Ginger Nuts of Horror
In the first of a five part series, authors James Newman (The Wicked, Animosity) and Kit Power (The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife, Lifeline) re-read and discuss Stephen King’s seminal tome on childhood and horror – IT. Expect free flowing conversation, adult language, huge amounts of major spoilers, and possibly even the odd argument. The conversation, which will not end for a considerable length of time (if it ever really does end), begins, so far as I know or can tell, with ‘Part 1: The Shadow Before’…
We would all love to hear your thoughts on both this article and the book itself. Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of this post. The athors would love to strike up an entertaining discussion with you all.
“Can an entire city be haunted?” – Mike Hanlon
James Newman: If you're around, I'm ready!
Kit Power: Okay, let me just grab a beer and my copy of the book... :)
JN: Same here. Except it's Diet Pepsi and a pain pill for me. And the book. :)
KP: Nice! :D
JN: So . . . I can't believe how quickly I tore through the first Book, after your invitation. I told you that you'd probably be waiting on me, we agreed that it would be a slow-going, no-pressure kinda thing, and then I tore through that first 150 pages or so in -- what, a day or so? That's the power of King's work. Especially, for me, his balls-out HORROR work (which he has gradually gotten away from more and more over the last decade or so, with the occasional exceptions like DOCTOR SLEEP -- which I thought was the best thing he'd written in 20 years).
KP: Yeah, I think it took me a week, but agreed that for such an insanely big book, it's a quick read. I know it's not his most popular work, but I experienced something very similar with Under The Dome, actually, the pacing on that book is just insane, IMO.
JN: Believe it or not, I couldn't finish that one. :( I got a little under halfway through it, and it just fizzled out for me. I found myself putting it down, and not having a huge desire to pick it up again. I'd start reading other things, and then eventually I never picked it back up. I'm sure I'll give it another chance one day. Just out of curiosity, what's the cover to the edition you're reading? I freakin' love the one in the "COMING SOON" piece (about what we're doing here) on Ginger Nuts of Horror. I'm assuming that's the British mass-market cover? You guys have all the best cover art, usually blow away the stuff we get over here.
KP: Ha! The one Jim is using for these articles was on the paperback my dad owned. It's a superb cover. I remember at 10 or 11 being utterly transfixed by it.
JN: Yeah, awesome cover. Although I do love the "lizard-y" hand in the sewer grate on the American mass-market edition. That's one thing I wanted to mention at the beginning of our chats -- I can remember being mesmerized by that cover when IT was first released during my seminal years. I saw the display in our local Waldenbooks, and just knew that this was the book to end all books. I would read it one day, and there was NO WAY I wouldn't love it. It was like every childhood fear captured in a single, simple, yet very ominous painting. Just like the book was every childhood fear captured in 1100 pages or so.
KP: I need to say a little something about the dedication, actually. I'd forgotten about it completely (which seems fitting, given one of the major themes of the book). He dedicates the book to his 3 kids (who were kids at the time).
JN: Yeah, I love that. Fitting.
KP: And after that, he says
'Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: The magic exists’.
Does that give you goosebumps too? because I gotta say, I felt my scalp prickle just reading that.
JN: Yeah. It's a perfect intro to the novel. Instantly, you're like, "Wow. I'm about to read something very special here. Something that's gonna make me remember what it was like to be a kid." It's a promise from King, even if that's not what he intended to convey to the reader. And it's a promise that he keeps, when all is said and done. To say the least.
KP: Right, definitely. I also find it eerie that I'd forgotten about it given that forgetting is one of the major themes/motifs in the book! I can't off the top of my head think of many books that manage to set an atmosphere with the dedication. Pretty cool.
KP: So the first chapter - After The Flood.
JN: Well, first off . . . I love how he sets the mood from the very beginning. The rain, the gloom. It's all so depressing. Made even more depressing by the fact that there's a young man who’s bedridden thanks to the flu, and he can't go out to play with the little brother who looks up to him.
KP: Yeah, that's a good point. It's atmospheric as hell. And the foreshadowing is sledgehammer subtle - we know from very early on in the chapter that little Georgie is going to die.
JN: Not to mention that he's only a small part of what will transpire:
"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years -- if it ever did end -- began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain."
And away we go . . . .
It's like King is telling us, from the very first sentence, "I'm gonna tell you a story. And I can't promise you that it ends well." I LOVE that.
