It’s been a cold winter for Toronto, with wind frigid enough to freeze your nostrils together. Perfect weather to bundle up under a warm blanket, sip on some canned hot chocolate (because let’s be real, I’ll probably NEVER make anything from scratch ever), and read a cheery tale of mayhem and murder at the behest of a sentient hotel of evil.
Published in 1977, The Shining was Stephen King’s first bestselling hardcover and helped put him on the horror genre map. Three years later it was made into a movie that, upon having just finished the book, deviated greatly from the central themes of King’s actual novel. (Let’s set aside the author’s own feelings about Kubrick’s version of his story, you can sift through the Google results at your own leisure.) I’ve read enough of his work to consider myself one of his Constant Readers, and this book has jumped up my list of favorite novels to sit somewhere near the top.
Spread out on the couch in my living room with the TV playing in the background, I’m having trouble even knowing where to start. I chose The Shining for the fifth book on my 20 In 2015 list. I finished it a couple days ago and knew instantly I’d need a few days to bounce back from it. King is the master of taking otherwise unsympathetic characters and finding a way to humanize them. I never expected to see so much of myself in Jack Torrance.
It’s a simple enough concept, and I’m sure by now most people are familiar with the story: down on his luck after having been fired from his teaching job (because he lost his temper and beat the everliving shit out of a student), Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of The Overlook hotel. Like most hotels, the place has got a few skeletons in its closet. During the winter months, the hotel gets snowed in and the only road leading into town is closed, effectively cutting the family off from civilization until spring thaws the earth. A former caretaker once went insane and murdered his wife and daughters before killing himself, a fact that the hotel manager shares with Jack during his interview. Jack assures him he can handle the long cold winter. Turns out, he can’t.
Jack struggles with a dark past. He is a recovering alcoholic, determined not to repeat past mistakes like breaking his then-three year old son’s arm while disciplining him. He’s a wounded man trying to become a better person but anger burns constantly under his surface. When describing the attack on his former student or the abuse of his son, King writes that it’s like he goes into a trance, seeing red and only partially aware of his actions. I’ve never heard consuming rage described so well. I saw my own past issues with anger manifested in Jack, and that frightened me. Seeing the world through his eyes was a disturbing look into my own psyche.
It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about him. Ultimately he wants to be a good man and take care of his family but his own twisted upbringing has tainted his worldview and added to his anger problem. He tries to keep himself under control but the evil inside the hotel senses this weakness and exploits it.
I can relate to his situation. My mind is The Overlook and I’ve spent a long winter trapped inside it with only my echoing thoughts for company. I’m prone to depression, especially in the winter, and a lot of factors in my life have led me to feel trapped within my own life. Ultimately, I seek a redemption of sorts, much like Jack at the end of the novel, when he manages to regain control over himself and stop the entity controlling him long enough for his family to escape. In his final moments, I felt bad for him. No one is ever all bad or all good and Jack is a shining example of that (see what I did there?).
Wendy desperately wants to have a normal, happy life with her husband and child and she embodies what hope looks like in a dysfunctional family. Her only option when she begins to sense the darkness in the hotel is to go stay with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. Her self-confidence issues stem from a lifetime of being taught that she’s not good enough and is partially to blame for her sister’s early death. Her mother has spent her life grinding her daughter’s self-esteem down until there’s barely any left and her struggles with Jack’s alcoholism have only emphasized her perceived flaws. She loves her family but recognizes when things start to go downhill and tries to convince Jack to abandon his post and flee the hotel. Again, it’s easy to sympathize with her. I’ve been in similar situations where you just want to hold on and wait until things get better. Her unwillingness to give up on her husband and the strength it takes to defend herself and her son when Jack tries to attack them are something to be admired.
There’s a moment in the book where the hotel elevator begins to run on its own and Wendy begs Jack not to leave her and Danny alone to go investigate. Jack responds that it’s his job and Wendy wails, “DON’T YOU LEAVE US HERE ALONE”, to which Jack coldly replies, “That was an incredible imitation of your mother,” and I had a moment where I froze and reread the dialogue a second time, because it packed such a punch. King has an amazing ability to write dialogue I can actually hear inside my head, and this particular exchange made my blood run cold. Jack knows how Wendy feels about her mother and still takes that dig at her. Anyone who’s spent too much time with another human being knows how much a person can become annoyed at another person. Cabin fever is a real thing, and whatever crawls inside the walls of the hotel feeds off the negative energy between Jack and Wendy.
We, the Constant Readers, get to sit back and watch as Jack mentally unravels and falls prey to the hotel’s whims. It’s a devastating process, and all through it I found it incredibly difficult to blame Jack for his choices. He’s under tremendous pressure, as we all have been, and I drew so many parallels between his life and mine that reading this book shook me to the core.
Who among us hasn’t made mistakes or taken wrong turns in life? Who is blameless in the pain of others? I’ve been down some dark roads in my time and it can be hard to keep your head on straight and your tongue still. There’s something evil inside all of us, but most of us can keep it under control. Confronted with the forces inside the hotel, any one of us might fall victim, and that’s what makes this book so terrifying. When I finally put it down, I knew I’d have to take a few days to get over the emotional punch it delivered straight to my gut.
The Shining is easily one of my absolute favorite Stephen King novels, it’s a fucking masterpiece in emotional and mental destruction. Reading it in winter seems to have only amplified its effect.
The monster isn’t the thing lurking inside The Overlook, it’s the thing lurking inside Jack Torrance.