Houses in your heart: part three (“It” postmortem: the Losers’ Club [Richie, Ben, and Stan])

Greetings, all! This entry in the ongoing It postmortem is going to be a little shorter than usual, for a few reasons. Chief among these is that I (largely) saved the flattest characters for last in this three-part chapter on the Losers’ Club; not that this means I dislike these last few guys (as I said before, Richie ranks with Bev and Mike as my favorite character in the book), just that there’s less to pick at in their characters. Secondary reasons include the dread god Midterms and some fiction writing that’s been taking up a good deal of my time. Your regularly scheduled two entries per week will hopefully return after this weekend with an analysis of The Descent and another chapter in the It series. Until then, the final Losers!

the_losers_club_by_amandapainter87-d83t17hRichie Tozier: the trashmouth

Richie Tozier fits comfortably into one of King’s tried and true character archetypes, the Wise Guy. One thing that often gets overlooked in discussions of King’s literary merits is his sense of humor, which tends to be best displayed in this kind of character—Richie, Eddie Dean from the Dark Tower series, to an extent Larry Underwood from The Stand, etc. Eddie is without doubt the most complex of the lot, and probably the best—spending time with a man for six books will inevitably reveal more about him than one book will, even if that book is a 1,000-page behemoth. Richie is a close second, however, as far as sheer likability is concerned.

He’s not a particularly complex character, Richie. There’s more to him than just comic relief—his compulsive trashmouth is a defense mechanism against fear rather than a duty shoved upon him by his author—but he’s never explored to the same extent that most of his companions are. Only Stan receives fewer viewpoint chapters (namely: almost none). And so, while Richie gets more text devoted to him than either Mike or Eddie, we don’t get nearly as deep a glimpse into his psyche. That said, he is rather funny, walking an uneasy line between humor and obnoxiousness that he never quite runs afoul of. His adult wit is genuine, and his attempts at jokes as a child, while wince-inducing, are precisely what’s needed to keep the book’s tension from building too high, releasing steam at regular intervals. It’s horribly unfortunate that the 1990s television adaptation wasn’t pitched as a serious feature film series with more prestige attached, because the Robin Williams of that time period would have been an almost eerily perfect casting choice, what with the two’s shared interest for manic Voices.

Upon re-reading, Richie’s introduction in “Six Phone Calls” is one of the most effective of the lot. The creeping dread that almost overpowers him in this section, so much at odds with his almost hysterically manic personality, is near-tangible, especially coming off of Stan’s suicide—this is true even on a first read, but 1,000 further pages of acquaintance with the Trashmouth provide a wealth of context that emphasizes his horrible fear even further. Lesser instances of terror that strike him throughout the novel have a similar effect.

His sheer absurdity also wields, with all the finesse of a spiked mace, a powerful emotional force. As hokey a device as his being able to drive an eldritch abomination back with an Irish Cop impersonation is, in the moment the reader buys it completely and joyfully. It’s a memorable if on-the-nose microcosm of one of the novel’s chief themes, that of laughter driving out fear, and if King expressed it more subtly elsewhere he never did it as powerfully.

Ben Hanscom: the haystack

In terms of memorability, Ben is perhaps the biggest victim of the Losers’ Club’s transition to adulthood. There’s not much at all to say about his grown-up self; like all of his compatriots, his introduction in “Six Phone Calls” is soaked in dread, but once this passage passes, we’re left with a man who isn’t easily describable because there’s simply not much to describe. Like Bill, he’s not unpleasant, but neither is he interesting—he does his part and fights the good fight, and if we’re happy for him and Bev at the end it’s largely due to our memories of his childhood self.

That child is broadly drawn—he and Eddie are two sides of the same coin, one rendered horribly unhealthy due to a smothering mother and one rendered horribly paranoid due to the same. He’s a sweet kid, though, earnest and brave and gentle. His attraction to Beverly is the most openly sexual of any of the Losers’, but written as King writes him Ben could never act on that attraction in an unsavory manner. He’s not a “nice guy” who wears that label solely to seduce Beverly Marsh; she matters to him as a person and as a friend, and if he’d die for her, well, he’d die for any of his companions. This doesn’t remedy the troublesome aspects of every single one of Beverly’s male friends bearing a sexual attraction for her, but Ben’s is at least balanced by his loyalty and friendship. And as is shown several times throughout the text—especially in their decision to leave Derry together at the book’s conclusion—the attraction, in this particular case, is mutual.

Stanley Uris: the one who got away

Stan Uris is never given the chance to tell his own story. Not a single viewpoint chapter is entirely devoted to him, an artistic choice that is foreshadowed when his introduction, the first of the “Six Phone Calls”, is seen through the eyes of his wife.

The choice to write his suicide in this manner was the necessary one. There is the practical note that if we view Stan’s death from his perspective, there’s no way to capture the image of his exsanguinated body floating in bathwater, a massive IT scrawled in blood on the side of the tub. More important, it is essential that his thought process leading up to the act remain obscured. The questions that his death prompts—what could have made him do this? What could fill a grown man with that much fear? What in God’s name is this It?—are far more haunting and disturbing when they lack even the opportunity for answers, when the reader experiences them as Stan’s wife does. Her mounting dread as she summons the courage to open the bathroom door and see what’s happened sits in the pit of one’s stomach far more than her husband’s, relatively devoid of context at this point, ever could.

One of our brief flits into Stan’s head is also one of the most important thematic passages in the entire novel, and is as elegant an example as any of a compact definition of supernatural horror. It deserves to be quoted at length, and will be, but not here—it’s too relevant to a future chapter on the cosmogony (and indeed theology) of It to be placed at the end of this section. Suffice to say that, if Eddie takes the most adult actions of the group in his hospital conversation with his mother, Stan has the most adult worldview of them all, even if he cannot formulate it verbally. It’s what proves to be his undoing, in the end. The other Losers struggle to return to their childhood belief in the power of magic—Stan never really had it at all.

(to be continued)



What went we out into this wilderness to find?: “The Witch” review

the-witch-poster ✦ ½ of five

When I was still a Christian, I had a severe demon problem. They’d come to me at night, looming in the dark corners of my bedroom, waiting just behind my curtains if only I’d open them. They’d whisper things to me, and I couldn’t make it stop.

