With autumn and the first snow looming over Colorado, I’m reading the Shining with a couple of friends. It’s my first exposure to Stephen King’s fiction, and I find myself looking over my shoulder and double checking the locks on the doors at night as he builds to the inevitable thing that’s coming for his characters.
I see now why King is considered a master of suspense: the three characters, a tight little family, struggle with their personal demons or limitations in the narrowing window of a looming external threat. What might be strengths in the outer world are turned against each character as they’re isolated and marooned amidst the deep mountain snowfields. Each is given multiple warnings as the plot advances, multiple hints that their course is unsafe, and each fails to heed the voice telling them not to go.
The son, Danny, has the strongest voice. Five years old, precocious and psychically gifted, he can’t read the warning signs as they’re presented to him. His age limits his vocabulary and understanding, preventing him from being able to communicate his dread or help his parents. Wendy, the mother, is haunted by the specter of her own hideous mother, and the fear of that woman overrides Wendy’s maternity and instinct for self-preservation. Jack, the father, a writer reminds me of the dark cave in the Empire Strikes Back: the demons he finds in the Overlook Hotel are the ones he brought with him, packed tight in the spacious hallways with his wife and son.
Bluebeard comes up more than once, and the reference is more than passing. There’s more than one door in the Overlook that should not be opened, whether it’s the hotel’s past, revealed in a morbid scrapbook Jack digs out of the hellish basement, the inner door to Danny’s burgeoning psychic powers in his own mind, or locked door to room 217: in which the question of whether the unreal things in the Overlook can truly harm you or not is answered.
King’s talent lies in a twisted form of magical realism where the mundane, and everyday things, can be deadly. I’ve never seen a better transformation of a simple thing, an old-fashioned fire hose, into something to fear. But this too, like Bluebeard’s tale, is something we can all remember when we were Danny’s age: things in the shadows that might be a lurking devil face. An item we first mistook for one thing that proved to be another. In reality, we always find the face was just a shirt hung to dry. In the Shining, it’s quite likely not a shirt at all. And that chill you felt, that sense that you can be hurt by something that first appeared quite innocuous? You should have listened to your instincts.