BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Shining

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from? where is it going? and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, another filmed classic from one of the most famous authors on the list.

I am, of course, familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. It is hard not be, both as a film itself and as a sort of cultural juggernaut, copies, homaged and spoofed as much as The Exorcist, if not more so. The setup is so simple it is brilliant – troubled writer Jack gets a job as an all-winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel, bringing his wife and young son with it. Over the winter, the place works its way into his mind, its dark past reaching out to him, and insanity and horror ensue.

Now I enjoyed The Shining a lot but its biggest problem is how much it tries to lay onto that central, brilliantly simple premise. See, Jack’s son Danny is psychic. Jack is a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. The hotel is a malignant presence over and above its isolated, cabin-fever inspiring location. By the end of the first few chapters, the prose is heavy and overwritten with just too much going on – rather than an established normality undercut by emerging horror, this is a blood-soaked train-wreck waiting to happen. It’s like he felt he had to get everything in.

So it’s to Kings credit that as the book cuts to the chase the prose settles down, and some genuinely creeping horror seeps into the text. I don’t want to be too critical of Danny’s “shining” because it does, when used well, get pretty creepy, and the malignant presence of the Hotel, starting just as bad history before becoming a character in itself, is effectively done. And Jack, poor Jack, ends up more sympathetic than I ever remember Jack Nicholson’s version being on film.

This is only the second King novel I’ve read and both have been early in the writer’s career, and both have had the same issues. When I next get time I intend to read some of his later work, because I suspect from the excellent sections of The Shining a calmer, more experienced approached to laying on the ideas will  reap great rewards.

Next time:  We stick with the masters of 70s horror, with The Damnation Game, by Clive Barker.

Reviewer: Matt Farr

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