IT by Stephen King

IT coverIT was one of the major reading events of my teens. As well as being the first Stephen King book I read as it came out (in paperback, anyway) right when I was in the grip of my first enthusiasm for horror, sheer page count meant IT couldn’t help being an event rather than a mere read. Plus, there was something about the basic idea that seemed so right: a bunch of loser kids face horror in small-town USA, then have to come back and face it again as adults. Nostalgia for the small-town life of 1950s USA seemed to pervade the 1980s, mostly thanks to George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg (Lucas’s American Graffiti sparked it off in 1973, 1978’s film of Grease made it more widespread, but the whole thing found its apotheosis in 1985’s Spielberg-produced Back to the Future), and as I was neither born in the 1950s nor in the USA, it formed for me a sort of fairy-tale fantasyland where stories of innocence and coming of age could be told, no more nor less real than the Germanic never-never land of the Grimms, or Clark Ashton Smith’s far-future Zothique. To read a horror story set in that fabled land of innocence and bobby-sox polka-dot lollypop rock’n’roll seemed just what I wanted — no, needed — as I hit the second half of my teens.

It’s become an occasional (though unplanned) theme in this blog to revisit things I was frightened of as a kid (the most recent one being another King effort, the TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot), and one of the things that made me put off re-reading IT was how certain scary scenes had lingered in my memory — particularly the one where Beverley Marsh hears the voices of dead kids coming up through the plug-hole of the bathroom sink. Back when I first read IT, that made me very nervous of our rather claustrophobic, spider-prone bathroom, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to reawaken the fear. (Pardon the pun, but fear of the bathroom is such an inconvenient fear.) The other thing that put me off re-reading IT was how disappointing I’d found the ending the first time around (combined with how disappointed I’d been by the endings of the last two King novels I read: Duma Key and — a while back — Bag of Bones). But then I read James Smythe’s article on IT, part of his comprehensive re-read of all Stephen King’s novels and story collections, and when he said IT was “a summer novel”, and I realised it was starting to be summer, I decided to dive in.

In the end, a sort of reversal occurred. I was no way near as scared of the horror scenes as when I’d first read the book — in fact, I was rather disappointed by them — but I found the ending a little less disappointing (only a little, mind, and perhaps because I was prepared for it). Nevertheless I still enjoyed IT immensely. So, why?

IT coverThe horror scenes, first. One I’d been particularly chilled by the first time I read IT was where grown-up Beverley returns to her former home, finds it occupied by what appears to be a sweet old foreign lady, and is invited in for tea. Once inside, the sweet old lady transforms into something undead and disgusting. (Her line, “My madder was my fadder”, was one of the novel’s many catchphrases that stuck in my mind as surreally horrific. Although, I discovered on this re-read, it’s not as much of a catchphrase as I recalled, only being repeated once, unlike “We all float down here”, or “Beep-beep, Richie.”) This time reading that scene, as the transformation began, I was at first a little creeped, but as King ladled on grisly detail after grisly detail, I started to find the whole thing overdone, and then too OTT to be scary. It was as though King was so over-sugaring his horror with whatever the horror equivalent of sugar is, that he’d numbed my readerly taste-buds. And I think every horror scene — or, I should say, every supernatural horror scene — in IT suffers the same way. What struck me as sensational and grisly when I first read the book, on this re-read seemed merely sensational.

It could be argued that this is the point. King himself spells it out:

It was like some comic-book villain. Because they saw it that way? Thought of it that way? Yes, perhaps so. It was kid’s stuff, but it seemed that was what this thing thrived on — kid’s stuff.

The creature in IT assumes the form of whatever frightens its victims the most, and kids being frightened by gloopy, gory, grisly details, that’s the approach it uses. The trouble is, this is also the fault I found with Bag of Bones and Duma Key — that the supernatural horror scenes were so un-disciplined, so full of detail after detail straining after effect at the expense of meaning, that the overall result was to detract from rather than strengthen the horror and the story. Because the creature in IT has no limits but King’s prodigious vocabulary of gloop, it loses its effectiveness as horror. Pennywise the Clown has the power to assume any form, to read its victim’s innermost thoughts, and to make its victims see whatever it wants them to see, and to even feel it as dangerously real — so why doesn’t Pennywise win hands down? Why hasn’t it wiped out the world? Why doesn’t it assail the kids with so much horror they go insane? Why doesn’t it simply jump out of the nearest drain and tear them to pieces? The truly frightening scenes, for me as an adult reader, were where Pennywise uses human beings to do its work. And although these humans are much less powerful than Pennywise, they’re more scary because I know they can’t be warded off with a childhood talisman (a book about birds, an asthma inhaler), and that they can do actual physical damage. Their lack of over-the-top-ness makes them more real, and so more scary.

