Stephen King’s 1977 classic The Shining, which I’ve reread every few years since 1980, retains my vote as the writer’s masterpiece. I’m hardly alone here, but such has been King’s output over a nearly fifty-year career that this, only his third published novel, has sometimes been overshadowed by the sheer abundance of his other work. Yet The Shining is not only King’s best book, I believe, but also one of his most original. There are many frightening Stephen King stories; there have been Stephen King stories adapted for film and television; there are even many Stephen King stories about troubled fathers, mothers, and children, but there is no Stephen King story as literate and as humane as The Shining.
Inspired by a family trip to Colorado in 1974, King has recalled of The Shining, “I have never written a book that went so smoothly.” His first draft, of a manuscript some 160 000 words long, was produced in an incredible four months; King was all of twenty-eight. Reduced to its fundamentals, the novel is simply a haunted house or ghost tale, but its genius is in the richness of characterization and domestic detail which animate its supernatural motifs. (it reads the way its audience thinks.) King’s breakthrough in American publishing was not so much in modernizing the fantastic and the macabre – Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) had already achieved that, the latter with a spooky youngster and backward messages which predate Danny Torrance and REDRUM – but in bringing the fantastic and the macabre so far into so recognizable a cultural environment, colored with brand names, regional vernacular, radio, television, and movies. “I think this place forms an index of the whole post-World War II American character,” King’s protagonist Jack Torrance says of the Overlook hotel. His description applies to The Shining itself.
“Horror springs in King’s stories from contemporary social reality,” argued critic Don Herron in 1982. Certainly The Shining‘s underlying contexts of alcoholism, domestic violence, criminality, corruption, failed careers and family breakdown help bring its malevolent spirits to life. Indeed, its crucial plot point is Jack’s realization that escaping the Overlook’s uncanny evils will only drive him to the mundane evils of “the local hole in Sidewinder…The dark place with the lousy color TV that unshaven and unemployed men spend the day watching game shows on.” Long flashbacks of Jack’s childhood and his drinking history show the author in torrents of inspiration yet grounded in prosaic Americana. The Shining was the novel where King established his trademark device of subtly, surely juxtaposing the folk-pop and the paranormal, ordinary and extraordinary elements each reinforcing the credibility of the other. In some ways, he has never moved beyond it.
One reason for this is because while Jack and his wife Wendy are believable middle-class young parents, they are also educated people. King has always had a knack for crafting vivid rustics and salt-of-the-earth types (like The Shining‘s Watson and Hallorann), but figures with the sophistication and sensitivity of the Torrances are increasingly rare in his art. Jack is a former English teacher and Wendy is a sociology major; the narrative is flecked with allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, along with glimpses of Sean O’Casey, Francisco Goya, Algernon Blackwood, Frank Norris, Billie Holiday, E.L. Doctorow, T.S. Eliot, Alice In Wonderland, and a creepily fictionalized Howard Hughes in the Overlook’s former owner Horace Derwent. Unlike a lot of genre competitors, The Shining doesn’t insult the intelligence of its readership. Wendy’s anxieties as a wife and mother, and Jack’s mental breakdown, are voiced in the language of smart, thoughtful individuals who deserve better than the nightmares experienced in their sad pasts and their snowbound present.
The days are getting shorter. Winter is coming. It’s almost time to retrieve my copy of The Shining and turn to its dark passages of darkened corridors, to its Gothic imaginings and Twentieth-Century truths, and to its enduring vision of love, tragedy, and isolated, icy dread:
He looked up at the banks of windows and the sun threw back an almost blinding glare from their many-paned faces but he looked anyway. For the first time he noticed how much they seemed like eyes. They reflected away the sun and held their own darkness within. It was not Danny they were looking at. It was him.