Quick, before whatever it is that’s behind your shoulder taps on you with bony fingers: what’s the scariest story ever told? (Besides, I mean, David Cay Johnston’s Making of Donald Trump.) If you’re of an antiquarian bent, you might prefer M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” a nicely goose-pimply outing. Of similar vintage is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, which gives anyone who can get through one of James’ eternal sentences the vapors; the 1961 film version, The Innocents, still scares me silly, though, and proves James’ spooky powers.
But the best answer is Stephen King’s The Shining, published 40 years ago. His third book, it was his first out-of-the-gate bestseller in a career that would see many such successes. Fresh and unjaded, it was also a perfect exercise in terror.
The Shining mingles a metanovel about the quotidian scare of trying to make a living as a writer with a dire portrait of an America in which child abuse and alcoholism run rampant—and those are just the sins of the living. Jack Torrance, a would-be writer, is blocked. He’s also a loon. In a premonition of real life and of other King stories, he’s committed vehicular crimes and, for this and his other missteps, has lost a coveted teaching job.
So why not clear his head by becoming the caretaker of a hotel high up in the mountains, where no one will come to relieve him for months of brutal winter to come? One of the scariest things about that setup is that his wife says yes to the plan, while his clairvoyant son, already this side of wacko himself and in the psychic tutelage of an invisible friend, sees what’s coming and wisely retreats ever deeper into himself.
It doesn’t work, and fate takes charge; as Wendy, his wife, sees Jack as the first snows fall, “he looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way.” The path is unalterable, yes, and it simply doesn’t help matters that the hotel is full of specters and whispering voices who encourage Mr. Torrance to do very bad things indeed to anyone who tries to get in his—and the haunted hotel’s—way.
In the end, The Shining is as psychologically powerful as The Turn of the Screw, though with some added hardware: knives, axes, snowmobiles. It remains a horrorfest of a kind best not read in a house with creaky floors. Stanley Kubrick’s film version captured that psychological force, though he took some shortcuts and made some changes that King didn’t approve of—and perhaps only Stephen King, in his time, had the clout to bad-mouth Kubrick and not get hauled away. I watched a subsequent King yarn, It, between closed fingers in 1990; its successor is now in the theaters, and it is reportedly even scarier. It’d have to be loads more frightening to displace The Shining, all these years later.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.