Warning: Reading The Shining can cause serious side effects, including but not limited to: Stiff muscles, rapid breathing, cold sweats, a life long fear of boilers, topiaries, bathrooms, old hotels, and the number 217. Read on at your own risk.
Whoo wipes forehead
It is evident to me now why Steven King is known as the “Master of Horror.” Every part of The Shining has it’s own set of disturbing sequences, even long before the ghouls come out to play.
I’m going to try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years, you should know that the Overlook hotel, where The Shining takes place, is haunted AF. It’s not the haunting itself that is the twist of the story, but rather the way that it progresses and how the characters deal with it.
The Torrance family, Jack, Wendy, and five-year-old Danny, come to the Overlook hotel as part of Jack’s last-ditch attempt to support the family. Jack was a teacher and is a writer, though not a very successful one. He was fired from his teaching job after hitting a student, and now only the help of an old friend has allowed him to land this job as a winter caretaker. At first, the family overlooks (no pun intended) the strange occurrences in the hotel for practical reasons. Jack and Wendy both know that if Jack fails at this job, the family will be destitute, and he will be almost unemployable.
When Jack signs on for the job, he’s told that the Overlook, which sits in the Colorado Rockies, will be snowbound all winter and that the phone lines often go out. There’s a CB radio, but sometimes the signal is iffy. What could possibly go wrong?
The first half of the book is an emotionally gripping story about a family on the edge — an alcoholic father, only recently in recovery, and his long-suffering wife and sensitive son. The son, Danny, possesses a type of telepathic and empathic talent that later in the book is referred to as “the shine.” King uses this supernatural twist to illustrate the reality that children often know more than their parents think they do.
The horror during the early parts of the book is very real. A man struggling with his addiction –an addiction that has led him to do awful, abusive things in the past. A five-year-old boy who is scared and confused by the adult quagmire he finds himself in. Not able to fully comprehend the scary thoughts about things like “divorce” and “suicide” that he hears in his parents’ minds. All of the supernatural goings-on that come later are firmly grounded in these true to life horrors.
From the very beginning, Danny senses that a terrible fate awaits his family at the Overlook. He wants to warn his parents but doesn’t know how. Once he does start talking, his parents, especially Wendy, actually do believe him. I was surprised by that. In most stories that involve gifted children, no one listens until it’s too late. King eschews that trope and shows us the family’s struggle as they try to think clearly and do the sensible thing while assailed by evil forces. The awareness that the characters have about the supernatural events going on around them makes the story even more horrifying. King lets you feel their fear as they watch things unravel.
The Shining is about much more than a haunted hotel. It’s about young adults fighting there own personal demons, sometimes in the shape of their dysfunctional parents. It’s about addiction and mental illness and all the things that can warp a person and turn them into someone they’re not. Or at least into the worst version of themselves. It’s about harmful attitudes that are used to justify abuse and the ways these attitudes are passed down through generations. Most of all, it is about children and the ways that adult decisions can put them in peril. The Shining is a heavy story, and most of the really disturbing stuff has nothing to do with ghosts.
I think that this is why it has remained a classic for decades. A haunted hotel, a dead woman in a bathtub, that’s all been done before. After a certain point, that type of thing becomes blase. It’s the human factor and the “human monsters” to quote the book, that really stick with the reader.
Having said that, there are also lots and lots of creepy-cool ghosts. If you are looking for an example of a ghost story told right, this is it.
So what can The Shining teach us about writing? Well, let’s just say that by the time I got to the second page, I was thinking, “Wow, this guy really knows what he’s doing.” The points of view are spot on. Trying to put yourself in the mind of a five-year-old child as an adult is no easy task, but King walks the line between five-year-old thoughts and gifted five-year-old thoughts masterfully. I think that if realistic points of view are something you are working on, you could do worse than to study The Shining. The rhythm of the writing itself is a pleasure to read. Again, if this is something you struggle with, The Shining might help you out.
The Shining is also a great example of plot structure in a novel. This book has a great elevator pitch plot: alcoholic writer and his family go to live in a hotel, the hotel is haunted, all hell breaks loose. That’s the plot of the book in a nutshell. It’s almost too simple. King takes that basic plot structure and uses the histories and flaws of the characters to add layers of depth. This approach makes the story feel organically complicated instead of feeling like the author was trying to make it convoluted.
In my own work, I sometimes wonder if my plots are intricate enough. However, after reading this, I’ve realized that a simple plot structure can still grow into a complex narrative.
The Shining is also a great example of pacing in a horror or thriller novel. The first half is a slow burn and the second half hits hard and fast. It was a hard book to put down. This was my first experience with a Stephan King novel and I think there is a lot to be said for studying one of the masters, even if you aren’t writing horror.
Next, I’m going to gird up my loins and take on another horror/thriller. This time I will be reading One Of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus.
If you’ve read The Shining, comment below and let me know what you thought of it. As always, I am open to your book suggestions.