There’s always something eerie about hotels. Whether you find yourself in a grimy one-star hostel sharing your room with seven snoring strangers or in a five-star joint, it takes a certain repression of deeply ingrained evolutionary beliefs to lay down your head on a foreign pillow and surrender yourself to sleep in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by others, some of whom can easily access your room should they choose to. Of course, the sense of company, the knowledge that you are surrounded by those in a similar predicament, largely renders the sentiment absent. We love hotels. We pay good money to do there what we could have done at home.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good hotel.
Yet imagine taking over a large hotel in a secluded location for six months. There is no way in our out once snow starts falling. Help will not be forthcoming, even if you do manage to reach someone in case of an emergency. The idea alone is worthy of a thriller. Add the elements of cabin fever and ghostly imprints and you get Stephen King’s The Shining.
It really doesn’t require much of an introduction, but in case you haven’t read it (or, let’s face it, seen the film): struggling writer Jack Torrance finds a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a large, turn of the century hotel in the Colorado mountains that closes over the winter as access is cut off by snow. With him, he takes his wife Wendy and their preternaturally intelligent son, Danny. Though they initially enjoy their time at the Overlook, strange things begin to happen and as the sense of isolation kicks in, Jack’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.
King famously disliked Kubrick’s adaptation of his work and, though I adore the film, it’s easy to see why as the differences are both numerous and fundamental. However, part of this is also caused by the fact that a novel has ample space to provide background information whereas a film has only limited opportunity to do so. The book presents Jack as a much more sympathetic character, a kind if impatient father, a talented man down on his luck, struggling with alcoholism and losing. Jack is weak, but not a bad man; the spirits of the hotel play to his weaknesses. Conversely, book-Danny is much more intelligent than he is in the film; wise beyond his years, erudite and eloquent, with a clear understanding of what is happening to his father – part of the horror comes from knowing what will happen and being unable to stop it. Wendy, too, is not the simpering, naïve housewife she is in the film, though her character is never really fleshed out properly.
King spends a lot of time effectively building the looming sense of isolation, as he has the family arrive while the last guests and staff are checking out; then by prolonging the good weather, giving them time to visit the nearby town for groceries and errands. When the snow finally does cut them off, their sense of impending doom but also relief that the inevitable has finally happened is palpable. The horror of the building itself is skilfully downplayed as well; tantalising little pinpricks of hints are scattered throughout the narrative about isolation and loneliness, about Jack and Wendy’s rapidly deteriorating marriage and Danny’s worrisome state of mind.
That last reason is also what takes away from the book, in my opinion: there is just too much there. Jack’s alcoholism, his failed career, his illusions of grandeur, the relationship with his family, whom he both loves and disdains – it all feels rushed, as if it should have been a separate novel by a different author. While his background functions as an explanation for his susceptibility it almost feels like a different novel, as does Danny’s psychic ability.
I adore Kubric’s film, and one of its strengths for me is that it never properly explains Jack’s descent into madness. Whilst is doesn’t add any depth to any of the characters or provide background as to why the hotel is so evil, for me, the simplification adds to the horror and the mystery. Horror is never quite so scary once the monster’s left the closet, and the idea that it could happen to us is a powerful tool. In that sense, I was a little disappointed with the idea of the hotel soaking up all the bad events that took place inside its walls and channelling it into a literal evil spirit.
Yet there is plenty in The Shining to love, even if you prefer the film. King’s gradual buildup and the heavy burden of isolation are scary enough, and Wendy and Danny’s incredulity at Jack’s behaviour is all to convincing. King’s prose is taut and effective and some of the images, such as party sounds in the middle of the night and confetti in an empty elevator, work very well. It’s a classic within its genre and I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a good book. Perhaps I’ve just seen the film too many times to truly appreciate it, or perhaps I miss Kubric’s meticulous set designs.
I’ve heard it’s possible to appreciate both, though, so by all means have at it. At the very least, the book does not have Shelley Duvall in it.