Gothic Motifs in Stephen King's Work With Special Regard to Salem's Lot and The Shining

Seminar Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introductio
1.1 What is a Gothic novel and what are ist main features

2. The Shinin
2.1 The Overlook Hote
2.2 Jack Torranc

3. Salem’s Lo
3.1 Ben Mears and Barlo
3.2 The Marsten Hous
3.3 The Vampire hunter
3.4 The En
3.5 Further Parallel

4. Conclusio

5. Bibliograph

1. Introduction

Stephen King is one of the most published contemporary authors. He has written more than 50 novels and movie scripts, some of them under the pseudonym of Richard Bachmann. His stories deal with the supernatural, with aliens or the abysses of the human mind. Due to his topics, his books are often regarded as trivial literature by many of his readers and also by people who have never read a single one of his books and who only judge him by his name. But what these critics seem to miss is the fact that Stephen King has adapted many themes and motifs from highly regarded authors of classic Gothic fiction, such as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker, to mention just a few.

In each of Stephen King’s books, the reader can identify traces of classic Gothic fiction, although the topics and settings are normally adapted to modern times.[1]

Stephen King says of himself that ‘most of my [Stephen King’s] books have been derivative to some extent…’ (Bloom, p.96), which is not surprising regarding his educational background: After studying English at the University of Maine, Stephen King worked as a high school teacher, although he did not get too much teaching practice due to the commercial success of his books. Therefore, it is not very surprising that Stephen King uses the sources he has become acquainted with during his studies. He uses the motifs of Gothic novels in different ways and in many of his books. In fact, he says that ‘what I [Stephen King] try to do…is to pour new wine from old bottles’ (Bloom, p.96).

What I would like to do in this term paper is to show some of the Gothic motifs Stephen King uses in his books and in what way he uses them. For this purpose, I have chosen two novels from Stephen King’s earlier working period: Salem’s Lot and The Shining. But before actually beginning the comparison between Stephen King’s books and classic Gothic novels I will give an overview over the characteristic features of Gothic writing in order to enable the reader to identify the tradition Stephen King’s writing stands in.

1.1 What is a gothic novel and what are its main features?

Gothic fiction is ‘a type of romance very popular from the 1760s onwards until the 1820s’ (Cuddon, p. 381). The Gothic novel was a new literary form, rising in the second half of the nineteenth century. It gave room for new topics in literature, for mysterious phenomena, supernatural apparitions, for evil villains and gloomy castles:

‘Most Gothic novels are tales of mystery and horror, intended to chill the spine and curdle the blood. They contain a strong element of the supernatural and have all or most of the and now familiar topography, sites, props presences and happenings’ (Cuddon, p.381). Gothic fiction can be recognized by the presence of certain core-features all of them have in common:

Tortuous, fragmented narratives relating mysterious incidents, horrible images and life-threatening pursuits

predominate in the eighteenth century. Spectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats,

monks and nuns, fainting heroines and bandits populate Gothic landscapes as suggestive figures of imagined

or realistic threats. This list grew, in the nineteenth century, with the addition of scientists, fathers, husbands, madmen, criminals and the monstrous double signifying duplicity and evil nature.(Botting, p.2)

Furthermore, there is a strong consistency in the settings of Gothic novels: Lonely castles or houses and a gloomy landscape normally give the spatial background for them.

A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated

space…. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past

(sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story. (Ellis, p.2)

Furthermore, emotions play a great role in Gothic fiction. The authors minutely describe what their main characters feel, or how they experience the terrifying events which take place. The reader is drawn into the narration and experiences the horrors displayed in literature.

Why do we call frightening literature ‘Gothic’? Since Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is widely recognized as the first Gothic novel,

‘this novel…had much influence on the development of a genre which was ultimately dubbed ‘Gothic

novel’; partly, perhaps, because Walpole wrote his book in his ‘Gothic castle’, and partly because the

content of such novels was associated with the Middle Ages and with things wild, bloody and barbarous of

long ago.’ (Cuddon, p. 381)

The general idea of all gothic fiction is that it ‘is a literature of nightmare’ (MacAndrew, p. 3). In the time of increasing rationalism, when life became more and more deprived of its wonders and explained by science, there must have been a need for something inexplicable. That might also be the reason for the still strong fascination of the Gothic novel, and also one of the reasons why Stephen King is able to attract such a large readership.

