The Shining, Halloween Edition: WTF Even is Jack Torrance?
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
In case it isn't blatantly obvious by now, I love horror literature. For me, it's an astonishingly mindful, happy place where my perpetual anxiety melts away into an edge-of-your-seat thrill as I turn page after page, eager to get to the next part. For those moments, nothing else matters, and I'm transported to the ink-stained Otherworld of unspeakable terror, and goddamnit, I love every second. This year I decided to start my October with some classic spooky literature, and I'd happened to pick up Stephen King's The Shining at a bookstore in San Francisco last time I was there. I thought, "I've never read King before. Might as well start with one of the famous ones."
In almost every regard, I found The Shining to be a classic piece of horror literature that birthed a number of the tropes used by writers today, looking to induce a good scare or three. It is also, for better and for worse, a relic of its time. There were some things I genuinely loved about it. I fell in love with the character of Danny, and the wisdom he had beyond his years. His empathy, his compassion and his ability to see -- not just beyond the veil, but beyond the end of his nose. For a boy of five? Extraordinary. Wendy, far from how she's portrayed in the movie, is a badass woman who realizes earlier than I expected that she might be forced to kill her husband if he lost his shit, and God bless her, what does she do? She grabs the biggest knife she can find, and she uses it. This book delivers scare after scare, with fascinating, detailed imagery, an excellent sense of tension in the rising action, and an explosive finale. I genuinely did enjoy the book, because the value of what was excellent outweighed the flaws.
That said, The Shining was definitely written in 1977. The psychology, for one thing, is just staggeringly misinformed the entire way through. I'm sure, if King had the opportunity to rewrite this and set it in 2022, his facts would have been a bit different (and I'm also sure the entire thing would have been put on TikTok. How would the advent of internet and social media affect the absolute solitude of the Overlook Hotel in winter?) In any case, here's an example of what I mean.
In a scene where the Torrances take Danny to see a doctor about his episodes, fearing epilepsy, the doctor instead tells Jack and Wendy that this is brought on by "childhood schizophrenia," which Wendy feared might lead to Danny developing autism. This thought absolutely terrifies her. The doctor goes on to agree that autism might be a possibility, but it was also possible that Danny might just fall into his psychosis and "never come back to real things."
My immediate reaction was this:
I am by no means a psychologist, but this is not, in any way, how autism works. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, signs of autism may begin as early as twelve months, and while children may be diagnosed after the age of three because of speech or developmental delays, autism certainly never develops at five years old from "childhood schizophrenia." This was a common enough psychological perspective on autism in the 1950s and 60s, but the theory was on its way out by the time of this book's publication. In fact, the DSM-IV (the predominant literature used in the US by psychiatrists as a diagnostic manual) would reconfigure the way psychologists viewed autism as soon as1980. (See this link to Science for more details on the development of the autism diagnosis.)
I give King a mild pass here, simply because the internet was not yet an available resource, and God only knows that experts do not all simultaneously catch up on the latest literature. And, if he consulted the DSM, as I said. It wouldn't be revised for a few more years. Still, this perspective on autism as a terrifying, psychiatric bogeyman is plainly dangerous to autistic people. Autistic people function on a different proverbial operating system than a neurotypical person, yes, but so does anyone with ADHD (hi) or any other number of things. Listening to dinosaurs professing their fears about the demon child who can't make conversation does nothing but exacerbate bias and discrimination that autistic people already face on a daily basis, and I would be remiss if I didn't call it out. (For more resources on autism, try the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, or anywhere autistic people are speaking for themselves about their own experiences. Avoid Autism Speaks, link not provided.)
Men have some very weird habits when it comes to writing female characters. For one thing, they have a certain preoccupation with our bodies. But for another, they are often captive to huge misconceptions about how women function on a daily basis. This can be on any topic: from bras to menstrual cycles, panties to high heels, menopause to misogyny, it's enough to make anyone with a uterus put the book down and grab a drink. For the record, I am not against men writing female characters. But, like any other topic, they should probably consult a primary source before assuming that you can hide a phone in a thong, that urine comes from the vagina, or basically anything on how women's nipples work.
King, to be fair, is far better than some authors. Wendy is not a brittle, weak-willed housewife -- she's a blonde bombshell with a fierce love for her son, and someone who is very much willing to do whatever it takes to survive, and to protect her child, even from the man she loves. In this book, she's actively considering divorce, and she stands up to her husband when he acts like a shithead. That said, King still insists on describing her body (particularly her breasts and rear) at any possible opportunity, showing that Wendy is more than just a character; she is an object. Her description was written with the express purpose of evoking pleasing, sexualized images to the (probably masculine) audience.
And then there's her willingness to have sex with her husband and engage in foreplay while their marriage is supposedly on the rocks -- and even during dire, serious conversations. There's one memorable scene in which the two are discussing how to escape the hotel, and their likelihood of survival in such frigid weather. Jack begins playing absently with her breasts as Wendy passionately tries to convince him to help her save her son's life from the evil of the hotel.
I'm sorry, but if I were saying this to my husband and he started going after my tits, he would have his hand broken. But Wendy, in the midst of this life-or-death conversation... inexplicably begins to respond to his advances, and they end up having sex literally seconds after they decide how to handle the situation. She spends half of this discussion with him taking off her shirt and fondling her, feet away from their sleeping son, and she's super into that, for some god-awful reason. The scene rhapsodizes at length about how tight her jeans feel, how her voice is thick with desire, and I have to sincerely wonder if King intended for any women at all to read this novel, because as a collective gender, I call bullshit.