KP: Right - it's an object lesson in how to write an opening line. Something else that really struck me, returning to the book after a long interval - and it reoccurs throughout the first book - damn near every part of the story contains flashbacks/remembering - the story within a story structure is set from the get-go, with Georgie in the street remembering Bill in bed and the imaginary creature in the cellar... the slippery relationship to time and memory is set early, and I can't help but find it ballsy - I mean, you just wouldn't start a book this way, with flashbacks in the opening chapter. No way. Unless...
JN: Yeah, there aren't many who could pull it off. That's for sure. It could have been so clunky. Not in a master's hands.
KP: It SHOULD be clunky. Instead it's terrifying and heartbreaking, all at once.
KP: There's also that crazy moment where he says that Georgie would have thought of Ronald McDonald if he'd seen the clown a year or two later. I'm pretty sure that violates a good half a dozen rules about what you’re supposed to do with 3rd person close period narrative. And the ripping wound is King taking apart the rulebook. With GLEE.
KP: *sound. The ripping wound comes a little later... :D
JN: You mentioned the imaginary creature in the cellar. I love the foreshadowing. This book is all about childhood fears, and we have one from the get-go here. Georgie was scared to go down there, because there might be something in the dark. He was right. Only it wasn't in his cellar. And it was something so much worse than what he imagined.
KP: How cheeky is that?!!? I love it though because it makes an important point - IT is not a symbol for childhood terror. This book HAS those symbols, but IT is a real creature. And as you say, IT's worse.
KP: It seems to me too - and I may be over-reading here - that this chapter also sets up two big recurring themes of the novel, which are brutality and tiny mercies. In this case, you have the brutal death of Georgie - which is described by the way almost clinically, with zero hyperbole, and all the more terrifying for that - but there is that information King gives us that he died instantly. It's a small mercy, a tiny one, but I also think a telling one...
JN: Right. He died instantly. Tiny mercy? Perhaps. But that doesn't make it any less horrifying. 'Cause what the neighbour saw . . . it's nightmare fuel, to say the least. The kid might have died quickly, but there's a lifetime of terror in what he saw in his final moments.
KP: True dat. The line that gets me is 'What Georgie saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke'. I mean, hot DAMN.
JN: You say "true dat" over there? I didn't expect dat. :D Yes! Terrifying.
KP: Well, I do, but I watch a lot of US TV. :)
JN: Also, I’ve always loved how a guy who is eventually gonna be one of IT's main characters is kept out of the action at the beginning. He's bedridden, unable to save his brother. Imagine having to live with that for the rest of your life. I mean, he MADE THE BOAT that led Georgie to his death.
KP: Right, it's huge, and you're also right that that guilt is basically the through-line for the whole novel. I mean, the other kids all have their reasons, but it's Bill that unites them, and it's Bill's guilt that drives him, all the way.
JN: Oh! I have to mention a line I jotted down in my notes as I was preparing for this chat. So far, from a "writerly" standpoint, this is my favourite descriptive passage, sentence, what have you . . . .
JN: It just gives me chills. I read it over and over several times. George hears his mother playing the piano as he goes down to the basement, but it sounds “like music from another world, far away, the way talk and laughter on a summer-crowded beach must sound to an exhausted swimmer who struggles with the undertow.” Isn't that great? As if they're close . . . so close . . . close enough to save him, should something go wrong. But at the same time they might as well be miles away. 'Cause HE is in the cellar. They're not. The rules of reality ain't the same down here.
KP: Yeah, that's fantastic writing. Again what's so brilliant is how workmanlike it is, how non-hyperbolic – at core it’s a matter of fact description, and all the more chilling for it. Superb passage. And of course, the theme of their mother playing the piano haunts Bill, later...
JN: Yep -- that's in my notes too. "Fur Elise". I can't imagine how terrible that would be. I often can remember where I was when I first heard a song, or what was going on in my life the first time I heard a certain album (our discussions about APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION come immediately to mind). But this . . . this is just too horrible to imagine: He would always remember that “my mother was playing that song the day Georgie died”.
JN: The song's morose and sorta haunting as it is. If you lived through something like that, though? "Fuck that song." LOL
KP: Yeah, one more reason to never watch a Merchant Ivory movie, that's for sure!
KP: One other thing that hit me overall about this opening chapter: having a brutal murder happen in the opening is far from unusual. In 80's horror novels, it's almost an institution. Beloved of James Herbert and many, many others. What strikes me about IT that lifts it above the pack is the combination of the brutality of the murder with the sheer HEART - by the time Georgie is murdered, we already love him a little, thanks to seeing how Bill loves him. King manages to make us feel attachment, make the kid real... then, and only then, does he rip his arm off and leave him to bleed out in the street.
