by Tess Mangiardi
*Contains spoilers for Stephen King’s The Shining.
The call for everyone to unmask echoes in the empty elevators as ghostly party-goers take off their masks and party into the bleak night at the Overlook Hotel. Jack Torrance, a playwright who once considered himself a good man, is slowly losing his mind. He’s seeing moving garden hedges and talking to bartenders that aren’t there. Wendy Torrance, Jack’s wife, is increasingly afraid of the man she used to love. Their son, Danny Torrance, is using his Shine, a special kind of psychic power, to try to save his father from the old, deadly energy that lives inside the Overlook.
This is the main plot of Stephen King’s classic horror novel, The Shining. Published in 1977, The Shining is classic King. It intertwines with his other novels and sets up more information for what would soon become the ‘Stephen King Universe’ (or ‘multiverse’). There are core elements of family, childhood, and the things which make us human—tropes that find their ways into all of King’s novels, especially the earlier ones.
When I first read The Shining, I was 24 and in the middle of my yearly Halloween ‘readathon’. I’d read many King novels before, mostly in high school, when my horror obsession was at its peak. I’d devoured Misery and IT by flashlight, late at night.
Despite my long-time infatuation with King and his novels, I’d never managed to pick up The Shining though I had seen the Kubrick film. I knew the iconic image of a deranged Jack Nicholson chasing his wife with an ax through a dimly lit hallway, and couldn’t even begin to count the times I’d quoted his famous line (“Herrrrre’s Johnny!”). So, when I sat down to actually read the book, I was surprised.
In the movie, the audience realizes that Jack Torrance is insane the moment he appears onscreen. Jack Nicholson’s smile and wild eyes are unmistakable. Within the first two minutes, we know his character’s motive: to kill his family.
In the novel, however, Jack’s descent into madness is slower—he’s not mad from the beginning. In fact, he’s a good man. He loves his wife and his son. He takes the job at the Overlook to be able to finally finish his play and make something of himself. He wants to make his family proud.
Movie Jack is evil, and you don’t root for him or care if he’s left in the cold to die. In the novel, you do. You see a broken man and you want him to be fixed. You want him to be saved.
Two years before the book came out, Stephen King was also a man in need of saving. His first novel, Carrie, had rocketed to the top of the literary charts and King had already made a name for himself as one of the horror/thriller writers to watch. He, too, had a wife and son. From the outside, it seemed Stephen King had everything. Behind closed doors, it was another story.
King has spoken at length about his struggles with alcoholism. As a child, he stumbled upon his father’s collection of horror novels. After his father abandoned the family, they fell into poverty and the young King sought comfort in the books his father had left behind. He was plagued with anxiety about death and nightmares of flesh-eating clowns. Years later, when King was already established as a writer, he said in an interview with Fresh Air:
“From a very early age, I wanted to be scared. I wanted an emotional engagement with something that was safe, something I could pull back from.”
This emotional crutch then developed into a love for the bottle when he was in his twenties. King’s love for alcohol then transformed, much like the monsters from his nightmares, into a love for cocaine.
In 1975, when he was supposedly having the best year of his newly-established career, King was at the peak of his alcoholism. He recalls often being drunk, high or drunk and high, and later stated that he barely remembers writing parts of The Shining or even 600-page chapters of other novels. He also became increasingly violent towards his family.
The Shining was, in many ways, Stephen King’s cry for help.
If you’ve read The Shining, you will see glimpses of King’s struggles in his protagonist. Jack was once an alcoholic. Jack also flew into violent rages when drunk, once so badly that he cracked his son’s arm in two. The Overlook is supposed to be where Jack will prove that he’s a changed man—a place of redemption. The hotel, however, has other plans. Jack starts chewing Tylenol like candy, the way he used to when he was hungover. He begins to get angry often and all at once. He hasn’t had a drink in months. And yet. The evil that resides in the walls of the Overlook latches on to Jack’s wanting, grief and insecurities, and uses it against him.
In the same way that the ghostly party-goers—guests who checked in but never checked out—call for Jack to lose his mask, King, too, is unmasking. King’s struggles with addiction are so prominent in the pages of the novel that it almost smells of it. Jack Torrance is every person who has ever struggled to get better, every person who has gotten better but fallen back into their addictions.
The true underlying horror here is the threat of becoming the person you used to be.
Jack Torrance does not get a happy ending. The Overlook Hotel breaks Jack’s soul down to its darkest parts, and he is destroyed by his own addiction. His family gets away, though. Danny uses his Shine to save his mother before the hotel boiler explodes. But poor Jack is left behind and his body goes up in flames with the rest of the hotel. Jack quite literally goes down with his addiction.
Jack Torrance does not get a second chance, but Stephen King did.
Ten years after the publication of The Shining, King’s wife, Tabitha, dumped all of King’s drug and alcohol paraphernalia in front of him. A wake-up call. He began his journey towards sobriety right there and then. He’s been sober ever since.
Though I have never suffered from addiction, there are hidden parts of myself that are hard to shake. We all have them. The Shining calls for us to look at the darkest parts of ourselves and face them head-on—to unmask.
That is The Shining’s brilliance. It is a novel that teaches us to deal with the darkness and seek out the light, a novel that withholds and withstands.
If we ever want to check out of whatever version of the Overlook Hotel that plagues our lives, we need to unmask.
And unmask we will.