I could call to my parents when things got particularly upsetting, when I was younger—I once, at the age of seven, wailed for them because Satan’s voice was in my head. He was telling me to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus decries as the only unforgivable sin: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). I don’t remember, looking back, which was worse; that I could hear his voice in my head, or that if I so much as slipped, so much as had the thought of blasphemy—which, thoughts being what they are, was sure to happen—I would in a stroke be condemned to eternal damnation. At any rate, my parents stayed up with me, and prayed, and all was temporarily well.

As I grew older, however, I no longer had that recourse. We had moved houses, and in our new home my parents’ bedroom was on the opposite end of the house from mine. Running from one end of a vast black expanse to the other, with the stairwell to the basement plunging downward on the left side, was not my idea of a relief from horror. And more importantly, I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, and so on. Parents could not be a source of nighttime comfort any longer.

And so, I endured. I lay there in the dark, and strove to block the voices out, and opened and closed my eyes over. And over. And over again. I prayed a mantra, a litany, in between telling the demons to go away in the name of Jesus, but they never did and I never fell asleep easily.

This was one of the most immediate reliefs of my leaving the faith at age sixteen. Almost immediately, the demons stopped talking. Nearly three years later, and I haven’t heard them since. There are other night fears, to be certain—I didn’t sleep well for months after seeing The Babadook, my toddler nightmares of monsters in the closet raging back to life—but once you’ve failed to believe in God, the demonic largely loses its teeth (as I wrote about in detail in my analysis of demon possession in the horror genre).

When I first saw a trailer for The VVitch, several months ago, I was intrigued. First, because it looked to be a genuinely good horror picture with an excellent premise and a good deal of critical praise. Second, because I was hoping it might be able to provide an exception to the rule of a Christian framework failing to work within an atheistic/maltheistic genre. Third, because I was, on some level, curious. I wanted to see if it would be able to reawaken that deeply ingrained childhood religious terror, my three years of secularism notwithstanding.

Having seen it a few hours prior to the writing of this review, I can say that points one and three were fulfilled admirably. I’m not convinced of point two, but I think The VVitch comes the closest of any piece of religious horror I’ve encountered to justifying itself. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deeply admirable one and a deeply disturbing one, and I suspect it will grow even better upon rewatching.

The New England folk tale of the subtitle begins with isolation. William (Ralph Ineson), a devout Puritan who takes issue with the way his church chooses to express its faith, is banished from the congregation. Outcast, he makes for the outskirts of the massive nearby woods, taking with him his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), his prepubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his maturing daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the young twins Mercy and Jonas, and the infant Samuel. Before long, there are unsettling signs that the family is not alone—Samuel vanishes into the forest, and Mercy begins telling tales of a child-devouring witch who lives there in covenant with Satan. Grief turns into paranoia, and as the nights drag on the family begins to unravel, unsure if even their faith in God will be enough to protect them from the evil in the wood.

There be spoilers from here on out!

witch02The film upsets viewer expectations almost immediately by displaying the witch herself—rather than leaving it up to the viewers to wonder what has happened to Samuel, director Robert Eggers presents the woman’s naked back as she cradles the baby in her arms, before proceeding to do to him exactly what it is we’re told witches do to children. Giving us this glimpse of the titular horror is a massive risk, one that I almost certainly would not have taken, and it pays off immensely. The prominence of the witch’s nakedness reveals one of the film’s underlying themes—the gnawing transgression of sexuality—and its proximity to a deed that almost caused me to gasp aloud (nothing of the actual slaying of the baby is shown, but what remains onscreen is shocking enough) tells the viewer exactly what they’re in for: this movie is going to be about children, and it’s gong to hurt them badly.

From there, what we’re given is a slow-burn descent into madness highly reminiscent of The Thing, but even more disturbing in the context of a family turning on itself rather than a group of men falling apart. This is one area in which the film’s trailer is misleading—it depicts the family as a cold and unloving one, whereas in the film itself Ineson’s patriarch is a warm, devoted father who has a deep love for his eldest son and daughter, which makes his gradual disintegration even more affecting. His performance is matched by those of newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who manage more nuance and feeling in their roles than many adults could. Combine the audience’s sympathy for their characters with the horrors that are inflicted upon them, and the result is some of the most deeply upsetting moments of horror art in recent memory. To be quite honest, I’m stunned the film got away with some of them at merely an R rating.

Caleb is on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film makes a point to let the camera linger on Thomasin’s chest a few different times when the two of them are together, emphasizing the perversity that the religion of the day assigned to lust; the hints of incestuous flutters are required to make us feel the revulsion that was part and parcel of sexual attraction in the film’s 1630 setting. When the witch is shown for the second time, it’s in the guise of a provocative young woman who lures Caleb to her as he wanders, lost, through the woods. What follows was shocking to me as an adolescent male—I can’t imagine a parent’s reaction to the image.

Subsequently, a naked Caleb returns home, seemingly possessed of an evil spirit. As he begins going through the requisite contortions and yowls, his family gathers around him and prays frantically, and he himself begins to shriek the name of Jesus until it appears that his faith has won the battle. However, in an astonishingly acted shot that goes on and on, his tearful confession of love for his savior morphs into a twisted parody that is barely subtext, his voice rising to a woman’s high moan as he begs for the Son of God to kiss him on the mouth and embrace him again and again. When he dies shortly thereafter, it’s a mercy.

This scene, along with an earlier moment in which Caleb, alone and desperate in the woods, repeats a prayer over and over again, is the one that struck the closest to the bone for me. It made me remember all too well the nights of lying in bed, alternately too scared to open my eyes and too scared to close them (if I may paraphrase another famous film of witchery) praying over and over again and failing to dispel the fear. For the religious person, this may be the worst fear of all: the fear that belief alone is not enough, that prayer will do nothing to ward away an enemy who seems far more potent and seductive in its terror than a far-away benevolent God ever could.

It’s only the midpoint of the film, however, and Thomasin comes to the fore as matters fall apart at an even faster rate. The amount of violence the film is willing to show rises as the tension does likewise, with a few particularly well-chosen images leaving impressions on the brain that are hard to scrub away. By the time things draw to a close, Thomasin is alone, stranded with the ebony goat Black Philip, whose ominous appearance has been a constant throughout the film. She enters the barn with him, chills run up the viewer’s spine. . .and then, for a moment, horror evaporates.

