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?


Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV mini-series

I remember being terrified by this when I was a kid. Not the mini-series itself — I never saw it at the time — but the trailer. The trailer was all I needed. The thing that scared me most was a very brief glimpse of this ugly chap, Nosferatu in a blue mood:

He continued to scare me whenever I was home alone. I’d be about to move from one room to another when I’d suddenly think, “What if I opened the door and saw that standing there?” and instantly found myself making excuses to stay where I was till someone else came home. As a result, the first horror novel I read was King’s Salem’s Lot, perhaps in a (forlorn) attempt to quell the fear — forlorn because it immediately proceeded to scare me even more with its opening tale of Ben Mears’ childhood visit to the Marsten House, and what he saw there.

So, recently I decided to try and lay this particular ghost by getting the Salem’s Lot mini-series out on rental from LoveFILM. I expected to be disappointed, but wasn’t. The basic story (Dracula in small-town America) was handled well, the acting was good (a lot of competent character actors, including Kenneth McMillan as the town constable — who I mostly know as the pustulant Vladimir Harkonnen from David Lynch’s Dune — and of course David Soul and James Mason in the lead roles), but best of all it managed some nicely suspenseful, even spooky, moments. Perhaps because of the limitations of what was then allowed on TV, the gore count is low (to be measured in drops rather than modern-day bucketfuls), and there are very few of those tiresome false jumps every horror film or TV series feels duty bound to serve up at regular intervals (something which lost its appeal for me after a totally silly and irrelevant jump from an aggravated squirrel in Species, back in 1995). The Marsten House interior is an effective set (though it has its silly/surreal moment, when young Mark Petrie opens a drawer to find it full of glass eyes and a couple of live rats — why does he open the drawer in the first place? he’s looking for a vampire, not a pair of socks), and the ending has enough references to Psycho to assure you there’s someone who knows his horror films at the helm (Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist). A particularly good moment of the subtler sort of scare is when old schoolteacher Jason Burke hears an odd sound from upstairs, goes to investigate, and finds the corpse of recently-deceased Mike Ryerson gently rocking in a rocking chair. He stays like that for what seems an age before finally looking up with his scarily gleaming vampires eyes.

I wrote in an earlier post (“What’s the point of Renfield?”) that Renfield, in Dracula, is perhaps a necessary counterpart to the suave count. Where Count Dracula is cool, elegant, eloquent and scary, Renfield is disgusting, mad, pathetic and drivelling, and together the pair complete a portrait of a real vampire as both coldly reasoning and psychotic, cool on the exterior but wallowing in blood and filth in his mad moments. The TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot reverses the relationship. The mortal half of its villainous duo, Mr Straker (James Mason), is ultra-calm, drily witty, cultured, neatly dressed and surrounded by beautiful antiques; the vampire, Kurt Barlow, looks like a dead rat gone blue-skinned and hairless with rot, can’t speak, and is 100% monster.

But there are, as in Dracula, other vampires. In Stoker’s novel, these are women; in the mini-series of King’s novel, (at first, anyway, till the whole town goes vampirous) these are children. And this was the second most scary thing about the mini-series: those kids floating up to your bedroom window at night to scratch at the pane and ask to be let in, surrounded by reverse-motion smoke. Which is another way I used to spook myself when I was younger. If I woke up late at night, I’d find myself wondering what I’d do if I heard someone scratching at the window. Well, obviously not open it like these kids do. But simply seeing such a thing would have been bad enough.

It’s been a long time since I read King’s novel, so I can’t say how faithful to the book the mini-series is, but it was certainly faithful enough to remind me of reading the book a good 25-or-so years ago. Granted, it looks like a 70s TV mini-series, but I think that adds to its charm when seen nowadays — just like the HPLHS‘s old-style renderings of H P Lovecraft in their Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness films, this is an authentically 70s-styled rendering of a 70s novel, and I’m glad I finally got to see it.

And, I have to admit, that though I started watching the first part (it’s in two hour-and-a-half parts) just before 9 o’clock at night, I had to watch an hour of normal TV afterwards before I felt unspooked enough for bed. And I watched the second part at 11 o’clock the next morning.


Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

Weaveworld, published in 1987, was Clive Barker’s breakthrough novel. It was also his breakout novel, as it saw him transform himself from being the hottest new horror writer in town (with The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game), to being a hot new fantasy writer, or perhaps just a hot new writer full-stop. And of course, with the movie Hellraiser out the same year, Barker seemed to be announcing himself as an impressive creative force whatever the medium. He painted and illustrated, he wrote and produced plays; what was more, he was eloquent and outspoken in his views on the importance of imagination and the fantastic in art. I’d read some of his Books of Blood stories, but Weaveworld was much more my thing. After it, I read pretty much every novel he wrote as they came out (in paperback, anyway), faltering briefly at The Thief of Always, perhaps out of post-Imajica exhaustion (825 pages!). That ended with 2001’s Coldheart Canyon. I bought Coldheart Canyon, and it sat on my to-read shelf for about a year before I admitted to myself I wasn’t going to read it. I’ve never even looked at his Abarat books (perhaps feeling a bit cheated that he never got round to finishing his Books of the Art series). I read (and reviewed) Mister B Gone when it came out, as a toe-dip back in Barker’s world, but aside from the angels at the end, I mostly wished I hadn’t. I’m not sure, really, what happened. Perhaps it was simply Barker exhaustion (he does write long novels, and perhaps even marvels and wonders can wear you out). Whatever it was, I recently re-read Weaveworld, to see if I could sample a little of what it was that made him so exciting back then. Would it still be there?

