Sunday 17 September 2017

What IT means to me

If you read this blog on the regular you’ll be more than aware that I’m a fan of horror as a genre, both in literature and on screen, and last week saw the release of what would turn out to be the horror film with the highest grossing opening weekend of any R rated film, Stephen King’s IT. I also contributed to these stats, which is not like me, paying for media like a well behaved person. This was because I was excited to see what they had done with the material (also, in NZ, the cinema only costs $10!) and I have to say, I was really impressed with the result. But before I elaborate on that, I’m going to go back to the source material, to consider why this story means so much to me in the first place.

As with any work of fiction that you connect with, who I am at this moment in my life has progressed to a point where I’ve once again found new meaning in the story. The last time I read IT was about 18 months ago, and I’ve no immediate plans to read it again yet (as any of you that have read it will know, that book is no small undertaking, totalling an eye watering 1,138 pages) but I don’t actually need to read it again in order to gain new truth from it, because it’s a story I carry with me and reflect upon often. But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, again, always trying to skip to the end because I see the end, before I know how to get there. So, let’s get started. And I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, honest.

A few years ago I wrote a two part blog on 20 books that made me (part one and part two here, if you’re interested) and Stephen King makes an appearance on that list three times, IT being one of them. King is one of my favourite writers, and I think that’s because when he’s good, he’s insanely good, but like all of us, he creates some stuff that I feel doesn’t quite land, and I do think that he has a tendency to overplay endings. Often it seems like he feels a need to up the horror ante rather than following the narrative through to where it needs to be. However, when he does get it right, he gets it SO right. I feel that part of the reason for this, his strength as a writer, lies in his understanding of himself, and more specifically, the dark half of himself, and what this really translates into is an understanding of people. It’s when King makes himself vulnerable that I love his work and his voice the most.

A good example of this would be Pet Semetary. I don’t actually like this book a great deal, but what I do like about it is what it represents and the emotion that springs from the pages. King wrote that novel as an exploration of his anxiety over becoming a father, and his paranoid fear of something happening to his children, and him not being able to prevent it. This maddening and relatable fear manifests itself in a full throttle explosion of horror, and you can feel the power of it ringing throughout the novel, despite the characters and the story not quite being fully realised for me. What I love about it though is the honesty, and the expression of an anxiety so fundamentally human yet completely unacceptable to voice for most people, as if to do so is in itself a kind of curse, so he explores it via the no holds barred yet contextually acceptable genre of horror.

The ability to express who you are through fiction is a big reason why I also love the writing of Iain Banks. Even in his more average novels, his protagonists generally always suffer from the same flaw, if you would wish to call it that, I guess it’s a matter of perspective, and that flaw is: falling in love. I know on paper that doesn’t sound like a flaw, but his characters are rarely in a position where it’s a good thing for them to be falling in love, which usually means they are married or some other obstacle stands in the way. And this act typically drives much of the ensuing story arc. It always feels hopefully hopeless. Every time it happens, the face that’s just a little to engaging to him, the eye contact that lasts just a little too long, that spark of a dangerous idea at the moment it first flits across the imagination before it’s total, or sometimes just a full blown erection because Banks was never one to shy away from bluntness, and it’s time for the reader to sigh and think, fuck, here we go again. This isn’t going to end well. It’s vulnerable, it’s infuriating, it’s predictable and somewhere underneath it all, it’s unrelentingly optimistic. Essentially he’s writing the same downfall, or saving grace, depending on where the story is headed, over and over again, and I love him for it. It feels like it’s his story. This isn’t me speculating on who he was as a person in terms of how he conducted his life, because a. art doesn’t always imitate life and b. who the fuck knows or cares, it’s none of our business anyway, but there is a truth within it that feels real. And when we get down to brass tacks, that’s what fiction is, a place for our truths to be expressed, even if those truths only ever exist in the words on a page.

