Monday, February 27, 2023

Tricycle by Russell Rhodes (1983): Crimin' Simon

Christopher Hennick, a young English literature professor and former star athlete, is blinded in a terrible accident but is now returning to Talbot Academy, the New England boys' school he'd taught at and attended previously. His relationship with his girlfriend, Susanne, is strained due to his reluctance to come to terms with his new disability. And while he is welcomed back to teach by headmaster James Harrothwait and colleague Arthur Catterby, Chris feels something amiss... and that something is a someone, a five-year-old child named Simon, Arthur's son.

Perpetually riding around the school grounds on his squeaky tricycle, Simon weirds out students and faculty alike. Susanne tells Chris he's got a hateful look on his punchable little face too. And also, what of the recent accidental deaths of several promising teenage boys there? And why does Mrs. Karen Catterby, Arthur's smokeshow of a wife and Simon's mom, have such a bad reputation on campus? And suddenly taken such a liking to Chris himself?

Featuring one of the grandest of all Paperbacks from Hell-era covers, by the fantastic Lisa Falkenstern, Tricycle (Pocket Books, August 1983) by Russell Rhodes, seems to promise Bad Seed levels of Creepy Kid Horror. That's a pretty tall order. Can it deliver?

The setting of a preparatory school was fine with me. Personally I'm fond of tales of professors and academics and college/university life in horror, so that was one point in the book's favor. Then there are a couple illicit sex scenes get things going nicely, that's good too. After the one that opens the novel, a fiery, helpless death: "I'm dying," he cried, "I'm dying!" Holding his face, the flaming boy whirled around in tight circles. His lungs gulped a last searing breath, then exploded within him as he toppled forward into the inferno. Okay, we're rolling right along!

But I noticed some issues soon after. Chris is kind of a wienie, and his attempts at teaching seem condescending; his feelings of inadequacy don't evoke much sympathy in the reader. Our author is more concerned with the banal gossip cocktail party chatter of rich academic folk ("I don't care what you say, Linda, slacks and that blouse don't belong at the Academy. The thing's open practically to her navel"), which sure can be entertaining, but at the expense of other aspects—like horror itself. There's a lot of pages spent on literary classroom discussions—Shakespeare, Hemingway, other fine fellows, etc.—and a burgeoning friendship between Chris and Lucas, the student assigned to read aloud for him and assist in his coursework. Of course that leads to twinges of baseless gay panic!!1!

So I'm reading along, it's fine, sure, and then, oh joy, what should make an appearance but that most disgusting yet popular cliches of junk pop fiction of the era: incest. Here it's twincest! Huzzah. It forms the backstory of a major character, motivational thrust (oops, no pun intended) for the psychosexual shenanigans occurring in the present day. And it all happened under the Nazi regime, natch. "Come feel my flame, little sister." He had laughed as he pushed her hand between his thighs.

As (slasher-style and post-coital) deaths mount, Chris slowly starts to suspect the incredible: He, Christopher Hennick, at one time big man on campus, was at the mercy of a little five-year-old. Fear gripped him. It was all so very simple, so logical, so inevitable. I mean, all that goddamn squeaking of the tricycle wheels following him around, what other conclusion could he make?!

The tale reaches its climax in the school as the suddenly raging waters of the Connecticut River surge over the grounds, rising into the halls and stairwells and gym, where Christopher must battle his unseen enemy alone after everyone else evacuates. And oh shit, now a fire's started! In this last section, Rhodes delivers what I found it to be a convincing and well-staged finale, with some decent mounting suspense and a couple plot twists. Nothing revolutionary, you'll probably see 'em coming, even if some don't quite seem to square with what has been happening all along.

Author Russell Rhodes (1931 - 2010), late 1970s

Rhodes, who was an adman by trade while he also produced fiction, writes with a serviceable, polished pen, and while nothing ever made me cringe, nothing sparkled for me either. He misses lots of opportunities he's set up for himself. Too often, Rhodes writes at a remove, like he's afraid to get granular as we say today. When Chris is trapped alone in a classroom with rattlesnakes, I was sure the rattlesnakes Chris hears would be revealed as an auditory prank on his blindness, but no: they're real. Yet Rhodes makes only a half-hearted attempt at conveying such distinctive creatures, which have to rank among the most frightening and fearsome on all the earth. "You know the rattlesnake, or Crotalina," the boy continued, "represents the highest type of serpent development and specialization."

