Stephen King’s “The Shining” proposes the world has two kinds of people: those who are psychically sensitive and can feel things beyond normal senses, and those who cannot. This extra ability may seem a gift, and those who have that gift surely have fuller lives and know more things about people, relationships, and how the world works. But everybody in King’s story who has this gift, this “shine,” only witnesses horror and death.
Jack Torrance, by nearly every measure, is not a nice guy. He drinks to excess, he has a temper, and he has problems controlling himself. He has problems with the truth (as illustrated by the way he treats a stuttering student trying to make the debate team). When things don’t go Jack’s way he blames others, especially his wife and son. The reader isn’t surprised The Overlook Hotel chooses Jack to manipulate into doing its dark bidding. This is a character teetering between boyhood immaturity and adulthood; only the character is far too old to be having these kinds of issues. This teetering is also reflected in his precarious balancing act between sobriety and alcoholism. He loses both of those balancing acts.
Jack is a writer. King has used the writer/artist as a protagonist on more than one occasion: “The Mist,” “Bag of Bones,” “It,” and others. Write what you know must be true as King has done well with this axiom. Many people accuse writers of being autobiographical when they put a writer in the protagonist role. However, I hope King doesn’t see a lot of himself in Jack.
This story works on about three different levels: as a haunted house/isolation tale, as a descent into madness, and as a domestic/family abuse story. All three of these levels provide the reader with horror as King does excellent work personifying The Overlook and painting the Torrance family as believable characters caught up in supernatural events.
First, The Overlook. King based this setting on an actual hotel in the mountains of Colorado The Stanley (though my copy of the novel denies this). As with most haunted house stories The Overlook is big, empty and foreboding. It dwarfs the Torrances and provides an excellent place for imaginations to run to the horrible. Danny Torrance, he who is the strongest with the shine, draws the malevolence of the hotel like bears to a salmon run.
The Overlook is haunted by many ghosts from a good many eras. King never really lets the reader know whether the hotel draws bad people to it, or if the bad people who own the place fill it with their bad spirits and vibes. Either way, the hotel is brimming with restless spirits, and they want one more: Danny Torrance.
Danny is gifted with the shining, or para-psychological abilities. He can call out to other shine-sensitive folks with just his mind, as he does with Dick Hallorann. He has dreams and visions of the future and warnings from a shadow self (Tony). The Overlook is either scared of Danny and wants him out of the way before he can reveal the power there, or it wants Danny’s power for itself. Either way, The Overlook’s endgame is one dead Danny.
The hotel employs Jack, Danny’s father, to accomplish this. From the scrapbook to the hornets to the topiary animals to actually seeing the ghosts at the masked ball in the bar Jack gets drawn into the hotel’s influence.
Part of what makes the hotel as a setting so effective is its isolation. King uses the impending snow and the absolute cutoff due to the snow to ratchet up the tension. Every one of the Torrances, even Jack, has second thoughts about staying up at the hotel when the snow begins to fly. King has given glimpses of what is to come through Danny’s visions (REDRUM) and the reader just KNOWS they should flee. But once winter comes down the Rockies at them fleeing is no longer an option. They are trapped with the hotel and all its ghostly occupants, and Jack is slowly being seduced into doing terrible things to his family.
Without this isolation “The Shining” would not have been as compelling. If Wendy could have scooped Danny up and just driven away a lot of the tension is lost in this story. King chose his location very well.
The descent into madness is truly frightening. The Overlook convinces a man to turn on his own wife and son and try to murder them. This is unnatural in the extreme. Many parents would rather die than harm their kids. King refers to Wendy in these terms in “The Shining.”
The reader believes this father could harm his son and this husband could harm his wife because Jack starts the story as not the nicest person. He’s broken his son’s arm in a fit of rage. He’s attacked a student who sabotaged his car. He’s had outbursts at his wife, was complicit in a car accident while drunk that destroyed a child’s bicycle (luckily not the child too), and when pushed his response is anger and arrogance. A reader can believe this sort of man, this alcoholic self-centered immature lout could be manipulated to do harm to that which he loves as long as the reward is booze and a book deal.
Is King making fun of writers by showing how obsessed Jack is with being acknowledged as a good writer? He might be. Jack does think the sun rises and sets with his writing. He flaunts his finding of the shady past of The Overlook to Ullman, the hotel manager. On some level he has to know this will cost him this last paying job, knock him off this bottom rung of the ladder he is clinging to for life and sustenance. Yet, for Jack, the potential story imbedded in the past of the hotel is worth the risk. For him the story is king, no matter the cost. Well, the story and the booze.
Finally, the family dynamic is huge in this story. Wendy stays with the abusive Jack because her own father was an abuser. It is her norm. In a very real sense she has married her father, and did it to spite her mother. I’m sure many readers can relate to this metaphorical incestuous relationship suicide.
Danny is a bit of a cheat as a character. Because of his shine he can sense and read his parents much better than a character/child has a right to. King uses this to really carve into the reader’s consciousness. We feel bad for Danny when he can sense his parents’ fighting and sadness. In some ways these passages were too telling. When Danny lies in bed and sees the word “DIVORCE” in his mind’s eye the reader is being hit over the head with that knowledge. After Jack breaks Danny’s arm any good mother, and Wendy fits that bill, would be thinking divorce. We don’t need Danny to spell it out for us.
What King does well with Danny is to show a parental favoritism. Despite Jack breaking Danny’s arm when he was three, despite the hornet stings, despite Jack’s moodiness, anger, and yelling, Danny is a daddy’s boy. Wendy laments this several times in this story.
Now, real parents and real kids will deny the existence of favorites in families, but they are there. We all strive to make equal decisions and to treat our children the same, but the reality is that is impossible. Domestic socialism doesn’t work any better than political socialism does. King was brave to include the tight bond between Danny and Jack. Speaking this level of truth added a lot to the Torrance family dynamic. It also made the breaking of the father/son bond and eventual death of Jack that much more tragic.
Overall, “The Shining” is a modern masterpiece. My only complaint is the unknown factor of what causes The Overlook to be evil. Is it a nesting place for evil people? Is it the location? Which came first: the bad hotel or the bad people making the hotel bad? This can be seen as a strength because the reader can make the distinction for themselves, but a bit more along these lines would have been great.
Also, the “shine” that Danny is so strong with loses a lot of its uniqueness in this story as by the end every major player has displayed a level of “shine.” Danny is strongest with it, followed by Dick Hallorann who rushes from Florida to save Danny and Wendy. Jack obviously has it since he has a nice set of conversations with ghost bartenders and past-guests (long deceased). King says all mothers shine a bit, and Wendy displays that as the book builds to its climax. Even Ulmann the annoying little hotel manager appears to see the remnants of Vittorio “The Chopper” Gienelli lying in the doorway of The Presidential Suite. Heck, even a fellow airplane passenger shines at Hallorann as they exit the plane in Denver. Danny’s ability would have seemed more special had he and Hallorann been the only ones who could access that shine.