Monday, December 10, 2012

Return to the King

No, not that one again.

This one.

Part of the youthful education in all things macabre provided by my mother was an introduction to Steven King.  She may be the only one who complained more and louder than the author himself about the 1980 film of The Shining.

Mr. King has somewhat mellowed about Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of his novel, admitting it was a good horror movie, but always throwing in that it was still a bad adaptation.  I believe the cloud of outrage and anger created by Mom after seeing it still hangs threateningly over northern New Jersey.

It may have been her cinematic ranting (apparently a family trait – see any of my movie reviews for evidence) that sparked my interest in the books that were good enough to generate such a strong reaction to any change in them.  I read a swath of his novels, proceeding to scare the hell out of my young self.  The readings all took place between the ages of ten and seventeen, and then I stopped.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, it wasn’t that I disliked something I read, and it wasn’t anything personal.  I still consider him one of the greatest, if not the greatest horror writer ever.  Often I have discussed and praised his writing among fellow fans.

I’ve read and watched several interviews with him, and he always has insightful comments on the genre, writing, and life in general. My absolute favorite quote of his came from an interaction with the therapist who was attempting to help him deal with his fear of flying.  Her advice was not to think about the worst thing that could happen.  His answer, “That’s my job.”  I greatly enjoy his stated belief that it’s the psychic energy of terrified people keeping the plane in the air. Gotta love that level of commitment to his craft.

I’m a fan of his movies too, both the harder edge Twilight Zoney collections of shorts, like Cat's Eye and Creepshow, and his full length B-movie types like Silver Bullet and the ever awesome Maximum Overdrive. (Which combined machinery, AC/DC and explosions DECADES before Iron Man 2.) 

I was also intensely thankful he made Cujo with the “correct” ending, as the book caused a rant in our house that nearly put the Shining one to shame.  Also the interview with King when the movie came out (where he admitted the boy should have lived) caused Mom to issue a constant stream of the loudest, “I told you so”s in the history of the world.

I just never picked up one of his books again after my late teens. No new ones, and more unusually for me, no rereads of tales I very much enjoyed.

I’m not sure why I stopped.  It isn’t like I gave up reading horror novels; I’d still grab a bunch in the inevitable armload I carried out of any used book sale.

I do have a couple of theories for the reasons I halted; the first is why I didn’t read any of his new books:

About that time, Steven King started writing books like Misery, Gerald’s Game, and Dolores Clairborne.  While these stories contained many of the same elements of horror as his other novels, the supernatural elements were largely absent from them.  There is enough scary stuff in real life without adding to it by spending an entire novel thinking, “This could happen”. 

Also during that period he started The Dark Tower series. I remember planning to wait until he finished the story to read them all.  Thanks to a near total lack of patience and the attention span of a gnat on acid, I believe I forgot about them in the twenty (or thirty depending on the definition of finished) year span.

The second theory is why I didn’t reread any.  This is far more unusual for me as I’ll go back to books I’ve enjoyed frequently enough to require replacement after trying to complete them yet again before the pages drop out like the final falling leaves of autumn.

I think the reason that I never went back to any of King’s books is simply that I didn’t need to.  They all left such a strong set of impressions, emotions and memories on me that I can not only recall the stories, but also where I was when I read them, and how I reacted.

I vividly recall being frozen to the spot in terror several times during my (probably ill advised) fifth grade journey through The Shining.   It was the living room couch for the snowy chase through the living topiary, and a kitchen chair I was rooted to for the Room 217 scene.  I also vividly recall, for years after reading the Room 217 scene, flat out refusing to close a bathroom door at any time of the day or night before first throwing the shower curtain wide open, or in extreme cases removing it entirely.

The realization of Barlow’s extreme levels of power in ‘Salem’s Lot turned a rather mundane seventh grade reading classroom into a very dark and oppressive space when I chose it for a book report.

Eighth grade study hall in the library found me marveling at how the point of view sections in Cujo could generate my sympathy for what was the terrifying monster of the story.  I also found myself marveling how I could finish a three hundred plus page King horror novel easily between two chapters of the hundred twenty seven page snoozefest that was The Old Man and the Sea.

For some reason, I ended up reading his short story collections on train rides to visit a friend in Massachusetts.  The entire coach car vanished from my perspective during “The Bogeyman” from Night Shift with the exception of the arm rests of my chair which I had a literal white knuckle grip on throughout.  I had to concentrate to pry my hand free at its conclusion, stare out the window a bit, and recover.

