Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Stephen King has added nearly innumerable chapters to his legacy over the past few decades, but I still firmly believe none of his new works can hold a candle to the classics which defined him, such as The Shining. Having defined the horror genre in its time, the novel tells the story of a caretaker and his family stuck in a haunted hotel, slowly driven insane by its paranormal inhabitants.
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Stephen King Creates the Classic Setting
The horror genre is one whose evolution can be quite fascinating to trace, the majority of its authors following trends until someone comes along to set a new one. Stephen King, a name which I’m certain most of you are already familiar with, is the kind of author who set new trends back in his day, and I think few of his works had a literary impact comparable to The Shining.
The majority of people are familiar with the story courtesy of Stanley Kubrick‘s excellent adaptation by the same name, but as is quite often the case, only so much of a book can be transposed onto the silver screen. The film is a beast in its own right, and I believe it ought to be considered differently from the book. In other words, if you think having seen the movie is enough to pretend you’ve read the book, I’d urge you to reconsider.
For those who are only discovering this classic bestseller of the 70s for the first time, or are in need of a refresher course, it follows the story of Jack Torrence, author and seasonal hotel caretaker, his wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny. Jack receives a job offer to maintain the Overlook Hotel over the winter period, isolated from society as can be.
Seeing it as the perfect chance to earn a good bit of money, spend some quality time with his family, and progress on his writing, Jack jumps on the opportunity without asking too many questions. Upon their arrival, the luxurious and comforting interiors of the Overlook seem quite inviting, but unbeknownst to the Torrence family, they also hide something sinister and deadly.
As seemingly inexplicable and paranormal occurrences begin to chip away at the family’s psyche, Jack trends towards instability, Wendy is frightened for her family, and Danny is the only one capable of sensing the evil around them. Their slow journey into madness can only have one gruesome ending, and the otherworldly inhabitants of the Overlook are dead-set on making it happen.
An Inquiry into Insanity in The Shining
As I mentioned it at the start, the horror genre has gone through many phases and transitions, with the earlier ones having been more focused on monsters, or unimaginable and unknowable creatures, as was in Lovecraft‘s case. When The Shining came along, it created a certain shift in the public’s interest in favour of stories centred on the paranormal and heavily coloured by madness.
This isn’t simply because people were ignorant of the idea beforehand, but more due to Stephen King‘s presentation of it in this novel. Though at the start the Torrence family does seem a little lackingin character, we do have a good understanding of who they are as people and what’s driving them to make the decisions which kick off the story.
The extremely small cast of characters works in the story’s favour, allowing us to become deeply-intimate with the psychological worlds of each member of the family as more and more background information is made available to us. They aren’t simply there to move the plot along, but rather, they serve as the subjects for the author’s examination of insanity on a more profound level.
Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.― Stephen King, The Shining
My take on the characters was never one-sided, which I find to be a good indicator of how realistically they were written. For instance, on one hand, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jack and the misfortunes which seemed to ceaselessly befall him, but on the other, his increasing threat to the family slowly turned him into one of the more unsettling antagonists in the genre. The depth to which we’re familiar with the characters tremendously helps in understanding the inner, psychological struggles they are facing.
I also found the escalation of Jack’s insanity to have been handled with remarkable care, growing in small increments, with each paranormal event he experiences being only slightly more disturbing than the last one. This slower pace at which he is consumed by his hallucinations and the evil around him amplify the climate of uncertainty which I’m certain the author was going for; you simply feel like you never know when exactly he’s going to break and violently lash out.
Signs of a Timeless Work
Different literary genres hold up in varying ways over the years, with some books only holding the attention of their readers while they remain relevant to current times. On the other hand, every genre has timeless works, the type capable of busting through the barriers imposed by time and ever-changing societies.
In my opinion, the horror genre is more bereft of such books than others, largely because the works in it often play on whatever people fear in any given time period. The Shining is one of the few novels which I would classify as timeless with a clear conscience, and I think it’s due to one simple factor: people haven’t stopped going mad yet, nor have they stopped turning on those who trust them the most.
While, of course, some passages in the novel surely don’t have the same impact they did when it was released almost fifty years ago now, one the whole it accomplishes something which, in my personal experience with the genre, I’ve rarely felt: it instilled in my a sort of all-encompassing dread. No matter what a monster can do, a human’s violence towards another will always be more terrifying by virtue of species-based kinship.
This isn’t the kind of novel which will try and give you jump-scares, nor are there any moments which feel like they were simply added for shock value. Instead, there is a growing sense of discomfort and danger the further you get into the story, and as far as I could tell, all the paranormal elements the family was exposed to (namely Jack) had a concrete cause for being they were and a specific purpose from a storytelling perspective.
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Finally, there is one last element I’d like to direct your attention to, one which I believe heavily contributed to The Shining having earned its designation as a classic: it urges you to anticipate the unpredictable, and shatters your expectations every time. I constantly found myself trying to predict what might be around the next corner, and this active involvement with the plot kept me highly focused, especially once King started to increase the pace.
The Final Verdict
The Shining by Stephen King has rightfully earned its place among the pantheon of greatest horror novels of all time, having helped to shape the genre with its slow-burn exposition on insanity, and at the time, a unique take on the traditional ghost story.
If you’ve watched the movie and are curious about the book, or are looking for a true horror classic delivered in the form of a profound character study revolving around family and madness, then I strongly recommend this book for you.
Children have to grow into their imaginations like a pair of oversized shoes.― Stephen King, The Shining
Stephen King is a name which requires little introduction to anyone even remotely interested in the horror genre. His great classics such as The Dead Zone, Cujo, Christine and of course, The Shining have earned him dozens upon dozens of literary awards over the years, and have even been turned into highly-acclaimed movies in their own rights.