Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
After thirty-six years, I’m finally reviewing Stephen King’s The Shining. If the readers are confused by the price of the book, I purchased one of the hardcover editions published in the nineties with an exceptional dust jacket by Peter Kruzan, Craig De Camp, and Thomas Holdorf. Doubleday did the six King novels that were published by them with new jackets designed by these three men, and I love the way the covers look. I have Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand with matching jackets. The novel, however, is available in paperback for a lot less.
Let me say from the start that I consider The Shining (Stephen King’s third published novel) to be the scariest book I’ve ever read. I’ve read a lot of great horror novels over the last thirty-five years, including all of King’s novels and anthologies, plus those by Robert R. McCammon, Dan Simmons, Peter Straub, Charles L. Grant, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, F. Paul Wilson, Joe R. Lansdale, Bently Little, Tom Piccirilli, Richard Matheson, Joe Hill, Ira Levin, William Petty Blatty, and a dozen more. All of these authors are excellent writers, but no novel has ever cut me to the core like The Shining did in 1977. I read the novel in less than two days, and it literally scared the bejesus out me. Since then, I’ve read it twice more and though the effect of the novel isn’t as strong as the first time around, it still stuns me in a way few other books are able to do.
Here’s an anecdote I think says it all about the craftsmanship of Stephen King’s writing. During the spring of 1983, my mother was dying of cancer. Because of the radiation and chemotherapy treatments, there was little she could do other than to lie on the couch in the living room and watch television or read. Most of the time, however, she read her books with the television on in the background. When it came to reading for fun, mom liked Harlequin Romances. They were short and easy to read. Since I worked in a used bookstore, I was able to keep her in reading material. Another factor that came into play was that I lived with her during this time. The den (what used to be the garage before being walled in) was kind my area when I did my writing and where my small library of horror novels were shelved. One night when I came home from work, I found mom on the couch, reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. She’d gotten it off of my bookshelf and was already forty pages into it. When I asked her why she was reading a horror novel and not a Harlequin Romance, mom said she’d gotten bored with the other books. I don’t think you could’ve paid my mother to read a horror novel, but there she was. Anyway, she read the book in a week. After she was finished with Salem’s Lot, she got my copy of The Shining and started reading that one, too. I remember getting home one evening and walking into the living room. Mom was on the couch and the television was on. She hadn’t heard me come in because she was so engrossed in reading The Shining that she was totally unaware of what was going on around her. I said, “Hi, mom.” She immediate screamed at the top of her voice and threw the book into the air. It took me a few minutes to get her calmed down. I realized that I’d startled her, but I also knew in my heart that Stephen King had just scared the crap out of her with his great story. After mom and I talked for a few minutes, she picked up the book and went back to reading it because she was getting close to the end, and the Overlook Hotel and Jack Torrance were in the process of trying to kill poor Wendy and Danny. Mom finished The Shining and then started The Stand. In other words, she was hooked on Stephen King just like me. Unfortunately, she died before completing The Stand. I know she would have loved it right to the end, and then would have wanted to read The Dead Zone and Firestarter.
I guess the point of the above deviation is that The Shining has never been equaled for its pure fear factor. The novel is a sheer masterpiece…a classic that made a young, upcoming author famous worldwide. He not only scared me and millions of others with it, but also my mother who took a gamble in giving up her romance novels to try one by my favorite author.
As most readers of horror already know, the book is about the Torrance family acting as caretakers for the Overlook Hotel in the dead of winter. There is Jack and Wendy Torrance, plus their six-year-old son, Danny, who’s psychic and can see glimpses of the future. The hotel, however, is haunted with the evil energy of ghosts from the past…the ghosts of people who either killed themselves or were murdered. The Overlook wants Danny Torrance and will use the father’s alcoholism to create chaos within the family and then eventually kill them. As the time of death approaches, the hotel grows in psychic strength, coming alive with memories of the past, offering false promises to Jack if he will bash the heads in of Wendy and Danny with a roque mallet.
As I’ve said in the past, The Shining is the most terrifying novel I have ever read, and it still scares me pretty good the third time around. The ghosts and situations at the Overlook certainly have their moments, but what struck home for me was the relationship between Jack and his wife and son. I come from a family where my step-father was an alcoholic, and I know what it’s like to fear the arrival of the drunken party, knowing that one little thing can set the person off in a fit of pure, uncontrollable rage. I saw my step-father beat my mother when we were overseas and seemingly trapped in a foreign country with no escape. He could do as he pleased and there was no one to stop him. The Overlook Hotel captured that sense of utter aloneness and of being cut off from the rest of the world (friends and relatives), while the father slowly goes berserk and then on a wild killing spree. Stephen King was able to craft every scene with a sense of reality that would come alive in my mind in ways that were truly terrifying to remember. The author was able to do this because of his own experiences in battling alcoholism and understanding what a person and his family goes through emotionally when dealing with this addiction.
Remember, The Shining was published in 1977. When I first read it, I entered a new world that had been allusive to me in other novels. The author had (and still has) a special gift for words and description and the creation of characters that few others can match even at this time. The fiction of Stephen King was literally the next evolution in storytelling. You could see it in his published novels at the time. His first published book, Carrie, was written on one level. Though it was entertaining and different from other novels being published, there were other authors at the time who could have very well written it. When King wrote Salem’s Lot, he did so at a much higher, newer level of writing that offered promises of something far different than what the normal reading audience was used to. This was a writer who made you believe in the impossible and to hunger for more of his fiction. The Shining raised the author’s writing to an extremely higher state, which included stardom for him. No one had ever seen the likes of The Shining before. This was a one-of-a-kind novel that simply blew the reader out of his/her comfort zone and took you places inside your own mind that were normally off limits. In many ways, this also set the standards for other authors, showing them what the new generation of readers desired. King could have easily coasted after this novel, but instead he wrote The Stand, which carried him up to still a higher level of craftsmanship and storytelling. Stephen King raised the bar of fiction writing and forced other authors rise up to this level, if they wanted to make a living as a writer. From then he has simply gotten better and better with his works reaching the status of literature.
The Shining is, and will probably always be, my favorite novel of the thousands I’ve read during the last fifty years.
Here’s one last anecdote.
I was coming back on a bus from a Zen center in Nebraska in 1991. We made our way through Colorado and up through the mountains. The sun was setting, casting an eerie light on the cliffs around us as the bus made its way toward Utah. When darkness had settled in and the passengers started to get comfortable, a voice sounded from the rear of the bus. It sounded just like the kid from Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. The person in the back started saying, “Redrum. Redrum. Redrum.” This went on for about sixty seconds. Everybody was listening to the voice, but no one was saying anything. Finally, after the voice had stopped and a minute of silence had gone by, people started laughing because they knew what “redrum” meant and that it came from the movie, The Shining, and that we were in the mountains where the story takes place. After twenty-two years, I still remember that moment on the bus.
One last thought. Stephen King has finally written a sequel to The Shining. The new novel is titled, Dr. Sleep and will be out at the end of the summer in 2013. I think this will be the most anticipated book by Mr. King in his history of being an author. I know I’ve been waiting for me to write this novel for over three decades. I want to find out what has happened to Danny Tolerance and how he’s dealing with life and the cards dealt to him. I suspect this will be one of the best books Stephen King has ever written.