I sometimes thought I was the only person who had never read a Stephen King novel. That I hadn’t might have something to do with my memories of hiding behind the couch while my sister watched Kujo, the film version of the novel in which a much loved pet turns feral. I have also never really liked clowns and I suspect the film It had a role to play.
Then, last summer on National Radio, there was a review of a Stephen King book. I never really appreciated how many books he has written nor understood the fan base he has. But it made me think that maybe there was something I was missing out on.
So, it was with some determination that I decided to tackle The Shining, a Stephen King classic. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. I had been expecting all out gore; an out and out horror that would be relentless in its scary intensity. Yet, while I did find it intense – and scary – what I also found was a story that had me utterly gripped.
The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrence, a man who, at one point in his life, had everything: a successful career, huge talent as a writer, a teaching job in a well regarded school, and a loving family. As we scratch deeper into Jack’s life, we realise this is a man whose dependence on alcohol and inability to come to terms with his destructive relationship with his father, is slowly destroying all he values. After lashing out at one of his students, he loses his teaching position, putting his relationship with his family under even more strain.
The novel opens at Jack’s interview for the ‘caretaker’s role’ at the Overlook Hotel, a position that will require Jack and his family to look after the isolated hotel during winter. This is a hotel with a past – a previous caretaker went mad, and murdered his family. This is last chance saloon for Jack, and is it inevitable from our first glimpse of Jack in the hotel that it is a decision his family will regret. Something within the hotel has it in for Jack, and that something sets about turning him against the family he holds so dear. The title of the book comes from the peculiar gift that Danny, Jack’s five-year old boy, has, an ability to see into people’s minds and to see future events. Danny has misgivings about moving to the hotel.
A theme that runs through The Shining is that of parental relationships: Jack’s inability to deal with the abuse suffered at his father’s hands; Wendy’s own strained relationship with her mother causing her to feel trapped in her relationship with Jack; and the abuse that Jack, in fact, afflicts on Danny. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Danny and Jack.
Despite my early reservations, I found this book to be a compelling read. I was interested in the complexity of the characters, helped by the fact that King chose to allow readers to peer inside the heads of the major protagonists. While Jack is very much the main character, as readers we are allowed into the worlds of Danny, Wendy and Halloran, the latter of which is the one person who may be able to help the family. The suspense gradually builds as the action unfolds, and we can see from the outset the inevitability of the climax, yet we remain transfixed waiting to discover how it will unfold.
I used to think that horror was all about supernatural themes. And, yes, there is no avoiding that in The Shining. What is so much scarier, however, is what is real; those fears and demons that live within ourselves. As King says in the introduction of my copy, “That truth is that monsters are real… They live in us, and sometimes they win.” This is a book about the monsters within, and dealing with them.
That The Shining is a must read, for many of you, is old news. But, if, like me, you have always been hesitant to discover Stephen King, take a risk and pick up a copy of this book. You might just be converted.