Mike 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)