Okay, bit of a misleading title. This post has nothing to do with Stephen King’s collection of novellas except to steal the seasonal link. It does, however, have something to do with Stephen King. Here’s the plan: analyse a Stephen King novel for each season of the year. And as we seem stuck in winter right now, even though technically it’s spring, winter’s where I’ll begin with a closer look at The Shining. Just for fun. Because, you know, all work and no play…
The House that Jack Built: Shining a light upon one of Stephen King’s most rewarding novels.
The Shining is perhaps the best known of Stephen King’s novels and with the sequel, Doctor Sleep, just around the corner it’s likely to see something of a revival in popularity. I didn’t catch the recent Room 237 which addresses the complexity of Stanley Kubrik’s film version (“complexity” depending how much you buy into some of Room 237’s theories) and plenty has been said already about King versus Kubrik, but I feel the strength of the original novel is often overlooked (if you’ll excuse the pun).
The set-up is simple: the Torrance family move to the Overlook Hotel as caretakers over the winter months, only to find the hotel isn’t quite what it seems. In fact, it’s The Shining’s Bad Place, not simply the location where the monstrous lurks but the monster itself, something King suggests early on by referring to the Torrance family as “microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster”. One of the most famous modern horror stories to make the house the monster is perhaps Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Jack Torrance makes a direct comparison between this place and the Overlook. Just as in Jackson’s novel, things aren’t quite as simple as house = monster in The Shining. There are psychological aspects to consider…
“Landscapes of the mind” are very much the territory of the modern Gothic, according to David Punter, and I’m inclined to agree. I agree with William Day, too, who claims that “no discussion of the Gothic can avoid discussing Freud”. King may be somewhat dismissive of what he calls “Freudian huggermugger” but there is certainly much in his work pertaining to psychoanalysis. Indeed, not only does The Shining make Freudian rhetoric a means by which to discuss its narrative but it incorporates it, too, making Freudian observations a part of the narrative itself. Both Jack and Doctor Edmonds provide pseudo-Freudian comment in The Shining, and when Danny muses “it’s like I can’t remember because it’s so bad I don’t want to remember” he’s rephrasing Freudian terms for repression. Considering the novel’s focus upon identity and sexuality, together with the anxiety and fear that comes with it, these Freudian trappings are perhaps unsurprising.
Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ is an essay often referred to in discussion of the horror genre. He defines the uncanny, or unheimlich, as when the familiar becomes unfamiliar. It is the opposite of a pleasant feeling and turns the comfortable house into a haunted one, a definition that suits the Overlook not only as a ‘haunted house’ but as a hotel, having domestic familiarity yet lacking the same comforts of home. According to Ernst Jentsch, the uncanny occurs when there is “doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate” and there are many examples of this, too, in The Shining, from the threatening hedge animals to a fire-hose that becomes a sleeping menace with scaly canvas skin, its “muzzle” at once bestial and gun-like. Yet King maintains an ambiguity for much of the novel, allowing the reader to think Danny’s imagination may be responsible for such occurrences, or that Jack is suffering a mental breakdown. What we actually get is a combination of supernatural and psychological, and the novel is all the more effective for it: while the many rooms and histories of the hotel may constitute multiple facets of the hotel’s hostile personality, scarier still is the idea that they may be reflections of the personalities of its occupants.
Take the basement, for example. It houses the boiler, which obviously parallels Jack’s destructive temper, something King makes this very clear in integrating details of its operation with references to Jack’s violent thoughts. Being the lowest point of the hotel, and with its ready-to-explode boiler, the basement resembles, as well, an apt hellish dimension. But it is also the room that separates Jack away from the rest of his family, becoming obsessed as he does with a collection of papers detailing the hotel’s history stored here like memories, perhaps making the room the building’s unconscious. More than a storage area, “Freud depicted the unconscious as a dynamic force” (according to Richard Gross) and the repressed events housed within the Overlook continue to exert an influence, motivating Jack’s actions and ultimately leading to violence.
