Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

Stephen King’s The Shining fits neatly in the tradition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971): In all three novels, psychically sensitive individuals are placed in malefic houses with histories of horrors. King’s novel is at once a haunted-house story, a ghost story, and a psychological horror story. It is also a rich study of the effects of alcoholism, rage, and child abuse, for the Torrances bring a history of family dysfunction with them to the Overlook. The novel could almost have been written without the supernatural elements; indeed, the reality of much of these elements is left to the characters’ (and the readers’) imaginations.

The Shining is generally considered by critics and King enthusiasts to be one of his best novels, along with Carrie (1974), ’Salem’s Lot (1975), and The Stand (1978). This recognition is ironic given that his early work was dismissed by critics and scholars when it was published; only in late mid-life did King gain literary acknowledgment (for example, he was invited to edit an edition of the annual publication Best American Short Stories). The novel has remained enduringly popular in part because of its strong characterization. While children with Danny’s “shining” abilities are not exactly common, Wendy and Jack are solid, three-dimensional characters to whom readers can relate and with whom they can empathize. Thus, the terror that engulfs readers as the plot develops is a terror on behalf of the novel’s characters.

King based Jack Torrance’s alcoholic character on his own firsthand experiences. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), King reveals his own battles with alcoholism and other addictions, explaining that, in depicting Jack the alcoholic writer, he was writing about himself without realizing it. That is not to say that King depended on personal experience for his authorial voice, for the characters of Wendy, Danny, and Hallorann are just as well realized as Jack—and as characters in novels written during King’s time of sobriety.

Emphasizing the character-driven nature of the novel should not minimize the work’s horrific elements. The Shining is first and foremost a horror story. King uses every writerly tool available to him to frighten readers, including shock, suspense, terror, gore, parallel narration (especially when descriptions of Hallorann’s journey to the Overlook alternate with scenes taking place within the hotel), and foreshadowing (evident in Ullman’s tale of Grady’s murder-suicide, Danny’s visions brought on by Tony, and Watson’s warnings about the boiler). In this respect, the novel reaches its apex during Wendy’s nightmarish battle to escape a homicidal Jack on the staircase leading from the lobby to their apartment. Wendy is painfully battered by Jack with a roque mallet, suffering debilitating injuries, and must stab her own husband in the back with a kitchen knife in desperation and despair. To her horror, he continues to come after her. This scene is perhaps one of the most perfectly realized in all of King’s fiction.

As King’s third book, the novel does have its faults. When Jack accidentally uncovers a wasps’ nest and is repeatedly stung, he explicitly identifies the incident as a symbol for all the things that have gone wrong in his life—as a husband, as a father, as a teacher, and as a writer. A more sophisticated approach would have been to retain the wasps’ nest but allow readers to discern the symbolism for themselves.

The rare faux pas aside, the novel is a strong tale of horror, both realistic and supernatural. King makes excellent use of various horror techniques, such as isolation, fear of going mad, fear of being harmed by (or harming) a loved one, precognitive and telepathic powers, ghosts, and a malevolent building. King also plays subtly upon readers’ phobias, including claustrophobia, fear of heights, fear of insects, fear of things that go bump in the night, and the very real fear of a marriage crumbling before a child’s eyes. The novel’s setting provides a place in which there is no escape from the terror. This winter horror contrasts to the summer grandeur of the Overlook. There is also sexual horror, both heterosexual and homosexual, as dead women compete for Jack’s attention and the ghost of the bisexual Horace Derwent teases and torments a smitten gay lover in a dog costume.

Arguably the most terrifying element of the novel is the oscillation of Jack’s relationship with Danny between love and homicidal abuse. This relationship is symbolic of the actual child abuse occurring in the United States. Painfully, Danny is torn between his love of Jack the good father and his fear of Jack the punishing father guided by the hotel. It is significant that Jack also had an abusive, alcoholic father. Wendy’s mother is a cold, distant perfectionist, and Wendy therefore has no one to whom she feels she can safely escape from her husband. The Shining, then, can be read as a critique of America’s dysfunctional family life, extended to extremes by its supernatural trappings.

In The Shining, King created a great horror novel and a literary classic. It features skillful characterization, a perfect setting, and finely wrought horror emanating from both real and supernatural sources. The novel is short enough to be accessible to most readers, unlike King’s later, longer novels. It was adapted into a theatrical motion picture by Stanley Kubrick in 1980 and a television miniseries by Mick Garris in 1997.

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Critical Context