Alas, just as The Exorcist chose to spell out to its viewers that the same Pazuzu whose statue appeared in the opening scene is what holds possession of Regan, The VVitch chooses to bring the devil himself into the narrative. We never see him directly, but it’s clear who he is, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. The sense of mystery collapses, the horror of the unknown becomes the horror of an identifiable quantity, and the same question that always arises in such circumstances does so here: if God so clearly isn’t present here, why is his Adversary?

What follows this, however, is an ending that is perfectly shot and skin-crawling in the literal sense of the word. And while it’s unfortunate that His Infernal Majesty had to show up, rather than the titular witch being the one to fill the role, the movie’s 1630s setting makes even this almost work. Eggers makes a point to have a troubled Caleb question his father following the disappearance of Samuel: if we are all born in sin, and he was not yet baptized, isn’t he in hell? William has no answer for him. The God of the Puritans was a wildly capricious, terrifyingly distant deity, one whose salvation one could never be assured of and whose hellfire was a constant threat. If He is the God of The VVitch, the whole movie can be seen as a particularly perverse test of faith (and indeed William namechecks Abraham and Isaac later on in its running time). The family has been exiled from their congregation to test their loyalty to their heavenly father, and each and every one is found wanting.

There are two readings of the film’s final scene, each as valid as the other. A graphically naked Thomasin, her covenant with Satan made, stumbles into the wood and watches as a circle of equally naked women chants a praise to their father below, before ascending to the tops of the trees. Firelight dancing across her face, Thomasin slowly begins to rise as well, and we cannot tell if the laughter on her face is that of madness or that of freedom. The Satanic Temple certainly believes it to be the latter—they infamously partnered with A24 to promote the film before its release—and they have a fair amount of evidence to support their case, with the entire film’s nightmare treatment of pent-up sexuality serving as prelude to Thomasin’s glorious sexual release and rejection of Puritan paranoia. The various evils that lead to this moment might seem too heavy to justify this interpretation, but the film does ask the question: if the God of this world could allow such terrible things to happen to those who want nothing more than to serve him, is Satan truly more evil in comparison?

Ultimately, the other reading of the film’s ending—that the witches are indeed abhorrent and Thomasin’s embrace of her sexuality is the final step on her path to damnation—while it would seem to better fit the worldview of the film’s religious players, is the more disturbing of the two. It was rightly pointed out to me before I saw the film that witches are one of the only cultural groups that are still widely considered fair game to demonize, with most people drawing no distinction between Wiccans and neopagans and the Satanic monsters of old campfire stories—and not bothering to do the five minutes’ research it would take to reveal that the two are completely different (not to mention the fact that the latter never existed). Not only could The VVitch lead to a renewed Satanic panic in religious viewers and encourage them to dehumanize modern witches, it paints a revisionist view of history in which Satanic witches did indeed exist and thus justified the presence of witch hunts and burnings. It’s a troubling moral issue, and while the subtitle A New England Folk Tale encourages the viewer to remember that it’s really “just a story”, such things tend to get thrown by the wayside when religious paranoia comes along.

The ramblings above haven’t even begun to touch on the film’s cinematography, which is stark and haunting, its score, which takes cues from The Shining‘s use of Penderecki’s Utrenja and is incredibly effective, or its screenplay, which according to a mid-credits interlude takes much of its dialogue from period accounts and is archaic without sacrificing intelligibility. I’ve also hardly done justice to the issue of sexual repression vs. sexual liberation within the film, which could easily form its own essay. That said, at 2,300 words consisting largely of spoilers, this writeup has gone on longer than it deserves. And so, I end on this note:

The VVitch is not a perfect movie. It has not, as of this writing, affected me as viscerally as other recent horror films (The Babadook) or impressed me with its utter lack of problems (as does The Descent). However, I’ve the feeling I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. Partly because I’ll be dwelling on numerous of its images, unable to get them out of my head. And partly because, for ninety minutes, it put religious fear back into my brain in a way I haven’t experienced since I deconverted. It’s an enormously impressive effort, will launch its director and actors onto equally impressive careers, and has indeed earned its place as one of the finest, most deeply unsettling pieces of horror art in the last decade. If that means I’ll be regressing to my seven-year-old self under the covers tonight, the movie has damn well earned it.


Houses in your heart: part two (“It” postmortem: the Losers’ Club [Mike and Eddie])

it-5Mike Hanlon: the Magical Negro?

As was mentioned in the earlier post “A Feeding Place for Animals”, Stephen King has a problematic relationship with black characters. He has a propensity for Magical Negroes, including but not limited to Mother Abigail in The Stand, Dick Hallorann in The Shining, and John Coffey in The Green Mile. Even when he isn’t utilizing a black character solely to serve a white protagonist’s journey, he has a seeming fear of writing them as nuanced human beings, often falling back on an almost comically broad, stereotypical depiction of African-American speech to serve as their dialogue. Even Susannah Dean, one of the three protagonists of the Dark Tower series and arguably King’s best black character (the fact that he included a woman of color in such a prominent position should be applauded, and she’s ultimately the only main character in the series who isn’t sacrificed to Roland’s quest and finds an ending of her own), often falls back into a caricature of black speech, the in-universe explanation for which is the “Detta” half of her personality (it’s complicated, non-DT readers) manifesting itself.

King himself has said that he often falls back on saintly black characters to assuage feelings of white guilt, and while I think this is misguided at best I don’t think he’s conscious of the racist implications of the stereotype. That said, his black characters are almost universally disappointing as a result. Mike Hanlon is almost an exception, but he unfortunately can’t quite escape the position of servitude that King so often places his black characters in. In a book that (again, as discussed in “A Feeding Place for Animals”) manages a surprisingly nuanced view of race, this is perhaps an even bigger disappointment than usual.

This is not to say Mike is a failure as a character. I like Mike’s character a lot. In fact, he, Beverly and Richie are my three favorite characters in It, and among my favorites in King’s entire body of work. This isn’t perhaps surprising—Mother Abigail, Dick Hallorann, and John Coffey are all incredibly likable characters, the latter especially, their problematic status aside. If any character is really and truly the emotional core of the book, it’s Mike Hanlon. Without him, It would have a fundamental, gaping hole in its interior.

