Review: The Shining by Stephen King

a.k.a. I would like to officially retract every bad or unflattering thing I’ve ever said about Stephen King’s writing.

I’m not a fan of Kubrick’s film so there was little chance of my picking up the book… until I ran across King’s comments:

The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, that he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.


[Wendy is] one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.

Zing. Even though I hadn’t read the book at the time, King put his finger on why I’ve always disliked the film. Kubrick gets points for well-lit shots and nice camerawork, but the film never had any heart or emotional range: Jack is always crazy, Wendy is always beat-down, and Danny is always enigmatic. (I may have missed some subtleties; it puts me to sleep unless I watch it in the afternoon.) This isn’t some “the book is always better” reaction. I’d seen the movie a few times, never liked it, and only sought out the book when I thought it might be markedly different from the film.

But this is a book blog, so on to the book!

The premise is that Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and aspiring writer, accepts a job as the off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. He brings his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, to live in the hotel for the winter. This family desperately needs a reset. Jack’s alcoholism led him to break his son’s arm before costing him his job at a prestigious New England prep school. The bone-dry Overlook sounds like the perfect place to keep sober and write the play that’ll put him back on track. Though he and Wendy sometimes wonder how their 5-year-old son is so perceptive, they don’t know he can hear their thoughts and have visions. Danny’s psychic abilities allow him to see pieces of the Overlook’s past and seem to wake something malicious inside the hotel.

The Shining is definitely a horror story, but before the uneasy sense of dread gives way to full-on terror it’s about Jack, Wendy, and Danny trying to repair their family. Jack’s descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery are brutally detailed; the tragedy comes when the reader realizes he truly loves his son for all his inability to stay sober. He spirals self-destructively and tries to keep it together for Danny, but Danny sees right through him even if he doesn’t understand what he sees. Likewise, Wendy is holding on for Danny’s sake. She has reached her limit, but she’s stronger and far more resourceful than her film version.

Because the cast is so small (completely opposite IT), King has time to develop Jack, Wendy, and Danny inside and out. Though The Shining is written in third-person, King alters his word choice and tone depending on which character he’s following at the time. When Danny overhears words that he doesn’t know in his parents’ minds, they’re picked out in caps: DIVORCE. At the Overlook, he calls the Presidential Suite the Presidential Sweet. These little touches and a whole host of creepy details create a rich and nuanced story. There is some repetition when events are seen through Jack’s, Wendy’s, and Danny’s eyes, but each view adds a new layer. Other details and character tics are mentioned repeatedly, but always at the right time to build tension.

The Torrances are trapped. On one side, the Overlook is growing supernaturally monstrous, but from the other sides come a series of everyday woes: trouble finding work, not enough money, family strife, and substance abuse. The Overlook’s ghosts are pretty mundane at first. They’re the kinds of things the Torrances tell themselves aren’t really there. All horror stories have a moment when the reader/viewer yells at the book/television: JUST LEAVE ALREADY. But King anticipates this and makes the reader understand that the family has no other option or any place else to go. When Jack finally considers escape on a snowmobile, things get even more complicated:

It should work. No reason why not. No reason at all except that it was part of the Overlook and the Overlook really didn’t want them out of here. Not at all. The Overlook was having one hell of a good time. There was a little boy to terrorize, a man and his woman to set one against the other, and if it played its cards right they could end up flitting through the Overlook’s halls like insubstantial shades in a Shirley Jackson novel, whatever walked in Hill House walked alone, but you wouldn’t be alone in the Overlook, oh no, there would be plenty of company here. But there was really no reason why the snowmobile shouldn’t start. Except of course
(Except he still didn’t really want to go.)
yes, except for that. (414)

And then the snows come…

Overall: 4.9 (out of 5.0) I’d have liked some of the Overlook’s history (which Jack finds in a scrapbook) to have had more of a payoff, but that’s the only negative. Some readers say the beginning is slow, but there’s never any doubt that the book is building towards something intense and horrific. I can’t say which scene (spoilers) but this book contains the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. I stopped reading for a moment because I had to look away. There was another moment that made me cry (and it’s a rare book that makes me cry!). Again, spoilers, but I was surprised that The Shining was simultaneously capable of bringing horror and the feels.

7 thoughts on “Review: The Shining by Stephen King”

  1. Glad you took a chance on the book. There are a number of very bad interpretations of King’s works in the movies. I am a huge King fan — of his books. His movies, not so much. A few I have enjoyed immensely (Misery, Shawshank, The Green Mile — they all followed the book closely). Others, including the new Dark Tower movie, are a waste of time.

    1. It’s amazing how bad some of the movies are when they’ve got such great material to work with! To be fair, some of the supernatural elements are near impossible to capture on film without them looking campy and silly. I understand why Kubrick changed the hedge animals to a hedge maze, but I don’t know why he felt that Jack’s internal struggle had to go. I think Misery might be the next King book that I read.

      Do the Dark Tower books have a satisfying conclusion? I read the first and I’m not sure I understood it. Everything felt so unmoored and ephemeral. I’ve read two King books now and both closely developed their setting and people, The Gunslinger kept everything so open that it almost felt like it was written by someone else.

      1. Yes, Misery is great. The Dark Tower….I loved the whole series, although the first book is questionable. As well, the ending was not to my liking, but there was so much good stuff in between 🙂

  2. Lovely review! I just finished reading “The Shining” this morning and completely agree – the emotion in that ending is absolutely outstanding. Personally, I haven’t seen the film and don’t think that I’m going to; everyone who has seen it AND has read the book seems to think it’s awful! The scariest part of the book was when the hedge animals started to move, but apparently they aren’t even included in the film – it’s such a shame.

    1. Thank you! I ordered the film via Netflix and haven’t been able to make myself watch it yet. I’m fine with films and books being different, but the end of the book was so excellent that I don’t see myself not being disappointed by film-Jack.

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