The Shining

the shining book cover - first edition - stephen king
How frickin weird and creepy is this first edition cover?

The Vitals

The Context

After two blockbuster novels to kickstart his writing career, Stephen King wanted a vacation. Besides that, he needed a new place setting, too—those first two stories were set in small town Maine, so he set off to Colorado. Boulder, specifically, which is right on the edge of the mountains, about 45 minutes northwest of Denver proper.

While he and Tabitha lived in the state for about a year, they visited The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, about 45 minutes up into the mountains from Boulder, perched on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Estes Park, so The Stanley is a familiar place. It’s a huge, white hotel that sits on a hill which overlooks the entire town. (In the novel, The Overlook is the name of the hotel.) It’s picture perfect on the outside and rather dated on the inside—though the whisky bar is among the finest in the entire region.

When Stephen and Tabitha spent a night there, it was towards the end of the season, when it used to close for the harsh winter (it’s open year-round these days). They were the only diners in the restaurant and it seemed that the entire hotel was just empty. Stephen would peek into the hallways in the dead of night and feel an intense, haunted emptiness.

From there, it’s easy to see how The Shining was born.

Beyond that, Stephen was a dad to three young kids, as well as an addict—writing the story of Jack and Danny Torrance was a way for King to get all those conflicting, demon-chased emotions out of him, almost as a confessional.

The story took just four months to write and was published in 1977.

Because of the famed 1980 movie adaptation, The Shining is among King’s most culturally influential books and has remained one of his bestselling titles.

The Story

The Shining starts with a job interview. Jack Torrance, husband and father, is trying to get a job as the winter caretaker for the historic Overlook Hotel—an isolated outpost high in the Colorado mountains. (The real life Stanley Hotel, on the other hand, isn’t isolated hardly at all.)

Jack gets the gig, which means him, Wendy, and precocious five-year-old Danny get the spend the long winter months all alone in this big ol’ building.

The sense of creepy atmosphere that King builds in the early chapters is incredible—as a reader, you feel isolated as everyone leaves for the season (including Hallorann, one of the great supporting characters in King’s catalogue), you feel chilled to the bone as winter sets in, you feel terrified as it becomes more and more obvious that Jack is losing his mind.

Then there’s Danny. He’s only five, but he’s sure intelligent and observant. (Some critics complain he’s too intelligent; I don’t think it’s out of line.) You see, Danny has the shine. The is what King calls the boy’s psychic abilities—he knows what other people are thinking and he can see bits and pieces of the future.

Danny explores the hotel and, as we all know by now because of cultural osmosis, finds some unsavory spirits around the place. As Jack loses his grip on reality, Danny’s visions become strong and stronger . . . he and his mom are in serious danger unless they can get word to someone who can help.

The Shining combines the horror niches of the isolated haunted house, someone driven crazy by cabin fever, and a young boy with a combination of psychic abilities (he can see ghosts, read minds, see the future, etc.). It seems like it’d be a lot to roll together, but King does it incredibly effectively.

Really, though, the book is about the characters. Rather than the driving plot of Carrie or the large cast found in ‘Salem’s Lot, King narrows in on just a few primary characters and studies them to the core. What fears do Jack, Wendy, and Danny have? How has addiction changed Jack’s relationship with his wife and kid? What does isolation do to us? What happens when our inner angel and our inner demon collide . . . and what happens when the demon wins?

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

At its core, this is a story of a man going to war with his inner demons—those voices in his head telling him things about who he is, what’s he done, and how he’s seen by the people around him.

The voices in our own heads are strong, no doubt, but they also lie. We don’t need to listen to those voices. Other people are not out to get us, we’re not weak in the face of hardship, and we are not governed by the voices that tell us anything otherwise—whether those voices are coming from our head, from the internet, or even from the people around us.


Though there were a few short chunks that didn’t quite land for me, the beginning and end of The Shining were total knockout punches of suspense, atmosphere, and character study. Jack is one of King’s great villains and the Overlook Hotel is one of the great haunted houses in American literature. It’s also certainly the scariest of what I’ve read so far. For cultural awareness alone, The Shining is a must-read, but also because it’s just a damn good book.

2 responses to “The Shining”

  1. That context was very interesting. Thanks for adding it here. I haven’t read this book yet (though I typically enjoy Stephen King’s atmosphere). English isn’t my first language so I have a lot of difficulties absorbing the feelings that are conveyed through words (which is why a collection of SK stories called Skeleton Crew is still collecting dust somewhere in the house).

    Keep it up!

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