It’s one of the most enduring and tantalizing local legends that you’ll ever wonder about: Was novelist Stephen King inspired to write The Shining, one of his most famous horror stories, after visits to the Mohonk Mountain House?
The local version of this tale begins with a single well-known fact: King and his family have been regular visitors to Mohonk for years. Knowing that, the legend takes easy root in the mind of anyone who has ever glimpsed Mohonk’s Victorian turrets, wandered its deeply carpeted halls or gazed at walls hung with framed photos of historic meetings between even more historic personages. A winter guest, fresh from a walk outside the house’s hedge maze, will warm her hands at one of the House’s roaring fireplaces or marvel at the sheer length and breadth of the place.
A typical reaction? If this isn’t the place where The Shining was born, it should have been. It’s the perfect setting for a ghost mystery novel, maybe a ghost story – or, better yet, a horror story. How about a horror story about a man and his family charged with caring for an isolated, towering pile, the guests long gone, the fireplaces cold, the wind howling through twisted stands of skeletal trees? A horror story of a man wrestling not only with demons of mysterious provenance but with demons all his own – ones that may be the most terrifying of all.
In most of those imaginings, the thought of such a scenario might have elicited nothing more than a bedazzled remark: “Gee, honey, you think this place is haunted?” But what would the same thought, triggered by all those Mohonkian features, elicit in the mind of America’s greatest teller of horror stories? Perhaps something a bit more…substantial? A bit more nerve-tingling, perhaps? It doesn’t seem very far-fetched, now does it?
What really has kept the legend alive all these years is Stanley Kubrick’s notorious film adaptation. If The Shining is considered by many of his fans to be King’s best novel, Kubrick’s adaptation has long been the subject of King fans’ deepest and darkest opprobrium. And no one hates the Kubrick version more than the man who wrote the book. Over the years, King has denounced the film (and the filmmaker) for being overly intellectual and “cold.” The film has no dramatic arc, since Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is crazy from the git-go. King denounced Kubrick’s “misogynistic” treatment of actor Shelley Duvall and his pointless elimination of Scatman Crothers’ sympathetic character. King went so far as to produce an alternate film version of the book: a three-part mini-series from 1997 that bombed and that few people remember today.
It’s safe to say that the Kubrick film’s iconic standing, its unforgettable images (the twin girls, the Steadicam tour of the Overlook’s endless hallways), its most-famous (if now-dated) line uttered by a raging, axe-wielding Nicholson, along with King’s often-stated hatred of it, have not only kept the book and film’s memory alive, but fed the fires of the local legend as well.
Emily McNamara is the marketing manager of the Mohonk Mountain House. She has heard the rumors, fielded the questions about the apparent similarities among book, movie and hotel. “When they ask me if the movie is based on Mohonk, I tell them I don’t know if there’s any truth to that,” she said last Wednesday. She said that it has been her assumption that the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado provided the basis for the Overlook.
Indeed, the Stanley has long taken the Colorado version of The Shining’s origin legend and run with it. That hotel features tours, one of which offers to explain how the Stanley “inspired” the book. It appears to be one of the hotel’s major selling points, with lengthy online explanations of how King vacationed there in the dead of winter in the now-notorious Room 217 and how he had a dream there of his terrified son being chased by a demonic firehose.
The Stanley can also lay claim to having been used as a setting for the mini-series. In 2015, the hotel planted a hedge maze to accentuate its lucrative connection to the film’s legend.
Mohonk has made no such moves. Far from cashing in on the fame of one guest, McNamara speculated that part of the appeal Mohonk might have for King would be as the beneficiary of the peace and quiet that the place affords. She said she imagined that he could have worked on any number of his books while at Mohonk, “but I just don’t know.”
Still, the legend persists. In 2013, a travel piece titled “Tucked in at The Shining hotel: Watching out for Jack at Mohonk Mountain House” was published in the London Daily Mail. But according to King’s official website, the Stanley was indeed the place where the book and everything that followed were born, despite fan arguments that Mohonk is a better match.
If that seems to settle the question, think again. Art takes on a life of its own when it’s released into the world. It’s possible today that more people know The Shining not because they’ve read the book or watched the film, but as an archetype: the hulking Victorian home, isolated on a mountaintop instead of a hill, with a full complement of spirits instead of a simple house ghost. Stephen King gave form to something that was already in our minds, and its enduring popularity is a testament to that.
Let the Stanley have its tours, its new hedge maze, its official endorsement; we locals still have our legend. The rest of us can still enjoy the feeling that a beloved local institution woulda/coulda/shoulda played a ghostly role in the making of two American pop classics. Those similarities, those parallels still exist, in the way that ghosts always do: under the surface, around the corner, maybe behind that door that you’ve just stepped through. To quote a line from another American classic, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the facts become legend, print the legend.”