Other rooms also have significance: Room 217 (not 237 as the film would have it) is particularly important. Locked doors concealing secrets are typical tropes of the horror genre with obvious psychoanalytical parallels in representing the drives and desires that are repressed or shut away. And within 217, that bathroom… The bathroom is a private place, a naked place, and as such is a place of extreme vulnerability for both Danny and Jack, albeit for different reasons. For Danny the bathroom has monstrously sexual connotations; the breasts and pubic area of the naked dead woman in the tub are significantly noted, and when repeating these details later, Danny “looked miserably at his mother”, highlighting one of the Oedipal struggles addressed in the text. Jack, however, does not witness this body, finding instead a dry clean bath. This absence contributes to the Oedipal struggle, representing Jack’s weakening role in the power struggle with Danny, but it also serves to draw attention to the bathroom as symbolic of cleanliness. Jack observes how sparkling clean the room is, detecting the smells of soaps and disinfectant with a “self-righteous, cleaner-than-thou” smell. Even when he does imagine the corpse, he has it clutching a bar of soap. Unlike Danny, Jack refuses to acknowledge the room’s significance, denying a need to cleanse himself, fleeing from the woman he imagines there.
Many critics recognise an Oedipal struggle as central to the text, but surprisingly few have commented on the significance of the bathroom scenes. James Twitchell even claims the bathroom sequence is a “throwaway scene” little more than “a light socket into which our finger is placed while King turns up the voltage”, but I’d argue there’s a resonance to the scene that marks it as integral to the text and by no means “throwaway”, though turning up the voltage is apt enough for it marks an increased attention to the Oedipal conflict and emphasises the division it causes within the family.
As Freud notes, “the opening of locked doors [is]…among the commonest of sexual symbols”, so the Oedipal parallel of Danny’s trespass is clear and Jack’s efforts to harm him may be read as the typical ‘castration’ punishment. Danny can read his parents’ thoughts, an ability “like peeking into the bedroom…while they’re doing the thing that makes babies”, and such reference to the primal scene directs the reader to castration theory and the Oedipus complex. Fear of castration induces the child to overcome his Oedipus complex and the traditional horror convention of a young woman pursued becomes, instead, a pursuit of the son by a castrating father who, under the Overlook’s influence, emphasises his own “pecker” with “ask your mother” as a cruel taunt. But there’s another Oedipal relationship in the text. Jack’s intimacy with the hotel mirrors his relationship with Wendy, and Jack wants the hotel all to himself, willing (eager) to harm his competition. This is where the Oedipal conflict really comes to the fore.
Danny’s ‘shining’ allows him to anticipate this pursuit and conflict. Initially he sees the threat as an unknown tormentor, a “shape”, a “monster” but it soon becomes clear that this monster is Jack. Again, there are similarities to Freudian theory. In his essay ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, he notes the identity of the person beating the child remains obscure at first, before becoming recognisable as the father. In the following phase, the identity switches back from the father to a representative of him. Interestingly, Freud notes that a teacher is a typical representative figure and Jack was once a teacher, until he beat one of his pupils. But Danny realises his tormentor is not really his father any more but the Overlook Hotel – one has become the mask for the other.
When Danny first visualises the hotel, when ‘Tony’ shows it to him, he sees the building and “a giant, grinning skull over two crossed bones”. Poison, Tony warns him. It’s an appropriate symbol, the hotel working its malign influence on Jack so that the Overlook Hotel becomes his habit much as drinking used to be. Researching its background he acts as if wanting to drink again, wiping his lips with his hand, and when Wendy finds him amongst the newspaper clippings she steps close and Jack realises “she was tying to smell the liquor on him”. The hotel has become his poison, a replacement for the alcohol that once intoxicated him. The scene in which he imagines he is drinking marks the novel’s turning point, a shift in Jack as he addresses figments of the hotel directly, see-sawing between seeing them and not. It is a scene that firmly, and finally, establishes the instability of his mind, whilst illustrating that he has returned to being the man he once was, defeated by his past and his ghosts.
While it is tempting to blame alcoholism for Jack’s problems, his drinking is merely a device used to illustrate his denial of responsibility, something Jack does repeatedly throughout the text. He recognises his failures and gradually replaces his responsibilities with a patriarchal tyranny similar to that of his own father. The play he is writing, about the abuse of power, comes to be something he can relate to, so he changes it in denial. “If you avoid your obligations, then you always end up hurting your loved ones” King said of Thinner, but it’s something that applies to many of his other books, especially The Shining. Jack admits only his obligation to the Overlook Hotel, something “like having a responsibility to history”, but considering the history of both Jack and the hotel, this does not bode well.