So, getting back to King. I was aware of IT from a young age. I remember seeing a bit of the mini-series while sat on the stairs, when I should have been in bed, at my aunt and uncle’s house in one of those picturesque little Yorkshire villages. It was the scene where Pennywise is in a parade and giving out balloons, but he’s not a normal clown, his face is wrong and something feels wrong and the score is telling you it’s wrong and I remember that feeling of fear over something that should be fun and loving and safe being twisted and turned around. I’ve seen bits of the mini-series since but I have no idea whether or not that scene is actually in it as I remember, but that’s completely irrelevant really, what matters is the memory it left me with. I think the impact was in a large part due to Tim Curry’s complete embodiment of the monster, his iconic performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown quite simply deserving of all the kudos and applause it gets. So when I finally started reading King’s novels at 17, and found that horror was not only something that unsettled me as much as I had expected, but connected with me more powerfully than I could have ever imagined, I knew that one day I would attempt to read IT. IT was my white whale, and I held off until I felt I was ready, and ‘ready’ apparently translated to 25 years of age. Even now I remember those tantalising first few pages, telling myself that I wouldn’t necessarily read the whole thing, just see how I go with it… And that feeling of falling down an inevitable rabbit hole, all the while still pretending that I had the wherewithal to pull myself out of it at any time if I wanted to, knowing full well that resistance was futile. Fuck, man, that feeling, that goddamn feeling. But I digress.

I’ve always described IT as the greatest kid’s adventure story that should never be read by a kid. It really is truly horrific and stomach twistingly sickening at points. This most recent adaptation does what all good adaptations should, which is, get the essence of what makes the original so awesome, rather than attempting to dutifully recreate the events of the book. What works on paper really doesn’t always work on film. I think this is why King adaptations often go off the reservation entirely, because how do you translate the internal monologue of a character onto screen effectively? It’s a completely different medium and you have to go metaphorical with it rather than literal. The film changes events in an attempt to convey the meaning behind them for the character, in a way that is more immediate and accessible. For the most part this works very well, creating moments that don’t exist in the book that are actually incredibly scary (for those that have seen it, that women in the painting, right? And the sequence with the librarian, what the actual fuck? That’s so creepy that I almost don’t like thinking about it for too long, says the grown woman in her thirties) I’m not much of a fan of the ending, I think it’s a bit of a damp squib, and a let-down in the context of the overall film, because the film really is better than that and leads you to expect a more powerful conclusion, more like the one in the book. But the two ideas they run with and get so right in this film are the comradery and friendship between the characters, and the concept of adults being either ignorant to the peril the children are in, or the perpetrators of it.

For those that feel this film takes much of its inspiration from the kids in Stranger Things, do try to remember that IT the novel did this first, and did it better. And without IT I don’t think we would even have Stranger Things (there’s no way that the writers of that are not hard core King fans) I also know that quite a few people are happy that the notorious part of the book’s ending (or at least, the first ending when they’re kids, you’ll know what I’m referring to if you know the story), has been removed in the film. I definitely agree with this choice. But I think to throw criticism at the book for this scene is to put too much of a self-aware adult judgement on it, and the way to view it, I feel, while acknowledging that the scene is uncomfortable to read as an adult for obvious reasons, is to stop viewing it through that lens and consider its meaning in the context of that transitional time between childhood and sexual awakening, and to remember that it is supposed to signify the emotion that the act should always be about at its best, namely: love.

