Stephen King’s contribution to horror literature has been impeccable. King has written 56 novels, and over 200 short stories and most of those novels have been best-sellers. King’s reputation now is the master of macabre.
In his prolific career, he has written great books, but a few of them stand out. Today, in honor of its 40th anniversary, we take a look at King’s third published novel which skyrocketed his success as a writer, The Shining.
Spoiler Warning: The following post contains full spoilers from the book The Shining. Stop, if you don’t want your head smashed.
How King Wrote The Shining
Stephen King wasn’t always successful. In his early life, he was up to his neck in mortgage and almost on the verge of quitting writing. Surprisingly, his first novel, Carrie, was a success. (Learn more about how King wrote Carrie here.) New Public Library bought the paperback rights for the book for the sum of $400,000. Carrie sold one million copies in a year. But, somehow, King wasn’t sure of himself, he still saw Carrie as a one-time-wonder and a fluke.
Soon after, he began to work on another novel, a contemporary vampire fiction ’Salem’s Lot. Again, King had another bestseller on his hand. CBS adapted into a TV-movie and released it in 1977.
King began to work on another story, but he couldn’t find one. He wrote some stories but trashed them. He felt his imagination ebbing away. To change the pace and find a new setting, he thought of going on a vacation, well, more of a writer’s retreat to get his shit together.
For the first time in his life, King decided to get out of Maine. King family went to Colorado. They stayed in The Stanley Hotel which was about to close for the winter season; the hotel’s only occupants were the King family. And the room they stayed was said to be haunted; its number was: 217.
As usual, King’s imagination went into overdrive, and he began to work on a story that will continue to become one of his most well-known novel, The Shining.
Why is The Shining Good?
The Shining scared the dim lights out of people back in 1977; it became a best seller too. But what escalated King from the position of a writer to that of a celebrity, was the movie adaptation of The Shining. Directed by Stanly Kubrick, the movie was a success (though King didn’t like the film), and Stephen King became a big name; not only in literature but Hollywood as well.
Fast forward to 2017. Now, horror is a cash grabbing genre, with reboots, remakes, and poor quality horror movies coming every year (there are good ones too). It is safe to say that modern audience isn’t easily scared. The Shining doesn’t age well in that regard, but it is still a masterpiece of psychological, thriller.
The Shining is a story of a good (yet hot tempered) man’s descent into madness. The plot continues to temper with our minds as it makes us see things; things that couldn’t exist, shouldn’t exist. That is the psychological trick; it toys with us.
The involvement of supernatural doesn’t always have to be scary, and this novel is the epitome. The ghosts inhabiting the Overlook Hotel are not scary, but rather disturbing. The hotel wants to possess Danny, Jack Torrence’s son because he has the ability to ‘Shine’. But when they fail to do so, their attention shifts towards the father.
They are deliberately trying to convince Jack to kill his wife, Wendy, and bring his son to them, but Jack’s love towards Wendy and Danny saves them from a terrible fate. Until the end, there is always a conflict between the good Jack and the bad Jack. After all, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” (Note: The line is not in the novel. For more differences, refer this link.)
Jack Torrence is not only an abusive father but also a recovering alcoholic. After being snowbound in the hotel, unable to write his plays, he slowly begins to see things. He feels a presence, and soon discovers the terrifying history of the Overlook Hotel. Jack becomes agitated, he fights with Wendy and takes a drink.
Now, this is a crucial part of the novel because the only reason he stopped drinking was that he hurt his son Danny while drunk. Taking a glass of booze doesn’t mean he is going to hurt his son again, but it means that the ghosts of the hotel have got control over him. They found his weakness and used it against him. Thus begins a cat and mouse chase as Jack Torrence forces his family to ‘take their medicine’.
Okay, you get the psychological part, but we also mentioned thriller right? So, what is so thrilling about this novel? Well, almost the second half, or after he drinks the booze and rages after his family with a mallet.
Jack is under the control of supernatural powers, and his behavior begins to change: he becomes unpredictable. You don’t know what he is going to do; it builds suspense. And when he picks up the mallet with murder on his mind, running after his wife, you are turning pages like crazy, getting paper cuts all over your fingers.
And maybe, just maybe, you took a breath of relief, starting to ease back when Danny and Wendy lock Jack in the walk-in pantry. But as the hotel ghosts release Jack, it begins all over again. Your pulse rises, breathing halters, and you wait for the next unpredictable event.
And the ending is as thrilling as anything. Danny, Wendy, and Mr. Hallorann escaping as the hotel explode behind their back is a badass moment.
“Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
Atmosphere and Theme
Atmosphere plays a vital role in every Stephen King novel, and cabin fever is the motif of The Shining. If Jack hadn’t been alone- which led to his contact with the hotel ghosts, he wouldn’t have gone insane, probably, and if the snow hadn’t been so thick, Wendy and Danny might have escaped.
King uses his environment to strike feelings of terror: moving hedges, fire-hose, elevator moving up and down, or an overheating boiler in the basement are not only crucial to the plot, but they make us uneasy.
The Shining can’t be The Shining without these things because they stick with us after we’ve read the novel. The party where Jack gets drunk is also an excellent example of Stephen’s use of the environment. King takes an empty room and fills it with moving talking ghosts in the form of guests and makes it a party. If you ask someone to read that chapter without any prerequisite knowledge, they will most likely believe it to be a simple bar scene. Such is the power of King’s writing that permeates throughout the novel.
King takes the mundane things, such the fire-hose, and transforms them into terrifying objects of evil.
The Shining might not be as scary now as it was back then, but it still has some great moments of terror. The moving hedges are disturbing, the sisters haunting Danny are creepy, and the word REDRUM will scar you for life. Stephen King is constantly mocking you (not in the literal sense) to turn the page. He is luring you into a trap, and as soon as you are in it, well, do you remember the mallet? One word for you – BAM!
The Shining might not be King’s THE best novel, but its importance in contemporary literature is indisputable. King’s characters are not only unpredictable but memorable in a terrifying way.
As King says:
“Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”