Revisiting The Shining by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
THE SHINING was the second Stephen King novel I ever read, and when I look back at that experience there is one crystal clear memory that surfaces above all the others: this book is almost too scary.
Let me explain. I was sixteen at the time. The son of a strict, but loving father and a doting mother. Baby brother to four older siblings. A mostly normal teenager who just happened to see and hear and feel things a little deeper (okay, a lot deeper) than most of my friends. I already knew I wanted to be a writer one day, and somewhere deep in my subconscious, I think I also knew that writing would one day be my salvation. The same way that books were my escape from the real world, I somehow knew that writing would be my way to understand and cope with that real world.
I had read a handful of King’s short stories by this time and one novel, ‘SALEM’S LOT. I was enchanted by King’s tale of vampires invading a small New England town, and surprisingly it was the townspeople, even more than the vampires, that cast the strongest spell over me as a reader. Like so many others, I found ‘SALEM’S LOT to be a powerful and frightening reading experience, and it remains today one of my Top Ten favorite Stephen King novels.
But there were no vampires in THE SHINING. Just a loving mom and a struggling dad and a very special little boy — and one very big and very bad hotel tucked away in the mountains.
I do remember thinking that the Overlook Hotel would’ve been a helluva place for vampires to take over — especially during the busy summer season when the place was rocking with hundreds of out-of-town guests — but, as I mentioned above, thanks to THE SHINING’s promotional copy I knew from the start that there would be no vampires this time around.
Ironically, barely halfway into the novel, I found myself wishing there were vampires prowling the empty hallways of the Overlook; in fact, they would have been a welcome relief in my eyes. Because, even as a teenager, I very quickly realized that the human monster the Overlook (and King) had created was much more terrifying than any fanged creature of the night.
And, perhaps worst of all, this monster was a husband and a father and a man I had very much liked at the beginning of the story.
I remember feeling almost paralyzed by some of the darker moments. Those damn hedge animals first creeping up on Jack, and then later in the story, Danny. The elevator running by itself late at night, and the confetti and party mask left behind inside it. The slithering fire hose. Room 217. It’s a long list of horrors, and once he starts, King never lets up.
‘SALEM’S LOT had frightened me, but this was different. This was more than just scary — it was pure terror. I remember it feeling like all the air was being sucked out of the room and I was almost suffocating as I turned the pages. I remember thinking: I can’t let anyone in school see me like this!
So, I read THE SHINING at home over the course of one long week. By myself. In my bedroom. Under the covers. With all the lights on. And my bedroom door wide open.
I may have been sixteen, but I wasn’t dumb.
THIS IS NOW…
That’s the word that comes to mind after taking the past couple weeks to reread THE SHINING for the first time in many years. Relentless and scary as hell. Okay, five words.
Simply put, THE SHINING is a big fat nasty snowball of a nightmare that takes its time to draw you in, and then once it has its sharp little claws in you…it squeezes and squeezes…and you are done. There is no escape.
As a reader, there is very little humor or beauty here to alleviate the tension and the gradual understanding of what is coming. We all know that horrible dream sensation of falling, right? That’s what rereading THE SHINING felt like to me. Falling…deeper and deeper into King’s familiar nightmare. (Yes, I had an actual nightmare the night I finished my reread; and yes, I emailed Steve and complained about said nightmare; and no, I’m not telling you what I dreamed about; I don’t even want to think about it).
As a writer, I look at THE SHINING and see a marvel of structure and characterization and narrative drive. The story is complex and propulsive.
Complex: who else looks at Jack and feels a serious dose of sympathy along with their fear and repulsion? I know I do. I always have. I say it very succinctly later on in this essay: Jack never had a chance. Why do you think the Overlook picked him?
Complex: just take a look at the back story of the Overlook Hotel. My God, the history of the place! Presidents and mobsters. Prostitutes and politicians. Murder. Suicide. Scandal. I believe King could have written a second book focusing on the Overlook’s past and it would have been every bit as haunting and fascinating as THE SHINING.
Propulsive: It starts slow. Almost like we are strapped into a roller coaster with the promise of first-rate entertainment up ahead. We’re smiling — maybe a little nervously, but still we’re smiling and our hands are reaching high in the air with brave anticipation. This is fun, right? Heck, we even paid to do this, right? It’s only when we reach the top and realize what is waiting for us below that we start screaming for King to get us the hell off this ride!
At least, that’s what it’s like for me, this masterpiece we call THE SHINING.
We start slowly. Getting to know Jack and Wendy and Danny. Their own backstories and struggles, and it’s enough to immediately make us like them and root for them. We want good things to happen to this family. Mission accomplished, Steve.
Then we arrive at the Overlook and get to know Dick Hallorann and the nasty Stuart Ullman a little better, and finally the hotel itself. It’s big and empty and a little creepy, but hey it seems like just the place to spend a snowy winter playing games with the family and writing a play. Forget about the whispers of its dark past; forget about what happened to the previous caretaker and his family. Everything will turn out okay for the Torrance family; they’re a lovable bunch and we’re rooting for them, remember?
