It, Horror Fiction, And Story-Shaped Heart-Holes

I am sick and on deadline, so this is not a particularly good time to unpack this into a post, as my head feels like an in-play kickball and my throat feels like a factory where they work overtime to manufacture infection. But here we are. Let’s do this.

I saw IT.

I loved IT.

IT has, um, its problems, of course. Chief among them, to me, is the bit of power it robs from Bev’s character, and a lot of the power that it robs from Mike’s character — if you want a good unpacking of the latter, I recommend Zak Cheney Rice’s bit here.

(Note, some spoilers at that link.)

Just the same, it worked for me.

It worked for me hard. It was one of those movies I came out of and immediately wanted to go back in and see again. I wanted to run out, gesticulating wildly, showing it to anybody who would listen. I wanted to come home and show my wife and six-year-old son the movie — uhh, obviously that’s a bad idea! HERE TINY PERSON, LET US FIRMLY EMBED THE SEED OF UNBRIDLED CLOWNFEAR INTO YOUR MENTAL EARTH. I don’t mean this to be a rational thing, it’s just the thing I felt. I wanted to show it to babies. To old people. To dogs and birds.

I felt like I hadn’t seen a movie like it in a while.

I unpacked this a little on Twitter the other day, but for me it ties into something about the horror fiction I read in the 1980s, which was more comfortable coming down on the side of good versus evil — a worldview admittedly without nuance, but one that’s worked its way through myth and story since the a caveman painted his first Nazi Velociraptor on the wall of his grotto. (Shut your goddamn mouth, that happened.) I read works by folks like King, Koontz, and especially McCammon, and found there a worldview where good would eventually dispatch evil. That’s not to say this battle was pure, or without complexity — in a story like IT, the people are often human shitbags. The Evil Alien Horror Clown (aka Pennywise, aka Donald J. Trump) does not make them do evil, he simply encourages them to make those choices. And he’s there when they do, slurping it up like sinister consommé. One could argue that the majority of people in the town of Derry are, at best, complicit in the evil done there because they’re fucking lazy, and because it’s easier to keep on driving then it is to stop and save a kid who’s about to have his belly carved into by the town boy-monster. At worst, they’re active participants in the evil.

So, we’re not talking some shiny happy worldview here.

And yet, just the same, it’s a place where that evil can be defeated. It is a place where, moreover, it can be defeated by children — the unlikeliest of combatants, the scrappiest of heroes, the Gooniest of champions. Adults are hardened to fear, and children are like a tooth without enamel — they feel this negative shit keenly. But there they are. Friends till the end. The ones who stand by each other. The ones who delve into the Barren Kingdom of Graywater to battle the Doom Clown which may or may not be a giant spider who may or may not hate a giant turtle.

The worldview posits a lot of evil. And it further presents that evil being diminished or defeated by a very small group of the truly noble.

It is, in a sense, the D&D model. Buncha wacky fantasy assholes in a tavern decide to go on an adventure to find loot and slay evil dragons. It’s also Star Wars: a small group of good people — friends, really — who help bring down a massive monolithic force for oppression and terror.

And of course, Star Wars represented a pivot point away from more serious fare back into that mythic mode and away from morally complex (aka ethically clusterfucked) work in the Apocalypse Now mode. Jaws too had that — a simple-to-understand foe, a shark gone bad, and the rag-tag band of unlikely heroes who took down the SEA BEAST.

It’s a simple mode of storytelling. I suspect that in the late 70s and 80s it grew out of fears about the world — the Cold War and nuclear fear in particular — and allowed fiction to manifest those things in a form that we can, at least in a mythic scope, fight. That’s IT in a nutshell: here is human evil, here is a cycle of abuse, and it is encouraged by and manifested as a demonic sewer clown. You have summoned it and stood against it, now go beat its ass back into the muck.

IT in this way is different than the earlier King book (the first, actually), CARRIE — in that, the evil is also human, and Carrie’s unconscious psychic response to that is to become effectively more the monster than the monsters who bullied her.