Fear is the first of the emotions Mike provides to the reader. The overwhelming sense of dread that he projects in his diary interludes is absolutely crucial to maintaining the gnawing fear that holds the reader in its grasp for the first several hundred pages of the book. Indeed, with the possible exception of Stan Uris’ suicide, the first and second interludes (the first with its “Please God I don’t have to call them. Please God” and the second with its recounting of the Black Spot inferno) are the most chilling parts of the entire novel, their anticipation of a nameless fear far more haunting than any of Pennywise’s actual horrors. Witnessing 150 pages’ worth of dread slowly building up in the other members of the Losers’ Club is incredibly effective, but it doesn’t truly begin to claw at one’s stomach until the text is directly inside the head of a man who has been through hell and is now facing the possibility of entering it again. Mike, more than any of the others, is fully aware of what It can do, and this dreadful gnosis is catching.

More thematically important to It than fear, however, is the bitter loss of memory and fading love of old friends, and it is again Mike that captures this emotion perfectly. One of the most moving, heartbreaking passages I’ve ever read comes with his realization that he, like the other members of the Losers’ Club, is beginning to forget all that happened to him as a child, and if his dread of confronting It again knotted the reader’s stomach with tension earlier on in the novel, here he knots it with a plea for the inevitable not to come to pass. While Bill’s final ride on Silver and King’s accompanying narration are still powerful, Mike’s “I loved you guys, you know. I loved you so much” is the true ending of the novel; the rest is a mere coda.

Enough, then, with the emotions that Mike evokes. What about his character? He is, in many ways, a cluster of paradoxes. He is the only member of the Losers’ Club to retain his memories of the terrible summer of ’58 once adolescence has been left behind, maintaining a firmer grasp on his childhood than any of his friends. However, in spite of or perhaps because of this, he is a far older person than his fellow club members once they’ve returned to Derry. For all that King blusters about Bill being the leader of the Club, Mike is the one who takes command upon the reconvening of its members; he’s the one who gathers them together, who lays out for them precisely what has happened in their absence and why, who lays in motion the plan to finish Pennywise once and for all. The cool sense of authority he manages to project in spite of his overpowering fear is almost physically reassuring, his good nature the same. He’s intelligent and articulate, in a massive contrast to the relative simplicity and “folksiness” of characters such as John Coffey or Mother Abigail. In addition to serving as the book’s emotional core, he’s a powerful grounding force.

This is why it’s all the more unfortunate that, in service of his designated protagonist, King shunts Mike almost entirely out of It‘s climax. He’s the only person who Henry Bowers is able to do any serious damage to once he’s returned to Derry at the urging of a terrible master; his femoral artery is nicked, and for the rest of the book he does little but lie in a hospital bed. Of course, Henry did need to knock someone out of the ring before the book’s climax—even as it is the fact that he kills no one feels suspiciously convenient—but Ben, who in his adult phase is far less interesting a character than he was as a child and plays no particular role in the final showdown, seems to be a more fitting proxy for the sacrifice (after all, he along with Mike was one of Henry’s special victims). Rather, the most compelling voice of the novel is largely voiceless until its final interlude.

This shifting aside of the black character is unfortunately part of a trend as far as Mike is concerned. It’s troubling that King decided to relegate Mike, of all the seven, to remembering all the trauma of his childhood to regurgitate to the others when they return. To give him the task of remaining in Derry for nearly thirty years while his friends flee to various new locations. To assign him a measly $10,000 a year working at a public library while his friends all go on to be hugely successful. Granted, the others are not without their share of problems—Beverly is horribly abused by Tom, while Eddie is mired in marital strife—but Mike’s destitute, homebound state still stands out glaringly when compared to his friends’ economic windfalls (especially when Mike implies that these successes were probably orchestrated by the omnipotent force that’s kept an eye on all of them). Frustratingly, Mike remains a Magical Negro, willingly sacrificing himself to serve the white characters of the story and ultimately being shoved aside when it comes their time to stand.

Mike’s childhood is tantalizingly free of such problems—he is firmly in his own story before he meets the Losers, and when he joins them to fight Pennywise it’s for his own reasons. His later adolescence is also focused on its own story, and on the story of black Derry in the form of his conversations with Will Hanlon as regard the Black Spot. This can’t excuse the disappointing path that King ultimately chooses for the character, unfortunately. As I stated before, I love Mike for his gravity and his emotions, and his nonconformity to King’s standard caricature of black dialogue is incredibly refreshing. He can’t, however, escape the trap of the Magical Negro, which is an immense disservice to him.

Eddie Kaspbrak: the hypochondriac

Poor, poor Eddie. He doesn’t suffer the worst of the Losers, but he’s the one who remains mired deepest in his childhood. In a way, he’s a walking, breathing refutation of critics who claim that It is too preoccupied with sentimentalizing childhood—Eddie is trapped within his preadolescent years, and he’s a very unhappy man.

Eddie himself doesn’t initially share this view. “Adults are the real monsters,” he thinks to himself after his meeting with the pharmacist Mr. Keene, who in a display of premeditated cruelty reveals to the young Mr. Kaspbrak that the “medicine” loaded in his aspirator is nothing more than water with a dash of camphor. Between this inexplicable bit of nastiness and the constant smothering presence of his paranoiac mother, Eddie could be forgiven for thinking as he does.

And yet it’s shortly after this thought that Eddie, briefly, becomes the most adult of the Losers. When his mother visits him following his hospitalization (courtesy, as ever, of Henry Bowers), he calmly, icily confronts her for sending his friends away:

There was sorrow under his expression, but even that was frightening—it struck her in some way as an adult sorrow, and thinking of Eddie as an adult in any way always caused a panicky little bird to flutter inside her mind.

The calculation he displays in the following passage is chilling, as well as heartbreaking—Eddie blackmails his mother into allowing his friends to return, but the carrot to this stick is that he will willingly return to his former dependence on his aspirator. This reversion to a known placebo may be conscious at first, but by 1986 Eddie has completely regressed back into his compulsive need for it. In his reconciliation with his mother, he has foregone the possibility of ever fully entering adulthood.

Years later, having married a woman who is for all intents and purposes his mother and fallen even deeper into hypochondria, Eddie is outside of Richie probably the broadest of the adult characters, a parody of his former self. He’s a pathetic figure, which renders his childhood self all the more tragic. We see in him a kid who, while not without a certain amount of scarring from his mother’s suffocating presence, is for all intents and purposes a normal individual. The knowledge that this will inevitably degenerate into the pitiful man we follow thirty years later aches, and it’s this knowledge of Eddie’s child-self that makes us mourn for the adult-self that is murdered by Pennywise beneath the sewers. In isolation, the adult Eddie is not one of King’s better characters—he walks a ragged line between character and a set of exaggerated characteristics—but when paired with child-Eddie, whose relationship with his mother is one of the more legitimately affecting parts of the novel, this lack of nuance becomes saddening rather than irksome.