The Overlook is a place where repetition can, and does, occur. The hotel thrives on it, forcing repetition upon the Torrance family both in attempting to reproduce the fate of Grady’s family and in twisting Jack into the image of his own father. Jack’s history is revealed in multiple flashbacks based around memories of a paternal nature, allowing past, present, and future to combine in the paternity of Mark, Jack, and Danny Torrance. “In the Overlook all times were one”, and while Danny is haunted by the future, Jack is haunted by his own past. The use of precognition and ghosts in the novel is King’s way of illustrating this. As Joe Abbott notes, Jack’s obsession with the past opposes Holloran’s advice, “that you get on, no matter what” and Jack ends up repeating the monstrous behaviour of both Grady and his own father. Grady’s recommendation that he “correct” his family plays on Jack’s realisation that he has failed in his responsibilities, and the sentiment is later voiced in Jack’s threat, “take your medicine”. He sees punishment as a corrective medicine due to the violent behaviour of his father who used the same phrase. The hotel recognises and exploits this paternal influence, using the voice of Jack’s father to persuade him to kill. Jack believes that ‘Father Knows Best’ and becomes his father in repetition, re-enacting his childhood but with himself in the active role, revenging himself upon his own family in a fashion Freud has detailed in his essay, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’.
This potential for violence is apparent in the family name: “Jack” may be plain and ordinary (Jack is an everyman character, an any man, and therein lies the true horror of The Shining), but “Torrance” tells of a stormy temperament. It’s an important contrast, one he shares with the hotel. Like the Overlook, Jack seems pleasant on the outside (at first) while inside he roils with violent rage, as the conflict between his spoken dialogue and that of his private thoughts reveals at various points in the novel. His temper is “like a vicious animal on a frayed leash” and as the simile suggests, it is not his monster exclusively; it threatens everyone close, namely the family unit. Danny has suffered his wrath in the past, receiving a broken arm, and a former student also suffered violence at the hands of Jack Torrance.
“The terrors of the Overlook Hotel prompt, mirror [and] confirm exactly the nightmarish disintegration that is taking place in Jack Torrance’s mind” according to Thomas Tessier, and as the text progresses Jack’s thoughts become one with those of the hotel. As Tony Magistrale puts it, the Overlook “methodically assaults his very identity” until, instead of “slowly closing a huge door on a roomful of monsters” as Wendy supposes, Jack stands on the threshold of opening it and becoming one with the Bad Place.
According to Victor Sage, “the horror tradition draws strongly upon the metaphor of the isolated house” because the isolated house represents the individual. The Bad Place, once used as a means of addressing, housing, sexual interests and fears, is used now in modern fiction to address interest in, and fear of, the self. King notes it’s a kind of symbolic mirror. The house of Dr Jekyll, for example, can been seen as a Freudian symbol reflecting the nature of its occupant (and for a ‘queer reading’, consider how Hyde always uses the back entrance…) while Poe’s imploding House of Usher, which The Shining draws upon, also highlights the building’s role as metaphor. The Overlook takes the association further in being an entity in its own right, “a parasitic organism” as Tony Magistrale puts it, “growing more powerful as it ingests human malfeasance”.
As King remarks, “the good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in”. The isolation and imprisonment provide the perfect setting for claustrophobic horror, but also acts as a physical representation of psychological repression. In the words of Douglas Winter, the building is “a symbol of unexpiated sin: it is the house that Jack built. The ruined Gothic castle has become the haunted mind itself’. Or to put it another way, Jack brought his own monsters to the Overlook – the hotel merely encouraged him to set them free.
Hi, Ray. Finally got around to reading this. Really fascinating stuff here. I am going to reread “The Shining” before the release of its sequel, and after reading this I will be paying much closer attention to the deeper workings of the novel. Thanks for posting this.
You’re welcome – thanks for reading it. Bit Freud-heavy, but that’s how I liked to read fiction at uni. 🙂
I love your analysis; I found myself nodding along to most of it. Really interesting!
Thanks Leanne, I’m glad you liked it. I’m behind on this but should have an analysis of Gerald’s Game soon…
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