The Shining Revisited by Michael Koryta
I’d love to say that the first crime I committed was stealing a copy of The Shining, but in truth it was probably well along the list of crimes. It is the first thing I remember stealing, at least, although I want to add the critical caveat that I returned it to its rightful owner. That always satisfies the judge, right?
The Shining was the first King book I read, and I didn’t intend to read it. The book was in a neighbor’s house and while they were on vacation I was entrusted with a key in the hopes that I would keep their cats fed and not steal their literature. I batted .500.
I opened the book with only mild curiosity because I expected to know the story since I’d already seen the film, a decision of great controversy in my family and one that produced an all-time-classic memory of my parents. My mother was hesitant to let my sister and I see the movie; my father was convinced that “we were ready.” The vivid memory comes with Danny’s visit to Room 217 (er, sorry, 237) but it isn’t the awaiting horrors that make the memory stand out in my mind. It’s my mother shouting at my father to fast-forward through the (gasp!) sight of the naked woman, a sight that threatened the moral compass of her children – and one that clearly had a cost, because I was soon stealing from the neighbors. My father leapt into action and did as he was told, punching the fast-forward button. In the fashion of the old VHS tapes, two blurred lines appeared on the screen: one covered the woman’s face, the other her stomach, meaning that the image was now reduced to an advancing pair of faceless female parts. My sister and I will laugh over that one until the day we die.
But back to the book. As I said, I didn’t intend to read it. I certainly didn’t imagine that it would be one of the few novels I keep beside my writing desk today, a constant source of inspiration, a reminder of how much a reader can feel from a book. I intended to skim a few pages, that was all. But you don’t just skim a few pages of The Shining. King’s remarkable novel doesn’t allow that. The Torrances might not be trapped (yet) in the Overlook, but you are.
An element I remember from that first read was a sense of astonishment as I realized: wait, a minute – Jack isn’t crazy. Jack hasn’t lost it yet. In the film, the first shot of Jack Nicholson’s face assured me that we were traveling along with a mad man. The crisis of the story was clear: innocent family is en route to snowbound hotel with insane husband/father. The worries of the character I met on the page, however, the desperate man calling in the last favor he has in the world to protect the family he loves, a man battling the threats around him and within him, were jarring. I thought maybe I don’t know the story so well after all and set about making my theft, carefully hiding the book lest it reinforce my mother’s suspicions about the corruption of character that had occurred during that fateful family movie night. I had a few days before the neighbors returned; it did not take me a few days to read the book.
What The Shining demonstrates – quietly at first, then loudly if you go back and study it – is a clinic in the art of suspense. Suspense is an emotional state, a feeling of uncertainty or anxiety about what will happen next. In The Shining, King crafts layers upon layers of that anxiety, blending the external with the internal seamlessly, and he does it with a skill that seems borne of total confidence. It is hard to remember, or even believe, that at the time he was a very young writer who had published two novels but was far from secure in his place in the literary world. What he wrote in those rented spaces in Boulder, Colorado for that third published novel is a master class in storytelling. The emotional bonds between reader and characters form quickly and deepen with each page, and that is what separates great fiction from the pack. There are countless narrative talents on display in The Shining, but what stands out to me now – and I think maybe even a little back then – is the patience. It takes a very good and confident writer to demonstrate real patience within a suspense novel, requiring faith that his characters and his writing are strong enough that the audience is with him and so he need not rush. It also requires a knowledge that his payoff, when it comes, will be worth the wait. That notion can’t come from arrogance; it has to come from a deep devotion to craft, and above all, a deep love of craft. The Shining shows a writer in love with every aspect of storytelling.
In the patience is the suspense, and in the suspense is the profound emotional experience. The grand, creeping dread of The Shining comes from its pacing, the slow, steady encircling of a hand around the reader’s throat. The suspense build is mirrored in gorgeous, subtle fashion by the weather – the slow but relentless accumulation of snow – and by the Overlook’s boiler – she creeps…
Let’s consider the way the family is cut off from any salvation beyond what is already in them. We are shown early that Danny’s gift grants him not only flashes of clairvoyance but also the ability – welcome news to Danny – to communicate with others who share his gift. We are promised by Dick Halloran that if things at the Overlook get real bad – but they won’t, he insists, leaving us equally certain that they will – Danny is to “shine” at him. We know then that Danny carries the potential to cry for help, but the family doesn’t need him to. Not yet. The roads are clear and the questionable VW Bug is still running, although it has some trouble on the way to the Overlook – a climb, by the way, an ascent to the precipice – with the car resisting Jack’s fevered demands that the vehicle deliver them the hotel, almost as if it knows something its occupants don’t. The Overlook when we first meet it is populated with staff and last-weekend guests. It’s ominous but not empty. Then the staff and guests leave, and the family is isolated, but not cut off. Danny is taken to Boulder and a doctor is consulted – reassurance that we are not yet alone. Wendy could stay down below. She makes a difficult decision to head back up and join her husband for the winter.
Then the snow begins to fly. The telephone lines go down, and we’re getting a little edgy, sure, but there’s still the CB radio.
Until Jack destroys it.
