Sometimes a setting can grip our imagination so strongly a story grows out of it like a plant from the soil. Perhaps that’s what happened when Stephen King visited the historic Stanley Hotel back in the seventies. He stayed there one night, had nightmares (rumor has it), and wrote The Shining based on a single night within those walls.
I love travel because I love setting. I collect details like I used to collect rocks as a child; my pockets bulge at the end of the day. Edinburgh’s slick black paving stones take up real estate in my mind, and so does the sensory explosion of the Athenian flea markets, those blue and white evil-eye charms staring, the tall too-perfect pyramids of strawberries at the corner stall.
Is setting story? Not directly. But just as illustrators work from reference art writers draw from real-life places. It happens to me all the time. Just last week, P and I were walking through the city and I pointed at a bus stop. “That’s where Hostile Takeover starts,” I said. And I saw both realities, the one in front of my eyes and the rain-drenched night Jessica hurried through that same corner on her way to a meeting. Nor can I step onto a cruise imagining that Ellie Tappet is behind me, bustling forward with her shopping tote.
Place and story intertwine. That’s what I’m thinking about after visiting the Stanley Hotel. P and I were on our road trip when I remembered that the hotel that had inspired The Shining was hidden in the mountains of Colorado. We looked it up and it wasn’t far. Why not go? I wanted to see how the Overlook Hotel of my imagination compared with the place that story was born.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The hotel has been updated over the years. They added a hedge maze and some props from the made-for-TV movie. But even stripping those things away I could see the connection between that place and The Shining. We saw the tall, eerie staircases flooded with light from old windows. Those long carpeted hallways. Brass elevators from a bygone age. A lonely ballroom with the piano. And beautiful bar with a long wooden counter. I didn’t mind that the owners of the hotel had added a hedge maze and some old props. Those things might be cheesy, but they were fun too.
We saw other tourists walking around, delighted, enjoying comparisons with the haunted hotel of their imaginations. I loved it! The magic of fiction is that it has the power to bring us all to the same location in our minds, to sync up our emotions and memories in a powerful way. In that sense, setting becomes a real place, durable and permanent. I’m thinking about the books I love most. How many of us have walked through the Gothic splendor of Mr. Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre? Millions, I expect. Those images and feelings are accessible, a shared experience that transcends time and all other differences.
If you’re a fan of The Shining and you find yourself in Colorado I recommend a quick stop at The Stanley Hotel. They give tours, but the slots were all booked up by the time we arrived. So we walked around the hotel, admired the grounds, and picked up some amusingly Stephen King themed lattes before heading out for our next destination.
PS: I did not look for the ghost of room 217. 😂