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.

ShiningFor 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.

 

20 comments

  • My opinion of this one has changed greatly upon the reread. When I first read this book in 7th grade (I was a King veteran by then having read 10+ of his books, which seems like a lot at the time) I thought it was the worst book I had read by him. I was highly disappointed. My opinion was, of course, distorted by The Shinning film, which is really nothing like the book. I had unreasonable expectations at the time.

    Now I can say The Shinning is among his best and one of my favorites. Such a good story; it sucks you in before you know it and then there is no escape. Being a father now also provided many new and frightful insights into the tale and its characters.

    Good stuff. 5 out of 5

  • Marcus

    I was so excited to read this book when I first read it. It was one of my first King novels. It was a great read. I was lucky enough not to see the movie before reading and was honestly disappointed when I saw the Kubric version.

  • glenreitz@seas.wustl.edu

    My favorite of all the King novels, followed closely by Salem’s Lot. I have read Stephen King ever since!

  • Matthew Hamilton

    An unpopular opinion, I’m sure, but it is not my favorite King novel. I’m not saying it is bad, or that I don’t like it (because I do, I love it, in fact). But I came of age with King in the late 80s and early 90s. The first novel of his that I read and understood was Gerald’s Game, of all books. And, unlike the author and a lot of other people, I find Kubrik’s The Shining film to be superb. I think the novel is better than the film, as I almost always do, but I liked the cold and the cold embrace of death and hate that the film showed. I also love Kubrik’s use of awkward floor planning and how the hotel makes no geometric sense when you watch the movie. It really gives a sense of unease. But the book is always better-more fleshed out, makes more sense, and the character development is always better.

  • Colleen

    Ooh, the original ending sounds good. I like S.K. when he’s at his most hopeless and bleak (“The Long Walk” is one of my faves and it doesn’t get more hopeless and bleak than that), so I’d be curious to see how that version compares to the one that made the final cut.

  • Cheryl WS

    One of my favorite King books. In college a guy in a Chinese history class I took had a tattoo of those twin girls, (from the film), on the inside of his forearm. Quite creepy.

  • I found this sentence particularly telling: “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.” When I think of The Shining, I have a hard time even knowing what it’s about. Is it a ghost story? A haunted house story? A psychic kid story? I suppose it’s meant to be everything to everyone, but I don’t think it was particularly successful. I’ve never seen the Kubrick version, but I did enjoy the TV movie starring Steven Webber. It’s probably the best literal TV adaptation of the story possible. In fact, when I read Doctor Sleep, I imagined Steven Webber as Dan Torrance.

  • Wayne C. Rogers

    Bev. this is something I discovered several years ago. Steve King got progressively better with each of his early novels. Salem’s Lot was certainly longer and much better than Carrie. The Shining was an even longer novel, and I feel, more terrifying than Salem’s Lot. It was like King was rising to a newer and higher level of craftsmanship with each book. Of course, when The Stand came out, that was his opus, until the novel, It, was published a number of years later.

  • Craig H.

    Pretty simple for me—LOVED THE BOOK–LOVED THE MOVIE—Read & Seen many many times and they are both great rides every time.

  • John Zulovitz

    As I recall, “The Shining” was the fourth novel written by Mr. King that I read. Need it be said that is wasn’t the last? In fact, I’ve read all of his work that is available, some of it more than once. As a fellow writer, I am inspired by Mr. King, who has this wonderful inability to lie. Which is to say, his characters bear full dimensions: mind, heart, body, and soul. And they are not infallible. Rather, they are like us, possessing both attributes and flaws, as well as idiosyncrasies. It’s no secret why Mr. King’s work is successful: it has to do mainly with the characters he creates. For many readers, this is what we crave. And too, it allows us to consider the world from perspectives dissimilar to our own, which is how we grow as human beings.

    Another important element in Mr. King’s work is one upon which the best art depends: that is, to remind us of how we as species are capable of feeling empathy and then extending it to others. “The Shining” is an apt example of this. More than anything, the novel, to me, is about familial strife. It’s about a husband and father who is hanging on by his fingernails, and wants to do right by his wife and son. But he’s damaged (aren’t we all, in some way?), and though he tries to do what’s right, he finds himself unable to triumph over his flaws and fears. The past (as well as his addiction) has proven his damaging afflictions to be irreparable. Which is why I think of the story as a tragedy.

    Mr. King might have stopped there, but he didn’t. Consider Wendy Torrance, who loves her husband, certainly, but who will do whatever she must to protect her son, Danny. She’s no blushing flower, and I don’t it’s inaccurate to say she gives as good as she gets. How wonderful it is to spend time with a female character in whom the stereotypical “damsel in distress” does not reside.

    Of course there’s Danny, too, an intelligent child who (like many children in families where abuse — whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or all three) is observant and not immune to the fears and stresses which threaten his parents’ relationship. And, by extension, his own.

    Mr. King created a credible family in this story, which is perhaps why the horrific elements strike so acutely. For if we fail to feel compassion for characters, we do not care as much what happens to them. Mr. King understands this; it is evident in his other stories (the Trentons in “Cujo,” the Creeds in “Pet Sematary,” and, recently, the Mortons in “Revival”; but, to be sure, there are many other examples that could be given), and it is why I enjoy reading his work so very much. As a human being (and a writer), I am fascinated by the human condition. The best writing understands how vital it is to explore such an element — an element that I have yet to observe Mr. King giving short shrift. He makes us care, and we’re better for it.

  • Sally

    Some nice background here, thank you! I love the book and the Kubrick film in its own right – they’re different but each stands strong. Topiaries have creeped me out since I first read the tale – when we took the kids to Disney I couldn’t help but wonder *who* would put such things in a place built for children?!?

    I’m a quilter and have just started an online mystery quilt – you put the bits together without knowing the outcome until the end. The leader’s choice was the Grand Hotel in Michigan so her colors are cheerful flowery tones. You know what I chose! I had to cull down the colors but ended up with red, orange, brown, gold, cream and green. I won’t share my inspiration freely – my Overlook Quilt would freak out too many people, who think a blanket must be infused with prettiness and sweet smiles and big-eyed bunnies – but I figured I could safely share here since you folks understand how deeply King’s books sit within us. It will be a pretty quilt and plenty warm, and most people won’t have a clue that the grandiose and terrifying Overlook inspired it.

  • Kathy Beaupre

    Love the history and loved the book………to me it’s one of my favourites…….

  • Wanda Maynard

    Great history! One of my favorite books.

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  • David

    I once heard that Kubrick filmed an alternate ending that was so horrific he didn’t use it. When Jack realizes he’s off his rocker he bashes his own head in with the mallet. Anyone know of the truth to this rumour?

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