JN: Definitely. A genuinely sweet kid. And, like Bill, we're helpless to stop it.
KP: Good point. We're made to empathise, arn't we? Bastard. And talking of deaths we're helpless to prevent - what about After The Festival? Unless there was anything else you wanted to get to with the opener...
JN: I did want to mention one thing . . .
KP: Do it!
JN: This is most likely just my shitty memory, and the answers will come later. But I swear I can recall questioning this when I first read the book 30 years or so ago and again when I re-read it maybe 15 years ago. Perhaps I think of it early on, in this first chapter, and then forget about it later 'cause King weaves the answer seamlessly into the book. But for the life of me, I can't remember . . .
. . . Bob Gray.
KP: Go on...
JN: Is it just me, or does he mention that's the real name of the clown (in Pennywise's "we're not strangers" conversation with Georgie), but then never follows up on that again? I remember wondering if he was some child-killer or something back in the early days of Derry. But then, that wouldn't make any sense, because that's not what IT is. It was never human. So what's up with the name?
KP: Yeah, I don't know. I know it is used again, but I think you're right that it's never 'sourced' in the sense of having a real-world payoff (Which as you note wouldn't make sense anyway, given the true nature of IT). The only think I can think of is how it echoes Flagg in ‘The Eyes Of The Dragon’ taking on other names and identities throughout the history of the kingdom for convenience. I guess IT may have occasion to interact with adults from time to time, so having a 'name' that worked in that world might be handy. But that's pretty thin. Hey, something to look out for in the rest of the re-read, right?
JN: Definitely. I just remember, all these years later, thinking on that very first read that the clown must be the spirit of some child molester with that name or something. My preconceived notions were obviously setting IT up as some kind of Freddy Krueger villain . . . boy, was I ever wrong. And short-sighted. And uncreative. Heh.
KP: Well, and maybe that’s all that was going on - King going for a bit of misdirection. I don't think that's beneath him as a trick... :)
JN: True, true.
KP: So... After The Festival? I have some thoughts, but I'd love to hear your take on this one...
JN: One last thing I jotted down in my notes (sorry!): After Georgie dies, we follow the boat, until it drifts out of this tale forever . . . symbolism for the way a murdered child eventually just fades from public memory to become another statistic? I couldn't help thinking along those lines. Probably not intentional on King's part, but the best symbolism isn't forced or "planned", it comes naturally from a great writer.
KP: Right - I’m glad you mentioned that actually, because it's such a striking image. I love the way it floats the fantasy that the boat may have reached the sea - may sail there still. My version of the symbolism was actually that it was a rumination on the mysteries of a possible afterlife - the boat as symbol for Georgie's soul, perhaps immortal and floating on the sea peacefully - before reminding us that all we really know about death is that he has 'passed from the tale forever'. Your reading works too, mind, so that's a kind of genius...
JN: Love it, man. So, yeah . . . "After the Festival."
KP: Go for it! :)
JN: My first thought, upon revisiting this chapter, was that the gay-bashing was an immediate "welcome" -- if you will -- into Derry. And how it's a very, very ugly place at its core. There is something wrong with this town. Because of IT, down there under it all, it's tainted.
KP: Right. I also love* how raw and unvarnished the homophobia is - how ugly and all prevalent, even amongst the cops. *love may be a gloriously inappropriate word, but you know what I mean. But you're right, it's a marker. Homophobia is everywhere, sure. But here in Derry... it's just that biiiit more lethal...
JN: Right. Even the cops look down their noses at the victims. As if they're only doing this because they HAVE to. It's really no big loss (from their POV, I mean, obviously).
KP: Right. Structurally this chapter is I think really interesting. It took me a little while to click in, but it's actually very cinematic - it's that scene from the police procedural where the suspects are being interviewed separately but at the same time, to try and get a wedge between them, so we keep hopping from room to room and character to character - and from there to flashback. It should be a hot mess, impossibly confusing - how the hell does King keep this coherent? Because he does...
JN: I love this introduction to modern-day Derry. It's so dark and dreary, but in a completely different way from what we just saw back in the 50s, when Bill was a kid.
KP: Right. It's... greyer, isn't it? We've swopped the primary colours of childhood out for the grey washed out pallet of compromised adulthood.
JN: I've never thought about it that way, but I instantly know what you mean. Makes perfect sense. You might say that the only colours within that pallet are Pennywise's balloons. <shudder>
KP: Neither had I till about 5 seconds ago! :) And that's just what had occurred to me too! Damn, that's creepy. Yeah. How about them bullies too? I think King is a master of the thug/hood archetype, and the gang that kills Adrien Mellon are cut from a familiar cloth...
