Is 'The Shining' a secretly Canadian story? Homegrown writers reflect on its 40th anniversary
The book's hybridizing of social realism and the supernatural makes it feel like a core text today
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented novelist Stephen King with the National Medal of Arts, an award bestowed on behalf of the people of the United States by the United States Congress via the National Endowment for the Arts. But things were not always so good for Stephen King.
40 years ago this spring, King's third novel, The Shining, became his first hardcover bestseller. Now considered an influential classic, the book was met with mixed responses when it was first released. And then Stanley Kubrick offered his film adaptation of the novel in 1980 — a movie which has created a bizarre and growing industry of film theory-driven speculation (and just plain weird conspiracy theory-spinning) all on its own. King hated the film, but Kubrick's version has nevertheless become an access point to the novel for people who do not generally read horror fiction. More's the pity. I like the film and I love the book.
The Shining was one of the first grown-up novels I read. I believe I was about 14 at the time. What stayed with me, after the sleeping-with-the-lights-on allure of the supernatural shocks, was that the family the novel portrays were real people — lower-middle class characters with problems and insecurities. Just like my neighbours, just like me.
For the handful of readers here who don't know the book or the film or at least know about the book, The Shining is a novel fuelled by an ultimately simple but compelling story: Jack and Wendy Torrance, two young adults with too much emotional and psychological baggage and their young son Danny, a boy with psychic abilities (the "shining" of the title), take on the isolating job of winter caretakers for the Overlook Hotel. The hotel is haunted and the evil ghosts hanging around the snowbound resort are drawn to the family, preying on their weaknesses and Danny's burgeoning psychic abilities. All hell breaks loose.
It occurs to me today that The Shining feels like a very Canadian book, with its emphasis on the domestic and on working class problems, on proverbial "kitchen sink" drama illustrated with beer bottle dialogue — tropes that still define much Canadian fiction. Furthermore, and arguably more important in its Canadian-ness, the setup of the novel is pure Pierre Berton: a troubled family find themselves stuck together for weeks due to a relentless snow storm, and proceed to drive each other mad. The novel's sub-themes of domestic abuse, failed aspirations and the trials of alcoholism make it read at times more like a fever dream concocted by David Adams Richards than a Gothic romp.
When I was a child, I remember watching the movie and it didn't scare me. But when I read the book, I was older, I had a child, we were having financial difficulties — and I could identify with Jack.- Silvia Moreno-Garcia, writer
The Shining was the first horror novel I read that was not populated by neurotic landed gentry, as is Stoker's Dracula and as are all of Henry James's wonderfully arch ghost stories. The Shining's characters sound like actual people — people who swear, smoke, drink and are sometimes very rude. The novel goes to great lengths to establish that being haunted is not the exclusive purview of the leisure class. The family at risk are staying in a luxury hotel while it is closed for the season, working as servants not to guests but to a building, a hollow shell of luxurious dimensions. They are literally indentured to a metonym for wealth and, worse still, to all the hotel's bored, malevolent upper crust ghosts. As the novelist Peter Straub noted in Jane Ciabattari's 2014 BBC article defending King's literary reputation, King's novels, like that of Dickens, carry a "deep interest in the underclass."
Now, 40 years later, The Shining feels like a "core text." The hybridizing of social realism and the supernatural that the book popularized, and which struck many contemporary writers at the time as revolutionary, is now standard fare found in everything from the haunted house (and haunted ghost hunters) films of James Wan to Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels, the source material for the television series True Blood. I wrote my second novel, Spells, with The Shining very much in mind.
Doubting I'm alone in my appreciation for The Shining, I polled four Canadian horror writers for their views on the novel's 40th anniversary, in particular its lasting effects and whether or not it can be read as a Canadian(ish) text.
David Nickle is a widely published writer and editor whose latest novel Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination will appear in 2017. Nickle remembers reading The Shining in his early teens, and how the novel was "the purest dose of domestic horror I'd experienced at that point — maybe competing with William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist for that spot. But The Shining trumped it with setting — that drafty, ominous and oddly welcoming Overlook Hotel."
The Shining, Nickle tells me, "has been a big influence on my work, as a lot of early Stephen King has. One of the things I appreciated then and now was King's willingness to move from what seemed to be a fairly subtle redemptive narrative into over-the-top, full-on B-movie-worthy horror...It is a perfect storm (as it were) of a ghost story: a really compelling plot and rich setting, offered up in a way that hitches on to the anxieties and aspirations of the post-war American blue collar lower middle class. I think that last point — the business of class — is what really hit the zeitgeist of the time. In a way, that's the secret of a lot of King's success: his ability to tap into lived American experience in the middle class, or of those unsteadily trying to transcend class."
I read it in the winter of 1979 when I was 17 and away at boarding school on the prairies outside of Winnipeg, so the winter setting of the novel mirrored what I saw outside me — isolation, snow, freezing temperatures.- Michael Rowe, writer
Silvia Moreno-Garcia — the World Fantasy Award-winning editor of She Walks in Shadows (aka Cthulhu's Daughters) and author of the novel Signal to Noise, which won a Copper Cylinder Award and was nominated for the British Fantasy, Locus, Sunburst and Aurora awards — reminds me that King's conflation of the spectral and the mundane was nothing new.
"The Shining came out when The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were popular. The Amityville Horror is as much a story about demons smearing blood around as it is a tale of a family gone wrong. So it didn't change horror and it didn't make it more mundane. Hauntings are often pretty 'mundane' in the sense that they happen to 'regular' families (well, middle class ones) in the 20th century."
