Will be without power all this week. Next week we’ll be back with double the monster goodness.
Archive for August, 2011
“Everything Down Here Floats:”
An Appreciation of Stephen King’s IT
Has there ever been a better title for a monster novel—not just a horror novel, but that particular subspecies of the form known as the monster novel—than IT? Check the dictionary, and you’ll find that the majority of the pronoun’s definitions refer to it as a kind of placeholder, either for something that’s been referred to already, or for something that’s about to be referred to. It is a word that directs attention away from itself, points towards something else. Using it, as Stephen King does here, to refer to his long novel’s central monster seems to me the simplest example of the technique of deflection that Lovecraft employed in so many of his stories: specifically, when he called one of his creatures “nameless.” It expresses the condition of falling outside our ability to name (and therefore to recognize and categorize), and it does so in a way that evokes the most basic speech.
Of course, to leave your monster a blank space is to invite whoever is beholding it to fill in that blank with her or his worst fear. This is how It operates, assuming the identity of whatever its current victim is most afraid of. It’s a mirror, and for this reason, It prefers to stalk children, because the things that terrify them are so concrete. This aspect of the creature allows King to gather most of the great monsters of the first half of the twentieth century, especially in their cinematic incarnations—which is to say, the forms in which Universal Pictures presented them. Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, the wolfman, the gill-man, the vampire, they’re all here, as well as a couple of others, such as a giant bird that may owe something to Toho’s Rodan, the enormous, carnivorous eye from The Crawling Eye, and a giant spider that’s equal parts Tolkien’s Shelob and the arachnid that The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey must defeat in that novel’s climactic battle. (There’s also a sinister house whose warped architecture is straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.) When It isn’t wearing one of these identities, It assumes the identity of Pennywise the clown, which reflects the monster’s (and the novel’s) carnivalesque quality. This is the monster mash to end all monster mashes.
That same abundance—that excess—defines the novel, either of whose two principle timelines could have been separated into its own novel. Set in 1958 and 1985, the novel moves back and forth between a group of friends who meet when they are eleven years old and who reunite twenty-seven years later, as middle age is closing in on them. King luxuriates in these characters, lavishing page after page on them. It’s as if he’s trying to cram their entire worlds into the book, as if he’s trying to make the book a world of its own. That world is one in which the young outcasts on whom King so often focuses must face an overwhelming horror, and it’s one in which the adult survivors of that confrontation—who have found a success in their maturity that they could only have dreamed of as children—must meet that horror again, without the same childhood faith that allowed them to come through their first battle with It.
One of the things I’ve always admired about King’s fiction is his willingness to take his monsters at face value. There’s no question in IT about the reality of the threat facing its protagonists; instead, those characters must do their best to cope with and surmount it. In its concern with the trials of childhood, and with the nineteen fifties, the book is of a piece with works including “The Body” and Low Men in Yellow Coats; in its concern with the gravity the past exerts on the present, IT connects to works from The Shining to the books of the Dark Tower sequence. I don’t know that it’s the book of Stephen King’s career, but it’s certainly one of them.
Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering what a contemporary version of IT would be like, what monsters would populate its pages. Frankenstein’s monster, the wolfman, Rodan: these aren’t the monsters of today’s children, are they? The It of today would appear as Ridley Scott’s Alien, as Freddy Krueger, as Jigsaw, as Hannibal Lecter, as a zombie. Next to these figures, the monsters of the past can seem quaint, almost homely.
Open the pages of IT, though, and you’ll find their teeth are still quite sharp, their appetites unsated.
Michael Kelly is the author of Scratching the Surface, and Undertow and Other Laments. His short fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best New Horror, Dark Arts, Nemonymous, PostScripts, Space & Time, Supernatural Tales, and Tesseracts 13. Michael edited the anthologies Apparitions (for which he was a Shirley Jackson Award finalist), and Chilling Tales. He also runs Undertow Publications, and its flagship publication, Shadows & Tall Trees.
What was the first monster that scared/moved you?
It was Kali, a Ray Harryhausen creation, from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Kali had 6 arms, and a wielded a wicked sword in each. Kali’s movements were hypnotic and deadly. Scary stuff to a 10-year-old.
Does a great monster have to evoke pity as well as fear?
Yes, I believe it does. Frankenstein is the perfect example. King Kong, as well. Once you empathize with the beast, once you’ve made that connection, that sense that ‘Hey, it isn’t so different than me,’ then its ultimate fate is shocking, sad, and moving.
If you could be a monster, which one would you choose and why?
Does the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters count? No? Cookie monster?
Okay, I’d love to be one of those Flying Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
King Kong, or Godzilla?
Godzilla! Oh, wait, he didn’t get the girl, did he?
What are the challenges of writing about a monster, as opposed to showing it on film?
Much of the monster’s appeal deals with its physical traits. When writing monsters you have to be exacting in your detail. Film can show minute facial and body movements. When writing, you still have to “Show don’t tell,” so, as with most descriptive writing, you just have to be as precise as possible. Put your humanity into the monster.
Who are the new monsters of the 21st century? Recommend a monster story/book/movie from the past ten years.
“The Pale Man” from Pan’s Labyrinth is truly scary. And, because the most frightening monsters are often human, the three masked strangers from the film “The Strangers” are completely unnerving.
Beware of the blob?
Technicians on a smoke break wandered near a wooded area and found the strange, nearly hairless animal. The workers took cellphone videos of the beast, and eventually lured it into a cage with Chinese food as bait. Local news reporters interviewed the hospital workers, who offered a variety of opinions about the beast’s identity.
Chinese food is your best bet for catching chupacabras. Little known fact.
–Just in case you’re one of three people in the world who hasn’t seen this yet. Tom Waits/Cookie Monster Mashup.
–This tee shirt was in my house. Don’t know where it went:
(written by Paul Tremblay)
The Caretaker of Lorne Field is an odd but brilliant little horror novel written by Dave Zeltserman who is best known as a gritty crime/noir author. Not that that matters, but I do think this book unfortunately flew under the radar of most horror fans (despite the plethora of good reviews, word of mouth, the American Library Assoc. short listing Caretaker as the best horror novel of 2010) because of his crime author label. Such is the sad state of publishing, but I digress.
In Caretaker, there be monsters….maybe.
It’s an allegorical story set in small town New England. Jack Durkin is the latest in a long line of Durkins with the gig of weeding, by hand, Lorne Field. If he doesn’t weed the field, the weeds grow into ravenous, bloodthirsty monsters (Aukowies) that would destroy all of humanity. Or the dude is just totally nuts, which is what 21st Century New Englanders think of him now, of course. Previous generations of Durkins were held in high esteem, paid very well, and were generally treated as the town hero/rock star. (It’s almost like Durkin is representin’ writers…but I digress again) But Jack, not so much. His family resents him, and the town wants to cut his meagre funding.
The allegory is broad enough to allow for multiple interpretations, always encouraging the reader to use her/his own imagination within the proceedings. The social satire is spot on. Dave takes this are-they-real/is-he-nuts twilight-zone set up, sprinkles in noir attitude, and plays the reader like a fiddle until the very last page. You can’t help but love this book.
Link: The Razor Thin Line Between Crime and Horror by Dave Zeltserman
The Caretaker of Lorne Field will be released in trade paperback, October 2011.