My Thoughts on Stephen King’s The Shining
Written by Todd Keisling
I have a confession to make that may color your opinion of me. I may be taking a blowtorch to my reputation as a horror author.
Are you sitting down? Okay.
I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining last month in preparation for the sequel . . . and I didn’t enjoy it.
Now hold on a minute. Let me explain why before you set fire to my home. Put your pitchforks away.
Full disclosure: This was not my first time reading the book. In fact, it was my third: I also read it when I was a teenager and again when I was in college. I’ve seen Kubrick’s adaptation more times than I can count and I’ve also seen King’s mini-series adaptation as well. I’m also a huge fan of King’s work, despite what James Keen thinks about it (I’m sorry, Keen: I still think Cell is the worst thing King has ever written).
“But Todd,” you’re saying, “how can you possibly call yourself a King fan, let alone a horror fan and a horror writer, if you didn’t enjoy this much-loved, legendary tome?”
Honestly, I’ve been trying to figure that out myself, folks. I want to say it’s because my tastes have changed—I am almost twenty years older than when I first read the book—but that doesn’t quite explain it when you consider The Shining laid the groundwork for the entire genre over the next thirty years. The premise is classic: a caretaker’s family spends their winter snowed in at a very haunted hotel. Every horror writer wishes he or she thought of that. It’s simple yet effective, a veritable playground in which anything could happen.
And things do happen. Slowly.
As I read the book, I found myself conflicted over memories of my first time reading the story. Weren’t there more instances of ghostly manifestations? Didn’t the hotel seem far more sinister before? And wasn’t there more to do with the hotel’s history?
I found these things to be strangely absent during my third reading, and over the course of the novel I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading an earlier draft. Had someone at the publishing house screwed up and formatted the wrong draft for Kindle? Not impossible, but unlikely (even if the book is full of adverbs—something King himself railed against in On Writing).
I understand that King was building the atmosphere and dread while exploring his characters’ motivations. I get that, and it works to a degree, but I feel like it wasn’t enough. The tragedy of Jack’s alcoholism and how it’s slowly tearing his family apart despite his desire to overcome the affliction is the real centerpiece to the story, a tool used by King to create empathy so when shit hits the fan, the reader is supposed to feel their horror and helplessness. That’s how the scares are supposed to work—and they do.
But by the time the book finally took off in the last hundred pages or so (from the moment when the hotel begins coming to life around them, streamers and balloons in the elevator, voices in the hallways, etc.), I felt as though the payoff wasn’t worth the build-up. By the end I was left wondering why there weren’t more “creepy lady in the tub” moments. That was an excellent way to finish off a section of the book. Why didn’t we see more of her? Or more like her? Sure, we get the topiary and we get the ballroom and we get Grady, the old caretaker, but we never get any more real “set pieces” like that lady in the tub.
For most readers, these things would probably be enough. Please don’t misunderstand me: The Shining is definitely not a bad book. Not by any stretch. First-time readers will probably find it just as scary as I did the first two times I read it.
So why did all of these issues crop up on my third outing?
After some time to reflect, I think it has to do with oversaturation. The Shining paved the way for a lot of horror tropes; just as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was the foundation for the classic “haunted house” story, I believe The Shining took that formula and turned it up to eleven—in 1977.
Then came Kubrick’s vision of the story—in 1980.
And then we got King’s own faithful mini-series adaptation—in 1997.
My point here is that people have been following its path for over thirty years. It’s become a part of our pop culture, often referenced any time King’s name shows up in the media. It’s the go-to material when someone wants to parody King’s work (Remember that Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons?). We’ve seen the Overlook hotel a hundred times. We’ve lived there, we’ve walked its haunted halls, and we’ve been chased by its ghosts ad nauseam.
Obviously I’m referring to the book’s legacy. The influence this story had on horror is daunting, propelling the genre into the collective mainstream consciousness. The bar of what to expect out of a horror novel rose with this book, and it gave aspiring horror writers something to strive for in their own work. Who wouldn’t want to write the next Shining? Who wouldn’t want to be “the next Stephen King?”
And there’s the root of my problem, I think. I’ve been exposed to this same sort of story countless times over the last twenty years. Hell, I’ve even written stories that follow the same formula. Everyone knows how the story goes now, and in this respect, I think the book’s legacy is a victim of its own success.
In other words, I think I didn’t enjoy it as much this time around because I’ve been beaten over the head with it for years. I think looked for things in the story that weren’t there because the genre has matured over the decades. Writers have expanded upon the book’s legacy, following the same tropes while inventing new ones, until we’ve arrived at a place where the old tropes (and even some of the new ones) seem like old hat.
Where do we go from here? Well, there’s a reason I re-read The Shining: Doctor Sleep will be released later this month. King has promised a return to “balls to the wall horror,” and I personally can’t wait to see what that looks like. The prospect of a man who made horror mainstream returning to his roots is something I find exciting. Given his recent renaissance of sorts with Under The Dome, 11/22/63, and Joyland, I’m hopeful that he won’t let us down.
So there you have it, friends. That’s why I didn’t like The Shining on our third date. Greet me with your cries of hate.