Welcome to the Overlook by Bev Vincent
Now free to write full time, and having produced two books set in Maine, Stephen King decided to move so he could absorb a new setting. According to one version of the story, their destination was left up to chance—a blind finger-stab at a US roadmap.
In 1974, after King finished “The Body,” the family moved to a rented house in Boulder where King planned to write The House on Value Street, a novel loosely based on Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the SLA. He struggled with it for several weeks and abandoned it after he and his wife spent a getaway weekend at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park.
They arrived on the night before the Stanley closed for the winter, and were its only guests. The mostly empty hotel struck King as the perfect setting for a ghost story. Only one entrée was being served in the dining room. The chairs were stacked atop every table except theirs. The tuxedo-clad orchestra played for them and them alone. A person could get lost in the endless hallways he wandered after Tabitha went to bed. The hotel bartender was named Grady. The clawfoot bathtub in their room was so deep someone might drown in it. That night, he dreamed of their son, Joe, screaming as a fire hose chased him. Soon, King had the framework of the story in his head.
For a couple of years, King had been toying with an idea for a novel called Darkshine about a boy who could make dreams become real, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s story “The Veldt,” which he’d read a decade earlier. However, the setting was an amusement park and King couldn’t figure out why the characters wouldn’t simply flee when things went bad. A snowbound hotel solved that problem.
Among The Shining’s other influences were Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Sundial.¹ The topiary animals were inspired by clipped shrubs he’d seen on people’s lawns in Camden, Maine.
Because their house in Boulder was so small, King leased a room in a boarding house where he could look out the window at the Flatiron Mountains as he worked. He paid $17.50 a week for this office, leaving checks by the landlord’s coffee pot. He never saw her again after arranging the rental.
The writing came fast and easy, without any hitches or snags. Averaging 3000 words per day, he completed the first draft in three or four months, and of all of his early books it required the least rewriting. He once described it as an erotic experience, but working on the story reminded him of the poverty from which he had only recently been liberated. Although he didn’t realize it until many years later, The Shining came from his own aggressive impulses towards his kids. “It’s a very sorry thing to discover, as a father, that it is possible, for bursts of time, to literally hate your kids and feel that you could kill them,” he said.
King saw the Overlook as a storage battery charged with an evil powerful enough to corrupt anyone who came into contact with it. The evil derived from its horrific past. The hotel became a symbol for unexpiated sin. It wasn’t evil because bad people had been there; bad people went there because the place was evil.
However, about halfway through the book, he realized that he wasn’t writing a haunted hotel story; instead, he was writing about a family coming apart. The real haunted house is Jack Torrance, who is haunted by his abusive father. In a recent introduction to the novel, King asks readers, “Aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives? Do they not drive us all to words and acts we regret from time to time?”
As with ‘Salem’s Lot, King at first anticipated that everyone at the Overlook Hotel would die. Danny would become the controlling force of the hotel after he died and the Overlook’s psychic force would go up exponentially. However, he connected strongly with Danny. In the first draft, Jack beat Wendy to death with the mallet but it was so terrible he couldn’t leave it that way.
King structured the book like a five-act Shakespearean tragedy. The first draft had scenes instead of chapters. To tidy up some loose ends, he added an epilogue and later, for balance, a lengthy prologue called “Before the Play” that detailed the hotel’s checkered past. To keep the book’s price down, Doubleday removed the prologue and some of the epilogue. The final chapter of the book contains the only section of the epilogue that survives. “Before the Play” was published in Whispers magazine in 1982.
He also wrote a scene that terrified him: the encounter between Danny and the woman in Room 217. It wasn’t so bad writing the first draft. All of a sudden it was just there, he said, just one of those unplanned things that happened. However, when he was rewriting the book, he dreaded getting back to it. He counted down the days as the scene drew near. “When I went down to the typewriter that day I felt frightened and my heart was beating too fast and I felt the way that you do when you have to make a big presentation, or when something’s going to happen. And I was scared. I did the best job I could with it, but I was glad when it was over.”
King’s original title for the book, The Shine, came from the John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band song “Instant Karma.” During a meeting at Doubleday, the subsidiary rights guy asked if he was sure he wanted the book to go out with that title, given that it featured a black cook. King had no idea that the word “shine” was a pejorative term for African Americans—and the other people around the conference table that day didn’t think it was an issue, either—but he didn’t want people to think he was a racist, so he decided to change it. The book was getting ready to go to press, so everyone agreed that The Shining was a good compromise, even though King felt it sounded “unwieldy and thudding.” It got the point across and required minimal changes to the book.
The Shining became King’s first hardcover bestseller, reaching number eight on the New York Times list for one week and selling roughly 50,000 copies². The dust jacket copy branded him “the undisputed master of the modern horror story.”
1. Dick Halloran’s name is an allusion to Halloran house from The Sundial.
2. Within a year, remaindered copies were available for $1.98. Within five years, copies were selling on the rare book market for over $200
The complete list of the books to be read 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.