The Shining by Stephen King

While on a recent trip to Estes Park, CO we took the time tour the historic Stanley Hotel - supposedly haunted filled with ghosts that were likely invited by the proprietor's wife (Ms Stanley). Even in 1907 (the year that the hotel was built) she was already known as a spiritualist and pseudo-famous for her seance sessions.

Against this backdrop and coming off of the commercial success of Carrie, Stephen King and his wife Tabitha moved from Maine to Boulder, Colorado. King lived in Boulder for only a short period of time (just over a year) and proved to become a highly influential residence for two of his most famous books (The Shining and The Stand). As the story goes, King wanted to get away from Boulder with his wife and take a break from writing - so he drove up the into the mountains and ended up at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.

His wife suffered from motion sickness and the weather was turning so King begged the staff to let them stay the night. The staff reluctantly let King and his wife stay as they were closing for the Winter season. Different versions of the story have their son with them (which would align even closer to the novel) while others have King staying alone. In any event, the details of their stay all served as inspiration for what would become the novel The Shining.

Inspired by the visit, and being a whimsical Stephen King fan I decided to read The Shining (again). I'd seen the Kubrick movie and in spite of the deja vu I kept experiencing while reading the book - I didn't recall having read the novel before. While reading the novel, I tried my best to approach the materials as fresh and as new as possible - trying to erase any images from the movie and replace them with real images from my recent tour of the hotel.

The novel is fantastic. While clearly a horror novel - it is as much a psychological thriller and a deep character study as it is a horror story. The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic who was recently fired from being a high school English teacher. Desperate for income Jack pulls the string of a rich drinking buddy who is on the Board of the hotel he is hoping to work for. The job is to be the sole caretaker of The Overlook Hotel during the winter once it is closed for the season. Jack needs the job but also believes that the quiet solitude will pull his family together and give him plenty of time to work on his new play.

With that set up, the story extends into a deep character study of Jack during his winter stay and documents the slow decline into insanity. Whether the extended isolation was the catalyst that drives Jack to insanity or whether his devolution was inevitable - King leaves to the reader to decide.

What makes the novel so good is how the reader is able to see Jack's slow denouement into a pyschopath and how the monster within is brought out by the haunted hotel. The entire family is recovering from the trauma associated with Jack's alcoholism and short-temper. If Wendy, Jack's wife, had a loving mother or family to flee to she would have left with her son and divorced Jack - but instead she is stuck with Jack and hoping for the best. The winter isolation does nothing to comfort Wendy and only brings more anxiety to their triangle relationship.

Its a well known fact that King was struggling with alcohol while writing this novel (and while staying at The Stanley Hotel that inspiring night). The fact that Jack struggles with alcohol, had an abusive father and is haunted by personal demons - themes that are all featured prominently in the story - speaks to the autobiographical nature of the novel. It brings a realism to the novel that makes it all the more terrifying - because the psychopathy is real. In fact, one could argue that the entire novel is a psychopathic break fret full of hallucinations and delusions.....reinforced with DTs from alcohol withdrawal.

There is one chapter that brings the realism to the forefront. Jack and Wendy bring their son to the doctor in a nearby town and the doctor diagnosis the child in a very logical, albeit Freudian, explanation. The child was suffering from fear and trauma of his parents potential divorce and created fictional friends as a coping mechanism. It all reads and sounds very plausible - except for the mind-reading part of the boy's mind (aka The who shines can read minds). This underlying diagnosis follows the reader for the rest of the book that adds to more backstory to the boy's relationship with his father.

This realism, combined with the autobiographical nature of the content makes The Shining a memorable read that will stay with the reader for a long time.

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