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Stephen King on writing

15 November 2017

On Writing: A MemoirOn Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began working as an editor at the University of South Africa (Unisa) thirty years ago I discovered the section of the university library that had books on how to write. I read quite a lot of them, initially to learn more about how to deal with other people’s writing that I was editing, and later just because I found it interesting. Then I read it for my own writing when I was working on a masters dissertation and a doctoral thesis, and I began working in the Missiology Department where I was writing and revising study guides myself, at the other end of the editorial process.

Some of the books claimed to be written by professional authors, though I’d never heard heard of them or of the books they had written. But Stephen King I had heard of.

I’d read some of King’s novels. I enjoyed reading some of them, and found others deadly dull. But he was a real professional author who had given up his day job to write, and made his living by writing. So his book on writing doesn’t come out of the same mould.

Many of the others are just a kind of digest of what other writing manuals say. This one is somewhat different, because it is personal. The others say “This is how it should be done” (avoid the passive voice, but in that case the passive voice is accurate). Stephen King says “This is how I do it.”

The full title is On Writing: a Memoir, and so it begins with a bit of autobiography saying how he came to be a writer. And it ends with more autobiography — about how he came to write this particular book. He was in the middle of writing it when he was knocked down by a car, and finished writing the book while recovering from his injuries.

As writing manuals go, what I found most interesting about this one is that he gave his interpretation of the rules and where he followed them and where and why he broke them.

One of the bits I found useful was what he said about overdescription:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like — I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well… Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. When it comes to actually pulling this off, the writer is much more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is almost always doomed to show too much… including, in nine cases out of ten, the zipper running up the monster’s back.

That reminds me of something John Davies (one-time Anglican chaplain at Wits University) once said in a paper on Christian art — that the author, or the artist, does not know everything there is to know about this thing. He compared Byzantine ikons with the Renaissance art that followed. The Renaissance artists went into exhaustive detail, as if to say “This must mean to you what it does to me.”

That is also why I’ve never seen any of the Lord of the Rings films — I fear they will interfere too much with the pictures I see in my head when I read the books.

When it comes to describing clothing, one of the most annoying authors I know is Jonathan Kellerman.

Another thing I liked especially about Stephen King’s advice was about pacing.

Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (and hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many thing to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can.

Like so many beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best-seller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.

Related to this is Backstory, which is giving information about what happened before the story begins. King writes:

You’ve probably heard the phrase in medias res, which means ‘into the midst of things.’ This technique is an ancient and honorable one, but I don’t like it. In medias res necessitates flashbacks, which strike me as boring and sort of corny.

One of my favourite authors, Charles Williams, seems to go for the slow build-up in his novels (though his War in Heaven has the most attention-grabbing first sentence of any novel I’ve ever read: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly but with no result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”).

A few years ago I entered NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and challenged several friends to do so, and to write a novel in a similar genre to those of Charles Williams. I was the only one who actually took up the challenge, and when I asked someone else to read my effort their main criticism was that it did not start in medias res and began with too much of the back story.

I also recently read a book on writing for children. It too urged the in medias res approach. And then I looked at one of my favourite books from when I was a child of about 9 or 10, The Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton. It was about 150 pages, and the actual adventure didn’t begin until after page 80. Reading it as an adult I saw lots of faults in it, but pace wasn’t one of them.

Another critic of my “Charles Williams” genre story (actually the same John Davies mentioned earlier) said that I should have given more technical information about the mcguffin (an ikon and a holy relic), giving the kind of information about ikons that Dorothy Sayers gives about bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors.

Stephen King also has something to say about that:

We need to talk a bit about research, which is a specialized kind of back story. And please, if you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

King notes that there are three essential parts to writing fiction: (1) narration, which moves the story on (2) description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader, and (3) dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer — my answer, anyway — is nowhere… I distrust plots for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

And there I agree with him. When I’m trying to write fiction, I often have no idea where the story is going to go. One of the characters may say something that takes it off in a completely unexpected direction.

