Friday, 19 September 2014

Personification and Sound in Stephen King’s The Shining


This essay will examine personification and sound in Stephen King’s The Shining (Doubleday, 1977) to see how the effects of horror have been achieved. The Shining is a contemporary horror novel set in an isolated haunted hotel named the Overlook where Jack, the caretaker, stays with his wife Wendy and child Danny.


First, let’s examine personification. This means attributing human qualities to objects or elements that aren’t human. 

For instance, personification can be seen in the Overlook hotel itself. It achieves a human form: “The Overlook was coming to life around them.” And: “The hotel was running things now. Maybe at first the things that had happened had only been accidents … But now the hotel was controlling those things.” Also: “Ahead he could see the Overlook, mockingly distant, seeming to stare at him with its many windows …”

Parts of the hotel also take on human characteristics. First there is the elevator: “… the brass yaw of the elevator stood mockingly open, inviting her to step in and take the ride of her life.” Then there are the windows: “For the first time he noticed how much [the windows] seemed like eyes. They reflected away the sun and held their own darkness within.”

The wind is also personified: “The wind spoke back, gusting more strongly this time … The wind sighed through the trees …” And: “… the whooping and impersonal voice of the wind, so huge and hollowly sincere, made their laughter seem tinny and forced.”

Other elements of nature like air and fire also achieve personification. For example: “The air whistled” and “yellow flames danced”. Night time itself comes alive as a living, breathing entity: “With the sound of Tony's voice the whole night seemed to have come silently and secretly alive, whispering even when the wind quieted.”

Other everyday objects are personified to create a surreal, uneasy atmosphere that add to the overall element of horror in the novel. For example: “Her slippers whispered; the hedge-clipper hummed; the [catmobile’s] engine rumbled grumpily; his pinky ring caught the lobby's electric lights in a baleful sort of wink.”

Now that personification has been examined, we will turn to sound.


First, loud noises are used to great effect to create terror in The Shining. “Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide … In the darkness the booming noises grew louder, louder still, echoing, everywhere, all around …” And “[there were] more hollow booming noises, steady, rhythmic, horrible. Smashing glass. Approaching destruction.”

The Overlook hotel seems to have a distinct sound that brings it to life. “It was a living sound, but not voices, not breath. A man of a philosophical bent might have called it the sound of souls … But to Danny it was only the sound of the hotel, the old monster, creaking steadily and ever more closely around them …” And: “Suddenly the hotel seemed full of a thousand stealthy sounds: creakings and groans …”

Next, elevator sounds create terror: “The humming sound again. Loud and steady, varying the slightest bit. Followed by a clank as the humming ceased. A rattling bang. A thump. Then the humming resumed. It was the elevator.”

Further, the sound of a clock is used to create horror: “From within [the hotel] came a steady ticking, like a bomb. [Wendy] stiffened … The ticking of the domed clock in the ballroom seemed to fill her ears.” And later: “Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang.”

Wind is an instrument of terror and sound increases this effect: “The wind gusted, making a hungry rattling sound in the close-matted branches … the wind  [built] to the low-pitched scream that would go on all night, a sound they would get to know well.” And: “Outside a sudden gust of wind slammed against the equipment shed, making it rock and creak.”

To continue, sound is combined with objects of terror to increase their nightmarish effect. First there is the mallet, a weapon of murder: “It hissed viciously through the air.” And: “The steady, irregular booming sound of the mallet against the walls grew louder.” Then there is the sound of a strict school teacher’s cane: “Jack's body twitched in a remembered cringe at the sound it made in the air, a murderous swish, and its heavy crack against the wall ... or against flesh.” Finally, there is Jack’s typewriter that seems to become a character unto itself: “Wendy could hear the typewriter Jack had carried up from downstairs burst into life for thirty seconds, fall silent for a minute or two, and then rattle briefly again. It was like listening to machine-gun fire from an isolated pillbox.”

The hedge animals that come to life is perhaps one of Stephen King’s more famous creations and sound is dramatically used to increase their effect of terror: “Hallorann heard [the hedge dog] whine fearfully, and mixed with that sound was the fearful, confused yowling of the big cats. Even from here he could hear the sounds of the close-set twigs and branches which made up [the hedge rabbit] cracking and crunching like breaking bones.”

Finally, silence is used in contrast with sound to heighten the effect of terror. “The silence in the Overlook was complete and intense except for the weird noises coming up the elevator shaft.” And: “Somehow the silence was worse, more ominous than the screams and the blows against the strong pantry door.” Finally: “The lack of any sound beneath the steadily running water made [Wendy] uneasy.”


All in all, this essay has looked at how personification and sound are used to create effects of horror in The Shining. It is important to note that these literary features are often combined, and used with other figures of speech like simile, animalism (think of the hedge creatures) and sensory literary devices, too, like smell, sight, touch, and so on, to create the author’s desired effect – that of overwhelming terror upon the reader.

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