(March 3 – 16)
If Salem’s Lot was the prototypical Stephen King novel (as I definitively claimed in my last blog post) then The Shining is surely the first undisputed King Classic. It shares a lot of common ground with one or both of its two predecessors (a slow descent into supernatural-fuelled catastrophe; a main character who’s an author; the spectre of alcoholism; the additional spectres of a tortured past bearing down on a troubled present).
Still, there are also some new things going on here, the biggest of which is that we move away from the classic small town setting which, in turn, gives us a rather more limited cast. Sure we get visits from various other characters, but the majority of this tale is told from the perspective of the three members of the Torrance family.
This nudges us into the main narrative evolution this novel represents. In his introduction (as written in 2001) King talks about finding himself presented with a choice when developing this story: the choice was whether to make one of the characters a straight out bad guy, or to make them a bit less black and white than that (and, no, it’s not the character you’re thinking of). The decision to take the more complex route is, I think, what transforms The Shining. There is horror afoot, but it is made all the more horrific because we really get to live inside the heads of these characters along the way. It is here that King steps away from backstory and surface motivation and delves into something much deeper. He may not have kept up to this level for every one of his future novels, but I suspect we wouldn’t have classics like Misery and It without the ground that King broke here.
There have been three adaptations of The Shining. Foremost is, of course, the iconic Kubrick movie—which has injected itself into popular culture even more deeply than the novel (when you think of ‘The Shining’ do you not picture Jack Nicholson first? The snowbound maze? That carpet?). Despite King’s misgivings, the movie is a a horror classic and stands as a perfectly sound version of the story.
There is also a 1997 TV adaptation, made with King’s direct involvement. I have not not seen this and am honestly not hugely motivated to do so. No offence to those involved.
But what’s the third adaptation, you ask. Well, I’m cheating a bit here but I’m referring to the beautifully designed board game that came out last year (and is, strictly speaking, based on the film rather than the book). It’s a co-op game where all players have to survive a winter at The Overlook, a challenge made all the harder by regular bouts of possession and murder. There is, appropriately, a variant where one person (secretly) plays as a Jack Torrance type character whose goal is to ensure that none of the other players ever get to leave …it’s a great game, and highly recommended for fans of either book or film.
The Reading Experience
This is my third book in this reading project, and I returned to The Overlook with a small amount of trepidation. I’d attempted a reread last year and had bottled out at about 80 percent through. I remember reading it effortlessly during my teen years and thinking it probably the scariest book I had ever read (at the time, a friend had found The Exorcist similarly terrifying, so we swapped books; neither of us found the other’s novel quite as scary). I do wonder how much my shift in perspective might impact my reading—I come to the novel now as a father and an esrtwhile writer (though not, fortunately, an alcoholic); no longer the hormonal teenage schoolboy who first tackled The Shining.
I did wonder, given my relative familiarity with its pages, if I would struggle to make it through this book. It demands more of the reader than Salem’s Lot. Far from a whistle-stop tour of an American town, The Shining is a claustrophobic, constricting read that forces you to dwell in some very dark places.
But it’s also a more rewarding read in many ways. King’s choice (as elaborated above) results in the richest characters he’s crafted so far. Jack’s descent into insanity is entirely convincing, and there is a steady, inevitable, tragic build towards it. It also, of course, has some real scares in it.
In the end I tore through the book, especially towards the end. Whatever stumbling block I encountered in my last reread did not manifest here. Somehow, once again, reading this as a physical book rather than an ebook has transformed my reading experience.
Up next … it’s time to make a Stand!