danny visits room 217, our guard is down. We know Danny’s mind can play tricks on him, but we also are beginning to suspect the Overlook can play with minds as well. The passkey is burning a hole in Danny’s pocket, and King spends an agonizing amount of words and pages getting us from Danny standing in front of the door to room 217 to the point when Danny actually slides the key into the lock. The suspense is massive here, very heavy, and we anticipate a horrific scene almost immediately. King, ever aware of this, continues the torture, displaying a calm and serene hotel room, nondescript and unassuming, waiting until Danny enters the bathroom to calmly tell us about the horror waiting for us in the tub. Halloran’s cryptic words run through our minds and Danny shuts his eyes, knowing it’s not real, even as the dead woman’s hands clasp around his neck.
From that point, I was hoping to further slow down my reading, looking for other nuggets of fiction wisdom I could glean from this story, but nonetheless, I wolfed it all down rather quickly, hungry to recapture that first reading high again. Those two pieces featuring Danny standing in front of room 217 are major highlights of the novel that made me realize King is not just a great horror writer, but a major talent of fiction in general with commendable story-telling abilities. Seems lately a few writers/readers have taken to social media lately to explain why they don’t read, or haven’t read, any of his work. I admit I’m behind on a lot of his later books myself, though not because I don’t want to read his work, it’s just that I don’t have the time. Surely, these King haters are capable of making decisions on their own, and I respect their decisions because if no one has managed to change their minds now, well… it’s just not going to happen. But part of me wonders if perhaps their closed-mindedness is robbing them of the same pleasure I have when reading King’s stories.
I get it… no matter how many time I try Brussels sprouts, I still don’t like them.
When I read The Shining for the first time, I knew it was going to be one of the most talked about horror novels ever written. Ghosts aren’t just specters dragging chains in darkened hallways. Sometimes, we are just as haunted as our surroundings, and when we chase our own demons, we leave the door unlocked, allowing others inside to rattle our cages. There are some doors that should never be opened, yet we hold the key and still unlock the madness. We read this story, with its damaged father slipping deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, and a haunted boy, realizing the Bluebeard story his father told him so long ago is coming true, and even as far removed as these two are from our own lives, we still manage to feel for them, to relate to them, and we welcome them, warts and all, into our lives like long lost friends, if only for a snowy, cold winter’s evening.
Redrum. Redrum indeed.