Over a period of time, I have noticed certain standard “motifs” in horror stories. One of these I call “The Lost Child”. Such stories will typically involve a child, who can see what the silly grownups cannot see (or, even if they do see, don’t acknowledge because it goes against reason and logic): and who fights, however high the odds stacked against him/ her are. Danny Torrance is such a boy.
Danny can read minds. He can see the frightening thoughts inside his Dad’s and Mom’s heads (“DIVORCE”, “SUICIDE”) but is powerless to do anything about it. Danny does not know that he has a gift; he takes it as a matter of course, until Dick Halloran of the Overlook Hotel tells him that he “shines on”.
Jack Torrance, Danny’s Dad, reformed alcoholic and struggling writer, is trying to put his life back together after a tragedy. He gets what he sees as the ideal chance when he lands the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel for the winter. In the snowed-in hotel with only his son and wife Wendy, Jack assumes that he will get enough quality time to be with his family, patch up old quarrels, and write that breakout novel.
But the Overlook has other plans. The hotel, which feeds on and grows in strength from the evils committed on its premises, wants Danny-permanently-to join its crew of ghostly inhabitants. And to do that, it needs to get to Jack…
Jack, struggling with feelings of inadequacy and guilt (he once hurt Danny very badly in an alchoholic rage) is easy meat for the hotel. Their agent is the one-time bartender, who once killed his wife and daughters in the grip of the hotel’s darkness. Jack slowly reverts to the old behavioural habits of his alcoholic days, frightening the life out of Wendy: only the addiction this time is to his mind, and is much more dangerous – something which she cannot imagine.
Danny, meanwhile, has the run of the empty hotel. His exploration of the seemingly interminable corridors of the hotel is not without its chilling moments: however, he survives on the reassurance Halloran has given him that the horrors of the hotel “are like pictures in a book that cannot hurt you”. However, Danny slowly comes to understand that with his special powers, he is more vulnerable than others – and that he is on a collision course with his dad.
The novel slowly grows in horror, starting with mild unease, moving up through sweaty palms and dry mouth, to pure, gut-wrenching terror. Jack’s slow slide into madness is paralleled by the growth in power of the hotel’s dark miasma, and Danny’s extraordinary capabilities. We are on a roller-coaster ride into darkness.
The world of grownups is often frighteningly incomprehensible to young children: these fears seldom die as we grow up, but remain dormant in our psyche. There are very few of us who does not have a ghost in our childhood somewhere. It is when the writer invokes this ghost that story gets to us. King does a masterly job of awakening that child, and putting him/ her in the midst of childhood terrors through the alter ego of Danny Torrance, lost in the cavernous corridors of the Overlook.
The hotel corridors are a fantastic metaphor for the human mind: they are long, they have to be navigated safely, and you do not know what is hiding around the corner. They symbolise Jack’s slowly decomposing mind and Danny’s slowly awakening awareness of his own capabilities. At the same time, they are a very common component of dreams and childhood nightmares.
There are a lot of passages which literally creeped me out in this novel (the topiary animals, the fire hose in the corridor, the woman in the bathroom to name a few). As King has said elsewhere, the monster behind the door is more frightening than the monster slavering at you: this book is full of such monsters. More importantly, you will keep on remembering your own boogeymen while you are reading; and long after you finish, you will feel the urge to look behind you.
Horror stories are a form of catharsis. As King says, the writer takes you to the body covered under the sheet: you feel it, and are frightened. At the same time, you are relieved that the body is not you.
A true masterpiece.