The "horror" genre, or "dark fantasy" genre, or whatever you want to call it, is all too often the redheaded stepchild of literature: rarely acknowledged, and never with grace. Well, almost never. Edgar Allen Poe is acknowledged as a classic writer, but he is regarded as "safe" because he's been dead for over a 100 years and just wrote short stories. Occasionally THE LOTTERY by Shirley Jackson or SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury will be given the recognition they deserve, but for the most part everything in this genre is kept in a literary ghetto, without recognition.
THE SHINING, by Stephen King, is slowly but surely changing that perception. It is regarded in some quarters as King's best book. I am not going to go on and on about how frustrating it must be for someone of King's prolificity and stature to have people think that his best novel was written 22 years and 30-some books ago. Or rattle on about how his best book has yet to be written. Or rant about how THE DARK TOWER tetralogy or however-many-books-long-it's-gonna-be will be the cornerstone of his work, his CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, if you will. Nope.
Let us just say that this is an incredibly strong, well-constructed novel, with King using all of the wonderful little literary tools and bricks and mortar we love him for.
In THE SHINING, King introduces his readers to Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their son, Danny. Almost immediately, King reveals that Jack Torrance is more than a few screws short of a hardware store. He is a high school teacher who has just been hired as the winter caretaker for The Overlook, a resort hotel in Colorado. A caretaker? Well, The Overlook is in a beautiful but isolated setting and those Colorado winters really kick butt. As a result the hotel is cut off from the rest of the world for five to six months, hence the need for a caretaker. So, the hotel management hires Torrance: a disgraced teacher and recovering alcoholic with a few elements of the sociopath bubbling around beneath the surface of his smiling face.
Now, the Torrances have big plans. Jack figures the isolation of the place will be an ideal environment for him to work on his play. Wendy, Jack's loyal and long-suffering wife, is torn between --- as King so wonderfully puts it --- her grief and loss of the past and her terror of the future. But she's strong, this one. And Danny? Well, Danny is in the eye of the storm that is their marriage. But he's got a few tricks of his own.
So the little family moves to The Overlook. And The Overlook has...a history. Especially with its winter caretakers. It has a personality, a life, all of its own. It is a beautiful pastel birthday cake with a razor blade inside. Make that a box of razor blades. Jack is ever so susceptible to the influence, the malevolent currents of the old hotel as they eddy and sway about him, drawing him in, sucking him up. Though, to his credit, he initially fights them, he ultimately willingly and joyfully embraces them, like a drunken conventioneer would a $10 hooker. Wendy knows something is wrong, but initially tries to ignore it. And Danny? Well, Danny has "The Shine." He can sense things no one else can. Well, almost no one else. But by the time Wendy and Danny get the wake up call, Jack is totally around the bend. And, by the way, it's snowing like crazy.
People who think more about these types of things than I do believe that THE SHINING will still be read, studied and debated 50 years from now. Don't wait that long to read it. Yes, it is a horror novel. But, as with most of King's novels, the true, real horror presented is not of a supernatural nature but made up of things we visit upon ourselves and each other.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011