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The Shining - Stephen King

“The thought rose from nowhere, naked and unadorned. The urge to tumble her out of bed, naked, bewildered, just beginning to wake up; to pounce on her, seize her neck like the green limb of a young aspen and to throttle her, thumbs on windpipe, fingers pressing against the top of her spine, jerking her head up and ramming it back down against the floorboards, again and again, whamming, whacking, smashing, crashing. Jitter and jive, baby. Shake, rattle, and roll. He would make her take her medicine. Every drop. Every last bitter drop.”

For a guy like myself who loves to read and write taking the job as a winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel sounds like a dream job.

The Stanley Hotel inspiration for The Overlook Hotel

The time requirements for the job are miniscule leaving me plenty of time every day to work on the next “great American novel”. Before leaving for this foray into isolationism I would calculate just how many books I would need to sustain me through the winter and then increase it by ⅓ or so. Jack Torrance makes the case that because he is an educated man he is better suited for the job.

“A stupid man is more prone to cabin fever just as he’s more prone to shoot someone over a card game or commit a spur-of-the-moment robbery. He gets bored. When the snow comes, there’s nothing to do but watch TV or play solitaire and cheat when he can’t get all the aces out. Nothing to do but bitch at his wife and nag at the kids and drink. It gets hard to sleep because there’s nothing to hear. So he drinks himself to sleep and wakes up with a hangover. He gets edgy. And maybe the telephone goes out and the TV aerial blows down and there’s nothing to do but think and cheat at solitaire and get edgier and edgier. Finally...boom, boom, boom.”

Now Jack may be an educated man but he is carrying around more baggage than any one bellhop could ever get delivered. He has a double helix of trouble an alcohol problem intertwined with a really nasty temper. He has lost jobs. He has beaten a young man senseless. He has broken his son Danny’s arm, little more than a toddler, because he messed up his papers.

Jack is always sorry.

Jack playing Jack

When not drinking he wipes his lips so often he makes them bleed.

His father was a violent man and King does give us some background on Jack’s childhood which may have been intended to lend some sympathy for Jack. Just because we follow the threads back to why he is the way he is doesn’t mean that he is anymore likeable or for that matter less dangerous. He may be an educated man, and he may have made the case as to why he is more qualified to be a caretaker cut off from the world, but as it turns out he wasn’t suited for the job, not suited at all.

I was sitting in an American English class at the University of Arizona, what seems like an eon ago, when a woman, older than the rest of us by probably 15 years or so, raised her hand and asked the teacher why we weren’t reading Stephen King for this class. I remember distinctly peering at the syllabus and seeing Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald among others. It was the canon of American Literature about to be explored by some of us in depth and by some of us only by way of Cliff Notes or Sparks Notes. Some in the class I could almost pick them out by their shiny perfect teeth, which I found abhorrently boring like trees planted in perfect rows, belonged to the Greek Houses and would be showing up to class only to turn in their papers carefully culled from the vast files of papers written by past Sorority Sisters or Fraternity Brothers who had received As in this class for their efforts. After all it isn’t about learning, but about passing. I’m there probably feeling slightly nauseous from the flashing brilliance of pearly whites from the orthodontically challenged when the teacher turns to me and says “Jeff why do you think we aren’t teaching King in this class?”

Here I am thinking about this woman wanting to wedge King between my literary hero F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I don’t think I’d even read King at this point, but I’d been working in a bookstore for many years and knew how important he was to providing me with a paycheck. He developed cross genre appeal bringing horror forward from being a subspecies of science-fiction and away from residing in a spinner rack of books at the back of the bookstore for those social abnormals dressed all in black.

I didn’t really know how to answer the question except in the most bland way possible. I said he hasn’t stood the test of time. I could tell my answer was about as satisfying as a week old bagel to the woman, and I was hampered by the fact that I really didn’t want to insult the woman. The teacher also looked mildly disappointed. I could tell she was hoping to see blood in the water and I failed to be the shark she thought me to be.

The woman’s question does show the issue about Stephen King that is debated in most literary circles whether they are a book club down at the local library or the academic break room at a major university. He has legions of fans. He makes millions every time he puts out a new book which feels like four times a year. The problem is he is a genius. He isn’t a genius in the way that Pynchon, Gaddis, or Wallace are geniuses. He is a genius storyteller. So if so many people are reading him he really can’t be any good...can he?

