One difficulty with a list such as this is that there are occasions on which you need to disentangle a text from a its film or television adaptation. At that point, the always-subjective question is whether the book in and of itself has had a sufficient impact. And so I pondered Stephen King’s The Shining, a book which is inseparable in the public consciousness from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of would-be writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance’s spiral into violence and madness.
But the book is here, for two reasons. First, one way to determine the relative impacts of the text and the film version is whether a piece is generally associated in the public mind with its author or with its lead actor – and, in this case, the answer is both. Second, even if The Shining had only achieved canonical status on the basis of the movie version, it established King-the-author as an important cultural reference point in his own right.
It’s a small family at an old and secluded motel, ghosts and spirits in the walls, violence and madness and still, somewhere in there, love. Inspired by the author’s own family trip to such a spot, and named for a line in John Lennon’s ‘Instant Karma’ (“we all shine on”), this is King recognizing his own capacity for violence, the moments of madness parenthood can inspire, and the way that what we love most can bore so deeply into us it becomes unbearable. And that’s the thing about Stephen King – horror, entertainment, the pulp novel you’ll read on the beach, and at the same time reflection, psychology, and damn fine writing. It’s not often horror is literature rather than story. But King makes it happen, consistently. And so The Shining is not worth reading to understand the cultural reference it’s become. It’s just worth reading, period.