Castle Rock Reaction

Some thoughts on the second season of Hulu’s series Castle Rock, which concluded today with episode 10, “Clean”…

The plotting in Season 2 was much stronger than that in the show’s inaugural run, where obtuseness tended to produce lingering confusion. Here in Season 2, the puzzle pieces steadily fit together into a more perfect assembly–no small feat, considering the multiple plotlines unfolding and telling quite disparate stories (psychological vs. supernatural horror).

There are a couple of “holy shit” twists woven into the narrative, starting with the end of the first episode (I don’t think I will ever look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). The reveal at the end of episode 7, which hearkens back to Season 1 and gives viewers a new perspective onto those proceedings, was positively staggering.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 2 was the performances by the cast, led by Lizzy Caplan. Playing a younger version of Annie Wilkes, the actress has no trouble filling Kathy Bates’s formidable shoes, and gives a no-less-award-worthy performance. She easily convinces viewers that this is Annie Wilkes, via both nuances of body language/voice inflection and more histrionic outbursts. There are levels of complexity here to the character that aren’t present in the Stephen King novel or the Rob Reiner film, and the season-long interaction with her “daughter” (a terrific Elsie Fisher) was magically dramatic (my one quibble: naming the counterpart to Annie from Misery “Joy” came off as just a bit too cutesy). Thankfully, the show’s producers don’t simply appropriate one of King’s most iconic characters for mere cachet value; Season 2 works to demonstrate what ultimately turned Caplan’s Annie into the deadly fanatic immortalized by Bates on the big screen. Annie’s 10-episode arc on Castle Rock proves supremely satisfying (yet also heartbreakingly tragic).

Alas, the same cannot be said for the show’s other thread involving the reincarnated cultists. The sinister body-snatching of Castle Rock’s citizens makes for some chilling scenes (the group’s use of the Marsten House as the home base for their unholy crusade also forms a fine toward Salem’s Lot), but this plot doesn’t pay off as well as it might have. For starters, the cultists’ expressed goal of global conquest seems too grandiose, in the sense that it reduces the significance of the town of Castle Rock (such apocalyptic stakes seem more associated with other King locales like Derry and Haven). As if not quite sure how to handle this material, Castle Rock resorts to a series of bad action-film clichés. Yes, there’s a lot of noisy gunfire and booming explosions, but what the audience really wants to hear more about is that mysterious moaning of the schisma that began in Season 1. “Clean,” though, abruptly washes its hands of any explanation, leaving Castle Rock in a literal cloud of dust (shifting across the border into Canada for the remainder of the episode). The fact that we aren’t granted any further insight into the enigmatic Kid/Angel yet again makes me want to channel my inner Annie and call the show’s writers a bunch of dirty birds.

Castle Rock can be frustratingly uneven at times, but the series is never less than entertaining. I do hope it returns for a third season, one that finally answers the questions that have been raised over the past two years.

 

Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.

 

Roman à Cleft

Like some down-home Hitchcock, Stephen King has made a (second) career out of brief acting appearances in film and TV adaptations of his works. By the time of the publication of his monster opus IT in September 1986, King had already portrayed the gone-to-weed Jordy Verrill in Creepshow and a man rudely insulted by an ATM in the opening of King’s directorial debut (and perhaps thankfully, finale) Maximum Overdrive. These appearances established a pattern of darkly comedic, happily hammy cameos that has continued for decades now, but King took a much grimmer approach when working himself into the pages of one of his own books.

In the “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” section of his novel IT, the author shows up in somewhat thinly-veiled disguise. I refer to the character Eddie King (Edwin is Stephen King’s middle name), who is self-deprecatingly depicted as “a bearded man whose spectacles were almost as fat as his gut.” Eddie King’s sharply abbreviated role in the book consists of playing one of the victims of Claude Heroux’s gruesome axe attack  inside Derry’s Silver Dollar tavern in 1905. Amidst this Pennywise-inspired slaughter, Eddie (whom the labor organizer Heroux targets as part of a group of murderous union-busters) suffers some especially bloody redress:

The axe came down, its head almost disappearing in King’s ample gut. Blood sprayed all the way up to the Dollar’s beamed roof. Eddie began to crawfish on the floor. Claude pulled the axe out of him the way a good woodsman will pull his axe out of a softwood tree, king of rocking it back and forth to loosen the clinging grip of the sappy wood. When it was free he slung it up over his head. He brought it down again and Eddie King stopped screaming. Claude Heroux wasn’t done with him, however; he began to chop King up like kindling-wood.