But that sort of thing doesn’t always work. John Masefield once wrote an excruciatingly bad novel called Odtaa (One Damn Thing After Another). And a few decades afterwards I read it again to see if it was as bad as I remembered it. It was.

And finally, Stephen King says he doesn’t write for money.

Yes, he gets paid enough in royalties to live comfortably off the proceeds, but that’s not his motivation for writing. And that’s probably what makes his book on writing different from those of all the hacks who are out to make money by writing books about how to make money by writing.


St Stithians College: Reunion of the Class of ’58

10 November 2017

Today I was invited to a lunch to discuss the possibility of a reunion of my old Matric class, the class of 1958.

We’ve never had a class reunion before, not once in all the sixty years since we left school. Somehow our class was never close. I did keep in touch with two or three close friends after leaving school, but as we drifted apart physically and found ourselves living not merely in different towns but in different countries and even different continents, we gradually lost touch. We didn’t have anything like Facebook to keep us in touch.

So one reason for posting this here is in the hope that some of them may see it, or that someone who knows them may see it, and encourage them to make contact again.

Here it is, the Class of ’58

St Stithians College Class of ’58
Back: Michael Naylor, John Lundie, Steve Hayes, Theo Christenson, David Lange, Robert Ewing
Middle: Chris Genis, John Bolton, William Harris, J.E. Palmer, David Curtis, Neil Hodges, Adrian Callard
Front: Robert Mercer-Tod, Bruce Young, E.M. Harris (Maths), Wally Mears (Head), Steyn Krige (Housemaster, Mountstephens), Eric Pfaff, Jack Turner

If you have known any of them in the past, please share this on social media (see link below) in case someone else you know is also in touch with them. And if you know the whereabouts of any of them at the moment, please urge them to get in touch with the school, or leave a comment in the comments section below.

So today Mike Nayler and I met with three staff members of St Stithians to plan a possible reunion, if we can find any of our old classmates.

Alistair Stewart, Mike Nayler & Steve Hayes, at the Higher Ground Restaurant, St Stithians

You can see more about St Stithians and our class here and here. And the college web page is here.

Fantasy, horror, science fiction and more

3 November 2017

At our literary coffee klatsch on 2 November 2017 we had a wide-ranging and very interesting  discussion. I can only record a few highlights here, to jog my own memory, and for those who couldn’t be there to catch up. Present: David Levey, Duncan Reyburn, Val & Steve Hayes.

David Levey had been reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine l’Engle, and said he wasn’t enjoying it as much as her earlier book, A wrinkle in Time. He said the plot was ingenious, but not enough was made of it. I had recently reread A Wrinkle in Time, but had not been tempted to re-read A Wind in the Door. I too found it rather dull by comparison.

Having got started on children’s fantasy books, I mentioned that I had recently read Children’s Literature: the Development of Criticism and had been particularly impressed by one of the essays in it that referred to the implied reader of the books. For example books by Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit and other popular authors assumed that their readers would not only be familiar with households with domestic servants, but that they actually lived in such households. Duncan Reyburn and David thought that science fiction did not make such assumptions, because much of it is set in the future, and thus out of the reader’s experience. I tend to disagree. A lot of science fiction, in both books and film, assumes, for example, that the reader is familiar with concepts like warp drives and hyperspace.

Duncan said that Jung’s archetypes said something about our cognitive experience, and so some people liked fantasy and science fiction, while others could make nothing of it. People had different mental containers, and some preferred their fiction realistic, while others preferred it mimetic, though these sometimes got mixed up in a bizarre kind of way. He had seen an online discussion where people were discussing Superman in a kind of realistic way, calculating that if he caught a girl who was falling she could not possibly have survived, and were discussing this in all seriousness with G-forces and everything until someone pointed out that we are talking about a man flying here.