Now we’ve been silenced, and the snow is still flying, and the roads are closed, but there’s the ultimate bailout if Wendy and Danny have to take it – the snowmobile.
Until Jack destroys it.
Then, as the pressure in the boiler builds and Jack chews Excedrin and wets his lips just as he used to when he was drinking – but he’s not, right? He can’t be… – the Overlook comes alive with an evil that wants something from Jack. By the time he’s secure in his bargain, we know that there can be no escape from this place unless the rescue comes from the outside world, and we have one and only one way – promised to us 300-some pages earlier – of reaching the outside world: Danny’s gift.
Even once Danny has called for help, King doesn’t allow help to come easily, throwing everything from missed flights and blizzards to hostile topiary animals at Dick Halloran as he makes his way to the Overlook.
The terror is in the anticipation, and the genius is in the way King promises us exactly what we will have – in those “prefatory matters” we are told that the family will be trapped by snow, that evil awaits in room 217, that past caretakers have gone mad and killed their families, that the boiler (she creeps) must be not be forgotten, and that Danny is to use his gift to cry for help when trouble hits. These things aren’t plot twists, they are promises, events to come that are laid on the horizon for us in the opening pages of the novel. Once King has made them, he leans back, puts up his feet, and tells his marvelous story on his own time, tells it in the way it happened. “I’ll get to that part,” he says, “but we’re not there yet. You’ll just have to ride with me for a while.” And for four decades now, millions of readers in dozens of countries have taken that memorable ride. They still will be in a hundred years. Like The Shining’s oft-referenced Edgar Allan Poe, this writer and this classic novel will endure.
Next you can read about the history of The Shining or Richard Chizmar’s thoughts about revisiting the book. 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.
Michael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta) is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, most recently THE PROPHET. His last three novels, THE RIDGE, THE CYPRESS HOUSE, and SO COLD THE RIVER were all New York Times notable books and nominated for several national and international awards. In addition to winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, his novel ENVY THE NIGHT was selected as a Reader’s Digest condensed book. Koryta’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages. A former private investigator and newspaper reporter, Koryta graduated from Indiana University with a degree in criminal justice. He currently lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Bloomington, Indiana.
twas the cemetery of the dead pup’s and cat’s were my first read of the master. Since then it was he who stole from me all chance of not being afraid of things that go bump in the nighty hour.
My first King adventure was also a climb through the wicked trees, branches, bushes and rambles to the cemetery. The way you describe the way the master writes his books is perfect! I couldn’t have said it better!
He reaches into you directly, grabs ahold of your heart, your emotions, your fear, and ones imagination! The more imagination you have, the better the ride is going to be! He uses it to twist you and your mind. I found myself having to put the book down several times! I was so scared! This in my opinion is the sign of a truly talented author!
I will forever be a Constant Reader!
Great essay, Michael. I really enjoyed it. Larceny and all!
I did start with Carrie, but when I heard that The Shining was going to be released, I ran to the library to reserve it. I told the librarian the title and she sneered “The Shining what?”. Obviously, not a fan. I now work in a library and NEVER sneer at any title someone mentions.
Hated the film, probably as much as King did, and probably for the same reasons. The Shining, the book that is, terrified me. I was 17 at the time I read it, with a burning and wildly imaginative, pubescent mind having kicked in and King managed to penetrate my crazed mind with this book. I had previously read The Stand, savouring the book for almost a year, and thoroughly enjoying it. I mean who doesn’t like The Stand! But when The Shining was released, well, The Shining is fucking special. There is a creeping, choking and relentless horror in this book. It sneaks up on you, grabs you by the balls and is reluctant to let go. I will always remember reading The Shining more than any other King book. It has shaped the writer I am today. Thanks for the lesson in horror, Mr. King!
Thanks for sharing your insights.
PS – sure your neighbours would have understood your borrowing.
Wonderfully entertaining review.
Wonderful to read your thoughts, Mr. Koryta (I’m a big fan of your work as well); this summary brings back that wonderful and terrible sense of dread.
I had seen the paperback at a friends house and was fascinated by the silver cover and image of a head with no face so when I saw the same book at my high school library I had to pick it up. I read the first few pages and was hooked. I remember feeling like a voueur reading Jacks thoughts. I had never been allowed into a characters deep mind like that and I was feeling slightly dirty and guilty as I went to the librarian to check the book out. Just then a teacher came up, looked at the book, and screamed in the stillness of the library “Red rum! Red rum!” He cackled like a loon and walked away. That was how I was introduced to King and I have never stopped wanting more!
Dude, it’s ” . . . let my sister and ME see the movie.” The pronoun is a direct object here. Hence, the object-case pronoun “me” is required, not the subject-case pronoun “I.”
(I’m being pedantic, but as I am a pedant, it’s to be expected.) Good essay, though. Reminds me of my scary-movie-deprived childhood. No way in hell my parents were going to let me watch anything like The Shining. Of course, if they’d been a little smarter, they’d have known the best way to make someone want to do something is to tell them not to.
P.S. Thanks for spelling Allan in Edgar Allan Poe correctly!
Pingback: After the Shining #StephenKingRevisited | Jay Wilburn