Context is Everything—Or Is It?

I’ve been missing in action for some time. I spent the summer living in England and traveling in Europe. Although I fully intended to blog about my travels, it didn’t happen. (But, other writing did happen. Lots of writing. It was a good summer in all respects.) At the moment, big changes are taking place in Real Life. I’m trying to find the time to write about Norwich, Delft, Amsterdam, London, Nottingham, Prague, and Florence—but time is elusive and other writing comes first.


In honor of Stephen King receiving the National Medal of Arts, I’m pulling out a piece written in 2013, about revisiting The Scariest Book I’d Ever Read.

Re-reading The Shining

Cover of the 1978 paperback edition.

People remember where and when they were at iconic moments in their lives, events of both public impact—assassinations of presidents, terrorist attacks, etc.— and personal importance—meeting your future spouse, the moment you received good (or bad) news, etc.

I can tell you the date, place, and circumstances of my first reading of Stephen King’s The Shining.

I was nineteen years old and a small-town girl in my second year at Parsons School of Design. My first year and a half in New York, I lived in an NYU dorm. (Parsons didn’t have their own dorms until a few years later.) The Brittany, an old residence hotel converted to a dorm, was a fortress.

At the beginning of my second year, the dorms were overbooked. NYU solved the problem by putting six people into what had been four person suites, and for the first time, mixing NYU and Parsons students in the same suites. It quickly became apparent that academic students and art students have different work and sleep schedules. And priorities. Things got ugly fast. The over-crowding problem was solved in the second semester by a mass exodus as students moved into apartments. My best friend and I were among the runners.

We couldn’t move into our new place until after the first of January, and we had to have our stuff out of the dorm by the end of the second week of the month. We packed our belongings before going home for Christmas. Because my roommate couldn’t get back to the city until the weekend, I returned a few days early and moved us out of the dorm and into the new apartment.

After a day of traveling and moving, I was worn out. Rather than going out that night, I decided to stay in and read. I hit the bookstore and bought The Shining, newly released in paperback.

January 12, 1978 was my first night completely on my own in NYC. The new apartment was on the second floor. It had huge windows—the reason we took the place—with fire escapes on the outside. We had no furniture other than our drafting tables. I’d ordered my bed, but it hadn’t been delivered. I curled up in a blanket roll on the floor, and by the light of the Luxo lamp attached to my drafting table, began reading The Shining.

Did I mention the new apartment had steam heat? Not the old fashioned radiators, which are special things themselves. The heat pipes, covered by a “modern” radiator, ran along the base of the outside wall, underneath the huge windows—the ones that looked out on the metal fire escape, barely above street level. Do you know what steam heat sounds like? There’s a sort of hissing and hiccupping, punctuated by this:

And this: 

And sometimes this: 

At some point, I decided I needed sleep. Did. Not. Happen. As soon as I turned off the light and put my head down I was terrified, and not only by my surroundings. I had to know what was happening at the Overlook. I turned the light on and finished the book.

For thirty-five years, The Shining remained The Book That Most Scared the Crap Out of Me. I avoided re-reading it. The book and the context in which I’d read it combined to make the perfect horror novel experience. I didn’t want to mess with that memory.

Then, I went to grad school and had to re-read it for a class.

The second time around, I read it wrapped up in a blanket, sitting on a comfy couch in a well-lit living room. More important, I read it with the knowledge I would have to write about it. That tends to separate me from a book; I find myself viewing the writing and narrative from a distance, rather than losing myself in the story.

In this new context, my first reaction: STILL SCARY.

What surprised me—and considering everything I just wrote about the book’s original effect on me, probably shouldn’t have—is how much influence The Shining has had on my own work, including the novel I’m writing for my thesis project.

The themes I see (now) in The Shining are the same ones I find myself exploring over and over again: Disintegration of Family. Loss of Self Control and Loss of Self. Innocence at the Vortex of Evil. Helplessness. Denial. Not to mention, The Kid With Something Extra Going On. Which leads me to the chicken or the egg question: Did The Shining scare me so much the first time because, even at nineteen, those themes (as well as the events at the Overlook) struck a chord in me? Or, do the themes haunt me because of the book?

I don’t know and right now, I’m not willing to indulge in enough self-examination to try to figure it out. After resisting a second reading of The Shining for decades, I may have to read it a third time—going into it with my new knowledge— to find my answer. It’ll be cheaper than therapy.

For now, I’ll leave you with The Shining in 30 Seconds, re-enacted by Bunnies:

Redrum. Redrum. Redrum.

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