Stephen King’s The Shining is an amazing character study that drives mood-heavy, emotionally deep, and unrelenting literary horror. The story centers on Danny Torrance, a young boy with a unique ability, termed the ‘shine.’ Danny can sense the future, and communicate mentally and emotionally with his inner self and other people, alive, and sometimes less so.
Stephen King writes ‘childhood’ masterfully. He’s able to tap into the emotions of youth, and create evocative realism in their thoughts, dialogue and action. Also found in his magnum opus It, King places children in extraordinary circumstances; yet still creates very realistic, thoughtful and down-to-earth reactions and behavior.
Also like It, King uses The Shining to explore what makes people different as they grow and mature, both physically and mentally. It’s this difference, this change from youth to adult, which sits at the core of the narrative. A doctor tries to analyze Danny’s abilities and rationalize the relative normality of what Danny’s parents feel is extraordinary. Within his description, we view King’s premise that certain superhuman capabilities can only be had in youth:
“You know, schizoid behavior is a pretty common thing in children. It’s accepted, because all we adults have this unspoken agreement that children are lunatics. They have invisible friends. They may go and sit in the closet when they’re depressed, withdrawing from the world. They attach talismanic importance to a special blanket, or a teddy bear, or a stuffed tiger. They suck their thumbs. When an adult sees things that aren’t there, we consider him ready for the rubber room. When a child says he’s seen a troll in his bedroom or a vampire outside the window, we simply smile indulgently. We have a one-sentence explanation that explains the whole range of such phenomena in children—”
“He’ll grow out of it,” responds Danny’s father, Jack.
Danny is resilient, strong and vulnerable. He is often overwhelmed by his ‘shine’, but manages through. And while this capability is largely internalized, his mother Wendy is aware of her boy’s uniqueness,
…she was in awe of her child — awe in the strict meaning of that word: a kind of undefined superstitious dread.
In the character of Jack Torrance, Danny’s father, King is clearly working through his own battles with alcohol. His personal demons become Jack Torrance’s and translate into wonderfully evocative internal monologue. As the book draws to a conclusion, one seems to be reading the insights of a quickly deteriorating mind — what’s inside a brain blurred by alcohol and soaked in spirits (both liquid and ethereal).
King often turns his stories around the craft of writing, and unsurprisingly captures the essence of the tortured author in Jack in The Shining. As Jack deals with his internal demons fueled by alcohol, and emotional monsters fed by an abusive father, King explores the nexus of abusive and violent behavior. He explores the human condition as it relates to self-control, and self-awareness, or lack thereof; when ones’ baser nature breaks loose. As caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, Jack repairs a section of roof and discovers a massive wasp nest embedded at the roofline. As Jack attempts to destroy the angry hive, King uses the wasps as a metaphor for Jack’s violence (from his own father and toward his son, Danny) — a theme that recurs throughout the story. Jack ponders,
When you unwittingly stuck your hand into the wasps’ nest, you hadn’t made a covenant with the devil to give up your civilized self with its trappings of love, respect and honor. It just happened to you. Passively, with no say, you ceased to be a creature of the mind and became a creature of the nerve endings; from college-educated man to wailing ape in five easy seconds.
We learn early in the story that Jack, in a fit of rage, broke Danny’s arm when the toddler made a mess of his office. Jack lives with the image of a version of himself that had the capacity to inflict such a horror on his own little boy. The rational side feels that never again can he allow such a thing to happen, but it’s clear that Jack is not always in full control of his faculties. There is no internalized redemption for ones’ past sins. They’re just saved and kept hidden and out of sight; a destructive force, a menace, waiting for the next release of energy. The question King seems to raise is whether that force will target oneself or another.
The crux of The Shining’s dramatic (and horrific) tension is how King teases out just enough information to propel the plot and build the reader’s suspense while obfuscating an equal amount detail by filtering the context through the eyes and understanding of a child. It’s King’s balance of the real and surreal, the normal and abnormal, that drive the elements of horror in this novel.
If you’re familiar with the Stanley Kubrick movie version of the story, you’ll find much the same story arc. In the book, the details are sharper and the themes more poignant. The Shining is an amazing book… ranking a close number 2 of everything I’ve read from King, right behind It. Don’t hesitate to pick this up.