Val remarked that her experience of Superman was the radio serial, at 4:45 pm on Springbok Radio Monday to Friday without fail, and we talked about radio as a medium for such things, with sound effects. Some of the science fiction radio programmes we recalled were No Place to Hide, The Creaking Door and such things, and I mentioned Strangers from Space. It had been broadcast on Monday evening when I was at boarding school, and our dormitories were equipped with earphones, so we listened to it in bed after lights-out. The first episode was in the format of a news broadcast — there was shrinking of the polar ice caps, and scientists were concerned about the sea levels in coastal cites around the world, and this was being caused by strange radiation. It sounded utterly realistic, and we were half-convinced by it until, in the next episode a week later, it became clear that it was fiction. The two main characters, Benson and Bold, set out to track the source of the radiation but that aspect of the story was lost when they were captured by a sentient and conscious machine on Mars, and then they encountered the mysterious and terrifying Horgoid. I never heard the end of the story because I missed the last episode a year after it started.

We discussed the similar effect of a broadcast of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which actually caused panic in the USA.

David Levey recommended a book Science Fiction Theology by Alan P.R. Gregory. According to the description in GoodReads: Gregory examines the sublime and its implicit theologies as they appear in early American pulp science fiction, the horror writing of H. P. Lovecraft, science fiction narratives of evolution and apocalypse, and the work of Philip K. Dick. Ironically, science fiction’s tussle with Christianity hides the extent to which the sublime, especially in popular culture, serves to distort the classical Christian understanding of God, secularizing that God and rendering God’s transcendence finite. But by turning from the sublime to a consideration of the beautiful, Gregory shows that both Christian and science-fictional imaginations may discover a new and surprising conversation.

David also commented on the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick.

Duncan said he had been thinking a lot about zombie books and movies, and thought they expressed the modern condition, especially since 9/11 — that people were faced with a dark force that could somehow infect them that they could not control. I mentioned that Pet Sematary was Stephen King’s zombie book, and most of what I’ve had to say on the topic is in another post here, to commemorate Stephen King’s 70th birthday.

Val and Duncan said they liked Stephen King’s stories that had been filmed as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Both had Christian symbolism. In The Shawshank Redemption an innocent man is buried in a tunnel by which he escapes from prison and resurrected on the outside, while the guilty man inside is redeemed.

The Reformation and Modernity

28 October 2017

Many people are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, when Martin Luther endorsed the 95 Theses announcing the principles of the Reformation. At TGIF Detlev Tönsing, a Lutheran, spoke about its significance.

I’m not going to try to summarise what he said, but rather record some thoughts inspired by some of the things he said, and especially two pictures he showed us.

Concerning the importance of the Reformation, I recall my first study of church history, when I took a course in Ecclesiastical History I at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 1961-62. There was no tuition for the course, which was a survey of 20 centuries of church history. There were just two recommended textbooks — Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church and Williston Walker’s, History of the Christian Church. Read the books, write the exam. I failed the first time, having no idea what was expected, but passed the second time.

Twenty years later I was training self-supporting clergy of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. I thought those who had the educational background could take church history courses at Unisa, but then I found that the syllabus had changed, and Church History I was the study of the Reformation rather than a comprehensive survey, which made it quite useless. I thought that if they didn’t want to do a survey, they could at least start with early church history, which was common to all Christians, rather than the Reformation, which concerned only a minority.

So to some, the Protestant Reformation seems to be the most important event in Christian history, while to others it is something of a minority fringe interest. If the Reformation was a corrective of things that went wrong, and the correction took place 500 years ago, it is perhaps worth remembering that it was 500 years before the Reformation that the Western Church cut itself off from the rest of the Christian world and decided to go it alone, and 500 years is plenty of time for things to go wrong — and go wrong they did.

