The Shining – A Domestic Tragedy

I recently had the pleasure of viewing The Shining on the big screen courtesy of Leeds film festival.

I then had the further pleasure of watching Room 237, a documentary about the hidden messages and conspiracy theories surrounding The Shining.

But that’s another blog. After this, I got so carried away that I decided to reread the book.

The rest of the blog WILL contain spoilers.

Originally I wanted to remind myself of the differences between the film and the book, but that really is the next blog. As I reread, I realised that I’d forgotten how good the book is. When I was a teen, I read all the Stephen Kings and loved them, but at some point the shine (aha!) wore off. Whether I was going through a pretentious stage or whether I gorged myself too far I don’t know, but I definitely started to find them more of a slog. I stopped buying them and reading them (apart from The Eye of the Dragon) but I never got rid of my collection. I thought that it was out of respect for my fifteen year old self, but now I’m starting to rediscover my respect for Stephen King.

The film is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to think of The Shining as solely a horror story. Of course it is a scary book, but it is so much more than that. Although I finished it a few days ago, I’ve continued to mull it over and I’ve come to the conclusion that more than anything The Shining is a family story.

The family unit of Jack, Wendy and Danny is at the heart of the story. Right from the second chapter we learn that the family is at a low point, and going together to the Overlook Hotel is supposed to mark a change of fortune, both financially and emotionally. They will be living, just the three of them, isolated and it becomes clear very quickly how close they’ve come to fracturing. Jack’s alcoholism has damaged them almost beyond repair and this is very much a final chance for them. It is also very clear how strong the bonds are between them and how much they all want it to work. The love they all feel for one another lurches off the page and hits you in the stomach, and you yearn for things to come right for them.

Jack and Wendy’s own families also loom large in the background. They both have troubled relationships with their father and mother respectively, and both fear becoming their parents. Wendy’s mother seems relatively harmless at first, until Danny’s revelation that inside her mind is like she ‘wants to eat’ Wendy. Her preference for her father mirrors Danny’s instinctive cleaving to Jack, and she is constantly aware of a jealousy lurking in the background. However, generally she manages to control her feelings, remain aware of this tendency. Not so Jack. He too adored his father, a brutal alcoholic, but he does not seem to notice the similarities between them. Although he is aware of his own intolerance for drink, he never equates it with his father in his mind, much less his attack on Danny. He is not honest with himself as Wendy is, and this allows the Overlook to slip through the cracks.

Jack’s relationship with his father is present throughout the book. The abuse he used to scream at the family leaks from Jack’s subconscious and rings through Danny’s head. The Overlook recognises this weakness and exploits it ruthlessly. Of course it is Danny the hotel wants, Danny with his extraordinary psychic abilities, but Danny will follow his father anywhere and Jack is unhappy, unsure, contemplating suicide, dodging reality. The hotel can show him living topiary, play him the voice of his dead father, and he will ignore it, blaming it on himself, much as he did with his father until his mother was beaten too badly for him to ignore it anymore. The Overlook insinuates itself into the position of his father, showing him the scrapbook, encouraging his ideas of writing a book, getting him drunk, pretending to care and want him, and Jack allows himself to believe this right up until the moment when he is chasing Danny with a roque mallet. Here, for the first time, he forces himself to confront reality and attacks himself rather than destroy Danny.

In the end, the real power of the book isn’t the supernatural aspects, though it is scary enough. It’s that in another world, at another hotel, May would have come and the little family would have driven back to Boulder tighter than ever. There is so much hope at the start, so much love, and it is truly painful to see Jack being torn away from his family. The book ends with Danny grieving for his father, who in the end sacrificed himself to allow his family to escape. Despite the Overlook’s best efforts, family love wins out in the end.

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