Same with Milton, Chris's seeing-eye German Shepherd, another distinctive animal that Rhodes seems reluctant to include the interesting particulars of (I will warn you, the poor dog is killed eventually). Susanne disappears. Tricycle is definitely market fodder, commercial unit shifter, designed to give minimum thrill for maximum profit, an adman's idea of "horror." Rhodes's other titles seem like standard thrillers of the Seventies, spies, KGB, technology, super-hot ladies who have it all and want more, with back cover copy like "bizarre orgies, brain-searing terror, and the nightmare secret of Hitler's human experiments," awesome, I guess, but not my kinda thing at all.

It's easy to tell the author isn't a horror writer, probably wasn't even particularly interested in the genre; as I said, Tricycle was simply another title in the glut of paperbacks saturating book racks of the day. The novel's intensity level reaches about that of a TV-movie, desiring to be nothing more than a paycheck for Rhodes and a couple hours' diversion for the reader. I didn't expect much more, and honestly expected much less.

is not a forgotten horror classic, and is better characterized as a suspense thriller especially since the ending wraps up the preceding events all too neatly. (When someone shouts "Satan's whore!" you'll wish that was a literal thing rather than just a misogynist slur.) Rhodes doesn't offer up much creepy atmosphere or dread, there is nothing supernatural going on, but the book did keep me turning pages over a few snowy days. Okay, okay, I skimmed here and there, don't think I missed much.

That yellow Hamlyn UK edition from 1985 is creepy, but just doesn't have that je ne sais quois of Simon bearing implacably down on you on the Pocket Books version, an image I found deeply unsettling when I saw it on the supermarket book racks as a kid. Alas, Simon isn't even close to being in the Creepy Kids Hall of Fame, but with an all-timer cover like this, Tricycle definitely belongs in your paperback horror library.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Cats by Nick Sharman (1977): Apocalypse Meow

Scott Grønmark was his name and writing pulp horror paperbacks under the pseudonym "Nick Sharman" was his game. Born in Oslo, Norway, in 1952, he was working in the PR department of New English Library (which is why of course he had to use a pseudonym) when he began his published career with The Cats. It was originally published by NEL in 1977 (below), and then by Signet in America in May 1979. Subsequently he wrote six or seven novels, only one under his real name. Notoriety came Grønmark's way some years back when internet wags postulated that he was the person responsible for the infamous sleaze-horror "classic" Eat Them Alive, which wasn't so; you can read his response here.

An early entry into the animal attack publishing craze led, of course by Jaws and The Rats, The Cats offers up most, but not all, of the usual template, even though the subgenre had only been going on a couple years by 1977. Most characters are irritable, stuffy, smug, and/or macho. Or American, for no reason I could discern. Victims run the gamut of British society, briefly introduced, quickly dispatched. Requisite cynicism about politicians while the mighty military comes in swinging their dicks. Science is responsible for the poor kitties' condition. There isn't even a love interest, believe it or not, but there is an attempted rape—about the only woman who appears (the assault is prevented at the last second). Two sets of estranged fathers and sons lend a tad bit of character conflict. One human is afflicted by the same disease as the cats have, maybe there's a psychic connection too, an addition I found intriguing.

I wish Grønmark had attempted to give his rampaging cats a smidge of personality. We all know cats in our personal lives who are more interesting than some people in our social circles. Imagine if he'd spent just a chapter on the creatures themselves, even just a couple kitties, perhaps even inspired by then-bestselling juggernaut Watership Down—recall how Richard Adams did marvels with cuddly rabbits! That would've given this slight 154-page novel some much needed ballast as well as some empathy for innocent animals.