Detlev illustrated just how badly they had gone wrong by showing us two pictures painted by the same artist, Lucas Cranach. The first was painted just before the Reformation, and showed the Plague. In the picture God is at the top, in heaven, shooting arrows of plague down on hapless humans. The Christians are protected from this by Mother Church symbolised by the Virgin Mary, while Christ kneels, somewhat ineffectially watching.

If that is what the picture represents, then there is some very weird theology there. The role of the Church seems to be to protect people from an angry and malevolent God.

The second picture was painted towards the end of Cranach’s career, and some of the weird theology has been corrected, though not completely. The crucified Christ is central and dominant. The resurrected Christ is also shown, but smaller and tucked away in a corner. In the same corner there is a hint of his victory over death and the devil. God the Father does not appear, and is no longer the enemy. Martin Luther appears in the picture, as does Lucas Cranach himself.

Detlev Tönsing pointed out that the blood of Christ seemed to be flowing directly towards the artist, and that this shows the relationship of the individual to Christ. This, he said, was the essential element in Luther’s teaching. In the first picture, pre-Reformation, the Church is shown as communal, protecting its members from the wrath of God the Father. In the second picture the Virgin Mary does not appear, and the church is a collection of individuals, all male.

I was reminded of a Protestant hymn, which seemed to go well with the picture:

Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To the cross where thou hast died.
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To thy precious bleeding side.

The Orthodox view of what is central, absent in the first picture, is restored in the second, but relegated to a corner, expressed in the Easter hymn:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

The individualistic theme of the second picture, and the Protestant hymn quoted above, give the impression that “it’s all about me”.

It prompted me to ask the question: was Martin Luther the one who contextualised the gospel for the new individualistic worldview that had arisen from the Renaissance?

We talked to Duncan Reyburn afterwards, and he said the same question had occurred to him. He also remarked that for Luther God differed from us quantitatively, but not qualitatively. But that view, I thought, did not start with Luther. It started in the preceding 500 years in Western theology, where there was a conceptual shift, in which the main division of things was between Natural and Supernatural. So God belonged in the supernatural class along with various other supernatural beings. By Luther’s time this view was already superseding the division between Created and Uncreated, which is that God is qualitatively different from us.

Duncan referred to the idea of ikons as windows into heaven, and and linked that to the idea of God being qualitatively different, and coincidentally someone had asked the same question, as a discussion starter, in a Facebook group the day before.

It is said that icons aren’t windows to Heaven but rather bring the saints here in this reality.

Don’t statues do that better? Icons literally feel like windows. Statues literally make the person depicted present.

My response was:

Statues are altogether here, and don’t point to anything beyond themselves in their hereness. You can walk round the back of a statue and still see it. But you can walk round the back of an ikon and you can’t see it. Ikons are both here and now and then and there. Cf the arch that Aslan made the Telmarines walk through in Prince Caspian.

Detlev Tönsing also made the point that though there had been other reformers before Martin Luther, his ideas had been able to spread rapidly because of the fairly recent invention of printing by movable type. But, as Marshall McLuhan points out, printing also contributed to the rise of individualism, by boosting a previously rather rare phenomenon, the private reader.

The invention of printing also created “the Bible”, as Protestants speak of it. Premodern Christians did not know of “the Bible”. They knew the Holy Scriptures, and heard them read in church (though in the Western Church they were only read in Latin, which few people could understand). Printing replaced this communal reading with individual reading. For more on this, see The Ikon in an Age of Neotribalism.

Modernity, like an old-fashioned cooking pot, has three legs — the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Thus by contextualising the Gospel for individualism, Martin Luther was contributing to the rise of modernity.

Modernity, in its more recent forms, has also produced a reaction against individualism — collectivism. They are two sides of the modern coin. But that is something that Martin Luther probably didn’t foresee.