Wendy isn't the only one being given sexual imagery, though. Even worse, King wrote a few things regarding Danny that genuinely made me uncomfortable. At one point, Danny is in the ballroom, and he's having a vision regarding the large clock striking midnight. The two mechanical dancers of the clock begin to engage in oral sex in front of the five-year-old, which Danny describes as the two "kissing peepees."
Then, on page 494, Danny is confronted by a man in a dog costume, who menaces him in the hallway. Danny demands to be let by, at which point the dog-man barks at him and threatens to "eat [him] all up," starting with his "plump little cock" (italics original to the quote.)
I am not a pearl-clutcher. but I have never heard that word used outside of erotica or discussions about male chickens, and certainly never directed at a small child. It felt so unnecessarily sexual to even target the boy's penis as something to mention specifically in reference to a man (a gay man, as we find out later) threatening to eat it up -- which is probably a euphemism for sexually assaulting the poor kid. I understand that horror is supposed to press our buttons and make us feel uncomfortable. But I felt straight-up pervy reading this, and replicating it for your eyes wasn't any better.
Jack Torrance is Problematic
As I began my journey through the pages of The Shining, I detected a faint, uncomfortable gnawing in my stomach. It wasn't fear, precisely -- though King certainly delivers on that front -- so much as it was the undeniable feeling that a panic attack is just a moment away. This book actually had a mild triggering effect on me. Let's talk about why.
In two words: Jack Torrance. For those of you who haven't read The Shining, Torrance is a writer with a drinking problem and a temper. The combination leads him to break his son's arm, and the latter results in him nearly beating a student to death, resulting in him losing out on his tenure-track teaching position. His old drinking buddy, now his companion on the proverbial wagon, sets him up with a job at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. His task? To be caretaker in the off-months, cut off from all society (in 1977) with no one but his wife and son to keep him company.
Now, the way it was written, I could tell that King wanted me to sympathize with Jack Torrance. He was a child abuser, with his marriage falling apart, who brutally beat a student for slashing his tires, but he's super sorry so we should just accept that he's trying and feel bad that he can't catch a break. We should sigh and bemoan a good man's fate as he succumbs to the evil of the Overlook itself, and be grateful when he gets one final moment to tell his child to run before he meets his (noble?) end.
Here's the thing, though, and I know I'm being controversial. King is very clear at the beginning of the book that all of Torrance's issues are already there. The evil presence in the Overlook didn't do anything but bring to the surface the iniquities and failings that Torrance already had. He was already angry and resentful of his wife and child. He loved them, unequivocally, but he also felt held back by them, even before the hotel started messing with his mind. The hotel, for example, had nothing to do with him breaking Danny's arm. It had nothing to do with him beating George Hatfield half to death. But we're supposed to believe that he's tormented about his temper, so hey. All is forgiven.
What's more is his complete inability to take responsibility for his actions. I said he feels bad? Well, yes, to a point. He torments himself, but he also very clearly feels as if these events were something done to him, not actions he chose; drunk, angry, or otherwise. He felt as if him losing his job, having marital difficulty with his nagging wife, a son (who inexplicably adored him, by the way) were just things standing in his way of his dreams. When the hotel dug its claws in, it was all too easy to play into his pre-existing victim mentality to make it seem like the world was against him.
After ranting along this vein at my therapist for a few moments at our meeting, she looked at me with that face. You know the one. The gentle, slightly wry, I-know-something-you-don't-know look. "Jami," she asked. "Who are you really angry at?"
"Damnit, this is about my childhood again, isn't it?" I sighed.
"His behavior, as you describe it to me, sounds a lot like behavior we've discussed from authority figures in your family. Is it possible that this is triggering your PTSD, and that's why it's giving you stress nightmares?"
It wasn't false. My family mostly didn't engage in physical abuse, but many of the perspectives and blame-shifting mechanisms Jack employs are things I have experienced within my own life, from people around me. In short, I was reliving those experiences through the eyes of this broken little family, and it shook me up. So if you love Jack Torrance, if you see through his eyes and view him as a good man with a weak will, then that's fine. This is my experience, which is forever tainted by my own broken family.
The Shining is a classic. It's a classic that manages to glow despite the fact that it displays many fallacies (and racial slurs) that were apparently much more acceptable in the seventies than they are today. I am grateful that the cast's sole black man was portrayed as a hero who was not automatically killed off for virtue of being expendable, but I'm significantly less pleased that he was referred to by the N-word (both by himself and others). While I realize that this was common at the time, that doesn't make it any less of a dog whistle when I see it on the page, written about a black character by a white author.
The conclusion I must come to, with all of these puzzle pieces, is that this book was written by privilege. It was written by a straight, white man in the 1970s, about a straight, white man, and its intended audience was straight, white men. Does this fact make The Shining any less worth reading? Absolutely not. It is genuinely terrifying, and King spins a hell of a tale. I've since purchased another Stephen King novel, and I intend to read some of his later work to see how his style develops as social and cultural zeitgeists advance through the decades. King is absolutely prolific in fiction, and he deserves respect for it. But, perhaps, maybe we can love his work with open eyes, and recognize this book for what it is: flawed, but still very much worth our attention.
(Image credit: my own copy of the book, from my own phone.)