This Inhuman Place Makes Human Monsters

(The Shining)

The Overlook may not be the most comfortable place to spend the winter, but after exiting ‘Salem’s Lot, I personally find the place a welcome relief.

We may as well discuss the Kubrick movie right off bat. I don’t know the stats on who’s seen the movie vs. read the book, but a lot of people who have only done one seem to have chosen the movie. And even among those who have done both, a good chunk prefer the movie.

I think that’s fair. It’s a good movie. I like it too. But it seems to me that the movie is fundamentally different from the story that Stephen King wrote. And I like the story that Stephen King wrote better than I like the movie, personally.

In Kubrick’s version, Jack Torrance seems nutty from the jump, and just goes nuttier as the story goes on. The story is less about a hotel that wants to possess and kill the caretaker and his family and more about a husband and father who’s already pretty wonky and progresses quickly to homicidally wonky over the course of the movie. You could ignore all of the supernatural stuff entirely, or think of it as delusions, because it’s mostly a story about Jack going from bad to worse, with some creepy imagery thrown in. It’s a good story. But it’s not what you get in the book.

In the book, you spend enough time in Jack’s head to know that he’s trying – also enough time to know that he’s probably not trying hard enough, and that it’s probably not going to be good enough even without the supernatural. I don’t know what King intended, but I would argue that Jack Torrance is never a truly good man. I think he knows that, and I think he would like to be a good man. I also don’t think he’s as bad as the forces of the Overlook pushed him to be.

Like, if they hadn’t gone to the Overlook, and if Jack had stayed sober, I don’t think he would have been breaking Danny’s arms on a regular basis or anything. I do think he would have been emotionally unavailable, probably had a lot of toxic masculinity, and not averse to a little physical punishment – for his child or for his wife. But probably nothing that would have raised much of an eyebrow in 1970-whatever. People who were used to toxic, emotionally unavailable men who occasionally belted their wife or child would probably have thought he was a heck of a nice guy. I think without the alcohol and without the ghosts, he would have been able to keep himself from crossing the lines of social acceptability at the time. I do not think he would be socially acceptable today, but in the time he was written, he probably could have been.

But they did go to the Overlook. And the Overlook was haunted.

I find it hard to feel sympathy for Jack – you may have noticed; I don’t think he’s really all that great even sober and unhaunted. And Wendy annoys me. Stephen King talks about how she was reduced in the movie to less than the strong woman he meant her to be – and I agree that she’s weaker in the movie than the book – but I don’t think she was all that strong in the book either. And I don’t know why she puts up with this man long enough to get to the Overlook, let alone stay there. I am probably judging them both by the standards of my time, but I’m as much a product of my time as they are of theirs. I can’t help it. But just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re badly written. I think they’re well written, especially Jack. Knowing them increases my sympathy for Danny. With these as parents, how is this kid going to make it?

But it’s hard not to like Danny. While he’s written to be unusually precocious for a child of his age, I don’t find that it takes me out of the story. A bright only child in that situation probably would be unusually sensitive and intuitive, even without the shining. And that power is a wonderful X factor that I think is well developed.

Halloran, the cook, is another stand-out character in The Shining, and while it’s not great that King – especially early King – is so prone to the Magical Negro trope, at least he writes interesting and likable Magical Negros? I’d happily have read a book about Dick Halloran and his life. And he does show back up in later works, with fewer Magical Negro characteristics, I think, so that’s a win for him.

The creepiness factor of The Shining shouldn’t be underrated, either. King’s books aren’t full of jump scares or anything – that’s not why he’s scary – but I feel like The Shining is a masterful example of terror and horror and just general creepiness. It’s the kind of book that, if you’re still reading it after the sun goes down, you may as well keep going until either the sun comes back up or you reach the end, because while the story is going on, you’re going to be too creeped out to sleep. You might open your eyes in the night and see a strangled, purple face before your eyes. Safer to stay awake, feel the pages of the book to remind yourself that it’s a fiction and you’re holding it in your hands, not seeing it in your head, and plow ahead until you feel safe again.

In addition to the Kubrick movie, there’s another adaptation of The Shining. It’s… closer to the book, technically speaking. Is it as good as the book, or as the Kubrick movie? Not hardly. But… it’s there.

As for the Stephen King multiverse, The Shining has its own sequel, written many, many years after the original book. The Shining came out in 77, and Doctor Sleep came out in 2013. You can do the math. The Overlook also comes up in various other Stephen King works, including the most recently released work at the time of this writing: Billy Summers. Billy Summers is not a horror novel. It’s not even slightly supernatural. Except… for the bits about The Overlook, which does give it some horror and supernaturalness. It’s not the point of the book, but it’s there around the edges anyway. The Shining is not one of my favorite Stephen King books, but I think it’s one of the best. Especially of that older era of Stephen King books. And “not my favorite” doesn’t mean I don’t love it – I actually do love it. I just think it gets even better from here.


One thought on “This Inhuman Place Makes Human Monsters

  1. The horror and creepiness were so well done in this book. I read this as a teenager and remember how Jack’s alcoholism made an impact on me, and how he was drawn to the bar in the hotel’s ballroom.


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