But that's not what this book is or wants to be. Despite several vivid attacks early on, Grønmark doesn't seem to have much energy to inject his tale with anything but the driest essentials. There's little spark in the proceedings, not even anything but the most workmanlike approach to feline slaughter. Prose is competent, serviceable, but lacking any real juice. He simply keeps the narrative going faster and faster but with diminishing results, I mean I've kind of already forgotten the specifics of the climax, such as it is, and the cute yet utter by-the-numbers final paragraphs fail to surprise. I did like the guy who tries in vain to fight back against the beasts with acid, is still overwhelmed, and croaks, as his last words, "Oh well, you can't win 'em all."

Previous Grønmark books I've read, The Surrogate and Childmare, were more entertaining, written with a bit more skill and conviction. As noted, The Cats was Grønmark 's debut novel, and I guess he simply didn't have the chops yet. (At least it led to a successful writing career, I'll give it that; he died in 2020 aged 68.) Unfortunately, I found The Cats lackluster, offering nothing fresh to the all-too-common cliches of animal-attack literature. If you're a collector, you'll want the Signet edition with that spectacular Don Ivan Punchatz cover, but unless you're an animal-attacks obsessive, you can probably leave the book on the shelf.

As he lay on the ground he could see people jumping from the smashed upper windows of the double-decker bus, and then his eyes locked with those of the black cat. Its jaws gaped for a ghastly instant before its teeth rammed straight through the flesh of the man's nose and crunched into the hard knuckle of gristle underneath.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Damnation Game by Clive Barker (1985): Gambling's for Fools

Another reread of a famous Eighties horror novel, in which I ask the time-honored question: does it hold up lo these many decades later?

If you've followed Too Much Horror Fiction at any time over the past 13 (!!!) years, you'll know Clive Barker is one of my lodestars of genre fiction, up there in my own personal pantheon with H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison. It's not just Barker’s fictional writings that have influenced and inspired me, but also the many interviews and intros to other books he did in which he discusses his beliefs about what horror (and other speculative fictions) is about, can do, and what it reveals about our humanity, our culture, our desire for something more than our daily lives. Given that I started reading him as a high school student in 1987, Barker's world has had an untold impact on me, both within the genre and out.

Reading the 1988 Sphere UK paperback poolside

First published in hardcover in the UK in 1985 and then in 1987 in the US, The Damnation Game (Charter Books paperback, July 1988, Marshall Arisman cover art), was anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic as a major novel debut. Barker was the enfant terrible of then-contemporary horror fiction, after his 1984 collection of genre-expanding stories, Books of Blood, were propelled by that famous Stephen King quote. Barker was ready to take over the mainstream. Its impetus was maybe more commercial than artistic; short story collections have always been seen as "lesser" product by publishers. As the editor of Sphere Books told Barker after unexpected success with Books, "Now do something sensible and write a novel... something we can really sell!"

A somber, gloomy, somewhat subdued tale of men and their debts, desires, and debaucheries, The Damnation Game helped affirm Barker's place at the top of the Eighties horror pantheon. For many years this was Barker's sole "horror" novel, in that it had none of the unique fantastical world-building that he would become known for in such subsequent epics as Weaveworld (1987), The Great and Secret Show (1989), and Imajica (1991). After rereading Books for this blog, I then reread The Hellbound Heart and Cabal, so I figured I'd continue chronologically with this guy. I read Game several times over 30 years ago, recall liking that Barker had made the leap from short story to novel, that the detailed eye he had for transgressive terrors was not lost in this longer format.

Hell is reimagined by each generation. Its terrain is surveyed for absurdities and remade in a fresher mold; its terrors are scrutinized and, if necessary, reinvented to suit the current climate of atrocity; its architecture is redesigned to appall the eye of the modern damned.

Paperback promo from publisher

The opening chapter, set in bombed-out Warsaw, crackles with dread and enormity, yet with a strange sense of freedom to be gained from playing games, chancing fate, plying one's wits against a devilish opponent—ideas Barker returns to again and again. In his mind this faceless gambler began to take on something of the force of legend. Then the narrative shifts to the 1980s, where we meet protagonist Marty Strauss, a thirty-something prisoner doing time for a botched robbery, debts owed from gambling, life lost, security van empty. Offered parole if he accepts the could-be-more-dangerous-than-prison job of bodyguard for world famous industrialist Joseph Whitehead, Marty accepts, wary though he is. 