IT cover 3IT has every potential of being a Lovecraftian horror — a horror story of ideas as much as grisly details — but it’s here where, for me as an adult reader, King really falls short. Pennywise is at once set up as a force of pure evil, pre-existing the universe itself, to the extent that we can only assume it to be King’s version of Satan (with the useless Turtle as demiurge, and the “Final Other” a sort of removed, indifferent, Gnostic True God); but at the same time, Pennywise is so limited — geographically, if nothing else (in all of the universe, it is bound to Derry, Maine) — and rather useless. It can only frighten kids. It’s as likely to kill the “bad” kids, that serve its purposes, as the good. It runs away from bird books and asthma inhalers. Unlike Lovecraft’s monsters, the meaning of the evil Pennywise represents is nowhere looked into any deeper than that it is evil. But what would a universe where such a creature as this exists, with the powers it has (telepathy, creation of solid hallucinations, a hunger for fear) mean for human beings? That is what Lovecraft’s fiction is all about — the meaning behind the horror, the implications for mankind if they’re taken as a universal laws. Of course, IT is far more about human than cosmic things — it’s basically a summation of the purest of childhood terrors (King called IT his “final exam on horror”) — and with that God-like “Final Other” providing an ultimate escape clause in any attempt to understand what stops the balance between good and evil from tipping over, there doesn’t seem to be any meaning to Pennywise’s horror, other than to represent pure, irrational horror itself. IT is a nightmare — as scary as that is, and as ultimately insubstantial.

This comes to a head in the ending. The thing about the ending of IT is that because Pennywise has no “rules” — no established weaknesses or limits — I had no idea how it could be defeated. The Ritual of Chüd — a folklorish tongue-wrestling match the kids read about in a library book — sounds like it might work, and might also be genuinely risky to attempt, but the actual ending doesn’t use it (though makes a fudging attempt at pretending it has), making me wonder why King bothered setting it up in the first place. The actual ending involves a lot of kids holding hands, shouting “You killed my brother!” and somehow driving back the creature through sheer force of — what? will? feeling? belief? solidarity? Then physically tearing it apart. In which case, the question is, why didn’t any of Pennywise’s other victims defeat it if it’s so easy to defeat? If the creature in IT had been set up with just one weakness, just one stated limitation, its demise, I can’t help feeling, would suddenly become much more meaningful, and the challenge to the kids much more interesting and real.

And then, with regards to the ending… there’s what Beverley does. I don’t want to break into a spoiler here, but if you’ve read IT, surely you know what I mean when I say I’m talking about what Beverley does after Pennywise is defeated for the first time, and the kids find themselves lost in the sewers. How she “brings them all back together”. I mean… why? It seems just weird. Weird in a wrong way. Demeaning and without meaning. Nothing in the novel prepares for it, and nothing in the novel calls for it. On this re-read, it seemed even more out of place than on my first read.

Adam Faraizl as Eddie Kaspbrak from the 1990 mini-series of IT

Adam Faraizl as Eddie Kaspbrak from the 1990 mini-series of IT

But despite all this, IT is such a readable book. And IT is readable because King is such a strong storyteller. He kept me going through this very long novel (and as I’ve said before, I don’t like overlong novels) through sheer storytelling power. King inhabits his story like no other writer, and you can just feel him, at times, hunkering down into the scene and simply wallowing in it (for some reason, the image that comes to mind is of a hog in mud, but this isn’t meant as a criticism!). For me, the essence of IT‘s good points all come out in chapter 16, “Eddie’s Bad Break”, which could almost be a short story on its own. Eddie, an over-cosseted kid whose mother controls him through fears about his health, learns first of all that the asthma medicine he relies on is a placebo, then experiences real life-threatening danger for the first time when bully Henry Bowers breaks his arm. King’s supernatural horrors are spooky, mostly superficial, and are all about the effect of grisly details — usually layered on so thickly they start to seem ridiculous rather than horrific — but his moments of character horror, of everyday horror, are subtle and much more effective. The scene where the druggist, Mr Keene, takes Eddie into the back room and explains what “placebo” means is far more tense than any of King’s supernatural horror scenes, because it is so intimately tied up with Eddie’s character, his personal fears, his relationship with his mother, his own identity. It threatens Eddie’s world in a way that the existence of a super-powered mega-clown from outer space somehow doesn’t. The scene where Eddie is cornered by Henry Bowers and his gang, and not helped by a previously-reliable adult is far more chilling, and far more meaningful, than any of the scenes where Pennywise the Clown appears. Pennywise’s most effective appearance in the entire novel is in this chapter, when, in a dream/semi-dream, Eddie imagines the clown’s face imposed on his own mother’s when she’s at her most protective/controlling. The idea that all adults have a little bit of IT in them would be a great idea for a novel… But it’s not in this novel.

I can’t help wondering, considering my reaction to this re-read of IT, whether King’s prodigious storytelling ability almost works against him. Because he can weave such a strong spell with writerly skill alone, he perhaps lets himself get lax in terms of the basic bones of his story. Thinking about it, and despite the fact that I much prefer fantastical elements in the stories I read, the more satisfying King stories and novels I’ve read have all been non-supernatural ones — “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, “Apt Pupil”, Misery — where King has been forced to take on more disciplined bounds to his boundless skill in storytelling. I want to read more King, but am put off by the suspicion that while the reading experience itself will be enjoyable, the ultimate aftertaste that comes from the end of the story will be that of a little too much of something a little too (horrifically) sweet.

But, having said this, King is of course immensely successful, so what do I know?

Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.

The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?

Skallagrigg (paperback)The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:

“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”

Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):

“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”

By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.

I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)

A wonderful book.

1Q84

I prefer the pronunciation “q-teen-eighty-four” to the “one-q-eighty-four” touted on Wikipedia, but I can’t remember where I got it from, now. Anyway, it’s the title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, published as a three-decker in Japan (the first two volumes simultaneously in 2009, the third in 2010), but in the UK just over a month ago, as two hardbacks. I’ve spent most of the intervening month reading it.

Told in alternating chapters following its two main characters, Aomame (female) and Tengo (male) — though a third joins the rotation for volume three — 1Q84 is, according to Murakami, based on the same idea as his story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (published in English in The Elephant Vanishes back in 1993, but it can be found online here). The main difference between the two is that “100% Perfect Girl” is just under four and half pages long; 1Q84 is nine hundred and eighty seven.

The story starts with the two characters following their normal, separate, rather lonely lives. Tengo teaches maths at a “cram school” by day, and tries to write novels in the evening; Aomame is a fitness instructor who occasionally performs the odd idealistic assassination, revenging female victims of domestic abuse. One day Tengo is contacted by Komatsu, a somewhat unconventional editor he knows, wanting to involve him in a possibly dodgy scheme to rewrite a powerful but flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl, Eriko Fukada, who turns out to be a refugee from a secretive religious cult. At the same time, Aomame starts to realise that the world, as she knows it, is subtly different: policemen, for instance, wear different uniforms and carry different guns, and there are now two moons in the sky instead of one. The world is no longer our 1984, but an alternative reality of 1Q84, where the “boundary between the real world and the imaginary one has grown obscure.”

As a long-time reader of Murakami, my fascination in reading him is as much to do with watching Murakami the storyteller in action as it is with the stories he tells. Seeing how he cooks up his plots — simmering scenes & ideas with repetitions and diversions till he finds a viable thread to follow, occasionally throwing in a new ingredient, say a new character, or a plot twist, or just letting things noodle along. And pretty soon after starting 1Q84 many of the traditional Murakami ingredients were there — protagonists who are highly competent at their jobs but who are still searching for the real vein of meaning in their lives, portentous but peculiar phone calls at odd times, the occasional animal (here, a crow) who appears & reappears at seemingly significant moments, a dark & violent male authority figure lurking behind the scenes, an elderly female figure trying to heal & protect, a quirky teenage girl who seems to have an insight into all the weirdness that’s going on, love hotels, suicidal school friends, a lot of cooking meals and listening to old records, just to name a few.

Murakami is a marathon runner (his last non-fiction book was about marathon running, with a few tentative links to writing), and he seems to have taken the telling of this tale as he might a marathon, beginning with an easy, steady pace, and continuing at the same, determined trot, gradually picking up momentum till you feel there’s a real story going on. That’s how I felt till about halfway through the second volume, anyway, whereupon either I or Murakami hit the Wall and began to falter.

As much as I love Murakami, and am happy to follow his quirks, I think 1Q84 is too long. I don’t like long books generally, mostly because there are so many other books I want to read, and I tend to resent the one I’m reading if it takes up more time than its readerly rewards seem to justify. 1Q84, as a book, generated some real promise in the first volume, started fulfilling it in the second, but really stopped giving for most of the third, where too many of the characters were sitting at home waiting for things to happen, and Murakami introduced some story-threads that really felt like they were just passing time.

There are two types of long books that work: otherworld fantasies, where the size of the book is a necessary part of the immersiveness of the reading experience, and those Victorian meganovels that try to encompass as much of the broad-view stuff of life as possible — things like Middlemarch, Bleak House or War and Peace. Murakami, though, is more a writer about individuals, often quirky individuals, and their passage through a sort of early-mid-life psychic crisis, often beginning with a sense of loss (or the actual loss of a loved one, usually in some fantastic rather than mundane way), a period of intense, often hallucinatory loneliness, and then perhaps an eruption of sudden, frightening violence. His stories pass through weird, often best-unresolved moments of David Lynch-like fantasy, as some sort of unconscious conflict is faced. And these are wonderful stories, but I don’t think they work when spun out too long.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like 1Q84. It came to a satisfying ending, as I knew it would, and I instantly forgave it its longueurs; but during them (most of volume three, apart from the early Ushikawa chapters), I was frustrated at the feeling that I was just being strung out before an ending was reached. My favourite Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is quite long, but it never felt too long, perhaps because it contained at least one independent secondary story. Here, once Aomame and Tengo’s stories are thoroughly linked, they’re perhaps too tethered together to act in contrast to each other, which is the main advantage of telling stories in parallel.

But, as I say, as soon as I finished it, I forgave it all that. However, I would say that 1Q84 isn’t the ideal place to start reading Murakami. After The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favourites are the shorter novels and the longer short stories — South of the Border, West of the Sun and After Dark, as short novels, would be excellent starting points if you want to read some Murakami, as are the longish short stories in After the Quake. But 1Q84 has received a lot of positive reviews, and a great deal of success in Japan. There really were some quite moving passages. Perhaps all I really want to say is, it may be good, but he’s done better.