Date finished: September 30th 2016
I have a mixed relationship with horror. Having read The Loney last month and found it a mixed bag, I was intrigued to delve further into the genre, but wary of being too ambitious with my selections. Naturally, the choice fell to the greatest living horror author: Stephen King, whose work – such as Carrie, The Stand and some of his short stories – I’ve enjoyed in the past.
That said, King has never actually scared me before. He writes a damn gripping story with an incredible eye for detail, but he’s never kept me awake at night. If anything by him was going to really chill me, it was probably going to be The Shining, arguably his magnum opus.
If you don’t know the story then I seriously recommend you bring yourself up to date with popular culture. But, in short, the plot follows the story of the Torrance family. Jack, a struggling writer who has alcoholism and job troubles in his past, is doing his best to look after his wife, Wendy, and his young son, Danny, a strange young child with a gift – a Shine. Jack takes on a position as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, and he and the family go there to look after the establishment during the closed winter season. Things start well for the family, but as they begin to uncover the Overlook’s checkered past, Jack falls into old habits, Danny starts seeing terrible things, and Wendy begins to worry for their lives…
For anyone who has seen Kubrick’s fantastic adaptation, it’s impossible to separate this interpretation from the novel. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall and Dan Lloyd were perfectly cast as the family beset by terrors, both domestic and supernatural; and it’s impossible not to picture Kubrick’s iconic edifice as the Overlook Hotel.
That said, King’s The Shining is a very different beast from Kubrick’s, and it becomes apparent why the author disliked the film adaptation to such a degree. Whereas Kubrick’s film went for the iconic imagery like the blood coming out of the lift and the immortal line ‘Hereeeee’s Johnny!’, these scenes don’t even occur in King’s original. Similarly, iconic moments such as the hedge animals and the eerie moving elevator fail to feature in Kubrick’s film. Both are grand visions that explore the same story and the same horror in two very different but equally valid ways.
King’s novel, however, is the more nuanced of the two. Whereas Kubrick opts for the unsettling supernatural elements, King’s tale focuses more on the family unit, exploring themes of domestic abuse, relationship strains and alcoholism in order to create a far more haunting framework for the disturbing events to happen within.
The Shining succeeds as a horror novel not because of it’s inhumanity or strangeness, but thanks to its humanity and plausibility. Kubrick’s film – helped along by genre-defining performances, a physically-impossible hotel, and a deeply unsettling score – is a bastion of great horror in the truest sense of what horror is. But in King’s original the monster Jack becomes is all the scarier for our knowledge of what a good person he once was, and how his wife and son are forced to grapple with the change he has undergone.
The Shining also benefits from the fact that King is a master storyteller. His characters are tangible, his backstory so detailed it’s a wonder it’s not been lifted straight from reality, and his idiosyncratic style so distinctive that the whole thing comes together almost seamlessly.
There’s no denying that The Shining is a riveting classic horror story, and that it’s well worth reading even if you’ve already watched Kubrick’s stellar interpretation. It’s not the greatest novel ever written, but it’s a damned good one: enjoyable on one level as a chilling tale, and others as a deeper exploration of human struggles. But one last question remains: did it scare me? Well, all I’ll say is why don’t you go try to read the chapter 217 Revisited, as Jack goes to investigate his son’s claims that there’s someone in one of the rooms, without feeling your blood run cold…