He doesn't know Whitehead is hiding out in his vast, well-secured London estate, with laconic bodyguard Mr. Toy and a menagerie of dogs, from the mysterious Mamoulian, aka The Last European—the fellow from the opening. What follows is Marty learning the truth of Whitehead's wealth, why his teen daughter Carys is a junky, and other unsavory facts about a world of woe just a whisper's breath away.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, first UK hardcover 1985
Cover art by Geoff Shields

Whitehead's revelation to Marty about his and Mamoulian's history in those WWII ruins contain a mystery as something few Americans truly grasp. Various set pieces underscore Barker's notions of the existential dread of nothingness ("nothing is essential") so at odds with the more common horror dichotomy of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. The two young American missionaries who appear at the end, empty-headed Chad and Thomas, offer a somewhat witty addition to the grim proceedings; they can only interpret what they're seeing through the inanities of Christianity, their Pastor Bliss, their hunger for the Deluge to wash all sinners away. In Chad's mind waters—red, raging waters—mounted into foam-crested waves and bore down on this pagan city.

Barker in 1985

Much, perhaps most, of Barker's appeal was and is his ability to pluck beauty from the monstrous; his prose style, sleek and polished, unhurried and measured, is informed by classic continental literature and film, with imagery inspired by European cinematic masters such as Cocteau, Antonioni, Bunuel, Fellini, Fassbinder. There is a pathetic dinner sequence with Whitehead's aged cronies and available young women drinking copious amounts of wine in a brightly-lit room, decorated only by a grotesque painting of the Crucifixion, that seems right out of a socialist satire about the insipid appetites of the rich. The old man had wanted to see him naked and rutting.

The scenes with Breer the Razor-Eater, Mamoulian's dogsbody, and his unholy passions pedophilia, cannibalism, necrophilia, whose rotting body as a reanimated corpse parallels in physical form the moral corruption in the characters around him, are pure classic Clive:

...something in his chest seemed to fail, a piece of internal machinery slipping into a lake around his bowels. He coughed and exhaled a breath that made sewerage smell like primroses... He was moving into a purer world—one of symbols, of ritual—a world where Razor-Eaters truly belonged.

My signed hardcover. See the water damage at bottom?
I let my own mother take this to the beach to read
and she left it on her blanket and the tide came in.

All Barker's strengths are on display, scattered throughout the book. Irony, opposites, contrasts: delicate petals falling onto human wreckage, cities laid to waste beneath spring skies, "death at laughing play in a garden of bone and shrapnel." Barker has always delighted in such contradictions, believing they get at a truth unreachable by simple black-and-white binaries. This approach lends an air of maturity to the proceedings, a sophistication rarely seen in the horror offerings on the same shelf. I recall reading the US hardcover when it came out, and indeed that format made this gruesome tale somehow respectable.

The notion of "nothingness" as a final terror is one Barker would address in various works throughout his career. Here, we have the room in Mamoulian and Breer's hideout—who has kidnapped children in the cellar shiver—which Marty discovers.

This wasn't the adventure he'd thought it would be; it was nothing. Nothing is essential... all of it was like a fabrication. A dream of palpability, not a true place. There was no true place but here. All he'd lived and experienced, all he'd taken joy in, taken pain in, it was insubstantial. Passion was dust. Optimism, self-deception.... Color, form, pattern. All diversions—games the mind had invented to disguise this unbearable zero. And why not? Looking too long into the abyss would madden a man.

Sphere reprint, 1988, Steve Crisp art invoking
The Thing

yet also referencing a moment in the novel

As I said above, I don't think Americans have a concept like existential nothingness the way people who were close to the atrocities of WWII were. Maybe I'm generalizing, but that's my serious impression; not for nothing is Mamoulian nicknamed "the Last European." He remembers the horrors. As a young guy myself with some intellectual pretensions of my own beginning to sprout, Barker appealed to me precisely because he used horror as a way to get at deeper truths about human nature, not simply as a vehicle for cheap thrills and messy bloodshed.

