Yes, Stephen King’s signature horror tale. No, I’m not kidding (much).
When one visits Estes Park, as we did recently, it’s hard not to notice the famed Stanley Hotel. Built by the inventor of the Stanley Steamer car, the stately, sprawling edifice sits on a rise above town, overlooking the little mountain community. And when I caught sight of its distinctive red roof, I was reminded of my connection to Mr. King. It’s common knowledge that the hotel served as inspiration for his book. Here, then, the rest of the story.
Fresh out of high school in the summer of 1974, I spent a few weeks on the Appalachian Trail, then left to look for America (I refer you to the title of my blog). My thumb took me to the west coast, but on the way back the money ran out in Estes Park. I landed a job at one of the finer dining establishments in town – all the tables you could clear along with one free meal a day and a bunk in the employee’s quarters above the restaurant, for a kingly two dollars an hour and a slim percentage of tips. Any extracurricular activities with the waitresses were merely occupational perks.
When the restaurant closed for the season (shortly after Labor Day), I made a quick trip back to Michigan to visit some friends, one of whom warmed to my unvetted tales of life as a ‘Mountain Man’ and decided to return with me – he and his red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top – for the winter.
So it was that the autumn of ‘74 found us renting a small cabin for the ‘off-season,’ both having secured employment at the ski resort (which has since been shuttered and dismantled) in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park – a fact that spoke more to the limited nature of the local labor pool than anything else. Henry (whose name has been changed to protect my assets) had always been a hit with the opposite sex, sporting a swarthy complexion and a mustache he grew at the age of twelve – think Omar Sharif in his heyday – which may explain why he was assigned to the ski rental shop. Whereas I earned a place at the kitchen grill, flipping burgers for the ravenous, perpetual mob.
Around the cabin, Henry was prone to manic outbursts and the occasional wrestling match. Still on the thin side, I offered little opposition. Lamps and end tables were the usual victims of these contests, though one ended with my antagonist putting a shoulder into my stomach and driving me ass-first into a wall. The resulting butt-shaped crater in the drywall was left as testament to the futility of human conflict.
Henry also possessed some unique cooking techniques, such as adding ketchup to spaghetti sauce by way of stretching a few more meals out of it. And he was a ‘last bite martyr,’ never eating the final helping of anything. Whether guided by some warped sense of altruism or as a way to amass a backlog of ‘owed favors’ to be called in later, he always feigned fullness when it came time to divvy up the scraps. Once I realized what he was doing, it began to irritate the hell out of me.
It finally culminated on a drive home from Tony’s, the local pizza joint, where a lone slice of pepperoni pizza sat in the box between us. I was certain he would refuse it, but decided to stand my ground this time.
After some verbal jousting (“You eat it.” “No, YOU eat it…”), it became clear I wasn’t going to acquiesce.
“If you don’t eat it, I’m gonna throw it out the window,” he threatened ever so casually, eyes locked on the road ahead.
An interesting bluff. But I had come this far, so…
“Henry, dude, I can’t – I’m stuffed,” I lied. As an eighteen year old with a tapeworm, I could have eaten another whole pizza. “There’s no shame in taking the last piece. Or we’ll just toss it in the fridge for later.”
Without a word he rolled down his window, reached across into the box, latched onto the doomed wedge of pizza and nonchalantly flipped it out into the snowy darkness.
We finished the ride back to the cabin in silence while I pondered how long it might take for officials to locate my shallow grave.
Later that winter we hosted a couple friends who came out to do some skiing over Christmas break. One night the four of us ventured out into a blizzard in search of fuel for the fireplace. This involved driving slowly along the local roads due to the hazardous conditions while keeping an eye out for any downed branches or other types of wood we could appropriate.
As we made our way up a winding side street, the headlights swept across a brush pile on the shoulder. Henry slowed even more to allow me to hop out, then continued up the road with our comrades to find a suitable place to turn around.
I busied myself for what seemed ten minutes or more, snapping branches into fireplace-sized pieces while the snow fell relentlessly. Then, from the direction whence my friends had departed, there came the sound of a vehicle approaching. At what seemed a high rate of speed, given the current conditions. I muttered something to the effect of, “You might want to back it down a little, assho–” when a red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top raced past me, its taillights quickly disappearing as it fishtailed around the next turn.
I resumed my wood-gathering efforts until, a few minutes later, a pair of shadows loomed up out of the snowy darkness. Still shaken, my friends related how, after driving several miles before getting turned around, Henry suddenly developed a wild hair and decided to test his winter driving skills. There remains some question as to whether a bit of goading from one of his passengers played a part, but regardless, the results were the same. They careened down the road at ever-increasing speed until the laws of physics took the wheel.
After completing a ‘donut’ when the tires finally broke loose, the car wound up teetering on its belly, caught on the lip of the road – a fortuitous happenstance that kept it from heading down a steep embankment toward what would have certainly been a bad ending. We flagged down a stray vehicle heading for town whose occupants promised to call a tow truck for us, and were back on our way maybe an hour later.
“Well, that was pretty stupid,” Henry acknowledged afterward, a comment with which no one felt compelled to argue.
There were other incidents that only cemented the fact my roommate was not of sound mind, but somehow I lived to tell. When the spring thaw came, we patched the butt hole with newspaper and auto body filler before making for the Grand Canyon, then returned to Michigan and went our separate ways.
I didn’t think much of it until The Shining hit bookshelves a few years later. Something about the story sounded strangely familiar – a man descends into madness and menaces his cohabitants over the course of a long winter in the mountains. I knew the Stanley Hotel had provided King his setting for the story. But it wasn’t until I learned he visited Estes Park in the fall of 1974 that it became clear – King obviously crossed paths with Henry somewhere in town. Though I can only surmise as to what transpired, it appears the author was capable of recognizing a lunatic when confronted with one, and the encounter most certainly provided inspiration for the ax-wielding main character, Jack.
Efforts to contact Mr. King or his lawyers regarding a percentage of royalties I feel are owed for coordinating that fortuitous meeting have thus far been unsuccessful.