Someone on GR made the really good point that Stephen King does not need him to buy and read his books. He has writer friends, below the radar, that need his support more. That is so true and one of the more annoying things about King followers is that a percentage of them don’t read anything else. They would come into the bookstore and hound us for the release date of the next Stephen King. I would sweep my hand grandly through the air and point out several other authors that may fill the time between King novels. They simply were not interested.

The thing of it is I used to love being one of those scruffy minded individuals that are always trying to find the next great writer before anyone else. There was no reason to read King because there were no points to be scored with my group of pseudo-intellectual friends by saying something so insipid as “is anyone else reading the new King?”

When I worked at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, which by the way that city is one of the best reading publics in the United States, we catered to University professors, want-to-be writers, actors, and a slew of other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers. It was a well educated lot to say the least. I thought my days of selling King were over....wrong. Customers with wire rimmed glasses and elbow patches on their tweed jackets would bring up these academic books so obscure that I had no idea we even had them in the store, and invariably in the pile somewhere would be a Stephen King novel. I was still too caught up in my self-image as a reader to really think about taking a walk with the “normals” and start reading King, but I was starting to think to myself... hmmm I wonder what’s going on in them thar books?

(The Red Death held sway over all!)


Danny, Jack’s five year old son, has what one character referred to as “a shine”. If people are thinking about something intently, Danny can read their thoughts. He also has an invisible friend named Tony who can take him places, a bit more elaborate than my invisible friend Beauregard. What a dud he turned out to be.

Danny loves his father, actually more than his mother Wendy, which is such a painful realization for her. She has stood in the breach. She DIDN'T break his arm. She protects him from everything including his FATHER. As the malevolent force at the hotel begins to exert more and more influence on Jack and Danny she is relatively unaffected by hallucinatory thoughts. The interesting subtext of this novel is that Jack thinks the hotel is after him. As Danny explains:

“It’s tricking Daddy, it’s fooling him, trying to make him think it wants him the most. It wants me the most, but it will take all of us.”

A precocious five year old with a brain of such singular existence that the evil entity of The Overlook Hotel must have him. Another interesting aspect of the book is the fact that most people will not be affected by the ghostly influences of the hotel unless they have an imaginative brain to start with. They must have a mind open enough to hear the voices and realize the possibility that they may be real.

Did I mention that I’m not really interested in that job anymore?

I know this story. I haven’t watched the movie or read the book previously and yet I’m very familiar with the plot.

It didn’t matter.

While reading this book I was on the edge of my seat. My pulse rate elevated. My mind buzzing with lizard brain flight or fight responses. This guy King knows how to tell a story. There is this scene on the stairs between Jack and Wendy that is probably one of the most intense fight scenes I’ve ever read in literature. I was right there with the characters feeling the thud of the roque mallet and the grind of my broken ribs.

Stephen King is a cultural geek of the first order. He enjoys reading and promoting writers. He is a self-made man. A man blessed and haunted by a vivid imagination. He gets big points from me for mentioning Welcome to Hard Times and also McTeague two books that are members of my favorite obscure literature list. I like it when a writer tells us what his characters are reading. He mentions television shows such as The Avengers, which I loved discovering recently that Honor Blackman (Pussygalore) preceded Diana Rigg on that show, and King also mentions Secret Agent Man starring Peter McGoohan. For the last two years I’ve been sifting through old television shows, thank you NETFLIX, and finding shows that I really like. Besides the two shows King mentioned I’ve also enjoyed watching The Baron starring Steve Forrest and Sue Lloyd and the short episodes of Honey West starring the ocelot Bruce. I also have The Saint queued up starring Roger Moore. I have fond memories of watching that show as a child late at night in the summer time.

There has been a hue and cry from his fan base for Stephen King's work to be looked on as literary classics. They feel he is not given the respect he deserves for being a great writer. He is accessible to the average reader, and yet; somehow, puts the right hooks in his writing to please the elevated reader. We do him a disservice, I feel, to try to make him into something he is not. That said, probably the best of King will be read 100 years from now. He is the consummate storyteller still enamored with the unknown and the unknowable. He has a childlike wonder for the world and I for one will make a bigger effort to see the world more often through his eyes.