A Man Can’t Help His Nature

Last term we read Stephen King’s Misery, which was the first King book I ever read, 25 years ago. I was 10 at the time. (Now you know what’s wrong with me.) Consciously or not, my own work is influenced by Stephen King more than probably any other writer. At some point in my teens I borrowed *cough* my mother’s first-edition hardcovers of Salem’s Lot and The Shining. They remain on my bookshelf to this day. So, this is not my first reading of The Shining, but twenty-or-so years later, it’s a much richer and more frightening story than it was in my teens. I had seen Kubrick’s film version first, and it does not hold a candle to the book. Shelley Duvall is horribly miscast, and Jack Nicholson’s acting, in typical over-the-top fashion, makes a mockery of the creeping horror in Torrance’s gradual transformation from man to human monster.

Like the haunted houses in The Haunting of Hill House (which King references in The Shining) and Hell House, the Overlook Hotel is a character in and of itself. But the terror that the Overlook inspires isn’t just through the supernatural beings that lurk within its corridors. It’s the hotel’s apparent sentience, its ability to focus on the very worst elements of human nature and draw them out into the open; it is the ability to call out to certain people and bring them to the hotel, then systematically destroy them–an echo of Eleanor Vance, who finds her tragic destiny in Hill House. The Overlook detects a weakness in character and exploits it, turning a man like Jack Torrance, who struggles daily with alcoholism and an explosive temper, into a creature of primal rage bent only upon violence and destruction. The question we are left to ponder is how big a role the Overlook, or even the alcohol, actually plays in Jack’s downfall. Jack wallows in self-pity from the start, and is plagued by the memories of his father, who was also a violent drunk. It doesn’t take long for Jack to begin exhibiting drunken behavior even when he’s sober. Perhaps the hotel merely helps us to understand who we really are; perhaps Jack is a man haunted not by the ghosts of the hotel, but by the darkness in his own heart.

Jack is, of course, not the only member of the Torrance family struggling with his or her nature. Danny, the Torrances’ five-year-old son with an extraordinary psychic gift, cannot help falling into trances in which he sees the future. He cannot help that he has an “imaginary” friend named Tony who shows him what might happen. And Wendy, Jack’s wife, cannot help but think that she is the reflection of her mother, a bitter and hateful woman who was jealous of Wendy’s relationship with her father. Wendy is not-so-secretly envious of Danny’s closeness to Jack, and never lets Jack forget the night he broke Danny’s arm. But it is Jack’s status as the weakest member of the family which allows the hotel to possess him, his inability to overcome his failures that fuels the haunting. He will rise through the ranks, the ghosts assure him. He will finally be someone important.Yet even his five-year-old-son can see through that ruse. Jack, desperate for his life to have meaning, refuses to accept that it’s Danny the hotel really wants–for Danny’s psychic power will magnify the haunting to unimaginable proportions.

But before the ghosts destroy Jack Torrance forever, he finds the strength to fight them long enough to redeem himself and save his family. He tells Danny, “‘Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you'” (428). The boiler that he had forgotten to dump is about to explode. Having also forgotten until now, Danny taunts the creature, who has since used the roque mallet to beat the last vestiges of Jack from its face, with this fact. The hotel about to go up in flames, the Jack-thing rushes off to the boiler to stop it, affording Danny, Wendy, and Hallorann the opportunity to escape.

Where did Jack end and the Overlook begin? Near the end of the book Dick Hallorann, kind and decent by any standard–a man who has lived a far different life than Jack Torrance–experiences a few moments in the equipment shed, while the hotel burns, where he is nearly overcome by murderous thoughts. At this point it’s clear that it is not merely the hotel that is haunted, but the very ground upon which it is built. And Dick’s thoughts could certainly be due to his “shining,” an ability nearly as strong as Danny’s. However, since Stephen King admittedly wrote Jack Torrance as a semi-autobiographical character, and was struggling with his own alcoholism at the time, it seems to be more of an acknowledgement that monsters hide in even the best of people. In Wendy, as her mother; in Danny and Dick, as the “shining” they never asked for; and in Jack, as the culmination of a lifetime of failures.

What monsters are you hiding?

Works Cited:

King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1977.