JN: Yes. Such real human evil.
KP: Yes! Banal, stupid, vicious. Dull. Like real human evil normally is. There's some fun foreshadowing here too with the deep Derry history - mentions of the tramp chair and the Bradly Gang shootout, and I think our first mention of Mike Hanlon...
JN: I love how King does that. Dropping that stuff in there, making you think even if it's only subliminally, "I can't wait to hear more about that later . . . . "
KP: Yeah. He doesn't always pay it off, but in IT... :D It's a banker.
JN: As far as the actual murder of Adrian Mellon, I had forgotten there was more than a mention from one of his murderers about seeing a clown . . . I had forgotten the detail, of the thousands of balloons under the bridge, their white strings hanging like spider webs. God, that's awesome. And then of course there’s Pennywise lifting his victim’s arm up to take a bite out of his armpit . . . chilling! I don't know how the hell I had forgotten about that image. The squeaking of the balloons bumping up against one another under there. Notice how he doesn't just SHOW you (via sight) -- a great writer engages all the senses.
KP: Yeah, I'd forgotten that detail too. I heart Derry, indeed. Also how that somehow eliminates the idea that's it's some kind of hallucination - I couldn't tell you why, I just know that hearing that detail eliminates for me any suggesting this is 'all in the mind' - the fucking balloons were THERE, man - They squeaked. *brrr*
JN: Oh, that's great! Very nice point.
KP: And it's another murder in the water, as Mike mentions later...
JN: Oh, yes.
KP: One other thing that hit me - I love the cop going on about 'one armed man syndrome' - it's funny on at least two levels. 1 It had never occurred to me, but of course a cop would hate the conceit of ‘The Fugitive’ and 2. Of course there WAS a one armed man in ‘The Fugitive’ and there was a clown under the bridge... :)
JN: And there was a one-armed kid, years ago . . . .
KP: Yikes! How did I miss THAT?!?!
KP: Okay, you ready to get into the phone calls? Or was there anything else on C2?
JN: Nope, sounds good.
KP: Cool . Stan takes a bath…
JN: I was shocked (because I didn't remember it) that Stan's is the first phone call, and subsequently his suicide. That feels like a cliffhanger, like something that would leave a resounding note of terror at the END of Book 1, doesn't it (I realize we aren't discussing the mini-series adaptation at all, but just as a point of comparison, I'm pretty sure it WAS the end of Act 1 in that thing)? But it's the first phone call. And he can't handle it. That seems to set you up into thinking, "Shit, it actually gets worse from here?!"
KP: It's funny you mention that. We've had 3 chapters and 3 brutal murders. I vividly remember reading this for the first time, and after 'Stan takes a bath' flipping ahead to the forthcoming chapter titles 'Richie takes a powder', 'Ben takes a drink' and thinking 'are they all going to get a phone call and just kill themselves?' And wondering if I could really handle that, you know? It was a pretty severe gut check for me, and gives a good sense of just how dislocating an experience this is to read the first time...
JN: Ha! While it never gets that bad, we know it's bad. These folks saw something that they don't ever want to see again. Stan kills himself, Richie pukes . . . .
KP: Right. Staying with Stan, the dislocation is more acute because the chapter is from his wife's POV. We haven't met Stan, we don't know him, and we don't really get to know him at all… And how harsh is that? She's a nice, fundamentally decent woman, kind-hearted, loyal, and BAM - her life is destroyed by a phone call she'll never understand.
JN: However, although we don't know him, through his wife's eyes a picture is painted of Stan as a man who worked hard to get where he is, and they're happy. So to take that ultimate "way out" . . . wow, imagine what that phone call must have meant to him. This smart, resourceful businessman didn't even TRY to deal with it.
KP: It really underlines the awful power of whatever is going on, whatever IT means...
JN: Exactly. What must that have left her thinking? What assumptions would she have made about the good man she had married? What must he have been into to make him kill himself over one phone call?
KP: We get a taste of that too, don’t we? The section opens with her talking to her mother (again with the foreshadowing), totally disoriented, trying to piece it together, make sense of the senseless. And that suicide note!
JN: Yeeeesh. The kids DO call it by that name later, don't they? I'm sure they do, if memory serves. That wasn't a case of Stan simply trying to put a name to something, a name we don't hear later except for the title of the novel, right?
KP: No, they do, definitely. That's what they call it.