I think part of why I’m responding so strongly now to STRANGER THINGS and to IT is not the nostalgia for the 1980s — the 80s were mostly a turd bucket. I mean, the 1980s gave us the Mannequin movies. But I have missed that more mythic, more simplistic story aspect of scrappy band against overwhelming evil. The 1990s saw a greater complexity and a return to the nuance and moral grays of the 1970s — and nothing wrong with that, as those were stories that well-served their times, too, I think. Certainly in the 1990s I read Poppy Brite and Clive Barker and liked Se7en and all that shit. Maybe it was my late-teen brain. Maybe it was that the tumult of the 80s softened and gave us some time to breathe, lending storytellers the room for rumination on what was really going on in the world. Now, though, I wonder if my return to more simplistic stories — escapist stories, arguably — has to do with the world around us. This epic shitshow, this constant parade of fear-bugling and rampant fuckwittery. I don’t respond well to Captain America being a Nazi, I respond to him punching a Nazi. I don’t want to play the vampire right now so much as I want to play the vampire hunter. I don’t want to find out that Ellen Ripley has sided with Weyland-Yutani in bringing the Xenomorph to Earth — I want to watch Ellen Ripley jump in a robotic autoloader and fling that Alien Queen out into the void of space. I don’t want every episode of Scooby-Doo to be about how the Gang had to lower themselves morally to the level of Old Man Withers just to win the day. I don’t want them to pull a mask off Shaggy and it’s really the fucking Devil underneath. I sometimes just want them to find the monster, unmask the bad guy, and solve the goddamn mystery, Scoob.

You can see why people are responding well to IT.

Shit has gone wrong. A lot of people don’t see that shit has gone wrong, or are sitting on their hands and shoulder-shrugging it off. But but but — evil can be thwarted by the truly just. We want to believe that right now in this time of history. We need to believe that, now just to wake the fuck up in the morning, just to get through the day and not collapse like a house of cards.

You may want different things. And further, I am aware of the possibility that leaning too hard into simplistic stories is how we get simplistic worldviews. Stories about the world and are not the same as the realities of that world; good and evil are not so clearly defined beyond the pages of a horror novel or off the screen. But in those pages, and on that screen, I find that fight empowering in a way. At least, I do right now. And it’s what I’m trying to write — Exeunt is (so far) 160,000 words of a small group of people making their way through a collapsing world, and trying to find nobility and truth and goodness within it. They’re trying to be good in a bad situation full of evil people.

Maybe that’s a sign of the times. Maybe it’s a hardening of my brain into a calcified walnut as I have now crossed the geriatric barrier into my 40s. Maybe it’s just that all of us have differently-shaped story-holes in our hearts, and some stories fit well into them and some stories don’t. And maybe those story-holes change, over time. A lot of hay has been made recently about how Hollywood is blaming Rotten Tomatoes for the worst summer movie season in decades — which is a whole lot like shitting the bed, then blaming your Mom for yelling at you for shitting the bed. Just the same, I do worry that our mode of critique is more about GOOD or BAD and less about what the story means, what it does, what it says, what it gets wrong and what it gets right. Sometimes a story everyone hates is a story you love. Sometimes a thing everyone loves is a story you can’t stand. And that has to be okay. We are who we are, and the stories to which we respond speak to us in a way that is more unique than broad-spectrum pop culture.

* * *

Having been desperate to rid herself of her psychic powers, Miriam now finds herself armed with the solution — a seemingly impossible one. But Miriam’s past is catching up to her, just as she’s trying to leave it behind. A copy-cat killer has caught the public’s attention. An old nemesis is back from the dead. And Louis, the ex she still loves, will commit an unforgivable  act if she doesn’t change the future. 

Miriam knows that only a great sacrifice is enough to counter fate. Can she save Louis, stop the killer, and survive? 

Hunted and haunted, Miriam is coming to a crossroads, and nothing is going to stand in her way, not even the Trespasser.

The 5th Miriam Black book — out January 23rd, 2018

Preorder Raptor & Wren: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

18 comments

  • If art/entertainment offer escape, no better time than that, for simple solutions…or any kind of solution. My 12-year-old daughter begged me to see it but I told her no, there’s a gang rape scene. How did they handle that? I imagine “not.”

    • Well, I think that scene is weird in the book, but I’ll take some issue with calling it “gang rape.” It’s consensual, just done with pre-teens/teens. It didn’t squick me out when I read it, but I also read it when I was literally their age — so, it was hard to contextualize it as being gross. Now, as an adult, yeah. Ew.

      It is not in the movie.

      I can’t speak to if Chapter Two will have some reference to it or twist on it, but I assume not.

      — c.

  • Jessa, me too. Anyone who disses Mannequin is dead to me.

