Why Stephen King’s The Shining Is Good (But Ain’t Classic Literature)

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I am twenty-four pages away from finishing The Shining, by Stephen King. It’s good, I gotta say.

But it ain’t classic literature. I always disparaged King as a mainstream writer but in recent months I’ve been wanting to read his work. And as I finish the book that became the Kubrick classic, it’s easy to understand its excellence, perhaps harder to understand why King isn’t as revered as a literary writer.

Jack Torrance is a bad mother fucker. Because he goes from a dude who wants to love his family and be a great artist, to someone who succumbs to the evil ghosts in The Overlook hotel heart of darkness style; he toes the edge of the abyss and falls in. Ultimately, we see that Jack was too weak, this recovering alcoholic who never knew moderation, never knew how to take it easy and give in to supreme love (which is what saves Danny from his possessed body), basically the average guy. And King presents that really well.

What makes the book less than literary is when his wife Wendy finds the party decorations in the elevator, we—Jack, as well as his family—know the Overlook Hotel is haunted and that it’s not just hallucinatory doldrums he’s fallen into, he’s actually being taken over. Kubrick depicts the murders more as a result of Jack’s going crazy, which may be why we revere the film perhaps more than the novel, and the director more than the author.

The diabolus ex machina has elements of Shakespeare, but to us with a post-postmodern mindset seems a little easy, a little too fantasy shelf to be classic literature. If King had written Torrance’s psychology as a product of society, his errors, his deformed love, maybe, but to blame the events on ghosts and the supernatural seems rather silly.

The Overlook Hotel in the film is Timberline Lodge, just outside of Portland, Oregon. I stayed there on Halloween when I was twelve, my dad and I on a boy’s weekend to the glacier to ski since it’s the only one that’s open all year round and used by the U.S. Ski Team. At least within the Continental United States. And that night, after we watched it on a projector, I stayed in a room that might as well have been the steward’s quarters.

I felt the spirits in the lodge that had stayed there before me. I didn’t know of any murders or slayings but when I woke up in the middle of the night, my heart in my throat and all I could hear was darkness I had to think of playing shuffleboard—not roque—the grains of salt sliding over the polished wood with dad earlier in the evening to be able to relax and lie back down, my head sinking into the extrasoft pillow, the sounds of 8,000 foot wind beating against the windows and tickling the eaves, and footsteps in the corridor and dad below me sleeping like a baby and the empty rooms where people had fallen in and out of love and left their ghosts behind and on the bottom bunk dad in case the door handle jiggled but it didn’t. The Shining may have been filmed there, but it wasn’t it. It wasn’t it.

Published by Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel was born in Brooklyn, NY, and has lived in Portland, Oregon. He studied literature and philosophy at NYU and creative writing at Edinburgh University. He is finishing an MFA in Fiction at University of South Carolina.

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