I think that it is quite important to distinguish between modernity and modernism. Modernity is the kind of outlook and worldview (sometimes also called “Western” because it originated in Western Europe) that developed as a result of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This worldview, or Weltanschauung, is a way of looking at things. Modernism, on the other hand, is the ideological belief that modernity is the only valid way of looking at things. Postmodernity is a recognition that while modernity may tell the truth about the world and our experience of it, it is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

You can see an example of the modernist ideology here, and I think it is important to discuss it, but it’s getting rather far from the topic of Martin Luther, and is perhaps a discussion for another day: A Manifesto against the Enemies of Modernity.

Children’s Literature

26 October 2017

Children's Literature: The Development Of CriticismChildren’s Literature: The Development Of Criticism by Peter Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been trying to write a sequel to my children’s book Of Wheels and Witches and thought this book might give me some ideas. It’s a kind of potted history of criticism of children’s literature — a collection of essays from various people written at various periods.

I found some a lot more useful than others for my purposes, but then the book wasn’t compiled for my purposes, but rather to ask and try to answer the question whether children’s books should be criticised using the same criteria as one would use for other books. There is also the question of what exactly are children’s books. Many books were written for adults, but are somehow lumped with children’s literature — Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, for example.

The essays I found most useful for my purpose were one by Roger Lancelyn Green, which was more of a survey or a review than a critique, and one by John Rowe Townsend, ‘Standards of Criticism for Children’s Literature’. But best of all was Aidan Chambers, ‘The Reader in the Book’.

Authors often make assumptions about their readers, and what they know, and what they will be familiar with. Chambers points out that most books, including most children’s books, have an ‘implied reader’:

… we can also detect from a writer’s references to a variety of things just what he assumes about his implied reader’s beliefs, politics, social customs and the like. Richmal Crompton in common with Enid Blyton, A.A. Milne, Edith Nesbit and many more children’s authors assumed a reader who would not only be aware of housemaids and cooks, nannies and gardeners but would also be used to living in homes attended by such household servants. That assumption as as unconsciously made as the adoption of a tone of voice current among people who employed servants at the time the authors were writing.

This, says Chambers, is something that could usefully be borne in mind by teachers who teach literature to children, and critics of children’s literature in determining whether or not a book is for children:

I am suggesting that the concept of the implied reader, far from unattended to by critics in Europe and America, offers us a critical approach which concerns itself less with the subjects portrayed in a book than with the means of communication by which the reader is brought in to contact with the reality presented by an author. It is a method which could help us determine whether a book is for children or not, what kind of book it is, and what kind of reader (or, to put it another way, what kind of reading) it demands. Knowing this will help us to understand better how to teach not just a particular book, but particular books to particular children.

That is something I think important not only for teachers of children’s literature to bear in mind, but also the authors. Whether articulated or not, most authors have a particular kind of reader in mind, and make assumptions about what the reader knows or doesn’t know.

John Rowe Townsend made some comments about criteria for criticising children’s literature which I think go far beyond children’s books, or teaching literature to children. In discussing the question of criteria for criticism, he concludes that the critic counts for more than the criteria:

A good critic will indeed be aware if theme, plot, style, characterization and many other considerations, some of them not previously spelled out but arising directly from the work; he will be sensitive; he will have a sense of balance and rightness; he will respond. Being only human he cannot possibly know all that it would be desirable for him to know; but he will have a wide knowledge of literature in general as well as of children and their literature, and probably a respectable acquaintance with cinema, theatre, television and current affairs. That is asking a lot of him, but not too much. The critic (this is the heart of the matter) counts more than the criteria.

And that reminds me of South Africa’s venture into Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) about twenty years ago. OBE attempts to standardise the criteria, which makes it easier to set standards and compare them across different institutions. About 15 years ago I was a member of a Standards Generating Body for Christian Theology. We had to wrote outcomes for theological education.

Now there are certain disciplines in which OBE works well and easily. If one is teaching carpentry, then you can specify that the outcome is a table. You can know that the learner has learnt to make a table when they have actually made one that doesn’t wobble and doesn’t collapse when anything is put on it.

