Just Read: The Shining by Stephen King

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


I’m a big Stephen King fan. I’ve read most his books and loved most of what I’ve read. I’ve had a copy of The Shining for a very long time, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. So I was excited when I saw it on the reading list for the horror genre class (part of the excitement, I admit, was not having to buy a copy!).

King usually writes about the Average Joe and The Shining is no exception. Jack Torrance has more than his fair share of demons, stemming from an abusive childhood. He tries to do good, but sometimes (often?) fails. Jack  is just ripe for the picking when the Overlook Hotel gets hold of him.

I really love unreliable narrators. One of the fascinating things about this story is Jack’s descent into unreliability. The reader can actually watch as he becomes more and more unhinged. This is a brilliant from a craft perspective. We can see as Jack tries to fight it, albeit half-heartedly, and the turning point for him is clear. He just can’t fight anymore. He’s driven by his need for acceptance (by the hotel) and his weakness of spirit. It’s tragic.

While I was enthralled with Jack’s descent-into-madness, I was annoyed at Wendy’s reactionary hysteria throughout most of the book. Later in his career, King fleshes out female characters and makes them much less stereotypical, but Wendy pre-dates that time.

Danny, their son and the boy who shines, is typical of King’s child  protagonists. He is scared shitless, but driven to protect his family. In the beginning, he is so afraid as to almost be catatonic, but over time, he realizes he must stand up to the evil. There’s just no other choice. And like most heroes who make this realization, he tries to do what he needs to do. I liked Danny a lot as a character.

The thing that bothered me about The Shining was the constant point of view shifts. I tried very hard to ignore it at the beginning, but it became more and more difficult, particularly when the shifts started being so frequent that there was one five line paragraph that began in Wendy’s point of view and ended in Jack’s. But even worse than that, and the deal-breaker for me, was when we were in Danny’s point of view and Danny made references that no seven year old would be able to make. This was not in reference to his shining ability. As an example, when he’s in the ball room, he starts up the old clock:

There was a small, ratcheting series of clicks, and then the clock began to tinkle Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (302).

Really? A seven year old boy recognizes a Strauss composition? Bzzzt. Sorry, wrong answer. Thanks for playing.

It’s the point of view issues that really mark the weak points in this book. And I wonder if King ever sits back and cringes over that. His later books don’t have this issue, that I’ve noticed. I do grant that I haven’t read any of his books in the last couple years due to time constraints, so the critical eye I use now might notice things the casual eye didn’t.

The book is still horribly frightening, even with the mechanical issues. One of the scariest things in life is the betrayal of a loved one. It can rock the entire foundation of a person’s life. And in this sort of horror especially, King is still a master.

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  • Reply
    April 1, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    "While I was enthralled with Jack’s descent-into-madness, I was annoyed at Wendy’s reactionary hysteria throughout most of the book. Later in his career, King fleshes out female characters and makes them much less stereotypical, but Wendy pre-dates that time."
    ^I was really glad to read this because I was so irritated with Wendy’s character throughout the entire story. She was just so passive and weak and I couldn’t stand the fact that she didn’t considering running away at all until things got intense at the end. I would have chanced the snow, that’s all I’m saying.

  • Reply
    Sheldon S. Higdon
    April 1, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    (I left a comment earlier and it disappeared so let’s see what happens this time. If you get 2 comments from me then delete the 1st one.)

    I agree with you on Danny. No five-year-old speaks that way. (He’s actually five and not seven.) I found this to be annoying. At times he’d suckle his thumb and others he’d be talking as though he were on ‘Dawson’s Creek’. The wife didn’t bother me that much. Yeah, she was weak but she did stand up when she had to. I thought Jack was good character. Showed his vices, his weakness. But also showed that he really did love his son as well.

    Did King get wordy? Yeah. There are a lot of pages I felt that could’ve been dumped. Info that could’ve been stripped away without affecting the plot. But his editor felt to keep it all there.

    Over all I liked the book. Yeah, the film has the twin girls who are spooky as hell. The ax instead of a Roque mallet. The ‘Here’s Johnny!’ one liner, which every movie has to have. ‘I’ll be back!’ It had Scatman Crothers who gets…well, axed and he dies unlike the character in the book. And I also love the film. But to compare them isn’t fair I don’t think because the film is just that…a film. It has certain liberties and freedoms, and a director’s vision. But the book is deeper, has symbolism, layers. And even the Overlook is a character.

    I think both film and book are special in their own ways. Just depends on your flavor.

  • Reply
    April 2, 2010 at 6:56 am

    I do agree that Wendy was the least-realized character, which is a pity, cause I think if he (re)wrote the book now, she’d be much more interesting.

    I think part of it is also the time in which he’s writing it – as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s a tendency in horror, especially of the 70’s-80’s to be very male protagonist-oriented. (As occurred in much fiction in general.)

    As far as head-hopping goes, yes, that bothered me as well, but I think that’s part of us learning our craft as writers – Dune does the same thing, yet the first time I read both it and the Shining, I didn’t notice at all.


  • Reply
    Sally B
    April 2, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    I caught the POV shifts also, but I was able to ignore them. It’s true that Wendy is stereotyped as a hysterical woman, though I don’t think that under the circumstances she over-reacted. What I wonder is, why did she go up there with Jack in the first place, then when she saw some real danger signs, why she didn’t leave when she could. Of course, then there were be no story. Nice essay, Vanessa! Sally

  • Reply
    Scott A. Johnson
    April 13, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Now think…If you’d read this before you knew so much about the craft of writing, how would you feel about it? I think King is greatly talented, and I enjoyed this book a great deal. However, every issue you mentioned I see now when I didn’t when I first read it. Except for Wendy. I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie, but wasn’t Shelly Duvall miserably miscast? Geez…I actually (don’t shoot me) like the Steven Webber version better. It stayed truer to the book.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I could have handled the head-hopping and as you said, Scott, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it as much prior to SHU. However, Danny’s point of view is something I *would* have noticed, undoubtedly, and it still would have been a dealbreaker for me. That’s something I always caught 😉

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