Much less heart stopping was the experience of reading King’s fantasy novels, Talisman and Eyes of the Dragon.  I remember reading both of those while relaxing on my blue bedroom rug, greatly enjoying his books without constantly looking over my shoulder, under the bed, or toward any stray creak, thump or random sound.

Of course, as my prime reading location, Up the Lake has strong memories associated with Steven King’s books (and they probably were the cause for my regular running like a lunatic back to the cabin in through dark in terror on most nights):

I remember reclining in the shade down at the beach, while experiencing Charlie’s flaming rampage in Firestarter.

I remember sitting in my grandfather’s chair under the cabin, and nervously eyeing the families’ cars while following Christine’s vendettas.

And I remember “relaxing” in the hammock and being reviled at the thought of all of my senses accosted by the horrors of the Lincoln Tunnel scene in The Stand.  I also recall the startling realization that the end of civilization depicted was only the beginning of how bad things were going to get.

Then there’s It. 

I started thinking about my past connections to Stephen King when I learned he’s releasing Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining, next fall.  Also I found that the Dark Tower series is finally finished(ish), and contains all kinds of references to parallel worlds and other of his works that suck me in to most fictional universes I follow.  This is when I realized not only how long it had been since I’d read his books, but also how vividly I recalled the one’s I did read.

Except for It.

I know I read It, and I know I enjoyed It. 

I talked about my favorite, and what I thought were the scariest, parts of It with friends and relatives.

I remember being impressed with how well done the miniseries of It came out, and being surprised at the performances of some of my favorite TV comedy actors who starred in It.

I remembered generalities of the story (a clown, a group of kids who fought It, and had to return as adults to fight It again) but I couldn’t remember when I read It, where I read It, or specific details of It.

(Apologies to any of the Knights Who Until Recently Said, “Ni” who are reading this.)

This amazed me because of how powerful the memories of all my senses connected to the reading of his other books were, such as:

The breeze that blew through the kitchen when someone opened the front door during the Shining.

The cool, hardness of the wood table underneath Cujo.

The rocking and clacking of the train during Night Shift.

The slight motion and slow, soft squeak of the hammock during The Stand.

But nothing for It.

Based on these memories, or lack thereof, I decided to reread It.

Once started, I found myself voraciously tearing though the book; to the point that I ignored a new stack of Avengers comic books that filled a space in my collection for WEEKS.

We now pause for those who know me well to say:
“Holy crap!”

Very quickly into my return to It, I made two discoveries.

The first is that King’s use of supernatural elements, while far more horrifying and nightmare inducing than reality based elements, end up being refreshing.

To explain-

King’s books, including the supernatural ones, contain large doses of real world horror that nature, fate, or other people can inflict on an individual:

The idea of a bully that can make almost every part of the school day, and walking home, a time of dread is a relatively common occurrence.

The idea of a bully that, through stupidity, abuse and other factors, becomes sadistic and an actual danger is relatable and, while not necessarily a first-hand experience, something that has likely been witnessed, heard of, or read about.

The idea of a bully that grows up to be a violent criminal who targets former victims based on a real or perceived slight is believable, imaginable, probably findable in a Google news search and could easily translate into a real world fear.

The idea of an adult bully/criminal freed from his incarceration and given additional motivation and abilities by an extra dimensional shape shifting clown/fear avatar/man eating glamour is flat out impossible. 

Therefore even though reading about that sort of thing is a powerful source for horror, terror and nightmares as an ultimate exaggeration of the initial, believable concept of the worst fears of childhood returning (and being vanquished by the best parts of childhood friendships, also returning), there will always be a background part of the reader’s brain thinking:
“Whew…at least this can’t happen.”
Or, far more disturbingly, but probably accurately:
"Jeezum-Crow! The forces of evil/objects of terror/dangerous monsters in this story are way more wicked-awesome than in real life!"

The second discovery, unfortunately, may invalidate the first.

As I started reading It, memories came flooding back as I read each part of It. 

Not of where or when I was, but vivid, detailed recreations of how I visualized/heard/conceived all the elements of the novel when I read It as a teenager.