Another aspect of the film that has been praised in comparison to the mini-series is the removal of the adult thread in the story, choosing instead to focus entirely of the kids’ story. This decision, I feel, was the right one, and it works more effectively in a narrative sense for a two hour movie. But I am really looking forward to part two, the adults’ story. I know that some people think it’s a mistake to make part two, stating that it’s boring in comparison, but I could not disagree more. In the novel, the narrative switches between the past and the present day. As the adults are drawn back to Derry by IT, and the horror starts all over again, they remember the original events and almost re-learn them as they go, along with the reader, and remembering the past is how they deal with the present. This concept is an incredibly powerful one to me, and it’s the aspect of the story that has only grown with power in my perspective during the last year. As children, they do all they can, to fight and survive, but the horror is not defeated, it just goes quiet. As their lives progress, and they experience measures of success balanced with measures of loss and dreams intangibly out of reach, you learn that each of them has been unconscious, and as a result, have never really dealt with the trauma they experienced. Waking up to that trauma is painful and the personal risk to each of them is high, because smashing through ignorance also destroys the façade of safety. What we learn is that the safety was never really there, and the mechanisms that kept them alive as children, are now holding them back as adults.

I can only speak to what I know from my own life experience, and what I know is this, trauma experienced as a child can be so profound and painful, that running from it, numbing it and being unconscious to it is a natural and understandable response. But when you do this, there is forever an unacknowledged ghost walking next to you as a result. You’ll see it out the corner of your eye sometimes, like a figure hovering unnaturally in the background, or a clown with eyes that stare just a little too hard, and whether you realise it or not, by not letting that horror in, you’re holding yourself back from the person you could be. Now, putting aside for a moment the part of me that believes that we’re just overly self-aware meat puppets with anxiety, the part of me that fears that our lives are entirely meaningless, that romantic love is just a chemical reaction in our brains to attraction and that the concept of us having souls is just an exercise in wishful thinking, there is another part of me that believes that somehow the natural order of the universe finds our refusal to process trauma to be an irregularity that has to be righted. Life seems to manifest for these people, myself included, a trauma in our adult lives so significant and so severe that we have to go back into the pain we felt as a child, we have to face it all over again, just as the characters in the novel have to face IT all over again.

Now, this is where shit gets really hard, because a response to that process of waking up, rather than having to deal with it again, is it to take another way out, and we all know there’s only ever one real way out of anything in life. King acknowledges this idea in his story, and when it happens, you may feel frustrated and sad, but you understand how choosing not to face it again is a sympathetic choice. For those who decide not to take that way out, you have to go back. The pull of not-dealing is gut-wrenchingly strong though, and the barriers your mind can create are some of the most powerful manifestations of denial you can imagine. You can even hear it in my words above, if you look closely, when I talk about things being hopeless and meaningless, and the reason I’ve included those feelings is that I’m not quite at the end of my most recent chapter yet, and those thoughts are still things I’m working through and pushing against every day. I can see the end, but it’s not enough to know it rationally, you have to live it.

I truly believe that the book would not be as powerful as it is without the adult part. What the story shows us is how hard it is to face up to and deal with trauma. So hard that those characters are forty before they actually attempt to access it again. You’ll notice as well that none of the characters have kids. This is presented as a supernatural side effect of their experiences with, and connection to, IT, but it also serves as a metaphor for this underlying distrust in the idea that we, as adults, can change the way adults can be. All of the adults in the 1950’s part of the story are unconscious, they’re neglectful or controlling, either actively or passively, each of them living in constant state of expressing their own trauma and by proxy inflicting harm upon their own children. What the characters have to learn, excruciatingly, and by degrees, is that it is only through staring into the very heart of our own pain and feeling it, that we can change the story, that we can become the dependable protectors of ourselves and others that all adults have the potential to be. For those of us that had trauma in our lives, and by some degree or another, that’s all of us, we have to, at some point, choose to wake up to it, and be the strong adult that we always needed for ourselves. Or, we can choose not to do that, but be prepared for the fact that life will keep generating unpleasantness for us until we do, because if part of you fundamentally does not love who you are enough to do that, you’ll always be at risk of being pulled back into that original wound, because you’ve never treated it or helped it to heal, you’ve just looked the other way. Just like the adults before you did.