King would go on to incorporate his real-life near-death experience (his rundown by Bryan Edwin Smith’s van in 1999) into the Dark Tower series, and has also appeared in the (cleaved) flesh in a recent Mr. Mercedes cameo (pictured above), but nothing can beat this scene in IT where the nominal stand-in for the horror author ends up pulped. The interlude sections of the novel serve to trace Derry’s long, dark, and deadly history, and it appears the haunting influence of this fictional locale even extends to the town planner himself.

 

Pleasant Nightmares: A Review of Doctor Sleep

For his latest directorial effort, Mike Flanagan no doubt faced a task as daunting as the prospect of spending a winter snowbound inside the Overlook Hotel. He would be helming a sequel to one of the most revered horror films of all time, and his own endeavor inevitably would be measured against a Shining touchstone. Not only is an adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep no easy task (considering the book’s size and scope) in and of itself, but Flanagan also had to deal with the fact that the author famously hates the Kubrick interpretation of the precursor novel The Shining. That Flanagan manages to overcome these obstacles and create a film both faithful to its source text and aligned with the Kubrick classic is testament to the director’s considerable cinematic skill.

The novel version of Doctor Sleep presents a sprawling narrative, featuring three parallel plotlines that span decades in time and cover countless miles of national ground. Flanagan’s adaptation streamlines matters without sacrificing breadth or complexity; it hearkens to all the major beats from the book. The film takes the time to establish its various characters, and takes off thanks to the brilliant performances turned in by its three leads. Ewan McGregor is terrific as the flawed yet endearing Dan Torrance (a relatable American Everyman in the vein of Christopher Walken’s John Smith in The Dead Zone). Dan’s struggles with alcoholism and anger management throughout his adult life are successfully established without ever becoming cliché or tedious. Just as her character steals gifted kids’ “steam,” Rebecca Ferguson steals scenes here as the simultaneously sexy and sinister leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat. In lesser hands, her character might have been reduced to a (figurative) mustache-twirling, (literal) black-hatted villain, but Ferguson renders Rose a multi-faceted and fascinating figure. Lastly, newcomer Kyliegh Curran sparkles as Abra Stone, the paranormally-talented young teen stalked by the True Knot. This superpowered adolescent (whose shining ability far exceeds Dan’s) could easily have become annoying or cartoonish, but Curran’s impressive work makes Abra a finely nuanced rather than one-note character.

At so many points this adaptation might have skidded off the road, but time and again Flanagan navigates deftly. King’s narrative is rife with telepathic gymnastics that could have proved quite hokey-looking when projected onto the big screen, yet such scenes are not only convincing here; they are marked by sublime cinematography. Likewise, the “cycling” of True Knot members when they get a taste of mortality could have been cause for some cheesy visuals, but the film’s dramatization of these death throes shows off some eye-popping special effects.

I imagine that the ultimate question that a review of Doctor Sleep has to address is: Is it scary? The answer is yes, but with the addendum that moviegoers should expect a different viewing experience than they had with The Shining. That earlier film established much of its atmosphere from a sense of terrifying confinement (as the Torrances are trapped within a quintessential Bad Place), whereas the sequel is more expansive in its horror, typically foraying into the great American outdoors. The ghosts of the Overlook are overwhelmingly haunting in their posthumous habitat, but the supernatural nemeses in Doctor Sleep have a knack for messing with character’s heads form afar. The vampy campers comprising the cult of the True Knot are undeniably creepy, in the flesh and even in broad daylight. Their nocturnal torture (with the headlights of their vehicles beaming eerily on them) of an abducted Iowan child is as chilling as anything Kubrick depicted in the 1980 film.