(to be continued)


Houses in your heart: part one (“It” postmortem: the Losers’ Club [Bill and Beverly])

381be0563cac49920c7db47e7bd491d1Characterization has never been one of King’s strongest elements. He likes to reuse certain templates over and over again rather than regularly inventing new people out of whole cloth, taking his stock types—The Writer with Demons, The Smartmouth, The Magical Negro, The Supernaturally Gifted Kid—adjusting a few characteristics here and there, and throwing them into the mix. There are certainly exceptions—Annie Wilkes is terrifyingly original—but they’re few and far between.

Not to say that King is a terrible writer because of this. There are plenty of literary darlings who have the same problem—every single Philip Roth protagonist is more or less a variation on Philip Roth. Just to say that the best way to judge his characters isn’t (usually) by whether or not they’re original creations, but by how successful they are compared to King’s other variations on their respective themes. It contains a jumble of success and failure in this regard, a batch of characters who are both among the strongest of their archetypes and among the absolute worst. For sake of space, I plan to cover only the Losers’ Club in this particular chapter; Pennywise is vast enough a presence that It will rear its tufted head up again and again in subsequent posts, while Henry Bowers and his friends aren’t quite developed enough to dedicate a significant amount of space to.

Bill Denbrough: the Mary Sue

Unfortunately, the leader of the Loser’s Club and It‘s ostensible protagonist (the book begins and ends with him) is certainly its weakest member. If Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth, Bill Denbrough is Stephen King, and while Roth had the self-restraint to render Zuckerman a deeply flawed antihero, Bill is an author fantasy through and through.

The problem doesn’t lie in his being a writer. After all, Misery‘s Paul Sheldon is also a spinner of tales, and he may be King’s most successful protagonist. The problem lies in Bill’s utter lack of personality. Here’s a comparison of the two characters to more clearly lay out this problem:

* * * *

Paul Sheldon

Paul is an intensely fallible character. He’s prone to arrogance and bravado, which at best cause him to be woefully overconfident—his conviction that Fast Cars, his first literary novel, will win him the establishment respect that he so clearly deserves—and at worst lead to disaster—his deciding it’s a good idea to drive drunk through winding Colorado roads without calling anyone first, his willingness to think he’s controlling Annie to an extent that he really isn’t. It’s also easy for him to be reduced to a rather pathetic state; his desperation to survive frequently induces pitiful, childish pleading and wheedling with Annie. He has an addictive personality, which leads him to become hooked on Novril and later on alcohol.

On the other hand, his weaknesses also form some of his greatest assets in his fight to stay alive. The same bravado that gets him into his horrible situation in the first place also allows him to push at Annie at crucial moments, gaining leverage at vital moments in order to secure himself better writing supplies or to save his skin (or, ultimately, to kill his captor). His desperate need to survive, while it can induce pathetic behavior, is also manifested in fierce determination and wild improvisations that a less desperate man would never have thought of. And his addictive personality also keeps him addicted to the story he is writing for Annie, which keeps him going even when his desire to live has faded away.

Bill Denbrough

Bill stutters. He’s angered and grieved by the death of his brother George, which drives him to take revenge on Pennywise. Equally upsetting to him as the death of his brother is the absence of his parents in the wake of the tragedy. Despite the trauma in his past, or perhaps because of it, he is a phenomenal writer whose books, with little effort, become bestsellers and enable him to meet his wife, a beautiful Hollywood actress.

* * * *

Now, the above comparison isn’t quite fair, but it gets the point across. Paul is an excellently drawn deconstruction of King himself—of the genre writer fed up with his fans and with the silence of “serious” critics. It would be easy for Annie Wilkes to overwhelm Misery, as wonderfully over the top as she is, but Paul is a complex enough character that he’s able to match her. His mingled faults and virtues are those of a real person, his struggles are horrifyingly realized, and his success is hard-won and bitterly Pyrrhic. While he’s clearly intended as a twisted mirror image of his creator, the reality of his character is such that the reader sympathizes and identifies with him. He’s not perfect, but that’s exactly what he needs to retain his humanity (this is an apparent reason as to the lukewarm reception to the Broadway run of William Goldman’s stage adaptation—it’s hard to see Bruce Willis as a human being these days).

Bill, by contrast, is impossible to identify with. His only major flaw, his stutter, has a negligible impact on his character; it serves as a reason to explain why he’s an outcast with the rest of the Losers’ Club, but his personality and decisions aren’t particularly impacted by this disability. And outweighing this flaw is a complete caricature of Stephen King’s career.

King’s success is positively remarkable, but it was not acquired without hard work. Much of On Writing is devoted to descriptions of rejection letter after rejection letter, failure after failure. Even after King began selling short fiction, he and his wife Tabitha barely scraped by until he managed to land a publication deal for Carrie, and a decade after that he was financially successful but mired in alcoholism and cocaine use. This is one of the chief reasons that On Writing manages to come off as the portrait of a sympathetic everyman despite King’s incredible career—he’s highly forthcoming and realistic about the struggle that comes with getting published, much less making a living out of it.

Bill Denbrough, however, has none of these struggles. We are presented with no scenes of his character struggling with disastrous attempts at storytelling as a teenager; no rejection strips hung (as they were by King) on a spike; no harrowing tales of poverty or addiction. Instead, the reader is treated to Bill rubbing his success with a published short story in his writing professor’s face, almost immediately launching a career full of runaway bestsellers, and with little effort managing to charm a Hollywood star into becoming his wife. It’s pure fantasy, and worse, it’s an obvious one. Bill is not a realistic depiction of King, he’s a caricature of him.

All this could be forgiven if there were some great, defining heroism to him, but there just isn’t. We’re certainly told that there is—there’s moment after moment of each and every one of the Losers thinking to themselves how much they love him, how they are willing to die for him, how they would be lost without his leadership and bravery. But the author doth protest too much. This almost obnoxious fawning over Bill Denbrough comes off as a frantic attempt to mask the fact that Bill is not particularly a leader. He doesn’t come up with the idea to stage a smoke-hole ritual in order to divine where It came from, or to take a silver slug and kill It—Ben does. He doesn’t make the decision to find It in the sewers and kill It—the Losers are forced there by Henry Bowers and his gang. He isn’t the one to stay behind in Derry and keep the faith, or to call his friends back when It resurfaces—that’s Mike. Bill is at best a good-luck charm, kept around by his friends because for whatever reason he inspires a near-suicidal passion in them.

