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Picking the Bones

The Shining (1977)

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#2.3, 1995

I'm rather fascinated by these articles about the various different editions and dust jackets of Mr King's work, but will have to admit they aren't necessarily useful in my own situation -- for a start I own the British editions pretty exclusively [1]. But even the later covers can still tell you a lot of interesting things. Take my copy of The Shining, for instance.

It's a 1992, twenty-second impression NEL British paperback (that's almost one and a half per year). The author's name is conspicuously larger than the title of the book, on the cover and especially on the spine (white and yellow on black). On the back of the novel it says 'From the world's bestselling author', a claim slightly modified in the author description inside, adding the word 'perhaps'. Pretty obviously Stephen King is the selling point, as well he might be. The book is part of a series of reprints that appeared around the time of Rob Reiner's Misery adaptation, with the phrase 'words are his power' under the author's name. It's actually a pretty good line, both for marketing and for understanding the man, because he can use the English language in a devastating fashion, when so inspired.

The other thing on the cover is a picture of Jack Nicholson peering enraged through a splintered hole in door 217. It's not a photograph, but the resemblance is obvious, and the picture is repeated on the back. The book is not a movie edition and does not otherwise mention Kubrick's version, but the identification is obviously very strong (I'm going to be controversial here and say the movie's actually pretty good, though obviously much more Kubrick's vision than King's). I can think of no other books that do something similar with the cover art. Lastly, after a pretty accurate plot description on the back, comes the endorsement 'Obviously a masterpiece, probably the best supernatural novel in a hundred years', attributed to Peter Straub. Now Peter and Stephen are obviously friends, at least these days, and you can never take these things too seriously anyway. But elsewhere, such as in his essay in Horror: 100 Best Books, Straub makes his enthusiasm clear: 'In its uniting of an almost bruising literary power, a deep sensitivity to individual experience, and its operatic convictions, it is a very significant work of art'.

Is it? Well, we're going to have to look inside the book to answer that one.

The Shining was published in the same year as Rage and two years after 'salem's Lot, making 1976 the only year from '74 to the present in which a brand new Stephen King book did not appear. It was inspired by a trip to Colorado with Tabitha, and particularly a stay in the Stanley Hotel close to the end of its season (yes, room 217), when they were close to being the only remaining guests. He added this setting to a previous idea about a boy being a psychic receptor, and it all clicked into place.

The novel is about the boy of course, Daniel Anthony Torrance, but more so about his father, Jack Torrance, who over the course of the book finds in himself the rationale to murder his family. It is also about the Overlook Hotel, its corrupting force reacting ever more strongly to the shine in its walls. It is, quite simply, Stephen King's haunted house story, showing explicitly what the Marsden House implied in his earlier novel. The hotel is evil itself, a bit stupid, as King's evil generally is (the explosive climax, if you pardon the expression, is proof of that), but it is its influence on Jack that is the most fascinating aspect of the book. This is probably King's most successful portrayal of slow madness. Jack Torrance's downfall is in himself from the beginning, he is a hero with a fatal flaw and so that downfall is never a great surprise (not helped by Jack Nicholson on the cover, I might add -- and in the movie Jack looks borderline psychotic in the initial interview). But it is the portrayal of that decline that lives up to the promise of the book as a masterpiece. The discovery of the wasps' nest becomes the central moment of this madness (not to mention a running metaphor throughout the book), bringing forth the recollections of former schooling and George Hatfield. That, and his subsequent treatment of the nest, really show us Jack Torrance's thought processes are in serious need of a tune-up: he is unsure of his own motives, and his reconstruction of them is seriously flawed. And then of course there is the image of the nest, supposedly rendered safe, with the hundred or so wasps crawling inside the Pyrex bowl that covers it. Not only is that image the scariest in the book (with the more physical danger of the woman in room 217 close behind) but it really fuses the supernatural potential of the hotel with Jack's human insanity.

The Shining is also certainly not deficient in other areas either. Perhaps by the third novel the combination of excellent characters with intricate detail was becoming to be expected, but this is a more intense and personal vision than the previous two, and many of the ones to come. Getting back to Peter Straub's comment, I think it is certainly Stephen King's best book about the supernatural. The best in a hundred years? I don't know. My feeling is the second half of the novel is too much a 'default' ending, running with the set-up in the first half rather than adding anything further -- putting it behind other contenders such as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Dan Simmon's Song of Kali.

But this isn't a competition, not for more than the idle contemplation of horror fans, because The Shining delivers the goods, and re-reading my twenty-second impression copy was a pleasure.


1. Ah, written when I was younger and had less first editions -- now I'd be lost without George Beahm's Stephen King Collectibles: An Illustrated Price Guide. But I still don't have a collectible Shining, nor anything earlier than Rage.


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