It was. It is.

Weaveworld is about a magical land hidden in a carpet. But really, this magical land is made up of fragments of our world — nooks of wonder and beauty we came to ignore, or never discovered, and which the Seerkind (the people of the Weaveworld — or the Fugue as they call it when not in its woven state) took as their own. The Seerkind are mostly human in appearance, but have “raptures” — crafts such as weaving, singing & dancing, that work like magic spells. To the Seerkind, we ordinary humans are Cuckoos, and our non-magical world is the Kingdom of the Cuckoo. And although we Cuckoos have, in the past, pursued and persecuted the Seerkind, it was a far worse enemy that forced them into hiding, an awful power known as the Scourge, which of course threatens them again as soon as they wake. The novel follows two ordinary-ish people from our world, Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, who come into contact with the Weaveworld, only to find themselves inextricable parts of the struggle of the Seerkind to wake, find a safe place to unpack the wonders of the Fugue, and survive the onslaughts of their many enemies.

Two things make Barker an outstanding writer of the fantastic. The first is the wildness and freedom of his imagination. Before him, the defining style of supernatural horror was that of Stephen King, who made his horrors all the more believable by placing them in settings designed to feel as familiar as possible, and written in a voice that assured you the writer was an average Joe like you, speaking down-to-earth, yeah, you-know-the-kind-of-thing speak. Barker blew that approach away by writing horror and fantasy like an Old Testament prophet. Where, with King, one subtly-built up supernatural element was enough to fuel a blockbuster novel, Barker has monsters and magical beings by the dozen before we’re a quarter of the way through. If King is the fireside storyteller, making you gather round while he whispers his tales towards their slow climax, Barker takes the Barnum and Bailey approach, full of fireworks, cymbal crashes, dancing girls and lion tamers. (And there’s a lot of the performer in his works — his Seerkind are, mostly, performers, Bohemians; perhaps naturally, considering Barker’s first career as a playwright & actor.)

That comparison to the Bible links to the other thing that made Barker such a notable new voice — the conviction with which he wrote, his belief in the transforming power of the imagination. In Weaveworld, when humans encounter the magic of the Fugue, it often has a near-religious effect on them. It changes their world, it opens them up to new possibilities, new beliefs. (Of Suzanna: “All she knew was that she was suddenly alive to a space inside herself where the haste and habit of her adult life had no dominion.”) Because, ultimately, Weaveworld isn’t about a magical world and a real one, it’s about one world which is both magical and real, it’s about the healing, the weaving together, of what can be imagined and what is accepted as real, between the mundane and the magical. The Seerkind aren’t ethereal beings, they’re “flesh and blood like you”; the Fugue is a place in which you can meet with wondrous experiences, but that is true of the real world, too, because the true place those wondrous experiences occur is in the mind:

“Magic might be bestowed upon the physical, but it didn’t reside there. It resided in the word, which was mind spoken, and in motion, which was mind made manifest;… all mind.”

“Imagination,” Barker writes, “was true power: it worked transformations wealth and influence never could.”

Two of the most interesting characters in Weaveworld are the villains, Shadwell the Salesman (whose name unfortunately reminded me of Siadwell, the comic Welsh poet from Naked Video in the 80s) and Immacolata the Incantatrix, who has a cold hatred for her fellow Seerkind. These, like so many Barker villains, aren’t merely evil; they are led to evil ends by understandable (if unordinary) motivations. Something to note about Barker’s monsters — they’re not just killers and beasts, they’re philosophers. They like to explain themselves. They have an aesthetic. (Just not the sort you’d expect to be expounded by the local art society.) In a sense, like the Seerkind, they’re performers, too, artists of a brutal kind, Bohemians gone bad. One of the things Barker seems to be saying is that all experience, potentially, can be transcendent experience, and that includes the painful experiences, the dark experiences, and the dark drives and motivations, too. At the end, the Scourge is not defeated, it is healed. The “Old Science” of the Seerkind (which perhaps could better be called Art) is used to “seduce it into confessing its profoundest desire: simply to see its own true face, and seeing it know how it had been before loneliness had corrupted it.”

Which reminds me of Barker’s own words about himself in the 1994 South Bank Show episode about him:

“My life has absolutely been transformed by the imaginative possibilities offered to me by artists. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to books and paintings and theatre and movies? We go because we want our lives enriched. And that enrichment is a kind of change. We want our pain illuminated, and if it’s illuminated, maybe it isn’t quite so terrible… I think my kind of fiction, and I get this in conversations with people and in letters, is to some extent about saying these journeys are journeys which we’re all taking. And it’s okay to take them. And it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re marginalised. Just because you’re bringing your dreamscape into your daily life, into your conscious life, doesn’t make you fit for the madhouse. It makes you very healthy.”

Barker’s art is working the Seerkind’s sort of magic. He’s not merely peddling wonders to make a sale, to get a wow and a round of applause. He very much has a belief in what he’s doing, in its power to affect people, and for their ultimate good. Even if it takes them into some pretty dark places on the way.