Friday, August 5, 2016

Horror Fiction: The Shining by Stephen King

Like anyone who appreciates a good scary story, I have become familiar with more than a few movies that are based off of novels by Stephen King. But for whatever reason, I have read embarrassingly few of his actual books. But thanks to a Christmas gift from a friend, I have finally tackled The Shining, the movie of which is often considered to be one of the scariest ever made, although I personally believe The Exorcist should hold the top spot. Either way, the movie is absolutely terrifying, and even if it is well-known that is differs greatly from the book, I still expected the same level of horror to come from the pages.

The Situation: Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, has been given a second chance at rebuilding his life, and possibly a new career, as the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. High up in the mountains of Colorado, the Overlook is closed for the harsh winter months due to the epic snowstorms that hit the area every year. After losing his teaching job due to unfortunate incident with a student, Jack receives the caretaker job and relocates at the Overlook with his wife, Wendy, and his five year-old son, Danny. The trio have had their share of trials over the years, mostly due to Jack's drinking, but he honestly sees this as an opportunity to turn things around, and also use the Overlook's seclusion as a chance to work on his writing. Wendy swings between general anxiety over the change and all out fear, while only Danny seems to know for sure that something awful is waiting for them at the hotel.

The Problem: After the Overlook is officially closed for the season and the Torrances are its only inhabitants, things immediately begin to happen that can't just be explained away as hallucinations, or as symptoms of Danny's always strange behavior. The young boy has always been prone to strange visions and fainting spells, but neither Jack nor Wendy can explain away how accurately he can read their thoughts, or know what has happened on the complete opposite side of the hotel. Soon the entire family hears things such as voices in the ballroom, and the empty elevator moving up and down. And the only thing more disconcerting than Danny's assertion that something bad will indeed happen, or their increasing isolation as the snow continues to pile up outside, is that Jack seems to be exhibiting symptoms he only has when he's been drinking, and their isn't a drop of alcohol in the entire place. Every attempt to escape or find a way out is thwarted in one way or another, and it appears the Overlook hotel is intent on the family staying until it does whatever it wants to do. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror story, one that isn't based on a real story or an actual place, like many horror movies and stories we hear today. Before page one, King writes that the Overlook and the people within it are all from his own imagination...although doesn't that make it even creepier to think about? In any case, almost all of the action takes place at the fictional resort hotel in Colorado. The Overlook has an incredible history full of murder, suicide, gang violence, jilted lovers, and dirty politicians. Despite its beauty and appeal, its long history is also full of stories of the many times it failed as a hotel, and its long string of closures. It has changed hands many times, and this only adds to the collection of ghosts and voices inside. Danny's ability to shine, a term used by the cook Dick Hallorann, who can also shine, makes him feel, see, and hear these voices more keenly the most, but they eventually make themselves known to everyone. Most adults would be crippled by such a thing, but the five year-old boy is able to withstand an incredible amount of abuse, which is fortunate as his parents are virtually no help at all. Jack may not shine, not like his son anyway, but he is affected by the hotel in a different, more sinister way, while Wendy finds all of her strength in her desire to protect her son. 

My Verdict: I don't have to say it but I will anyway: the book is better. For the most part, the general theme and story that Stanley Kubrick's movie tells is the same. But there are some key changes that were made and it's hard to understand why. So for those of you that haven't read the book and/or the movie, I will go ahead and issue a giant *SPOILER ALERT*, and say that you may want to just skip the rest of this section. First off, there are some brilliant bits with the hedge animals out front, as first it appears they are moving, maybe; and then they are moving, definitely; and then they are all out attacking and causing harm. Why Kubrick found the need to change that to an intricate hedge maze I'll never know, and I guess it doesn't matter. The man could do what he wants. If King could make a lion made out of hedges come across as terrifying from the page, surely Kubrick could do the same on film. But I also find it odd that he would have Hallorann be killed, when he lives in the book. And why leave the Overlook standing, along with the hedge maze, when both the hotel and hedge animals burn in a blaze of glory after a faulty boiler explodes in King's version? Finally, in the movie it's all about Jack going crazy and wielding an axe. In King's version, it is clear that the hotel has taken over and has its own agenda. If Kubrick kept that, it would have made for a different movie, sure, but still a terrifying and good one. And while it isn't explained exactly what the hotel is, the book's explanation of how things are happening the way they are actually makes sense and isn't terribly confusing or hard to follow. One thing many horror stories fail at is plausible explanations, next to decent endings. And The Shining certainly has both.

Favorite Moment: I just like the fact that ultimately the hotel was bested by a five year-old.

Favorite Character: It's near impossible to not love Danny's innocence, even though things would have been much easier for him and his mother if he were older and stronger. Those are the only two things that hold him back in any way. He's certainly smart enough, and has better discernment than most adults, which is maybe owing to the 'shine.' But it becomes clear pretty early on that if any one person from the Torrance family should make it out alive, if should be him.  

Recommended Reading: As I said, the number of Stephen King novels I have read is incredibly small, but a good horror story doesn't really get any better than The Shining. But I did really like The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero, as well as Night Film by Marisha Pessl.          

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