The Shining, written by Stephen King (1977): I’ve read this novel four times now, and didn’t notice until this time around a somewhat hilarious piece of inexplicable business that I’m going to leave to you to figure out. It has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with the logic of everyday life, and I’m pretty sure King kept the scene as-is because he needed several things to happen plot-wise and couldn’t figure out a way to have them happen otherwise. Think of it as an Easter Egg.

The Shining was King’s first foray into a ghost story at novel length, and its many strengths epitomize King’s own strengths over the years, most especially the sympathetic characterization of his main characters and the verisimiltude of their reactions to supernatural phenomena. The basic set-up — telepath (or ‘sensitive’) vs. haunted house — comes directly from Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, a novel King has his characters explicitly mention during the course of The Shining. Here, though, the telepathic character — five-year-old Danny Torrance, gifted with the telepathic gifts similarly gifted hotel cook Dick Halloran calls ‘The Shining’ — is able to contest the haunted house, and not be seduced by it as in Jackson’s novel.

The Overlook Hotel, way up in the Rockies and apparently next door to Hell, is a great character in its own right, a malign entity with no clear origin for its evil (in the movie, the hotel’s malignity is attributed to that old chestnut, the Indian burial ground; here, as in other King works like “The Monkey” and Christine, there is no clear cause for the malice of this particular inanimate object: it just is, a productive evocation of Ramsey Campbell’s dictum for good horror, “Explanation is the death of horror.”

King conjures up a terrible sympathy for failed writer Jack Torrance, plagued by alcoholism and the memories of his physically abusive father, and eventually tested to destruction by the hotel, eroded into a killing machine aimed at his own wife Wendy and son Danny. Our more recent knowledge of King’s struggles with substance abuse until the 1990’s lends extra poignance to the novel, even as one also notes that Torrance, with his somewhat unpractical writing aims (he’s a playwright and high-end short story writer) and literary pretensions (he dismisses Edgar Allan Poe as “The Great American Hack”) is most certainly not a King-surrogate. But this novel is also about Danny’s courage, and the growth of his mother Wendy into someone who can oppose both the horribly undone Jack and the hotel itself.

The building of dread is this novel is skilfully accomplished, with some truly startling set-pieces of horror. King goes a bit over the top towards the end, though a lot of what happens can (as in Jackson’s novel) be explained as malign hallucination rather than actual physical attack. In any event, this is one of King’s novels that, warts and all, rewards multiple readings. Highly recommended.

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