    Really, though. I’ll probably see this but I have to say no clown could ever scare me. I don’t think there’s anything a director could do to make them scary. I’ve seen parts of the original and it just does nothing for me. Cave crawlers in The Descent? Yes. The alien in Altered? Heck yes. Aliens in anything, really…

  • I’m not sure I’ll see “IT,” but your commentary eloquently frames the obvious impetus for todays mythic entertainments. Everyone – even those deluding themselves to support the stinkhorn sphincter-faced nightmare – yes, everyone wants a clearly defined evil and a clearly defined innocent and just hero.

    “Shit has gone wrong. A lot of people don’t see that shit has gone wrong, or are sitting on their hands and shoulder-shrugging it off. But but but — evil can be thwarted by the truly just. We want to believe that right now in this time of history. We need to believe that, now just to wake the fuck up in the morning, just to get through the day and not collapse like a house of cards.”

  • OMG THIS BOOK LEFT ME UNABLE TO POOP WITH THE DOOR CLOSED FOR AT LEAST A YEAR AND A RESIDUAL WARINESS OF CLOWNS.

    I read it when I was about 12 and the kids’ portrayal really struck me as being very accurate. The gangbang scene didn’t seem gross then and haven’t re-read lately buy yeah would likely squick me out now.

  • I loved the movie. I am hoping that they will expand more on Mike Hanlon in Chapter Two…because he is so pivotal to that part of the story, but I was disappointed to not learn more about his character in Chapter One, especially since it differs from the book. I was so impressed with how well the actors all embodied their characters.

    I like your analysis on this. BF and I just came out of the theater with that feeling of wanting to tell everyone to watch it. Both of us have read the book (although it’s been awhile) and were both talking about it for hours afterward. It was a better adaptation than The Dark Tower was, and that was nice as a book fan in general.

  • One of the main reasons I love your blog is how willing you are to dip into the ethical questions, whether in writing/stories or in society (because really, should there be a big artificial distance between those?).

    I think these things go in cycles, from wanting simple good vs. evil monster stories, to wanting more complex explorations of monstrousness. The trick is to make sure the narratives evolve, and integrate both the questions and answers of the previous era. People want simple stories when they’re sure they’re on the right side, and complex stories when they’re not so sure. “Apocalypse Now” was an awesome Vietnam movie, but it was also a post-Nixon movie, when the good and bad guys of the Cold War were really beginning to look less clear. And sure, after a few years of looking into that awful mirror, culturally we’re ready to just go shoot some stormtroopers again. I think both types of stories, and monsters, are always going to be necessary.

    I think what felt kind of revolutionary about things like Game Of Thrones was that it cut through that late-90s moral relativism Gordian knot, by saying “everyone is awful”, dispensing with the questions, and putting everyone on an equal footing of evil. I think at the time there was something almost refreshing about it. It’s no longer “us vs. them”, it’s “me vs. you”, and that seems like an even simpler fight. I think it’s a perspective that’s halfway-evolved somehow–an attempt to deal with the fact that we now know the world isn’t as simple as good vs. evil, while still feeding that desire to return to a simplicity we all half-remember. But questions of innocence can be just as complex as questions of guilt. And I think longing to return to “us vs. them” without taking into account what we’ve learned as a culture, has got us into the social mess we’re in now. I’d like to see a story that assumes “everyone is innocent”, but still deals with the complicated problem of evil.

  • I never saw the original IT growing up, but I watched it last week in preparation of seeing the new one over the weekend. I had trouble making it through the original, what the 3 hour run time and the awful 90s shooting, and I didn’t find it remotely scary. Maybe if I’d seen it as a kid I would be properly traumatized. The new one was fantastic. I thought it was adapted well and very close to the original storyline. I agree with you about Bev. I really liked her in the original, she was spunky, but I think they made her a bit trashy in the new one.

    I enjoyed your analysis of the good vs evil conundrum. There’s been a big upswing in recent years of anti-heroes, and moral dilemmas, and gray areas, and it’s nice to sit down and simply watch a monster movie.

  • My husband and I can’t wait to see the new IT, and hearing that it’s straightforward in the battle of good vs. evil makes me even more eager. This world, the overall populace- feels so gray area right now, just bloated with murk. Bring on the black & white, clear-cut, I-know-who-to-root-for entertainment. More, please.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds