(Warning: This blog contains some disturbing imagery. All quoted passages are from IT by Stephen King.)
Fifth grade. It’s late. Time for bed, but I’m not tired. Instead, I take a book out from under the bed. IT, by Stephen King. It’s thick and heavy and I knew my parents don’t want me reading it. The cover is breathtakingly macabre: a paper boat floats down a gutter toward a drain, where a single green claw clutches at the grates.
I open to the first page. I meet Georgie, a six-year old, wearing a bright yellow raincoat playing in the rainy streets of Derry, Maine. He’s made a paper boat and set it sailing on the flooded gutters. He’s having fun, laughing, in that naïve, innocent little-kid way.
His boat falls into a sewer grate. His heart sinks. It’s lost. He runs up to the grate and looks down – and sees a clown. Just like at the circus, with the red nose and make-up and baggy clothes and even the colorful balloons.
The clown smiles; he kindly offers Georgie his boat back, and in fact, asks if he wants a balloon as well. “ ‘Do they float?’” Georgie asks. “ ‘Float?’ The clown’s grin widened. ‘Oh yes, indeed they do. They float!’”
Georgie reaches down –
* * *
I talk a lot about the fantasy genre, but given the season it seemed appropriate to talk about another genre that’s always fascinated me – Horror.
Horror isn’t just about the monster, it’s about the shadows where the monster might hide. It’s about infusing dread into what would otherwise be mundane situations by adding the threat of something horrible. It’s about uncertainty – when she opens the door, will it be the killer, or merely an empty closet? That tapping at the window – is it a vampire, or merely a branch?
I grew up in rural Maine, surrounded by woods and coyotes and a whole lot of quiet dark. An appropriate setting to devour everything Stephen King ever wrote, not to mention smatterings of R.L Stein, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub. Those stories don’t bother me at all, I’d say. I’m not scared. Who cares about ghosts and demons and evil clowns.
They’re not real.
Funny, how that stuff drifts into your head right at the worst moments. How the crack in your closet seems to have grown larger since you went to bed. How the glow of the night-light looks rather like a demon’s eye. How alone you are, a kid, in your bed, nothing but a half-open window between you and the howling, creeping, rustling things outside.
Of course, none of that stopped me from reading the stuff. More than once, even. I liked the flutter in my chest and the twist in my stomach. I thought, then, as I do now, that it’s extraordinary how mere words can create such a visceral reaction.
I’m clearly not the only one – horror novels don’t sell as well, anymore, but horror films still do. Different medium, but many of the same ideas.
I find that most horror films over-rely on shocking the viewer, going for a quick scare. That’s too easy – just a trick of camera angles and edits. Better when the situation itself, the stories, the character, the dialogue, organically create that sense of horror.
A classic example that did work for me is The Blair Witch Project. I watched it at a friend’s house one Halloween in high school. At first, I thought it was creepy, but not that bad. I wasn’t sure I was scared. After the film, we drove home, down dark, rural roads with no traffic, surrounded on all sides by endless stretches forests. I spent the entire car-ride white-knuckled, eyes shut, quivering with fear.
Probably the film that scared me the most is Event Horizon. It’s a sci-fi film from 1997; a ship designed to travel through dimensional rifts re-appears unexpectedly after having vanished seven years prior. A rescue time arrives to investigate. The ambiance of the desolate ship is spine-tingling creepiness at it’s best; the fate awaiting the investigators is as gory and grotesque as it gets. Frankly, I don’t even remember much about the specifics of the film, only that it was one of the few movies to truly give me nightmares.
I’ve heard in my writing workshops this year that horror (outside of Stephen King) doesn’t sell well in adult markets anymore, though there are signs of a resurgence in the YA markets. That’s too bad – it’s a genre with a lot of room left to explore.
Still, I can be satisfied with reading more King. He’s one of the few authors who I think writes even better short stories than novels – in particular, I recommend his collection Everything’s Eventual . The thing about King; for all my talk of horror being more about the unseen than the seen, sometimes the monster is really just as bad as you imagined.
And sometimes it’s worse.
* * *
And Georgie reaches down, and the clown’s face changes. Georgie screams and screams, his sanity melting away as it pulls him down into the darkness.
“’They float’, it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re done here with me, you’ll float, too –‘…’Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more.”
I closed the book. Set it back down under the bed. Only a story, I thought, pulling the covers tight, listening to the wind and the coyotes howling outside my window. I’d read some more in the morning. If it was sunny.
It’s only a story. But sometimes, that doesn’t make them any less real.
* * *
Stephen King’s IT is one of my favorite books of all time – I’ve never forgotten that first scene (nor the other twenty or so also, highly, uh, ‘memorable’, scenes). I really strongly recommend reading it – in addition to the horror elements, it’s the best novel about childhood and friendship I’ve ever read. No, that’s not a contradiction. Go read it and see!
( And yes, it did kind of ruin clowns for me, but hey, who needs happiness and joy anyway, right? 🙂 )
I’ll break the horror genre convention of downer endings by ending this blog post on a lighter note, with a Halloween-themed piece from my all-time favorite a capella group, Pentatonix. Have a wonderful Halloween, everyone!