Winter Weather Horror: Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’


Cover detail from The Shining by Stephen King/Penguin Random House ©

As most of the nation continues to shiver from the frigid effects of this year’s “polar vortex”, thoughts turn to fun activities to do indoors. While video games, movies and surfing the web are good options, all of them require electricity and during a hard winter storm the power can and does go out. With those out of the way, we look to our library for a few fine winter reads: Books that capture the harsh and cutting winter winds and blast them back at the reader. Brrr!

When it comes to books set in the winter, The Shining pretty much occupies the go-to position. It’s a classic, and even after thirty four years, this terrifying story of madness, possession and paranormal powers still packs a wallop.

With his writing career and marriage on the rocks, recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance accepts a position as an off-season caretaker at an isolated hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Thinking the isolation will help the family rebuild a bond nearly ruined by Jack’s drinking, he brings his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny, along. as the winter snow settles the hotel becomes inaccessible. Unbeknownst to Jack, Danny has a powerful psychic gift. His paranormal talent provokes the spirits that call the hotel home. Finding Danny too difficult to control, they concentrate their efforts on Jack, who slowly falls prey to their evil. Losing control a little bit at a time, Jack finally yields to the dark impulses clouding his mind and sets out to kill his family.

One of the great things about The Shining is how King uses very frightening or stressful things to amplify the supernatural terror. Anyone who has spent a week’s vacation with their family knows how tempers can flare and little annoyances can lead to big arguments. Claustrophobia, like that experienced by the Torrances during their stay at the hotel, can make anyone a little crazy. Throw in Jack’s alcoholism and terrible temper and you’ve already got a recipe for horror, even without ghosts.

Of course, the spirits of the hotel are a huge part of the story, and it is their influence that sends Jack completely over the edge. In a way, Jack is a victim. He’s not a good guy, but he’s not completely to blame for his actions at the hotel. That extra dash of pathos keeps you interested in the character.

The Shining pretty much put cemented King’s reputation as a premiere novelist of horror and dark fiction, and the novel went on to be adapted by master director Stanley Kubrick. Many consider it one of his best films, and hardly anyone who has seen it can forget its horrific surreal imagery: Elevators full of blood, droning twin girl ghosts, and of course, Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance breaking down a door with a fire axe to kill his terrified wide and child. (“Here’s Johnny!’) Even today, The Shining continues to regularly appear on lists of the best horror films of all time.

Most people would agree that The Shining is a good example of a movie that’s as good as the book, but not everyone. King himself has leveled a fair amount of criticism of it over the years, among it that he felt Kubrick didn’t show that Jack was being victimized by the hotel. The novel was adapted again as a 1997 TV series directed by Mick Garris.

The Shining may be one of Kings’ earliest works, but readers who revisit it will find it to be among his strongest. With the wind whipping away outside and the ice at your doorstep, what better time is there than now to check out this classic tale of winter horror?