Stephen King has a talent for characterization. I was one of those who misjudged him as a author, due to his penchant for horror and scares. But part of the “horror” comes from how he illustrates his protagonists.
The Shining is a perfect example. I just finished reading it the other day. Of course, I was blown away and left utterly creeped out by the story itself. But what most surprised me was how well-written and frighteningly realistic the character of Jack Torrance was.
In the book we get a much deeper picture of him. Jack Torrance is a struggling writer, living with his wife and young son, and dealing with his inner demon: alcoholism. In the past, his habit has cost him his job, led to violent outbursts, and nearly ended his marriage. Yet, like an addict, he continues to crave it, even when he knows it’s destroying him.
The Overlook represents his second chance at not only sobriety, but life itself. It’s his second chance as a writer, as a husband, as a father. Yet the demons continue to plague him. One could almost read the ghosts of the Overlook as synonymous with his addiction: phantoms tugging his sanity, stretching him thin to the breaking point, until he finally becomes possessed by them.
But Jack is not simply a drunken monster. Yes, he does bad things. He yells at his wife, attacks a student, breaks his son’s arm. And that’s before he falls prey to the ghost of Grady, a long-dead murderer trying to claim his soul. But he’s also a victim of circumstance.
Parts of the book illustrate this. We see flashbacks to Jack’s childhood. His father was an abusive alcoholic who would come home and terrorize his family. He saw his mother endure it. He endured it himself. And now he is thrown into the same role of having to support his own family, while still on the bottle.
Jack also has a vicious temper that often fuels his habit. He recognizes that dark anger as something that has always lived inside him. In that way, he is facing two demons at once: himself, and his addiction. And the Overlook is his last fighting chance. Yet there are ghosts inside it, reminiscent of the ghosts of his past. This is the creative way Stephen King chooses to illustrate a haunting: as a beast of conscience. Not just slamming doors, writing on walls, or dead faces floating in air. The beast is something that knows your fears, your weaknesses, and uses them against you at your lowest moment.
Stephen King uses an analogy of a wasps’ nest to describe Jack Torrance as a victim of circumstance. He’s been stung all his life by things he didn’t ask for. The scene where he uncovers the nest while fixing the roof is perfectly representative of Jack Torrance: always reaching, unawares, into something dangerous, and being stung. His father was the first nest; his temper the second, and then his addiction the third. The fourth and final nest is the Overlook: a hotel crawling with dark spirits who want to claim the last of his sanity.
In the end he succumbs to the will of Grady. But then his son, Danny, manages to pull the last bit of his father back to reality. And, like the captain, he goes down with his ship, the Overlook: a juggernaut of all the wasps he has ever faced in life. Jack Torrance conquers the demons, in a sense. But he also loses his life. Like the wasps’ nest his father once destroyed, the Overlook goes up into flames. And Jack Torrance dies in the nest that has haunted him all his life.
It’s a tragic, but fitting ending. One of the things that surprised me was how sympathetic I felt towards the character of Jack Torrance. Though horribly flawed, he is still human. We see the wounds inflicted on him over the course of his troubled life. And applaud him for trying to fight them. He fights and often fails. But when he does we’re reminded, not of Jack’s monstrosity, but the “wasps” that have stung him all his life. We see both the pleasure and pain that comes with craving a drink. And the aftermath. But we still see “Jack”, in spite of it: a bleeding man struggling, against all odds, to fulfill his purpose.
A father. A son. A husband. A writer.