I started The Shining by Stephen King only three days ago. I’ve been eager to read it for a long time and stumbled across this battered edition in the free bookstore perched on Darley Street in Bradford. Some of the pages are completely in tatters and there are water stains on others, implying that this book has been held by many hands and has seen many places. I enjoy the faded print and the fact that there’s not even a bar-code, it’s like I’m holding history every time I sit down to read.
I watched The Shining as a kid and it was powerful, enough so that at this age of twenty-five, even the sight of Jack Nicholson’s grin makes my skin crawl. I remember odd chunks of the film but honestly don’t know how much of the plot I absorbed. I was more captivated by the striking visuals, including that iconic shot of tidal blood descending upon a corridor, as two young girls hold hands in the centre of the floor and stare down the camera.
I’m more than halfway through the book. I’ve been as resistant as possible, prolonging the experience by putting the book down instead of reading on into the early hours of the morning. I imagine that if I had impulsively followed my whims, I’d have finished the damned thing in one sitting. However, I’ve had moments of genuine terror whilst reading some disturbing scenes and I’ve realised that my capacity to visualise can sometimes be a burden, as opposed to gift. For instance, last night I had to snap The Shining shut and read a few (completely unrelated) short stories from a Margaret Atwood collection, simply to drown out the images of bloated dead women and silver-eyed ghosts of the past.
Another reason I’ve exercised self-restraint is mental health preservation, as I’ve noticed that I can feel the claustrophobic grip of The Overlook Hotel through the pages. I can only praise this uncomfortable feeling as it’s clearly a product of incredible writing. The fact that King can make you feel the isolation, anxiety and insanity, as though you’re physically stuck with the Torrance family in the middle of a snow fortress, is a testament to his craftsmanship as the King of Horror.
Pulling myself away is proving to be a difficult task because King has thoroughly lured me in and I’ve found myself attached to recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, his neurotic wife Wendy and the kid with the shine, Danny. Mystical powers of premonition and telepathy are powerful in young Danny but remain misunderstood by all parties, including himself. Danny is the window to the family’s secrets and he allows readers to peer into the darkest corners of his parents’ minds, which is pretty astounding considering he’s only five years old and can’t even read yet…
Jack holds onto feelings of inadequacy, Wendy holds onto the fear that her family unit may self-implode imminently, and Danny suppresses his otherworldly precognition abilities, fearing institutionalisation and the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. This would be dramatic enough, as the basis for a stage-play, but of course it only gets worse when King drops these fragile characters into the nightmarish setting of The Overlook Hotel.
Jack acquires a job as the Winter caretaker for the prestigious hotel and accepts the humble role, despite the fact he’s vastly overqualified, out of sheer desperation. A series of unfortunate circumstances have led to a fractured family unit and this new job is perceived as an opportunity to make amends. The Overlook Hotel will see no guests for many months as the winter snows essentially cut the hotel off from all civilisation. It ought to be a chance at a fresh start for the family but winds up, in true King fashion, being a seriously warped and twisted fight for survival.
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting the emotional intensity that I’ve found thus far. I’m impressed by the dimensions of the strong characters as within other novels I’ve read by King, there’s the tendency to focus upon an extensive cast of characters. The Shining does introduce some supporting characters initially, yet as the snow thickens and time passes, we are left with the minimalistic trio of just the Torrance family. As they feel the implications of isolation from the outside world, readers are also subjected to that uneasy feeling of the world closing in. The text, at times, is erratic and reflects the jumbled thoughts (both spoken and unspoken) that are exchanged between the key protagonists. King jumps from one mental landscape to the other, sharing the streams of consciousness that lay beneath the surface. Readers are privy to the private thoughts, the locked-away musings that the family are too afraid to reveal to one another.
It’s thrilling. It’s captivating. It’s outright scary. The ghosts and ghouls lurking in the corridors are one thing, described in all their visual glory. Yet, above all, King’s depiction of alcoholism is utterly frightening and it’s hard not to feel the itch of Jack Torrance’s compulsion to turn back to the bottle. Alcohol is the catalyst to his ingrained temper and all it takes is a minor trigger for the fireworks to explode. He’s unstable and prone to fits of violence, making him the ultimate source of fear for his wife and son. As things get weirder in the hotel, Jack’s deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy begin to turn into a more sinister aggression, which he often directs towards his wife. There’s the constant question of: ‘Will he? Won’t he?’ as Jack is on the verge of breaking his sober stint from the very outset, thinking often of drinking, though he knows the consequences are dangerous. The Overlook shows us the gory and supernatural yet also makes us question whether we ought to be more afraid of the demons knocking around in our own heads. Reality and hallucination blur together, making it impossible to distinguish between lucidity and sleep. Are any of these horrors even real? Or have they been conjured up by the imagination of a stagnating and self-destructive author?
I am very much looking forward to finding out, if only I can brave finishing this novel during daylight hours today…