Oddly, unlike the Books of Blood excesses of surreality and guttural fears, Barker only refers to atrocities—he literally keeps using that word, "atrocities"—rather than regaling us with more poetic descriptors as only he can. Early on, some gruesome dog deaths play a large part in a scene of confrontation (and resurrections; the creatures would've looked spectacular in a practical-effects kind of way in a movie), particularly now knowing what a dog-lover he is—a cheap shot at unsettling readers? As I said: Damnation Game was his bid for success, and so perhaps he felt he had to tone down his tendency to terrorize readers with things never before imagined. 

Worms, fleas, maggots—a whole new entomology congregated at the place of execution. Except that these weren't insects, or the larvae of insects: Marty could see that plainly now. They were pieces of flesh. He was still alive. In pieces, in a thousand senseless pieces, but alive.

French translation, 1989—a depiction of one of the book's most potent scenes

On this reread I found the novel somewhat—dare I say?—tame, believe it or not. In his bid for bestsellerdom, Barker eschews the epic flights of fancy and imagination that so marked his previous output for a more mainstream narrative, the Faustian deal gone bad (of course there are no Faustian deals that go well). Stretched out over 430 pages, the bizarre imagery he conjures up loses its impact and the story falters. Yes, there are very good set-pieces of perverse gore and grue, and the secret history of Whitehead and Mamoulian's long relationship is darkly fascinating, but pages of irrelevant detail, unfocused narrative, and a somber tone slow the proceedings into a dreary crawl. Rather than emboldening him to stretch out for the long haul, it seemed this novel format constrained Barker's visions. These are all first-novel problems, indeed.

Perhaps that was the problem: later, longer works show him in stronger form as he unlooses chains and breathes free. Damnation Game isn't a total loss, and I see from Goodreads reviews that many fans enjoyed it; esteemed horror critic S.T. Joshi called it "a sparklingly flawless weird novel." I wouldn't tell first-time Barker readers to start with this novel, however, not at all. His next book, Weaveworld, would begin his successful foray into the unique, epic dark fantasy that he'd mine again and again. While there were aspects of the book I found satisfyingly horrific, and he is still one of my top fave-raves of all time, I think The Damnation Game may be best read and enjoyed by Clive Barker completists.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

IT by Stephen King (1986): I Don't Want to Grow Up

"Oh Christ," Bill groaned to himself,
"if this is the stuff grownups have to think about
I never want to grow up."

"I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries," Stephen King famously said back in the Eighties, as a comment on, and perhaps a defense of, his rising popularity, which was heading right into the stratosphere. It's a cute, self-deprecating line that defends against the stuffy critical backlash he often got, and still gets lo these many decades later. Heading critics off the pass, as it were. But sometimes I think King undersold himself at times, regular "jes' folks" guy that he is, and his demotic work often rose above a common fast food meal eaten on the run. Sometimes it rose above other meals that critics said were much healthier, more nourishing, for you... but, you know, fuck that.

This is IT, this is the Eighties horror epic to end all epics, the sum total of Stephen King's career up to that point. King sweeps up all the detritus, cultural and psychological, of a certain class and generation of middle Americans, their tastes and desires and fears and imaginations and jobs and failures, and stuffs them inside a horror story that is part Fifties monster movie and part mind-expanding cosmic revelation. As he said at the time, "Wouldn't it be great to bring on all the monsters one last time? Bring them all on—Dracula, Frankenstein, Jaws, The Werewolf, The Crawling Eye, Rodan, It Came from Outer Space, and call it It."

Look, here there might be a few spoilers: proceed, if at all, with caution. Come back, friend, when finished with IT. (Or more precisely, when IT is finished with you...)

My wife and I read IT at the same time late last year, fortunately I had two copies of that Signet paperback from September 1987—what a sturdy little fucker that edition is! She grew up terrified by the famous 1990 TV movie, and therefore was a little reluctant to read it (she's a Dark Tower acolyte), while I was already out of high school (oh by fall 1990 I was a college sophomore) when that adaptation aired. Me, I was more freaked out by the 'Salem's Lot TV-movie of the late Seventies!