One significant difference between the book and film versions of The Shining is that the Overlook is not destroyed at the end of the latter, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that the still-standing (now abandoned) hotel figures into the proceedings in the film version of Doctor Sleep. Flanagan invokes the iconic scenes, settings, weapons, and revenants of the Overlook, not just as facile callbacks, but as a strategic key to Dan and Abra’s battle with Rose. This climax thus diverts radically from King’s novel, yet satisfies in terms of plot logic and proves wildly entertaining (even in its quieter moments–there’s a conservation between Dan and a ghostly bartender that’s worth the price of admission alone). Fans of Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix will revel in the work the director does with the Overlook here.

Personally, I was captivated by Doctor Sleep, and marveled at the delicate balancing act it pulled off. I also understand, though, that there will be plenty of viewers resistant to this movie. Some will criticize it for being nothing like The Shining, while others will treat its borrowings from the earlier film as almost sacrilegious. But like the True Knot in a feeding frenzy, Doctor Sleep is bound to gather steam: I believe appreciation of the achievement will grow steadily over time, and in retrospect the film will be regarded as Flanagan’s magnum opus.

 

Fright Card: 6 Killer Movie-Monster Matchups

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManFreddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator: horror film history repeatedly features face-offs between iconic monsters. If I were booking the fright card, though, here’s the cinematic talent I’d try to line up in the proverbial squared circle and set to mashing:

1.King Kong vs. Cthulhu

The regal gorilla is scheduled to renew his rivalry with Godzilla this spring, but in the meantime could clash with another colossus from down under the sea. Imagine the entourages this pair of native-favored figures would bring to their showdown!

 

2.Hannibal Lecter vs. Leatherface

A Texas Death Match of two competitors hungry for a vicious victory. Biting needs to be legalized here, otherwise this one would end in a quick disqualification.

 

3.The Cat from Hell vs. Ben

Stephen King’s infernal feline makes for a natural antagonist with the big black rat. Let’s hold this one in a steel cage, lest Ben’s colony of followers create outside interference.

 

4.The Creeper vs. The Faceless Trucker

A head-on collision of these scourges of the open road promises to spark some spectacular violence. Stipulation: the winner takes the title to his opponent’s wicked set of wheels.

 

5.Pinhead vs. Candyman

A sacerdotal demon devoted to inflicting legendary pain gets called out by an urban legend with a devastating right hook. The only thing that could make this bout between Clive Barker bogies any better would be to turn it into a Triple Threat Match with the undead Decker from Nightbreed.

 

6.Michael Myers vs. Sam

 

A battle of lunatic luchadores, as Haddonfield’s notorious Halloween-ruiner draws the wrath of the holiday’s most determined rule-keeper. Michael has a decided size advantage, but could end up a sucker for a jagged-edged foreign object that Sam is apt to carry into this street fight.

 

Freddy vs. Pennywise

In a two-hour-plus episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror: Uncut that was released back in February, Quentin Tarantino displays an amazing breadth of cinematic erudition. But just before the closing of the interview (available as a podcast on iTunes), he opens up a can of verbal worms. While admitting to never having actually read IT, Tarantino asserts that “Stephen King saw A Nightmare on Elm Street and did his rip-off of it. […] He just replaces Freddy Krueger with Pennywise.” A bold claim, to say the least, and one that prompts a comparative look back at the Wes Craven film and the King novel.

