About the Opera, The Shining

My earliest experience with the artistry of Stephen King was with his first published novel, Carrie (1974), about a much-bullied, mentally gifted teenager, who eventually seeks unbridled revenge on her schoolmates. The book was around the house, and my sister brought me to the film so she could view it a second time. Then, for a required school book report, a friend’s mother recommended Salem’s Lot (1975), which deals with a coven of vampires living in a quiet Maine town. After viewing the movie version of The Shining (1977/80) I had to illuminate all the lights in the family home and guard the vulnerable portals with a watchful eye.

The connection between the three narratives was not made at the time, but finally reading the novel years later, I found The Shining even spookier — blood gushing from elevators, a moldering woman emerging from a bathtub, and a man axed to death didn’t compare to the psychological nuance that Stephen King creates in his original story. It is ingenious terror versus outright gore, and the former is considerably more effective. The author’s kinship to the macabre is remarkable, as demonstrated by his many novels and extremely successful career.

Gothic literature has been around for centuries and continues to inform us that our culture has long enjoyed being frightened. The genre is not necessarily related to the historical 5th century marauding Goths, but rather to the juxtaposition of “Gothic” with the kinder literary term “Roman” (or “Romance”), which implies a contrast between the civilized mind and its darker forces. The expression is used to describe a style that involves many things — vampires, monsters, ghosts, and the grotesque in general. It is commonly believed to have developed in the late 18th century, first with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), which set the standard for a confluence of the supernatural, religion, and the manor house. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) was another progenitor of the literary form, involving the classic villain, the persecuted heroine, the crumbling citadel, and unexplainable events.

Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) was the next landmark. It concerns the progress of a corrupt priest, Ambrosio, the imprisonment and starvation of a young novice for her sexual sins, and the phantasmagoria of the recurrent shadowy vision of a veiled bleeding nun. At least two operas were adapted from this complex and notorious story, Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz (1838) and Charles Gounod’s La nonne sanglante (1854). Many other writers of the 19th-century Romantic Period delved into the genre. Some are familiar to the operatic canon, as are the specters, citing Macbeth, Semiramide, Hamlet, Don Giovanni, The Flying Dutchman, and The Turn of the Screw, to name just a few.

The creatures were also soon to follow — The Vampyre (1819), by Dr. John Polidori, was inspired during a weekend in the country with Claire Clarmont, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife Mary. After a stormy evening and a particularly bad dream, Mary penned Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Bram Stoker’s archetypal Dracula arrived toward the end of the century. In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, these ogres of evil acquired a somewhat more comic nature — Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s spawn inherited his name along with a flat head, bolted neck, and green skin. Bela Lugosi trademarked Dracula’s swishy cape, sharp white fangs, and farcical expressions. The Wolfman, equally amusing, came later, as well as The Mummy. The Creature from the Black Lagoon arrived in 1954, and things took a very scary turn with a parasitic prehistoric creature lurking under a boat of explorers in the Amazon.

Stephen King’s brilliant non-fiction Danse Macabre summarizes a fascination with the horror genre, and harks to many classics of the film versions circa 1950–1970s. My personal memories include The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958), about a disembodied head discovered in the field by a woman with a divining rod searching for a water source. The still-living, aptly named “Thing” employs a mesmerizing gaze to hypnotize its keeper, and is kept hidden in a hatbox, intended for the next handler. There’s also The Tingler (1959), about a mad pathologist, who releases a spinal monster that controls the ability to scream. Another Vincent Price masterpiece, Theater of Blood (1973), merges dark humor with tragedy, as a wrongly judged actor takes murderous vengeance on his critics with Shakespearean fervor. Finally, the crowning of the era would probably be Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the most gruesome films to date, involving the resurrection of decaying corpses bent on destruction. Zombies were even fashionable in the late ’60s.

The list is exhaustive. On television, there were Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Later, there were the devil movies — Rosemary’s Baby (1968), about a pregnant woman who is nursed by questionable neighbors, then gives birth to the Son of Satan; The Exorcist (1973), concerning a possessed young girl having talents that include, among others, spinning her head a full 360 degrees; and The Omen (1976), another malicious tyke, whose evil is revealed with more discretion. And later, Anne Rice gave us her bestselling Vampire Chronicles, which made asexual, parasitic Byronic villains seemingly alluring.

One can appreciate King’s subtler brand of terror in the (relatively) bloodless Shining tale. The author has described it as semi-autobiographical (sans the spirits and madness), receiving inspiration from a visit to a Colorado hotel ending its summer season. Due to time constraints, several plot elements are omitted from the opera — Jack’s past alcoholic antics with his rich friend Al Shuckley, who got him the Overlook caretaker’s job, and a possible, but unconfirmed drunken automotive fatality; Jack’s own maltreatment of a former student for slashing his tires; Danny’s invisible friend “Tony”, a mysterious conduit to the spiritual world and the cryptic term “redrum” — he only becomes threatening after the family moves to the mountains. And there are the wasps…

Ghosts take precedence over gore, large croquet mallets are used instead of hatchets, and mental illness rules over murder. The modern equivalent of a remote Gothic locale has absorbed evil somewhat akin to The Haunting of Hill House, The Amityville Horror, or Rose Red, with an elevator and boiler at its living core. Isolation and the overall “creep” factor is the terror of the day, and though the disturbed and historically destroyed Jack Torrance does not survive (nor does the malevolent Overlook Hotel), and the everlasting masked ball finally comes to a close, surprisingly, the tale ends happily, with Hallorann’s reassignment and Danny’s gradual return to normalcy. Perhaps with all of these elements in balance, The Shining remains a landmark in literary history and reminds us to be vigilant — there is, after all, always a monster under the bed.


Don’t miss out on Moravec and Campbell’s The Shining when hits the Ordway stage for 6 performances, May 15-23, 2021. Get your tickets at mnopera.org/the-shining.

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