Back in the autumn of 1986, I read IT as soon as it appeared on bookshelves in hardcover; even sooner, because my librarian mom brought it home for me as soon as the library had received it but before they put it into circulation (a real perk of her job for me, sorry patrons of Millville Public Library 35 years past—or Millville Pubic Library, as it was for awhile after a prankster pal of mine swiped the "L" off the sign on the building front, a real Falstaffian wit he was). Fifteen years old and hauling that behemoth into junior high, reading it in study hall, savoring its every terror, is one of my favorite memories of school days.

1st hardcover edition, Viking Press, Bob Giusti cover art

I read through the novel I'm not sure how fast, because it felt like something you wanted to savor. While it's easy to say IT is, at almost 1,100 pages, self-indulgent, I don't recall ever being bored or frustrated by IT; while I'd been a reader all my life, by that point my tastes weren't varied at all: King was very much my whole book world, and what he said, went. I don't think I would have even understood that phrase, "self-indulgent," as a criticism. If he wanted to spend 15 pages on, I dunno, a pharmacist and his patient, or half a dozen pages on a town's sewer system, or a man and wife arguing about driving Al Pacino in a limousine, well, dammit, I was gonna read it and be happy!

New English Library, 1987

After my utter disappointment rereading The Stand ("I need more about how society collapses" I thought while reading it in January 2020, how's that for irony, har-de-har-har) I almost expected to be just as let down by IT. But let me make it clear: IT was an utter satisfying delight to reread. I practically felt married to it for a few weeks, so thoroughly absorbing as it was. This was, oh so aptly, like visiting an old friend that you thought too many years had passed between you to still have a connection, and then finding out that was not true. My wife and I both were swept up in the propulsive narrative.

Gone was the repetitiveness of The Stand, gone the bloat, the shallow philosophizing, the social naivete, the tacky characters, the amateurish repetitiveness. There was little self-indulgence to be found. Here, now, was something thoughtful, refined (as refined as King can be, I guess), streamlined (as streamlined as an 1,100-page novel can be, I guess), a smooth-humming vehicle ready to take you to the dark side, all revved up and ready to go.

French translation, 1988
It had come here long after the Turtle withdrew into its shell, here to Earth, and It had discovered a depth of imagination here that was almost new, almost of concern. This quality of imagination made the food very rich. Its teeth rent flesh gone stiff with exotic terrors and voluptuous fears: they dreamed of nightbeasts and moving muds; against their will they contemplated endless gulphs. 

TV-movie tie-in, 1990

Online I often see horror fans almost reluctant to read IT, intimidated by its weightiness. But there's no need to be afraid to tackle this tome: King's prowess in sucking you into the story and enveloping you in his world knows few equals. His storytelling might is in full flower here, and there are few pleasures as welcome as disappearing into a really good read. Rarely did I feel like King was overwriting, or getting bogged down in useless details or wandering off into digressive weeds as he is wont to do. Sure, here and there, he could've pared down a paragraph, a page, a section. But that is to quibble; this shit is pretty tight.

Truth in advertising

I have loved since my first read the Derry Interludes, ostensibly compiled by loyal Mike Hanlon, which are so vivid, so real, so captivating. Found I had forgotten little about them over the years; the eerie chills of Pennywise's infamous appearances throughout Derry's history are some of King's most striking imagery in his catalogue. How I thrill to hear about him capering in the background of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style ambush, a sad and horrific KKK burning of a Black nightclub, a lumberjack barfight that is more Texas Chainsaw than Texas Roadhouse. The midnight clown prince appears wherever humans wear the mask of evil; he is both its progenitor and its excuse, eager and grinning to join in the fray.