No doubt there are some tempting parallels between the hit 1984 film and IT (published in 1986). Both works feature a quintessential American small town (Springwood and Derry, respectively) haunted by a shapeshifting, child-killing menace that adults don’t seem to notice. Freddy Krueger’s infernal boiler room hangout pairs with the subterranean industrial space that Pennywise calls home: the sewer system forming an abject labyrinth beneath Derry. The persistent lasciviousness of Freddy (whom critic Mark Edmundson describes in Nightmare on Main Street as “a dingy bum dressed in a broken fedora and a football hooligan’s cast-off sweater”) also anticipates the fellatio-proposing hobo/leper that stalks Eddie in King’s book. Just as bad boy Rod is collared for the bizarre slaughter of Tina in the film, mad bully Henry Bowers takes the rap for Pennywise’s widespread crimes in IT. The plots of both the movie and the novel unfold in a strikingly similar fashion: a group of youngsters realize they have been sharing the same nightmarish experiences, and band together to battle their monstrous adversary. Balinese dream skills aid the teens on Elm Street, while King’s kids range beyond their own culture when drawing on the Himalayan Ritual of Chüd. Less sophisticatedly, the array of booby traps that Nancy sets for Freddy in Nightmare links with Richie’s fending off of Pennywise-as-Teenage-Werewolf with sneezing powder (“Jesus,” Richie sardonically ponders, “if I had some itching powder and maybe a joy buzzer I might be able to kill it.“).

All that having been said, there are some salient differences between Craven’s and King’s works. The film presents high-school-age heroes, while the members of the Losers Club in the novel are all pre-teens. The conservative morality evinced by 80’s slasher films consistently punishes teenagers like Tina and Rod who engage in sex, whereas a group sex act in IT actually helps save the Losers when they foray into the sewers. Also, the Freddy-Pennywise equation grows more complicated when one attends carefully to chronology. In the first Nightmare film, Freddy is not the pun-slinger and groan-inducing jokester he would devolve into in later entries in the series, so he can hardly be cited here as a model for Pennywise’s macabre clowning. Likewise, Freddy really is not much of a shapeshifter in the 1984 film (impersonating a hall monitor and later poking his tongue from a telephone mouthpiece form about the extent of it); his wilder transformations would come in films released after the publication of King’s novel. Furthermore, the notion of a terribly metamorphic monster did not originate with Craven and is not unique to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Such creatures are featured in two other works that clearly influence IT: John Carpenter’s The Thing (in which a deadly alien trickster crash-lands on Earth) and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (in which a manitou-like femme fatale torments a group of friends over several generations).

Throughout his career, King has not been averse to engaging in pop cultural appropriation (e.g. the basic scenario of his novel Cell–a father traverses a post-apocalyptic, zombie-stocked wasteland in a quest to reach and rescue his son–sounds suspiciously similar to Brian Keene’s The Rising). I have little doubt that King was familiar with the original Nightmare on Elm Street and folded elements of the film into his monster opus, albeit in a less overt fashion than his references to various other horror genre properties throughout IT.  When King writes that Richie (who is accosted by the animate statue of Paul Bunyan) “understood that this wasn’t a dream at all…and if it was, it was a dream that could kill,” he suggests a firm grasp of Craven’s basic conceit. Still, to posit Pennywise as a darkly carnivalesque stand-in for Freddy Krueger, and to call IT a blatant rip-off A Nightmare on Elm Street, is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation by Tarantino.

 

 

The Kings of Comedy

In case you missed it:

Stephen King and Joe Hill recently did an event in Massachusetts together to promote their new releases (The Institute and Full Throttle, respectively). To see father and son on stage together is a terrific treat, and what makes the occasion even more special is just how downright entertaining the two writers prove. They elicit continuous laughter, via both prepared anecdotes and nimble ad-libbing, and as they tease each other mercilessly. The love and respect that King and Hill have for each other, though, is readily apparent, and heartwarming to witness.

Not that this hasn’t been mentioned before elsewhere, but, man, is Hill (especially when sporting a beard) the spitting image of his father at that same age (check out King’s original-hardcover book jacket photos for novels like The Dead Zone or Firestarter).

The interaction between the two here is so precious, and this video is such a fun watch, that I wish it was something King and Hill did together on a regular basis.

Kudos to Porter Square Books, not just for arranging “An Evening with Joe Hill and Stephen King,” but also for posting the video for the sold-out event to YouTube.

 

 

Fear Its Selves: Pennywise’s Ten Most Frightening Disguises

Tapping victims’ psyches and operating via “masks and glamours,” It assumes a slew of forms in Stephen King’s novel IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is Its go-to camouflage, the appearance It most commonly adopts (and reverts back to when revealing Its predatory nature), but throughout the course of the book, It takes the shape of an array of classic monsters and outré figures. Presented in order of appearance, here are my choices for the ten greatest fear-jerkers:

 

1. The Mummy

It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, arid flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust… [p. 214 in the 1986 Viking hardcover]

Ben’s recent late-night viewing of Shock Theater leads to a waking nightmare when he encounters a Karloffian monster in the Barrens. Like a figure in a bad dream, the mummy closes the gap between Itself and Its prey with uncanny, undetected quickness. This initial borrowing from Universal horror films is an appropriate one, as King provides an early hint of Its ancientness.

 

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon

The smell was what made him look back. the overwhelming smell, as if fish had been left to rot in a huge pile that had become carrion slushy in the summer heat. It was the smell of a dead ocean.

It wasn’t Dorsey after him now; it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The thing’s snout was long and pleated. Green fluid dripped from black gashes like vertical mouths in its cheeks. Its eyes were white and jellylike. Its webbed fingers were tipped with claws like razors. Its respiration was bubbly and deep, the sound of a diver with a bad regulator. As it saw Eddie looking, its green-black lips wrinkled back from huge fangs in a dead and vacant smile. [p. 262]

King’s considerable descriptive powers bring a deadly figure to vivid life in this scene in which runaway Eddie Corcoran is run down by the Gill Man alongside Derry’s Canal. Eddie’s vicious beheading even as he searches futilely for a zipper running up the Creature’s back serves notice to the reader that the horrors on display in this Maine town are really lethal and not just clumsy attempts at cinematic make-believe.

 

3. Rodan

It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin’s and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow’s feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them. [p.278]

This scene, in which Mike finds himself trapped inside a fallen smokestack by a monstrous bird of prey, forms one of the most suspenseful of the Losers’ solo encounters with It. King continually takes the scene another unsettling step further, adding details both grotesque (when Mike manages to wound the bird’s eye, “tiny parasites wriggled and squirmed” [p. 282] in the disgusting discharge) and bizarre (“And on this [unfurled] tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs”).

 

4. The Leper 

The skin of its forehead was split open. White bone, coated with a membrane of yellow mucusy stuff, peered through like the lens of a bleary searchlight. The nose was a bridge of raw gristle above two red flaring channels. One eye was a gleeful blue. The other socket was filled with a mass of spongy brown-black tissue. the leper’s lower lip sagged like liver. It had no upper lip at all; its teeth poked out in a sneering ring. [p. 312]

Eddie’s illness phobia (instilled by his overbearing mother) and his dread of sexual predators (after a previous harassing by a syphilitic tramp) make him ripe pickings for the rottenly-costumed It in this scene. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, King has the nightmare follow Eddie into his bed that night, where the boy hears (only in his imagination?) the leper whisper, “It won’t do you any good to run, Eddie” (p. 315).

 

5. The Teenage Werewolf

Its forehead was low and prognathous, covered with scant hair. Its cheeks were hollow and furry. Its eyes were a dark brown, filled with horrible intelligence, horrible awareness. Its mouth dropped open and it began to snarl. White foam ran from the corners of its thick lower lip in twin streams that dripped from its chin. The hair on its head was swept back in a gruesome parody of a teenager’s d.a.. It threw its head back and roared, its eyes never leaving Richie’s. [p. 377]

This timeliest of monster icons (in relation to the scenes in the book set in 1958) also makes for the most active antagonist that the Losers encounter. The Teenage Werewolf chases Bill and Richie out of the house on Neibolt Street and pursues the boys right down the block as they attempt to speed away on Bill’s bike Silver. They manage a narrow escape, but their adversary rears Its hirsute head in another menacing encounter later in the novel.

 

6. Mrs. Kersh/The Witch

Her claws scrabbled on the plate and she began to cram thin molasses cookies and delicate frosted slices of cake into her mouth with both hands. Her horrid teeth plunged and reared, plunged and reared; her fingernails, long and dirty, dug into the sweets; crumbs tumbled down the bony slab of her chin. Her breath was the smell of long-dead things burst wide open by the gasses of their own decay. Her laugh was now a dead cackle. Her hair was thinner. Scaly scalp showed in patches. [p. 570-571]

The Hansel and Gretel story is given a grim twist, as Beverly watches a kindly senior transform into “a crone with an apple-doll’s face” whose house appears to be made out of candy. A child-eater out of a famous fairy tale is an appropriate guise for It, just as the septic sludge It nauseatingly serves up to Beverly as a cup of tea is a fitting beverage from a monster that calls the sewers beneath Derry Its home.

 

7. Paul Bunyan Statue 

There he had been, sitting in that mellow March sunshine, drowsing a little, thinking about going home and catching the last half hour of Bandstand, and suddenly there had been a warm swash of air in his face. It blew his hair back from his forehead. He looked up and Paul Bunyan’s huge plastic face had been right up in front of his, bigger than a face on a movie screen, filling everything. The rush of air had been caused by Paul’s bending down…although he did not precisely look like Paul anymore. The forehead was now low and beetling; tufts of wiry hair poked from a nose as red as the nose of a long-time drunkard; his eyes were bloodshot and one had  a slight cast to it.

The axe was no longer on his shoulder. Paul was leaning on its haft, and the blunt end of its head had crushed a trench in the concrete of the sidewalk. He was still grinning, but there was nothing cheery about it now. From between gigantic yellow teeth there drifted a smell like small animals rotting in hot underbrush. [p. 584]

An American folk hero (adopted as the “patron saint of Derry” [p. 583]) turns into an overarching villain reminiscent of the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In lesser hands, this plastic colossus could have made for a tacky form of attacker, but King succeeds in making this animate statue hugely unnerving.

 

8. Flying Leeches

Suddenly one of the shell-like things unfurled insectile wings. Before Patrick could do more than register the fact, it had flown across the space between the refrigerator and Patrick’s left arm. It struck with a smacking sound. There was an instant of heat. It faded and Patrick’s arm felt just like always again…but the shell-like creature’s pale flesh turned first pink, and then, with shocking suddenness, rose-red. [p.832-833]

It’s a case of the biter-bit here, as the sociopathic Patrick Hockstetter receives some nasty comeuppance. No small part of the shock here stems from the unusual nature of the threat (who ever thought of a flying leech prior to reading this book?) and the unexpected place of its emergence (an abandoned refrigerator in the town dump). A death doesn’t get more horrific than having a leech latch onto your eyeball and suck the fluid out of it (and another one roosting on your tongue when you open your mouth to scream).

 

9. The Crawling Eye

A gigantic Eye filled the tunnel, the glassy black pupil two feet across, the iris a muddy russet color. The white was bulgy, membranous, laced with red veins that pulsed steadily. It was a lidless lashless gelatinous horror that moved on a bed of raw-looking tentacles. They fumbled over the tunnel’s crumbly surface and sank in like fingers, so that the impression given in the glow of Bill’s guttering match was of an Eye that had somehow grown nightmare fingers which were pulling It along.

It stared at them with blank, feverish avarice. The match went out. [p.1024-1025]

This fright for sore eyes might trace back to a campy 50’s monster movie, but ultimately is the eldritch offspring of a beastie out of Lovecraft (an author whose prose style King also seems to channel here). When the light goes out, the horror grows horripilatingly tactile, as the Losers feel the brush of the Eye’s questing tentacles, and then the “thick and wet and somehow gristly” (p. 1027) quality of the jellied surface as they strike out against It.

 

10. George

“Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of the fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed, waiting to unzip some some small boy’s guts. [p. 1038]

The cruelest blow Pennywise strikes ostensibly occurs in the book’s opening scene with the ripping off of poor George’s arm, but Its lowest blow is delivered in the climax when It manifests as the young murder victim. Such disguise is fiendishly designed to prey upon Bill’s lifelong sense of guilt over his brother’s demise (“He had sent George out to die, and he had spent his whole adult life writing about the horror of that betrayal–oh, he had put many faces on it, almost as many faces as It had put on for their benefit, but the monster at the bottom of everything was only George, running out into the receding flood  with his paraffin-coated paper boat”), and nearly does the trick of silencing ol’ Stuttering Bill for good.

 

Personal Pennywise

In conjunction with last month’s theatrical release of IT: Chapter 2, BuzzFeed posted a fun little piece titled “Everyone Has One Great Fear: This ‘It’ Quiz Will Reveal Yours.” My photo selections from the various prompts resulted in the Magic-8-Ball-like answer of “Fear of Flying.” While I am no white-knuckler, I’m hardly a relaxed traveler of the friendly skies, so I suppose this was an appropriate designation (although, technically, it’s not the flying, but rather the fiery crashing, that concerns me).

But if I were ever to encounter the terribly shifty It from Stephen King’s epic novel, I have no doubt what fearful, me-tenderizing shape the monstrous entity would assume.

With questionable 70’s aesthetics, my parents furnished a corner of our living room with a life-size lamp of a topless, onyx-skinned native woman standing on a gold pedestal. I am told that as a toddler, I would look at this figure and scream hysterically, to the point where my parents would have to drape a sheet over the lamp in order to quiet me down (in hindsight, it’s interesting that I found this ghostly alternative relatively comforting). As I sprouted up and my imagination ripened, my toleration of this horror did not grow at all: the Lamp Lady starred in a series of bad dreams, and formed a childhood-long source of dread.

Here’s an old photo that I somewhat-reluctantly dug up that shows the lamp in the background. Perhaps mercifully, the figure’s head is cut off in the picture, since it was the part about her that spooked me the most. Her glaring white eyes and stoic (to me: stern and menacing) expression seared their way right into my psyche.

So to all the (non-dancing-clown) denizens of the Macabre Republic, I say: Welcome to my nightmare. You can keep it for yourselves; I don’t want to have it anymore.

 

Balloon Quotes

Phrases such as “We all float down here” and “You’ll float, too” have entered the pop culture lexicon, and red balloons have risen to horror-icon status. In Stephen King’s magnus opus IT, though, there is a lot more clowning around with balloons than most people might recall. Time and again, Pennywise wages psychological warfare and terrorizes the Losers Club with balloons emblazoned with messed-up messages. Here’s a quick quiz for Constant Readers, to see how many of these flashes of malefic wit they can identify. Answers appear in the comments section.

 

1.What appears scripted on each of the myriad of balloons that appear following the mauling of Adrian Mellon?

2.At the end of “Derry: The Second Interlude,” Mike awakens to find a balloon tied to his reading lamp. What does he see on the balloon?

3.Fill in the blank: When grownup Ben returns to the Derry Library, Penywise manifests and displays a pair of balloons with phrases written on them. They read “HAVE A GOOD DAY! __ __ __!” and “I KILLED  ___ ___!–PENNYWISE THE CLOWN.”

4.What Pennywise p.s.a. “COMPLIMENTS OF CENTER STREET DRUG” is an adult Eddie subjected to while visiting the baseball field?

5.After chasing an adult Beverly from her childhood home, Pennywise is seen holding a bunch of balloons bearing what legend? (hint: it’s the title of a 1953 science fiction horror film)

6.Fill in the blank. Appearing in place of the Paul Bunyan statue, Pennywise stands holding a balloon that reads “RICHIE TOZIER’S ‘___ ___’ ___ ___.”

7.Fill in the blank. Perhaps Pennywise’s greatest quip is delivered in Chapter 14 “The Album,” when Mike enters the library’s staff lounge and discovers a balloon that reads “THE LOSERS ARE STILL LOSING, BUT ___ ___ ___  ___ ____!”

BONUS: What is written on the back of It’s varsity jacket when the Teenage Werewolf attacks the Losers Club in the house on Neibolt Street?