The Shining by Stephen King (from the archives)
Another review from my unfinished "Stephen King in Order" project. It was posted on my old blog and is still on Goodreads. The Shining was the 3rd book in my series, after Salem's Lot. Sadly, I seem to have lost my Salem's Lot review somehow. Please note that these "reviews" are more discussion than true review.
I think one reason why King's writing speaks to
so many people is his ability to tap into our universal fears. Humans all have
different circumstances in life, but I think that we're all afraid of some
version of the same things: isolation, failure, loss, hurting/failing to
protect those we love, dying before we're ready, being worthless, rejection,
deception, the unknown, losing control.
Carrie lived with isolation and rejection. Ben Mears had to deal with unearthly creatures as well as his failure to protect the woman he loved. Jack Torrance in The Shining has to face all of those things at once and it breaks him.
Even though 'Salem's Lot comes in between, The Shining is better examined alongside Carrie than the Lot. If I were setting out to compile a list of "King's Most Tragic Characters", then Carrie and Jack would be near the top. Both of their lives are filled with failure and suffering. They each face impossible pressure only to crack and lash out in a murderous rage and then die in misery.
The difference between them, however, is that the source of Carrie's pain is external. Despite never doing anything to deserve it, everyone tortures this poor girl. No one grants her any love or support or even the simple courtesy of leaving her alone. Jack, on the other hand, is surrounded by people who do nothing but offer up love and second chances, and he's the one who ruins everything. Jack is not a bad man, but he is self-destructive and weak.
He's basically the worst person ever to take on the winter caretaking job at the sanity-destroying haunted Overlook Hotel. Rereading the first part of this book, I even laughed out loud at what an obviously bad idea it was to give him this job. Jack is an abuse victim and a recovered alcoholic with a bad temper. The hotel preys on people's minds and turns them to into murderous creatures to feed its dark powers. This is no place for anybody, let alone someone with Jack's history.
Along with Jack's weakness, we get Wendy, a devoted wife and mother who wants nothing but peace and the love of her family. We also have Danny, five years old and the hotel's true desire. Part of the Overlook's trick is to convince Jack it wants him, but it's really after Danny and his eponymous ability, the "shining", and Jack is only a pawn.
The Shining is a sort of prophetic-like ability that Danny possesses. He can read thoughts and emotions. Another aspect is Tony, Danny's imaginary friend who tries to warn him about the evil hotel. The book implies that Tony is merely another aspect of Danny's shining and not a separate entity; even his name "Tony" is a reference to Danny's middle name, Anthony. It's never really explained where this power came from and just how it will benefit the hotel, but it is clear that it's not a good idea to let the hotel win.
The tragedy and beauty of this story is not just in the atmosphere of the Overlook and watching a man losing his sanity and then try to kill his family, it's in King's presentation of Jack and what will never be. Like I said before, Jack is not a bad man; he is a weak man. His wife and son love him, but time and time again his drinking and his temper let them down. It is his weakness that hurts them: financially when he can't hold down a job, literally when he breaks Danny's arm one night, and finally in his inability to fight off the power of the Overlook. This is a family that will never find happiness. King stresses over and over again just how much these three love each other and how the Overlook and the money from this job are Jack's last chance to get everything right. His last chance to make things up to his family and be the provider he so desperately wants to be. This is what makes the story so compelling for me - wanting Jack to succeed when you know that he won't. I found myself growing just as desperate for their salvation as they were.
Notes on King's Writing:
This one starts off slow and I confess that I was pretty bored in the
beginning. King spends a lot of time describing the geography of the hotel and
exactly how the boiler works. A lot of time. But once that part is over, the
book gets much more engaging. Then it becomes difficult to read again when
Jack's sanity is completely gone as the graphic descriptions of the violence
Jack wants to inflict on his family fill the pages. That part is painful, but
Some of King's writing skill is apparent in The Shining, but he definitely has room to grow. His metaphors are heavy handed (the wasps=Jack's past and the boiler=everything) and Mr. No Adverbs actually writes "said conversationally" once towards the beginning of the book.
Some of King's common tropes that make an appearance in The Shining:
Main character = struggling male writer with an addiction problem
Magical child with unexplained powers coveted by a powerful force
Repeated mysterious phrases/poetry that haunt (or comfort) the characters