I was amazed how I could possibly forget such fully developed characters as Big Bill, Haystack, Trashmouth, Bev, Eddie, Mikey and Stan the Man.  Their images, quirks, personalities and relationships were incredibly real.  King showed with great skill and strength, how the qualities that made them "Losers" as children, for good or ill, and how they overcame or were overcome by those qualities, formed the foundation of who they became as adults.

They, and the evil they faced (both real world and supernatural) as both adults and children sprang back, fully formed, into my mind as they were from my first reading, before watching the miniseries.  The book, much like life, is a series of events, or short stories, in each of these character's (and the people the interact with) lives, that are somehow all interconnected. Again, like life, some stories end triumphantly, some badly, and many somewhere between.  (Although,  while some are extremely grounded in both the good and bad sides of reality - unlike life others range from the mildly supernatural to full on monster tales.  The grounding in reality for much of the book lending a believability to the others.) The stories in the novel are presented in a non linear fashion, but even with hints based on that interconnectedness, I couldn't remember each event until I had reached it. 

At about this point, I realized exactly how much these feelings reflected the events and occurrences of the novel, and how similar it was to the way those characters experienced their own past memories of the haunted town that is Derry, Maine.  I also remembered how, when I had finally gotten over checking for the thing from Room 217 in the bathtub, I started checking the bath drain itself.

Then I noticed that the encounters with Pennywise in It took place in 1958 and 1985, as part of a repeating twenty-seven year cycle. From what I’ve learned about the Dark Tower series, The Losers didn’t completely vanquish It at the climax.

This makes the next reappearance of Pennywise due:


Yes, I know the attacks started the year before each of those in the book,
and the major encounters took place in the summers.

However, with Doctor Sleep also due out in under a year I'm not taking any chances.

If you need me, I’ll be tearing down every shower curtain in the county.


longbow said...

I didn't finish reading the whole post when I realized that the "attention span of a gnat on acid" applied to me too.

Jeff McGinley said...

That brings up a very good point about post length, and reader interest involving...OOH! a Chicken!

Brian said...

So true about how one's memory of reading books comes back to the setting in which you read them. I also recall a lot of novels along with the music I listened to while reading them. Almost all of the books by Larry Bond that I read carry a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for stopping in. Oddly, though I listen to music often when reading, it never links to the book memory. Scents on the other hand are very important, which is why I won't switch to e-books till they pump out that old book smell.

longbow said...

I never listen to music while reading.
But I can almost always remember where I saw a movie if it wasn't a standard hall (ex: Unforgiven in Sioux Falls, SD . Backdraft at the Poughkeepsie Galleria. Basic Instinct2 in Manchester UK {was nothing else to do})

Jeff McGinley said...

Good stories will always leave an impression in the memory...and some bad ones will too, I guess.

Dina Roberts said...

That is very ironic (Or fitting?) that you forgot IT. I think for me, the strongest memory I have of the book is the forgetting part. I thought they did an okay job portraying that at the end of the recent movie. I don't think they covered it in the miniseries. ??? But though it was mentioned in the new movie, I don't think it had the same emotional effect as the book did. I thought it was incredibly sad in the book.

Anyway, before I got to the part about your coincidental forgetting of IT, I was thinking I had a book-memory issue with the whole Dark Tower series. I read it and loved it in the beginning of this century, but I could remember hardly anything about it. A few years ago I reread the series and the connecting books. Sadly, I loved it less than I had in the past. So...that was disappointing. It might have been better to have been left with my vague, confused memories.

I like how you describe your memories associated with reading particular books. I think I remember book experiences only when I read when traveling. Like which books I was reading at Disney World. I was reading a Mindy Kaling book when riding The Little Mermaid ride. It was probably insulting to Ariel.

Jeff McGinley said...

The line between irony and apropos can be a thin one.

I didn't see the new It, too many ties to the book and Tim Curry...and an overall lack of time.

I know that reread feeling. Some books have such strong fist impacts that I'm afraid to read them again, some (like the original Dracula, or Hitchhikers Guide) become a part of me and I reread them regularly.

I have strong reading memories for books and oddly (or maybe not oddly since they're a more visual medium) even more strong ones for comic books. I'll have to post about that someday.

I've never read in Disney World, but I have written notes. This has led to my more recent trip posts being more accurate and detailed. It has also led me to walk into the occasional wall, lamp post and wrong rest room, so its about even as far as usefulness.

Thanx so much for reading and sharing.