All of the preceding rant is inordinately harsh, because I don’t hate Bill. He’s blandly pleasant, and the epilogue in which he beats the devil one last time is among the most emotionally powerful moments of the book. But even in that moment, the reader is moved not for Bill, but for all that he represents—the loss of childhood friends and memories, the mingled beauty and tragedy of growing up, etc. Bill never really exceeds this level of characterization; he’s a cipher and nothing more. As far as author surrogates go, he’s arguably King’s worst, and certainly the least successful character in It.

Beverly Marsh: the woman

King has a mixed track record with female characters, though he’s capable of writing excellent depictions of women. Dolores Claiborne in particular passes the Bechdel test a thousand times over, and was an admirable effort on King’s part to remedy his past deficiencies and write a realistic female character over the age of thirty. Carrie, despite its relative juvenile status, has some keen moments of feminist insight, as is to be expected in a book largely based around the dangers of sexual repression in young girls. But for every one of these, there’s an early book in which female characters mostly exist for male protagonists to fall in love with, fight over, and rescue (or not)—Franny in The Stand, Susan in ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.

Beverly Marsh is herself a mixed example of King’s treatment of female characters. There are many things to love about her, but for every one of these there’s a problematic element to her character or to other characters’ reactions to her. There is a case to be made for a feminist reading of It, one I’ll get into when I discuss that scene in further detail, but I’m not entirely sure King manages to pull that off.

To start with, there’s the rather obvious problem of Beverly’s singular status in the Losers’ Club; she’s the only female member, and the only female character in the book touched on in much detail. To compound this problem, every single one of her male friends sees her at least partially as a sexual object. Each of the male members of the Losers’ Club is described at least once as having fluttering feelings of sexual arousal whilst gazing at Beverly, and for Ben in particular it forms a defining aspect of his character. In a vacuum, this is a problem. In context—Beverly is routinely abused by her father, and later her husband Tom, both of whom desire her as a sex object—it’s a glaring crack. Beverly cannot escape the perception of her existence as a sexual being, even when among the boys who are her closest friends. Depending on your opinion, the infamous orgy in the Derry sewers can either redeem this troubling element or make it even worse—again, this will be dealt with later. Beverly’s own infatuation with Bill is also disturbing; she is not the only Loser who is prepared to die for him, but where this is due to loyalty on the male friends’ part, it’s due to romantic feelings on hers. This denial of one’s self due to complete romantic dependence is troubling, to say the least.

This said, there are many aspects of Beverly’s character that are quite positive. She’s brave, resourceful, and loyal to her friends, and has a wonderful inability to be reduced to a damsel for boys to rescue. She does meekly submit to Tom’s abuse for several years, relapsing into a horrible inability to resist an abuser who she happens to love just as she did with her father—however, when the moment comes to run she’s not rescued by a male who happens to be standing by. Beverly rescues herself, seizing her husband’s choice instrument of “punishment”, a belt, and beating him into near-unconsciousness with it. She’s just as determined against Henry Bowers and his friends in her childhood, delivering just as many injuries to them as any of the male Losers in the Apocalyptic Rockfight and other confrontations. It’s her who deals It the first blow with Ben’s silver slug, saving the lives of Ben and all the others. And while she appears to revert horribly in the moment she offers herself up to the others in order to find their way out of the tunnels, there is at least an argument to be made that this is in fact an empowering moment rather than a degrading one (again, more on this later).

She’s not a perfect heroine by any means—she has perhaps the most tragic flaw of any of the Losers, a desperate desire to be loved by the men who hurt her. This imperfection, however, renders her a thoroughly believable human being, and makes her decisive turn against Tom even more powerful when it does occur. Beverly is flawed, but she is able to overcome her flaw when the moment comes, drawing on deep reserves of determination and independence rather than relying on others to rescue her. Her position within It‘s pantheon is not without its problems, but in and of herself she’s one of King’s better female characters, and probably his best before the 1990s.

(to be continued)

Squint against the grandeur: “Hail, Caesar!” review

hail-caesar-quad ½ of five

Hail, Caesar! is not my Coen Brothers movie. I’m a huge fan of film and moviemaking, but I don’t have enough of a personal connection to the Hollywood of days gone by to fully appreciate the sort of love letter this film is. Hell, I only own four DVDs of films made pre-1960 (Gone with the WindIt’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, and Vertigo, for the curious). However, it’s a movie made with so much overflowing love and attention to detail that I couldn’t help but find myself swept up in its many charms. It’s comparatively fluffy compared to the Coens’ prior effort, Inside Llewyn Davis (which is, for the record, my Coen Brothers movie), but that’s hardly a detraction.

The plot, in brief: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures, is caught completely flat-footed when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the Heston-lite star of the studio’s Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, disappears from his dressing room in the midst of the shoot. While it initially appears to be merely another of Whitlock’s infamous benders, complications quickly ensue: Whitlock has in fact been kidnapped by a group of Communists determined to reform the studio system. Add to this volatile situation an in-over-his-head cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich), a pregnant and unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson), and the fact that several of the studio’s movies are turning out to be utter duds, and Mannix is most definitely going to be working late.

In many ways, Hail, Caesar! is a cousin of sorts to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Both are love letters to their respective eras, both are built around increasingly convoluted plots, and both feature a myriad of truly delightful bit parts by extremely talented performers. But where Inherent Vice fuses its incredible fun with a healthy dose of unease and paranoia (which is only fitting, considering its post-Altamont setting) and ultimately depends on its plot’s remaining utter nonsense, Hail, Caesar! is content to remain a mostly uproarious romp and to come together in a (comparatively) tightly-knit conclusion.

The element the two have the most in common is their surprising sense of decency. Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually stoned “Doc” Sportello is incredibly endearing because, in a world that is recognizably steeped in the tropes of noir despite its drug-filtered era, he refuses to play the typical cynic—he is a genuinely good (if often befuddled) man who goes out of his way to make sure things end well for every wayward figure he comes in contact with. Similarly, the key figures of Caesar are not Clooney’s Whitlock but Brolin’s Mannix and Ehrenreich’s Hobie. The former, while he takes no nonsense and occasionally resorts to less than orthodox methods to accomplish his job, is at the end of the day a family man who is plagued by self-loathing due to his inability to give up smoking and spend time with his wife and kids. He also deeply believes in the nobility of his work—one of the movie’s funniest scenes is also one of its most moving, in which Mannix rails against the perceived cynicism of the film industry and insists that what he is helping to create is art worth making and worth seeing. Hobie, meanwhile, is a mildly talented kid who realizes exactly how lucky he is to be working where he is and does not take any of it for granted. He’s played as the butt of the joke early on in the film, but as its running time continues we grow to respect him for his commitment and his humility.

maxresdefaultIt is these two, then, along with the uniformly gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins and the gloriously pompous score by Carter Burwell, that form the solid core of an otherwise delightfully flighty piece of work. Famous faces flit on and off of camera and are each in their turn excellent, especially Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners forced to work with Hobie’s cowboy style and Tilda Swinton as a pair of sister-journalists competing for gossip readership. There are several occasions where the film stops dead to spend two or three minutes simply watching an entire scene play out as it’s shot on the soundstage, but rather than slowing the movie’s manic momentum these moments captivate the viewer with how good they are. Chief among them is a song-and-dance number featuring Channing Tatum and his band of sailor friends lamenting the lack of dames aboard a naval vessel—not only is it a pitch-perfect spoof, it’s a genuinely marvelous piece of staging and choreography, with the directors refusing to take half-measures simply because they’re poking affectionate fun at their subject matter. The same applies to the titular Biblical epic—it’s a grotesque likeness of Ben-Hur played for broad laughs, but is all the funnier because it nails the look and feel of the self-important sword-and-sandals pictures of the day. The film isn’t necessarily interested in saying anything thematically significant about the various pieces to which it pays homage, but the manic joy that the Coens and their collaborators take in recreating Hollywood’s golden days, warts and all, is so infectious that in the moment this doesn’t particularly matter.

It’s odd, considering the sweep of its parodic scope, that “slight” is a word I’d use to describe Hail, Caesar!, but it’s not meant as a criticism. After the deeply melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s clear that the Coens wanted to sit back and have some fun with a bunch of talented collaborators, and in this they succeed with full marks. And hey, as Birdman demonstrated, madcap movies about Hollywood are often rewarded come Oscars season. That movie has more philosophical pretensions than Hail, Caesar!, but their scattered nature ultimately works against the film rather than for it. This one isn’t trying to win Best Picture, but taken for what it is it’s an awfully amusing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

A feeding place for animals (“It” postmortem: Derry)

derrywelcomesyouIt’s impossible to talk about It without talking about Derry. The setting is ultimately just as much the villain as the monster, if they’re even separate entities—”It is Derry” is one of the more harrowing revelations that the Losers’ Club is privy to in the course of their fateful summer. The atmosphere of perversity that King lends the town is absolutely crucial to It‘s success, and it’s emblematic of a talent he’s not praised for often enough: his sense of place.

There is a continuity of mood throughout King’s pre-1990s work that exists, in large part, due to his fabricated Maine locales, particularly the towns of Jerusalem’s Lot and Castle Rock. The two towns are brilliant combinations of one of King’s recurring authorial concerns—the lurking darkness in the midst of “normal” towns, merely exposed by the supernatural rather than generated by it—with his intimate knowledge of the state of Maine. He’s clearly deeply familiar with the landscape and vernacular of the place, and his unique fusion of that culture with his own dark fantasies results in an Americana that’s subtly twisted, both familiar and repulsive. During this period he managed other locations in mostly non-horrific works—most famously Colorado in The Shining, The Stand, and Misery—but his horror is always at its most effective when set in Maine.

Unfortunately, this fusing of a very grounded local culture with a rotting core of suspicion and evil is an ability that King has to a large extent lost in his more recent work. He made a fair amount of noise about the disastrous Needful Things being “The Last Castle Rock Story”, and sure enough has not revisited the town in a single novel since the early 1990s. While this was a well-intentioned move—it would have been very easy for King, if he had continued haunting that particular locale, to drift into self-parody and endless name-dropping rather than scene-setting—it took away from the dark unity of a few small places endlessly haunted by fear. King tried his hand at the “small town eaten from both the inside and the outside” novel again with 2009’s Under the Dome, but that book, while more successful than Needful Things (indeed, it betters so many elements from its predecessor that the former novel feels like a fifteen-years-in-advance test run), lacks the rich sense of place that its 1970s-80s counterparts possess; its town of Chester’s Mill simply isn’t as well-defined or lovingly pictured as Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock, or Derry.

Which brings us to the main subject of this chapter. Derry only appears once in King’s Golden Age period, and while it pops up again in Insomnia and 11/22/63, these are pale shadows of its awful presence in It. Once, however, is enough. Derry is not only the most fleshed-out of King’s imaginary places, it is in many ways the culmination of the rotting town with the shiny veneer, a theme that would only pop up sporadically in King’s subsequent work.

Sing a song of long ago…”

kkk_london-size-xxlarge-letterboxIt’s easy for any period piece set in the 1950s to be overcome with nostalgia in spite of itself, even one whose intention is to dig beneath that decade’s veneer of friendliness to reveal a darker underbelly. There’s something  so quintessentially American to the aesthetic, an ineffable sense of Things Being Simpler and Food Tasting Better and Books Only Costing a Quarter and the like, and the fact that it was the decade that saw the invention of rock and roll doesn’t help matters. King, despite his best efforts here and elsewhere, isn’t immune to this feeling, and both It and his other major period piece, 11/22/63, occasionally fall victim to the ease of a rose-tinted remembrance of things past. But the nostalgia for glass Coke bottles and Little Richard on the radio that pervades It is viciously undermined by King’s ultimate intentions for the town of Derry: for it to serve as a cesspit emblem of everything that was wrong with the days gone by.

The center of this deconstruction, as well as what is perhaps the key scene in the creation of Derry-as-Evil, is the horrific description of the fire at the Black Spot, located in the second of Mike Hanlon’s diary interludes. When Mike’s father Will served in the army and was based in the town of Derry, Maine, the NCO club was not open to blacks. And so, as the old man, dying of cancer, recounts to his son, he and the other black servicemen present in the town (including one Dick Hallorann, who between this book and the events at the Overlook Hotel seems to have rotten luck when it comes to the supernatural—even fleeing from Maine to Colorado couldn’t save him) began to fix up a broken-down shack to serve as their own. Piecemeal, as a band was formed and supplies gathered and fixing-up applied, the new club, dubbed the Black Spot, grew into a veritable establishment of its own right. And then the League of White Decency came along and burned the place to the ground.