With the knowledge of the main features, which will be discovered in two of his books later on, it becomes obvious that Stephen King really is a writer of Gothic fiction.

2 . The Shining

The Shining, the third novel published by Stephen King, is basically a ghost story. ‘In the ghost story, the origin of the horror comes from evil spirits who usually haunt a specific location.’ (Russell, p. 45) This is especially true for this book, as the house, which itself is the evil spirit, tries to destroy its inhabitants.

In The Shining, the main character, Jack Torrance, a former high school teacher who lost his job because of physical violence against one of his students, decides to take the job as a winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel’s manager first does not want to offer this job to Jack because he knows that Jack used to be an alcoholic. Furthermore, he hesitates to give this job to him because a few years ago, another caretaker, who also was an alcoholic, killed his whole family while being at the hotel. But Jack succeeds in convincing him that he is the right person for this job.

He moves to the hotel, which is situated in the Colorado Mountains and is normally cut off of the outer world during the winter months due to heavy snowfalls. His wife Wendy and his son Danny, who is a telepathic (which is called “Shining” by Dick Halloran, an employee of the hotel), accompany him. In the beginning, everything seems to be totally idyllic and peaceful. The family, before on the edge of falling apart - Jack had broken Danny’s arm when he still was an alcoholic - seems to become a union again. But Danny begins to experience strange things, even on the first day when they are shown some of the hotel’s rooms:

Great splashes of dried blood, flecked with tiny bits of grayish- white [sic] tissue, clotted the wallpaper. It

made Danny feel sick. It was like a crazy picture drawn in blood, a surrealistic etching of a man’s face drawn

back in terror and pain, the mouth yawning and half the head pulverized. (King, The Shining, p. 138)

In the further course of the story it becomes obvious that the hotel is not just a building, but a being with feelings and needs. It tries to take over Danny in order to refresh its energies. But when it doesn’t succeed, it chooses Jack, who is an easy target. Haunted by fragments of memory of his youth he spent together with his violent father, Jack slowly is transformed into an inhuman being, the personification of the hotel. The hotel’s aim, as it can not use Danny for its objectives, is to make Jack kill his family. First, Jack destroys every connection to the outer world by shattering the CB-radio and by dumping the snow-mobile’s battery. When his family realizes his change, a terrifying hunt begins. But in the end, Wendy and Danny are rescued from this place by Dick Halloran, who also has the Shining. The hotel and its creature are destroyed.

It becomes obvious that The Shining contains some of the core features of Gothic fiction which I have mentioned above.

2.1 The Overlook Hotel

A common motive in gothic novels is the castle as the architectural background:

Decaying, bleak and full of hidden passageways, the castle was linked to other medieval edifices […] that, in

their general ruinous states, harked back to a feudal past associated with barbarity, superstition and fear….In

later fiction, the castle gradually gave way to the old house: …it became the site where fears and anxieties

returned in the present. (Botting, p. 3)

In Stephen King’s books, castles or the ancestors of medieval castles (as America is a relatively ‘young’ continent, medieval castles would not be a very convincing setting in a modern North-American town), old houses, also play an important role.

As the castle or old house is a component always present in Gothic fiction, there are many examples for castles which can be compared to Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel.


[1] There is one exception to this rule: Stephen King’s The Eyes Of The Dragon, which plays in a fictional country in medieval times.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Gothic Motifs in Stephen King's Work With Special Regard to Salem's Lot and The Shining
University of Trier
Der englische Schauerroman
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ISBN (eBook)
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Gothic, Motifs, Stephen, King, Work, With, Special, Regard, Salem, Shining, Schauerroman
Quote paper
Judith Schwickart (Author), 2004, Gothic Motifs in Stephen King's Work With Special Regard to Salem's Lot and The Shining, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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