So, now the ride picks up a little momentum — and so does our sense of unease. We have the creepy hedge animals; did they really just move or was that our imagination? And that damn hornets nest; but it was supposed to be empty! And that creepy Room 217; what was it Hallorann said about that place? And those spooky fire hoses hanging on the wall; of course, they look like evil snakes to little Danny; he’s just a kid, after all. And then Jack stumbles upon the scrapbook in the basement while he is checking the boiler, and oh boy, we’re steaming now; it seems the Overlook Hotel is a whole lot more colorful than even Ullman originally let on.
And then here we go, we’re really gaining speed now, almost to the top of the ride, as Danny has his own run-in with the hedge animals, and soon after he pays a visit to Room 217, and almost doesn’t survive it. And that REDRUM nightmare of his is really starting to crank. And what about the elevator that runs by itself and Jack’s old habit of rubbing his chin and lips and that increasingly nasty temper of his…
…and then we suddenly find ourselves at the peak — the point of no return — of this midnight roller coaster, as we reach Chapter 33, simply titled THE SNOWMOBILE. It’s a quiet scene. One character. Minimal dialogue. Jack stands alone inside the Overlook’s shed, staring at his family’s only possible mode of escape. And we can feel the war raging inside him as he runs through his muddied thoughts. He searches for spark plugs and a battery for the snowmobile, and we feel and hear the rage and confusion boiling inside him. We feel him fighting the Overlook for his soul. Good versus evil, sure; but it’s bigger than that. Jack Torrance, the husband, the father, the man…the guy we are rooting for…he’s all there on the page, the best of him and the worst of him.
And then with these words…
“I can’t win,” he said, very softly. That was it. It was like trying to play solitaire with one of the aces missing from the deck.
…we witness his surrender.
King’s words here are deceptively simple, and they break my heart. Then and now. Any chance of a happy ending for this man and his family are gone. We just watched the Overlook Hotel win, and now the roller coaster is plummeting into darkness and taking us with it.
A few chapters later — when Danny tells his mom, “It’s Daddy. And it’s you. It wants all of us. It’s tricking Daddy, it’s fooling him, trying to make him think it wants him the most. It wants me the most, but it will take all of us.” — we realize there is no escape. For any of us.
The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time. She was bloated and purple, her gas-filled belly rising out of the cold, ice-rimmed water like some fleshy island. Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles. She was grinning, her purple lips pulled back in a grimace. Her breasts lolled. Her pubic hair floated. Her hands were frozen on the knurled porcelain sides of the tub like crab claws.
Danny shrieked. But the sound never escaped his lips; turning inward and inward, it fell down in his darkness like a stone in a well. He took a single blundering step backward, hearing his heels clack on the white hexagonal tiles, and at the same moment his urine broke, spilling effortlessly out of him.
The woman was sitting up.
Enough said, right? Room 217. Sheer terror.
This one, for me, is easy. When Dick Hallorann takes Danny and his parents on a tour of the Overlook’s kitchen and pantry, and we get to watch as Danny and Hallorann make their special connection, it’s a scene of such joy and wonderment…and innocence. You can feel the surprise, and then the relief, as Danny discovers that he is not alone with his gift — his “shining.”
Once Danny and Hallorann continue alone outside and Danny helps load the cook’s suitcases into the car, the scene takes a foreboding turn, but it’s still a pleasure to watch and listen to these two interact.
These scenes take place fairly early in the novel — Chapters 10 and 11 — but they are the last moments of genuine happiness I experienced while reading this dark story. The rest is like walking into a long, dark tunnel — without end.
And he was just beginning to relax, just beginning to realize that the door must be unlocked and he could go, when the years-damp, bloated, fish-smelling hands closed softly around his throat and he was turned implacably around to stare into that dead and purple face.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
I hated the hornets scene back when I first read THE SHINING, and I hate it even more now. Yes, it’s just a handful of mostly harmless hornet stings — 11 to be exact — from a nest that was supposed to be dead and empty, but it’s more than that: it’s the first time the Overlook’s dark magic drives a wedge in between Jack and Wendy, and once this occurs, the evil never loosens its grip around Jack’s throat. I wanted to yell at the book, “It’s not Jack’s fault! He followed the instructions on the bug bomb! He did everything right! Stop blaming him, Wendy!”
Bearing witness to this injustice is such a helpless feeling, and for us readers, it’s only the beginning. Later, you look back at this scene, and it becomes clear: Jack never had a chance.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Danny Torrance, of course! So, a big thanks to Steve for DOCTOR SLEEP! I’d also love to find out what happened to Stuart Ullman now that his precious Overlook Hotel is gone…but that’s just me; I realize the guy is an officious little prick.
START DATE – November 16, 2014
FINISH DATE – December 2, 2014
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One final note: I was recently invited to be a Guest of Honor at the 2015 Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat. This is a yearly author and artist conference held each October at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The Stanley was Stephen King’s original inspiration for the Overlook Hotel and THE SHINING, and is widely reported to be haunted.
Because I am unwise and unwell, I am seriously considering their kind offer to join them next October. Stay tuned for further details…
Next you can read about the history of The Shining. The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.