1990s Signet reprint

I had forgotten about how the townspeople of Derry looked the other way, literally, when trouble was afoot, knowing their whole lives that the place they live is tainted, and always has been, in 27-year cycles. In 'Salem's Lot King showed that the town itself is corrupt, and thus drew the vampire to it; here, while Derry is wrong, it may be because IT has existed inside Derry for millennia, literally buried in its earthen self. The parents of our main characters often seem to look the other way, or who don't quite grasp what's going on with their children: Bill Denbrough's parents are lost in the depth of their grief over the murder of Georgie; Eddie Kaspbrak's mother is delusional about his fragile health; Ben Hanscom's mother takes his attempt at weight loss as a personal affront; Beverly Marsh's father "worries a lot about her." Kids and adults exist, or at least they once did, almost on opposite continents, and King understands this intuitively.

Japanese translation, 1994

I've got to talk about the real-life horrors that populate IT: the homophobic murder of Adrian Mellon in the opening of the Eighties, Tom Rogan's beatings of his wife Beverly Marsh and her friend, the sad lonesome deaths of the abused Corcoran boys, and young sociopath Patrick Hockstetter's animal and sexual cruelty are the scenarios that trouble many contemporary readers—not to mention the tween "love-fest" at the climax (if you'll excuse the pun) of the Losers' tale in the Fifties. As they say now, these situations all hit different today. I recall no particular upset at these occurrences when I first read the book; today, yes, certainly as an adult I'm more sensitive to these depictions that, when used in fiction, can seem exploitative or tone-deaf.

But King is trying to get at real life, and there's no way one can mistake his gut-wrenching depictions for the sleazy, skeevy pulp-horror of so many an Eighties horror writer. These horrific non-supernatural occurrences lend a moral weight to IT that is an essential component; if King had left these disturbing realities out of IT due to some squeamishness, or sense of political correctness, or some idea of "too far," or some notion that certain things cannot be used in fiction, then the book would have been a cheat. And there's nothing worse than a cheat.

Many times on this reread I thought, this book has just as much right to be called A (not The, certainly no one book could or should ever be The) Great American Novel as anything else written in the last 50 years or so. The stories of his thirty-something characters after their lives in Derry come with all the attendant concerns—college, money, sex, career, ambition, health, aging—well-sketched examples of "how we live now" school of contemporary fiction. He weaves this tapestry of middle American life into a shared whole, in the guise of genre fiction, to reflect back at us our fears both as children and as adults.

Monsters from Baby Boomer fare like the Teenage Werewolf and the Mummy, midnight clowns and vampires, are something like placeholders; our brains are primed for fear, and those primitive childish creatures build the muscles that we'll use to defend ourselves against the hazards and vicissitudes of life when we're grown. Even ITs final form, the nature-gone-amuck giant-sized Spider that the adult Losers face in the sewers of Derry, can not be fully comprehended. Not all of us have the stamina—it was right and it was correct for a character like Stan Uris to exist, one person in the troupe utterly unable to face IT again— but those of us who do...
Turkish translation, 1987
Make no mistake: IT contains some of the author's finest frights of his career, none of which are diluted by the book's massive size. King flexes his well-honed horror muscles in memorable scenes large and small, missing no chance to scare the bejabbers out of readers. Chilling, lurid, pulpy, flat-out disgusting—King has mastered every aspect of terror, while knowing that often the most frightening things aren't necessarily a monster on the rampage, but a man who talks to the moon, a child contemplating death, a woman realizing her husband will kill her if he can. King knows how to sneak past your defenses, cut you deep, and then be off before you realize you're bleeding. A balloon, a toy boat, a friendly folk hero, and other icons of childhood can freeze your blood, electrify your spine, make you contemplate gulfs of endless pain in the silvered eyes of a BEEP BEEP RICHIE

"I'd rather stay here in my room/Nothin' out there but sad and gloom," sings Joey Ramone in the Ramones' snarled-up cover of Tom Waits's creaky dirge "I Don't Want to Grow Up", and you can just see all the Losers nodding in agreement, even if it isn't Little Richard or, god forbid, Pat Boone. It's a nice rebel sentiment, but you won't win any points trying to avoid the inevitable. Adulthood is coming, it is definitely coming. It will have its way with us all, and there surely is intent in Stephen King ending this inevitable journey of losers and winners with that single, all-encompassing, all-meaning word: it

And oh yeah… my wife loved it too.