I think it’s as important at this point to recognise the power of not facing things like this alone. For any individual, and for the characters in IT, what gives them power against the monster, what gives all of us power against our own fears, is not being alone in them. Having friends, people you love, people who love you, people you can be honest with, who can help you to face the truth, are of fundamental importance, because not feeling alone helps to take the weight off any load you’re carrying. Whether that recognition of your damage, that validation of your experience, comes from people around you that will sit in the darkness with you and let you cry it out, or the honesty of a writer telling you about their experience of life, the meaning is just the same. Having said that, how lucky are we to have friends that do stand with us in the hard times? I say that with some confidence in believing that you do, just as I do, even if you don’t actually see it right now.

While I’m on the topic of remembering other bits of the story that are important to mention (I need to anchor myself occasionally or I’ll never come back to the point. Also, I’m running out of different words for ‘darkness’, and ‘pain’, for that matter) a third thing that the book does incredibly well is to create the sense of IT not just being a threat to the town and all the people in it, but an integral part of the town itself. The book goes quite deeply into the history of Derry, and we learn that every time something terrible has occurred, IT was there. The film does touch on this theme too. The creature appears to its victims as the thing they fear most, and IT feeds off that fear. But at the same time, the town is powered by that reflection of fear. IT cheers on the hate and the anxiety, pushing the town’s inhabitants to inflict upon each other the worst crimes humans are capable of. IT shows us the cycle of abuse, it shows us how giving in to pain and fear only serves to make those feelings more powerful and damaging. The people keep IT alive, and IT keeps their hate alive. This is why the kids are the only ones that can fight it, because they are the only ones who see IT outside of the times where IT wants to be seen. It’s the old adage that children see what is really there, whereas adults see what they expect to, or want to. We all do this, whether we’re aware of it or not. Because we decide whether that shop assistant was being super cute or super rude, and our perception of that usually has a far greater relevance to how we happen to feel on that day, than to anything that actually happened. This is also why, when confronting their childhood traumas, the Losers' Club have to stop running from what they fear and make themselves look at what is really there. This brings them back to the power they had as children, and to what gave them that power in the first place. Because you can’t fight what you can’t see.

I feel that King made part of himself intensely vulnerable in the telling of IT, pulling us into the fears, repulsions, hopes and desires he had as a child and the ones that persisted into adulthood. In doing this, he opens the door for us to access those parts of ourselves. This is one of the reasons why I feel that fiction is so important to our understanding of life and personal growth, because fiction speaks from one unconscious to another, in a way that we’ll allow in. The veneer of fantasy dulls the edges and makes it less painful to engage with consciously. But you feel it, in your gut, you feel it unconsciously, and that’s why IT is such a good story.

So my conclusion for you is this - ideally, read the book. But if you’re not up for that for whatever reason - watch this film. The question that everyone asks is how Skarsgard's performance as the clown shapes up to Tim Curry’s, but much like Jack Nicholson as The Joker, you can’t go into a role like that hoping to draw comparisons, only with the hope of making your own interpretation have value. And while this performance is no Heath Ledger turn, it’s still a very good, and I do think they get the essence of what makes him a threat, in a subtly different way. The issues I have with the character are more related to the story telling and directorial choices toward the end, and nothing to do with the actor’s performance.

But speaking to the bigger theme here rather than to that specific work of fiction, the take away instead could be this- jump into something that makes you uncomfortable, makes you question, or makes you connect, whatever that story is for you. Because there are some feelings, experiences and observations that seem universal, and others that feel distinctly personal, and it’s only through casting the net of your life experience far and wide that you’ll find them. In doing so, maybe, it will draw out something in you that makes you more vulnerable, more relatable, or more in tune with the you that you actually are, rather than the you that you’ve convinced yourself you should be, or how other people would prefer you to be. What you’ll probably find, just as King has and Banks did, is that you’re more loved that you ever thought you could be. Even if you find that the only person who loves you more at the end of it, is yourself.


We all float down here.

And if you go into the sewer.

You’ll float too. You’ll float too.



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