Twenty-seven years after its publication, The Shining remains a visceral, gripping read that showcases Stephen King's unfathomable powers to hypnotize and terrify readers, a power King had in abundance in the early stages of his career. Coming on the heels of Carrie and 'Salem's Lot, The Shining truly established King as a modern master of horror and an unequalled purveyor of a literary mirror into pop culture. If you've only seen the original movie starring Jack Nicholson, you really owe it to yourself to read the novel; Stanley Kubrick made a fine and scary movie, but he did not capture the essence of King's story, and his dramatization followed a different path than what you find in the original vision brought to life through the words of King. The more recent miniseries was more faithful to the novel, but it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that a made-for-TV dramatization is limited in terms of what it can get away with in a number of important areas. Simply put, The Shining stands just behind Shirley Jackson's The House on Haunted Hill as one of the best "haunted house" novels ever written.
The plot should be quite familiar to one and all by this point. The Torrance family embarks on a months-long retreat into complete isolation when Jack Torrance signs on to be the winter custodian of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Jack takes some personal demons with him to a hotel chock-full of malevolent, ghostly spirits; he is a recovering alcoholic who, in the last couple of years, lost his job and broke his little boy's arm in a state of drunken fury. He thinks the months alone with his wife and son will allow him to find peace - and to finally finish the play he has been working on. His long-suffering wife has some misgivings, but the only person really clued into the dreadful possibilities is his son Danny. Danny has "the shine," a gift which allows him to see and know things he cannot possibly know; it is a powerful gift which the Overlook (which really is an entity unto itself) jealously desires for itself.
As the days pass, the Overlook exerts more and more of an influence on Jack, exploiting his weaknesses, exacerbating his paranoia and persecution complex, and basically turning him into a murderous new tool at the hotel's disposal. Danny sees what is happening, although he cannot really understand much of it given his very young age. He can certainly understand the terror of the Overlook, however, as he sees images of the hotel's murderous past and very dark near future in a number of unsettling scenes interspersed throughout the novel. This is a harrowing tale of survival against incredible odds of a supernatural nature, and King brings every nuance of the story to vivid life, capturing perfectly the internalization and externalization of fear among exceedingly real, believable characters that the reader gets to know very well indeed. As has always been the case with Stephen King, it is his incomparable powers of characterization that make the supernatural elements of his story work so amazingly well. You can't help but be emotionally committed to these characters.
The Shining really isn't one of my all-time favorite Stephen King novels, but it is exceedingly well crafted and features some of the most harrowing scenes to be found in King's immense body of work. Even though I had read the novel before and was quite familiar with the story in both its literary and cinematic manifestations, I was completely caught up in the story as I re-read it - to the point that I found myself flipping the pages faster than I normally do for a novel completely new to me. When you talk about the seminal works of modern horror, you have to talk about The Shining - it's just that good a read.