The Shining is an iconic horror movie. So much so, that simple pop culture references to it from shows like The Simpsons were enough to give my high school girlfriend a panic attack. But behind that daunting Kubrick monument is the even more gripping book by Stephen King.
The novel “The Shining,” traps the reader’s attention right from the beginning. With an eye to how it establishes character, sets up the plot and makes use of masterfully-written dialogue, it is easy to see why this particular first chapter is outstanding.
“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” That’s the first line. And for the whole of the first chapter, the collected, yet apparently ill-tempered main character sits through a demeaning job interview with the officious little prick, Stuart Ullman. Ullman is the manager of the Overlook hotel, built in the middle of nowhere, and he needs a winter caretaker who can buttress the ancient structure against the fierce winters. He is self-righteous, babbling, condescending, and he has no trouble digging up Jack’s history of anger, citing an incident where Jack “lost his temper,” and subsequently his last job as a teacher and debating team coach.
The genius of the writing in this first scene is what the tense dialogue between these incompatible characters tells the reader. Through it all, Jack keeps putting on his “PR smile,” while beneath the surface he smolders. Ullman is in fact simply performing his due diligence with a prospective employee, one whom he does not want to hire. The tension that ensues makes King’s writing irresistible.
Consider this excerpt of the manager explaining the failure of the last caretaker, Delbert Grady:
“I made a mistake. I admit it freely. The man was a drunk.”
Jack felt a slow, hot grin—the total antithesis of the toothy PR grin—stretch across his mouth. “Is that it? I’m surprised Al didn’t tell you. I’ve retired.”
“Yes, Mr. Shockley told me you no longer drink. He also told me about your last job… your last position of trust, shall we say? You were teaching English in a Vermont prep school. You lost your temper, I don’t believe I need to be any more specific than that…”
By the time this dialogue happens, Jack is already worked up. The manager is only hiring jack because he is obliged to by Jack’s friend Al Shockley, an influential Overlook board member.
…He wants you hired. I will do so. But if I had been given a free hand in this matter, I would not have taken you on.”
Jack’s hands were clenched tightly in his lap, working against each other, sweating. Officious little prick, officious little prick, officious—“
The pressure is building. Quite unlike the man portrayed in the movie by Jack Nicholson, Jack Torrance is at least reasonable. However, there is a fire in him. He’s a man at war with himself. Maybe he’s losing that war. Maybe Stuart Ulmann is right.
As much as this first chapter reveals about Jack Torrance’s character, it also introduces the plot with particular eloquence . It is said that the best way to introduce a story is to perch your characters on the very precipice of peril and allow the narrative to follow from there. The dialogue in the first chapter does so indirectly but with dramatic effectiveness, setting up a sense of impending doom that every subsequent chapter builds upon like a steam engine conductor heaping on the coal.
After some strained dialogue concerning cabin fever and isolation, the Overlook manager finally makes his point regarding Grady, whom, as we learn in the first chapter, occupied the same quarters in the old hotel that Jack and his family will soon occupy:
“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”
Ullman closes the conversation shortly thereafter, expressing his desire for a different sort of person to take the job that Jack has been chosen for, and absolving himself of responsibility for anything dreadfully tragic that might happen as the result of Jack’s appointment. The first chapter then closes with a narrative hook that demands inclusion in this commentary for its perfect summary of all that has just transpired.
“I hope there are no hard feelings, Mr. Torrance. There is nothing personal in the things I have said to you. I only want what’s best for the Overlook. It is a great hotel. I want it to stay that way.”
“No. No hard feelings.” Jack flashed the PR grin again, but he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them.
If you haven’t read The Shining, my bet is that there is enough interesting content in this simple instructional article to make you interested in the rest of the story. All I have done is chosen some poignant moments from the first chapter, the opening sentence and the closing hook. But I bet it’s been enough to make you want to pick up the book.
It’s so compelling because of the tension, the ill-portent, and a character who – in spite of his good intensions – seems to be in an emotional pressure cooker of his own construction, not to mention the dialogue. One character, the manager, cloyingly voluble, self-important, the other, the failing author, reticent except when the opportunity for contradiction or victory arise. There are enough hints of tragedy to make the reader very concerned about what’s going to happen next.