But that doesn’t quite work in theology, nor, I should imagine, in literature. I was called upon to mark undergraduate essays in Missiology, and generally I could tell, after reading the first paragraph, what mark I would give at the end. Very rarely did it vary by more than 5% from what I thought at the beginning. And I think that is what Townsend was talking about in the bit I quoted above. It was very difficult to articulate the outcomes beforehand. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the eater gets to know what a good pudding tastes like, and trying to specify the taste and texture and qualities of a good pudding as measurable outcomes doesn’t work.

In the humanities, in particular, Outcomes Based Education is likely to have one overriding outcome — Zemblanity.

Zemblanity is the opposite of Serendipity.

Serendipity is the faculty of making happy, desirable and unexpected discoveries by chance.

Zemblanity is the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

You can read more about it here: Zemblanity and education | Notes from underground

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23 October 2017

Grevel Lindop, who has recently written a biography of Charles Williams, notes in his blog the good news that a paperback version is now available.

I’ve just received the first paperback copies of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Very exciting. Pleasant too for readers, because they can now get the book for a sensible, indeed pretty modest, price: £12.99 for a 490 page biography with 36 glossy plates.My first copies, with Aslan the Lion – the white lion trophy is the Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Inklings Scholarship, which the book won when it came out. The hardback was a handsome book, but at £25 you couldn’t expect many people except Williams fanatics to buy it. It has sold well enough but I suspect mainly to libraries, and those Inklings enthusiasts who couldn’t bear to wait!


I’ll be looking out for it, though I’m not very hopeful of finding a copy in the second-rate bookshops of the great city of Tshwane. If anyone spots a copy, please let me know!

I was truned on to Charles Williams by Brother Roger, an Anglican monk (not the Taize one) in 1960, at the age of 19, and it was not until several years later that I discovered that he and C.S. Lewis were friends or that they read their books to each other.

Monsters and horror

4 October 2017

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just reading It for the second time. I gave it four stars the first time and still give it four stars now. I first read it over 20 years ago, so there were some bits I had forgotten.

After the second reading I felt rather sad — I was going to miss the characters in the story. And that is one of the strong points. The characters are real and memorable. I found it rather sad that in the story the adult characters remembered so little about their childhood friends, though of course that was part of the plot. And it brought back memories of my own childhood — going around with friends, building dams in streams, exploring storm drains, hiding from bullies and so on.

My reason for reading it a second time was that I had written a blog post for Stephen King’s birthday and mentioned that I had found It disappointing, because in the end “It” turned out to be an extra-terrestrial monster, and I thought Stephen King’s books that had extra-terrestrial monsters, like The Tommyknockers, were disappointing.

Brenton Dickieson wrote a comment, saying I had misinterpreted the ending of “It”. He pointed out that It is a demonic power, not an alien civilization. So I began re-reading it.

At first I thought I would just re-read the end, which I had found most disappointing, but then I thought it was long enough since my first reading that I would read the whole thing, carefully.

I discovered things that anyone would miss on a first reading — clues to the development of character, the foreshadowing of things that would happen later, when you know what happens later, things that the characters themselves were oblivious to because of their lapses of memory.

But I still found the ending disappointing, so I still give it four stars, not five. But to explain why will entail introducing spoilers, so if you have not read the book, and want to, you can give the rest of this post a miss.

Warning: spoilers ahead

As I’ve pointed out, I liked the characters in the story, and when I finished reading it I felt rather sad, I would miss them. At the weekend I’m hoping to see an old school friend whom I haven’t seen for thirty years, and I’m rather looking forward to that.

In It we first meet most of the characters as adults, when they are summoned back to their old home town to deal with a monster they had faced as children, but was now troubling the town again 27 years later. Only one of the seven of them still lives in the town, and it is he who calls them back. As they travel, their childhood memories begin to return, so we meet them as children too, they are all 11 years old, and have just finished Grade 5 at school. So the action in the story moves between 1958 and 1985.

