Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Campbell Scott)
Jack Torrance, a writer and schoolteacher, almost let his temper and alcoholism destroy himself and his family. But he’s joined AA and is determined to get his life, family, and career back on track. When he hears through a friend about a hotel in rural Colorado need of a winter caretaker, it seems like the perfect solution. Spend time in seclusion working on his new play and provide for his family simultaneously. But what Jack doesn’t know is that The Overlook Hotel has a sinister past, and his son, Danny, has a shine. Psychic abilities that make him very attractive to the sinister forces of the hotel.
The new release of Doctor Sleep, the surprise sequel to The Shining, at the end of this September made me realize that while I had seen the movie (review), I had never gotten around to reading to the book. October seemed like the ideal time to immerse myself into an audiobook version of a Stephen King story, and since I knew I loved the movie, I figured I was bound to enjoy the book. Surprisingly, this is a rare instance where I enjoyed the movie version better than the book. While the book version is definitely an enjoyable thrill-ride, it never quite reaches the highest heights of terror.
The characterization is the strongest here that I’ve seen in the King books I’ve read so far. All the characters are three-dimensional, but the Torrance family in particular are well-explored. Jack and Wendy (his wife) read so much like real people, because while both make some horrible mistakes, neither are truly bad. Neither had a good childhood or much help to overcome it, and both want so badly to have a good family and a good life but no clear idea on how to do so. Danny, a five-year-old, is handled well as well. He speaks appropriately for his age, not too advanced or childish. The use of a third person narrator helps the reader get to know Danny and his psychic abilities at a deeper level than his five-year-old vocabulary would otherwise allow for. This level of character development is true to a certain extent for the rest of the characters as well and is handled with true finesse.
The plot starts out strong and frightening on a true-to-life visceral level. The Torrance home life is not good, and that’s putting it lightly. Wendy feels she has nowhere to be but with her husband, due to her only relative being her abusive mother. Jack is terrified of turning into his father, who abused his wife and children, and yet he has broken Danny’s arm while drunk. And in the midst of this is Danny, a child with special needs. This was where I was the most engrossed in the story. Before the hotel is even a real factor.
The Overlook is the supernatural element of the story that is supposed to kick it up a notch into horror territory. It is never made entirely clear exactly what is up with the hotel but we do know: 1) there is a sinister force at work here 2) that sinister force is out to have people kill others or commit suicide and join their haunting party 3) for some reason, people with a shine are more attractive to this sinister force as someone to have on board 4) the sinister force extorts whatever weaknesses are present in the people in the hotel to get what it wants. So the sinister force very much wants Danny to be dead, as well as his father and mother, although they are sort of more like side dishes to the whole thing. The sinister force figures out the family dynamics and extorts them by kicking Jack’s anger and Wendy’s mistrust up a notch. It also gets Danny to wander off where he’s not supposed to go. But things don’t really get going until the sinister force possesses Jack. I get why this might freak some people out. The sinister force gets the people to do something they normally would never do. However, personally I found the parts where Jack’s own real shortcomings cause him to do something sinister, like breaking Danny’s arm, to be so much more frightening. Jack’s regret over his actions and fear of himself are much more frightening because what if you did something like that? Whereas a sinister force is easier to distance oneself from mentally. It’s gory and thrilling but it’s not terror-inducing evil. Perhaps if the things Jack does at the hotel were just things inside himself that the hotel allows to come out, it would still be truly terrorizing. But it is clearly established in the book that the sinister things Jack does in the hotel are due to his being possessed by the hotel. They are not him. This removes a certain amount of the terror from the book.
The audiobook narrator, Campbell Scott, did a good job bringing a unique voice to each character. His pacing and reading of the book was spot-on. However, the production quality of the reading didn’t match his acting. The entire recording was too quiet. I had to crank my headphones up all the way, and I still had trouble hearing the book when walking around the city, which is not normally a problem for me. In contrast, whenever Jack yells, it blew out my eardrums. Some better sound balance was definitely needed.
Overall, this is a thrilling read that begins with a terrifying focus on overcoming flaws and bad dynamics from the family you were raised in then switches to a less frightening focus on a sinister force within a hotel. It thus ends up being a thrilling read but not a terror-inducing one. Those seeking a thrilling tale with well-rounded main characters being threatened by the supernatural in the form of ghosts and/or possession will certainly enjoy it. Those who are less frightened by the supernatural might enjoy it less. I recommend picking up the print or ebook over the audiobook, due to sound quality.
4 out of 5 stars