The Shining, by Stephen King

the-shining-by-stephen-king coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Pocket Books
Published: 1977
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Jack Crane

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Well, I pulled this one off my shelf the other day and reread it and am I ever glad I did. After spending the last few years more or less estranged from King’s fiction — being disappointed as many others — with his late career efforts, biting my nails all the way through, The Shining, reminded me why King was once, truly, the King of horror fiction.

Though two movies have been made of this novel, neither of them, in my opinion captures the truly terrifying aspects of the written version. King’s genius in this novel springs as much from his storytelling pace, his creative use of foreshadowing and back- shadowing as from the actual events of the story itself.

King excels at rendering lifelike fiction. Part of the way he accomplishes this is through his inventive minor characters, such as the clairvoyant cook, Dick Hallorann, whose near-caricature “blackness” evades being a truly racist portrayal in the end because of the hidden conflicts and complexities that King deliberately devotes care to including. Even the novel’s adversaries are not merely shapeless horrors brooding in the netherworld, but the tormented souls of murdered children, dead gangsters, drunks, floozies, and petty sinners just like ourselves. King’s choice to portray ordinary protagonists with real-life problems: alcoholism, marital friction, poverty, and failed ambition sets the scene for gut-wrenching terror as the reader follows this familiar family to the precipice of Hell.

In fact, the plot of The Shining for all of its ultimate impact, is actually pretty straightforward, failing to stray radically from its most obvious predecessor, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The spooky events are predominantly accents in an overall brooding atmosphere, growing in clarity and frequency as the novel races toward its almost anti-climactic denouement. My chief problem with this novel has always been the climax — because for all of King’s potent technique in describing his demonic Overlook Hotel, the final confrontation with young Danny and demon-possessed Jack Torrence always seemed to be the novel’s weakest, rather than strongest scene.

One thing neither of the movies could seem to capture is the terror of the novel’s “hedge animals”. A truly horrific invention. These topiary nightmares are an example of how powerful King’s prose can be — causing the reader’s heart to gallop at the image of attack-hedges! Other ghostly touches, like the runaway elevator, the fire-hose serpent, and the woman in room 217 are similarly more terrifying in the novel than on screen.

Another strong aspect of King’s writing is his exhaustive attention to background detail on the Overlook itself, including a story within the story as Jack Torrence plumbs the hotel’s cellar to discover its hidden archives. This background material proves very useful to King later when Jack begins to drink and consort with the demon lodgers of the Overlook in the Hotel’s Colorado Lounge and ballroom. Some of the novel’s strongest scenes and the most lingering and troubling ones as well emerge from this shadowy setting where nostalgia, deviance, decadence, and damnation all seem to swirl in a whiskey haze.

In the end, the power of the narrative comes from its sympathetic and believable characters. Because the reader is apt to identify strongly with the Torrences, King brings his “haunted house” story to a level of universality that is missing in the Gothic permutations of horror writers such as Lovecraft, or Poe. King’s slangy prose masks a primal and profound theme — damnation and redemption — which is explored mainly through the traditional lens of Western Christianity. This places the novel in the mainline of traditional horror-as-moral instruction that traces back at least to Hawthorne and probably all the way back to Puritans like Cotton Mather.

Looking back on this novel, I think it is safe to say it has stood the test of time. Perhaps it will never be a literary classic in the sense of Moby Dick, but it is a damned good novel anyway, one that you should re-read if it’s been a while, and one you’re lucky to have in front of you if you haven’t read it yet.

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