When they gather again as adults Mike Hanlon, the one who has stayed behind in the (fictional) town of Derry, Maine (who also happens to be the only black member of the group) notes that they have all prospered in their careers, except for him — he has remained a small-town librarian, and had studied the history of the town and discovered that the monster went back a long way further than any of them had thought. He attributes their prosperity to the influence of the monster — an incentive to keep away and not trouble It again. He also notes that none of them have children.

There was something he did not mention, but which struck me: not only did they not have children when they grew up, but they had no siblings as children, which perhaps explained the closeness of their friendship, which helped them to defeat the monster. Another thing they had in common was that those who were married often married spouses who resembled their dysfunctional parents. Beverly Marsh, the girl, marries a man who resembles her abusive father.

Eddie Kaspbrak marries a woman who resembles his domineering hypochondriac mother. And he himself is a hypochondriac. At one point, when he is 11, the pharmacist takes him aside for a heart-to-heart talk, and explains to him that his asthma spray is a placebo, and that its effect is purely imaginary. He decides to keep believing it, however, and eventually believes that if it can defeat asthma by imagination, it can also by imagination defeat the monster that lurks in the drains and sewers of the town of Derry.

Their leader, Bill Denbrough, had had a younger brother, George, who was taken by the monster in the guise of a clown at the beginning of the story. So he too has no siblings. He also feels guilt for the death of his brother, because he had made him a toy boat which he was chasing down the street after the rain when the clown popped out of a drain and caught him.

The victims of the monster seem to be mainly children, hence the clown disguise, but when it wants to threaten or  frighten them, It takes on the form of their darkest fears — a dead brother or school fellow, a werewolf, a bird that had pecked at his face when he was a baby in a pram.

But it is the nature of the monster and the way of defeating it that strike me as the least convincing parts of the story. On the second reading, trying hard to think of It as not an ordinary extraterrestrial monster, I thought it could be a kind of metaphor or symbol for childhood fears, the kind of manifestation of evil forces and temptations that troubled the desert fathers. Those who succumbed to these temptations in the book, the bullies and abusive parents, came to resemble the monster more and more. In some cases, like the bullies, it took them over almost completely. But such monsters, real though they may be, do not rip people’s arms off. If it was the people who allowed themselves to be taken over had done that, it would be understandable. But it is the monster itself, and not the people it has taken over, that directly harms people physically.

In the end the monster resembles Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps that is a pointer to why I find it unsatisfactory — Stephen King is trying to combine every monster and demon of folklore and fiction and childhood fears into one, and the result is a pastiche, a hodgepodge, a mengelmoes of disparate elements, with an inexplicable turtle flowing in outer or inner space as a kind of counterfoil, perhaps escaped from Terry Pratchett. But the Morrigan is one thing, a bodach another. Sauron is one thin, an orc is another. The ending, with the destruction of the centre of the town, is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s That hideous strength, but the monster is too inconsistent for that to work either. It’s a macrobe, yes, but more than a macrobe, too much more.

And after all the detail of the earlier chapters, there are too many loose ends at the end. When Beverly ran from home with her father chasing her to give her a thrashing, where did she sleep that night after going to the sewers to chase the monster? Did its defeat exorcise him or not? Did Ben and Bev marry and live happily ever after? (Yes, at one level it’s a touching love story). Did any of them have children after that, or did it all end in the same cloud of amnesia with which it started? And can you really find salvation in a gang bang?

If I go on about this, it will sound as though I’m trying to tell Stephen King how he should have written his book, and that because I didn’t like the ending, he should have written it the way I might have written it, so perhaps it’s time to stop. But I still find it a somehow unsatisfactory monster. All the other characters are somehow true to life, but the monster isn’t. Well, you might say, monsters aren’t true to life, because they are fictional. But it was Mau Tse Tung, that communist materialist, who declared that “monsters of all kinds will be destroyed”. They will, of course, but not by him.


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