In a novel filled with mutilation and death and supernatural horror of the highest order, Will Hanlon’s description of the fire is one of the most frightening passages. It’s not horrific—save for its final moments, in which Will lets his son know that It was indeed present at the scene, floating in bird form—but filled with raw, claustrophobic terror as dozens of bodies are slowly, agonizingly turned into nothing more than piles of oozing, burning meat (King emphasizes the almost pleasant smell of roasting human flesh, a trademark bit of sensory description that should by all rights have exhausted itself but nevertheless always manages to faintly turn one’s stomach). The sheer senseless atrocity depicted is far worse, in its way, than anything Pennywise could ever have performed, because the reader knows that it is a microcosm of over three centuries of history. The supernatural horror at the heart of It is frightening because it cannot happen; the evil of the Black Spot is frightening because it did happen, over and over and over again, and has not stopped.

For King to pull off this scene is a balancing act that is far harder than it initially appears. If It is to succeed in linking Pennywise and Derry as one evil, it needs the supernatural entity to have been behind this senseless evil, as it is behind every other evil that happens within the city limits. However, to reduce the fire to the depredations of a shape-shifting clown, no matter how horrifying said clown is, is to cheapen the incredible (and incredibly banal) pestilence that is American racism. The thinnest of lines needs to be balanced on—more than anything else, it is this nightmare vision of black bodies and their torment at the hands of white oppressors that symbolizes the evil lurking at the heart of Derry, but it cannot be limited to Derry.

It’s with the words of Will Hanlon that King manages to successfully walk this line, firmly implicating the evil at the heart of Derry in the Black Spot’s untimely demise without passing it off as something that would never have happened elsewhere:

“Well, part of it was just Derry. I don’t know why it happened here; I can’t explain it, but at the same time I ain’t surprised by it.

“The Legion of White Decency was the Northerners’ version of the Ku Klux Klan, you see. They marched in the same white sheets, they burned the same crosses, they wrote the same hate-notes to black folks they felt were getting above their station or taking jobs that were meant for white men. In churches where the preachers talked about black equality, they sometimes planted charges of dynamite. Most of the history books talk more about the KKK than they do about the Legion of White Decency, and a lot of people don’t even know there was such a thing. I think it might be because most of the histories are written by Northerners and they’re ashamed.”

King’s record when it comes to racial issues is unfortunately mixed at best—he is a habitual abuser of the Magical Negro archetype, especially in The Stand‘s Mother Abigail and The Green Mile‘s John Coffey (Red from “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” doesn’t count, as he was not explicitly a black man aiding a white man until the film adaptation made him so). However, in this passage he has an insight of, for him, rather startling prescience. He avoids the all-too-easy trap of relegating racism to the Deep South, rendering racists a dehumanized Other who are unfathomably wicked. Rather, he crafts his own, more subdued version of what Randy Newman sings from the perspective of a Southern racist in “Rednecks”:

Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free
Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston. . .

In his own way, King acknowledges the systemic racism that infects not simply a bunch of uneducated assholes below the Mason-Dixon line but the entirety of America—indeed, is integral to it. There is also an interesting note from Will Hanlon later on in the passage: “Maybe they only meant to scare us. I’ve heard it the other way, but I’ve heard it that way, too. I’d rather believe that’s how they meant it, because I ain’t got feeling mean enough even yet to want to believe the worst.” While this statement doesn’t technically apply to white privilege or colorblindness in the context of the novel—in that racists going out of their way to torch a black men’s club are an order of magnitude removed from the racism of colorblindness, in intent if not in effect—it does highlight the fact that, regardless of white people’s intent, black people often end up brutalized and dead. For King, it’s an unusually insightful insight into the banality of evil as applies to racism—whether or not racists are “bad people”, whether or not they consciously intend to hurt black bodies, oppression and brutalization are always the end result.

And yet, in spite of this acknowledgement of the systemic, banal nature of racism in America, King manages to tie the horror at the Black Spot firmly to Derry. Pennywise’s presence is not the only factor here, although it is important in that it explicitly gives the scene a horrific tinge. Just as important is Will Hanlon’s thought that part of what happened was Derry. The novel does not insist that the evil of Derry is such that the fire at the Black Spot could only have happened there. It does, however, present Derry as a place where this sort of evil, banal as it is elsewhere, is even more banal. In a world full of commonplace evils, Derry is a magnet.

One of the most evocative, chilling moments of the book comes in Mike Hanlon’s first interlude, the conclusion of a 150-page slow burn of dread that is among the finest things King has ever written. Mike writes:

Can an entire city be haunted?

Haunted as some houses are supposed to be haunted?

Not just a single building in that city, or the corner of a single street, or a single basketball court in a single pocket-park, the netless basket jutting out at sunset like some obscure and bloody instrument of torture, not just one area—but everything. The whole works.

Can that be?


Haunted: “Often visited by ghosts or spirits.” Funk and Wagnalls.

Haunting: “Persistently recurring to the mind; difficult to forget.” Ditto Funk and Friend.

To haunt: “To apepar or recur often, especially as a ghost.” But—and listen!—”A place often visited: resort, den, hangout. . .” Italics are of course mine.

And one more. This one, like the last, is a definition of haunt as a noun, and it’s the one that really scares me: “A feeding place for animals.”

As chillingly mundane as that. If evil is what causes us to lose our humanity to bestiality, Derry is where we find our feeding trough.

Because, in the end, the evils that chiefly infest Derry aren’t the feastings of Pennywise, horrific as it is to picture as many as 170 children being devoured in the course of a single cycle. Elsewhere in the novel, Mike notes that the homicide rate in Derry is skyhigh. Not only when Pennywise is out and about—always. And racism, homophobia, and misogyny are latent. It’s not that Derry is the only place where the fire at the Black Spot could have occurred, or the hate crime that is Adrian Mellon’s death could have, or the axe murder of a multitude of bystanders by Claude Heroux could have, or the regular abuse of Beverly Marsh by her father could have. It’s just that, as ordinary as these things are elsewhere, they’re even more ordinary here.

And so it is that Derry, in a novel full of fear, is the most frightening thing of all.

(to be continued)