However, Moreno-Garcia notes, "Before [The Shining and the examples above], with Gothic horror, [hauntings] happened to wealthier people. In The Turn of the Screw you are at a mansion with these two rich kids. But by King's time horror can be easily found in the mundane, in the family."
Then why has the book lasted so long?
"It's this staple of pop culture. A lot of people, I think they just remember the [Kubrick] movie or the flashier bits, but the novel has a solid core about parent-child and husband-wife relationships that remains vivid even as the details from the 1970s can now seem alien to young people who are hyper-connected and would probably wonder why the wife doesn't just text message someone. When I was a child, I remember watching the movie and it didn't scare me. But when I read the book, I was older, I had a child, we were having financial difficulties — and I could identify with Jack."
Michael Rowe is the author of two novels, Enter, Night and Wild Fell, the latter of which was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. He remembers reading The Shining "around the time it came out in paperback — the very cool reflective silver paperback cover."
"I read it in the winter of 1979 when I was 17 and away at boarding school on the prairies outside of Winnipeg, so the winter setting of the novel mirrored what I saw outside me — isolation, snow, freezing temperatures. I suspect that registered with me as someone who dreamed about someday being a writer — the notion that horror fiction could literally happen anywhere.
Rowe describes himself as "one of the die-hards" when it comes to King's long and varied career.
"The Shining very much influenced my work, and it influenced it in the same way all of King's novels have, to one degree or another. By that I mean his depictions of immediately recognizable characters and situations with which readers can instantly relate. In The Shining, it was the achingly relatable depictions of a toxic family relationship. The 1970s was all about television shows full of happy families —even the 'problem' families, which were often the subject of movies of the week — had very 'white' problems that were usually wrapped up by the end of the episode. Then along comes The Shining, where an alcoholic father falls prey to the entities haunting an empty hotel, and the real horror comes not only from his actions, but from the fact that you're seeing a great deal of it from the perspective of a little boy...What I learned from King's early work, which I read when I was very young and had a very porous mind, was how much horror happened behind closed doors, even without the supernatural."
Gemma Files, whose most recent book, Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel, can't remember if she saw the Kubrick film before she read King's novel. But now, as an adult reader, she recognizes that the book's "enduring popularity lies in Danny's realization that his parents are people with problems of their own and no one's coming to save him [coupled with] Jack's realization that no matter how hard he may have tried not to, he is indeed going to turn into his father: a drunk, an abuser, an intellectual bully, an authoritarian fraud."
"I also know what it's like to have depressive/addictive tendencies in your blood and at least one highly disappointing parent, just like I know what it's like to fear you're going to eventually become that disappointing parent no matter what you do. [The novel builds] towards that sick moment of Danny hopelessly wondering, 'Why do I have to deal with this? I'm just a kid. Why is there no one to help me?' The only answer is the understanding that when things get extra bad, you're just going to have to help yourself, which is the beginning of true adulthood."
Although my (granted, hardly comprehensive) survey of Canadian horror writers concludes that The Shining is an important book in the speculative fiction canon as well as the larger culture, there is less unanimity regarding the book's Canadian-ness.
Gemma Files is reluctant to embrace the book as a Canadian text.
"I think that as Canadians, we spend an amazing amount of time trying to figure out what it means to be 'Canadian,' with not a lot of overall success. That said, I'm pretty sure people in Maine [where Stephen King lives] also worry about being stranded in an unforgiving natural wilderness, isolated from other human beings and unsure whether or not they can rely on their families/themselves. So, no, I don't think The Shining is a 'Canadian' book per se."
I think that as Canadians, we spend an amazing amount of time trying to figure out what it means to be 'Canadian,' with not a lot of overall success.- Gemma Files, writer
David Nickle sides with Files. "I think that The Shining is a fundamentally American book, in the way that all of King's are. I do think that some of it speaks to themes that also resonate here and are often cycled through what we think of as Canadian literature...But that's all superficial...I always thought that the punishing winter [in The Shining] was as much an allusion to wagon trains and Donner Party business as it was anything that Susanna Moodie might have dreamed up."
Moreno-Garcia cuts me some slack. "Considering Canada's obsession with being defined as a battle against the harsh environment, I suppose you could consider it very Canadian in that sense. The family is staying at the hotel in order to care of it so that the pipes don't freeze and it's not overtaken by nature. But nature (and ghosts) fights back. And it's all very bleak. The land and the hotel and everything else are against them."
Meanwhile, Michael Rowe concedes that while he "appreciates the intent of this question, and really I appreciate the question itself," and is willing to give a nod to how "The Shining hits on themes that are dear to the Canadian heart — notably cold and isolation," he still feels "the more interesting take on The Shining, as a Canadian reader and writer, is that the themes of isolation — internal and external — are universal."
"Canadian readers were affected by The Shining not because of the isolation and the cold, and not because we consume American culture the way children sneak junk food in between good, nutritious meals of high art, but because a superb horror novel is, above all else, a superb novel, period. There are some superb horror novels on the market today, written by Canadians and unabashedly set in Canada. And yet I'd venture that most critics would see them first and foremost as horror novels instead of Canadian novels, which strikes me as an odd, fairly depressing hypocrisy."
"Besides," Rowe concludes with a wry nod, "if The Shining were really a Canadian novel, someone would say the monsters and ghosts were metaphors for something else, and literary reviewers would feel guilty about enjoying it, and they'd turn themselves inside out trying to avoid calling it a horror novel."