“A momentary loss of muscular coordination” (The Shining and abuse)

Originally posted to Patreon on August 22 2020. The original text has been preserved with minimal corrections and changes added for clarity. A spooky All Hallow’s Eve to all.

Content warnings apply.

Stephen King’s The Shining is vexingly sympathetic to axe-murdering alcoholic Jack Torrance. King’s Jack is a guilt-wracked, weakened man who is ultimately broken and consumed by his alcoholism, violent pugnacity, and the Overlook Hotel. The novel frames Jack’s story as the tragedy of a weak man who loses a battle with his fatal vices. Have a read of this passage where Jack lashes out at Wendy for asking about his well-being:

“Jack, are you alright? You look pale—” He snapped his head away from her fingers. “I am fine!” She recoiled from his hot eyes and tried on a smile that was a size too small. “Well… if you are… I’ll just go and wait in the park with Danny…” She was starting away now, her smile dissolving into a bewildered expression of hurt.
He called to her: “Wendy?” She looked back from the foot of the stairs. “What, Jack?” He got up and went over to her. “I’m sorry, babe. I guess I’m really not all right. That machine… the lens is distorted. I’ve got a really bad headache…”

It’s a logical step from Jack belittling and berating his wife to swinging a croquet mallet at her. King writes Jack as feeling guilty for his failings, as if this somehow redeems him or makes him sympathetic (King has that ever-popular style of writing two-dimensional characters downpat — give them a fatal flaw and a virtue and voila, your book has Dramatic Nuance!). This gets into troubling territory, as King attempts to render Jack a sympathetic villain through his own guilt. And, sure, real abusers can sometimes show remorse. It does not inherently endear them to onlookers nor does it reduce the grossness of a spectacle that consists of “woe is me, a poor abuser struggling with my abusiveness!” It’s hard not to read King’s desperation to treat Jack sympathetically as a craven alibi for toxic masculinity, which pays lip service to the harm caused by abusive men but still manages it to center around their pain.

This gets especially messy when King writes Jack as a misanthrope with a loathing for every person he meets. The opening passage of the book explicitly states that he’s a wholly unpleasant bastard:

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you.

So much for reading Jack sympathetically. Equally troubling are the lengths to which King has gone emphasizing that Jack is a thinly-veiled cipher for his own alcoholism, as if “but he’s sad that he dislocated his kid’s shoulder!”…

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