JN: I thought so. I just love that single pronoun. Vague to his wife and anyone else who didn't live in Derry . . . yet the word says it all to someone who lived through it.
KP: Yeah. And for the first time reader at that point - well, we've seen what happened to George and Adrian, and we know what the book is called...
JN: I love how the formatting/type/whatever-you-wanna-call it in the book shows you exactly what that bloody scrawl on the side of the bath looked like. Instead of King just telling you that he had written the word "IT".
KP: That stayed with me a long, long time. Interesting too that we're well over 50 pages into the thing now and narratively, for all it’s been violently eventful, we the reader still basically don't have clue one what is going on, except 'bad stuff'.
JN: We are totally in the dark (heh). And it works. Man, does it ever. You wouldn't stop reading if every other page had a razor blade taped to it. Heh.
KP: Well, you say that - at 11, the first time, I came within an ace of doing just that. It was so, so dark, and apparently unrelentingly so. Scared the shit out of me.
JN: The suspense is brutal. You trust that King is going to tell you what these characters lived through, but WHEN?
KP: Right, and there comes Ritchie, and the first pieces of the puzzle. Telling that this is the first time in the book we actually get to spend any time inside the head of one of 'The Losers'.
JN: Love that goofball.
KP: So much love. The moment when he pretends to be Kennedy on the phone to the Derry hotel actually made me chuckle. Again. Such a lovely little smack down, and comment on the feeling that he's travelling back in time.
JN: I love how he can easily slip into almost obnoxious territory, though (at least, if I knew someone who did this I would sure find it annoying): Yep, you beat me to it . . . I was gonna say, suddenly doing his voices like Kennedy on the phone when he's scared. His mind is moving at a million miles a minute, he can't think straight, because this is all happening too fast and he knows what he has to do. As much as he doesn't want to.
KP: I found Ritchie so relatable too - you're right that he'd be an ass-pain to know at times, but seen from the inside, man, I get him so well. There's a bit later where he talks about finding the bastard that's been running around in your head fucking your life up, and putting the asshole in a harness and making him work for YOU, and how that's basically the secret to success.... man, I dig that soooo hard.
JN: Agreed! For the first time, we hear about Henry Bowers, Belch, and the rest. And in the next chapter, Ben Hanscom confirms it -- those sons-of-bitches were a part of his childhood too.
KP: Yes, right, Henry, who will be such a pivotal figure.
JN: Henry. The bogeyman of their childhood, of every kid who's ever been picked on (I can relate, as I was bullied as a kid) . . . and yet there's something much, much worse than Henry Bowers, and it's back.
KP: Find me a horror writer who wasn't bullied as a kid. I'll buy you a dollar. :) Again, King is such a master at writing bullies. We've barely meet this Henry kid and we already know him, hate him... and fear him. Also, the bit here where Richie is describing how his face seems to be labelled for abuse by the bullies, running through his features and anthropomorphising them, his glasses yelling 'Hit me here! Break them if you can! Try and blind me!' So powerful.
JN: You know instantly that King has been there. Multiple times.
KP: Clearly. Also Richie quotes Neil Young, so he's clearly the coolest person we've thus far met. :P
JN: Believe it or not, with the exception of the song "Rockin' In the Free World", I've never cared for Neil Young at all (yeah, that staccato clicking sound you heard was the minimizing of many windows, as we just lost 90% of our readers due to my shameful admission). Heehee.
KP: Ha! Well, he also quotes Springsteen, and links Bev to ‘Glory Days’, so there's more than one base covered... :D
JN: right, right :)
KP: The other thing we get out of this is what we suspected with Stan - the memories that are surfacing are not just scary, but actually sanity threatening - there's the image of a balloon filled with noxious fumes, swelling...
KP: Shall we look at Ben?
JN: Yes, lets. Poor Ben. Who "used to be a real butterball."
KP: I flat out love the opening to Ben's chapter - the long description of the route to get to this unremarkable roadhouse, and the idea of this insanely successful guy who has just adopted the place, for some unknown reason. The eccentricity of it delighted me.
JN: He's instantly likeable, isn't he? Even as he basically does nothing more throughout this whole chapter than drink, drink, drink.
KP: Right. He's basically a cypher in this chapter - not helped by the fact that the story is POV the bar manager rather than Ben - but still, yes, he's very likable. One of King's classic 'good men', I think.
JN: He's a guy who makes a lot of money, he's successful, and yet he knows this hole-in-the-wall bartender by heart, knows his kids' names. He treats the guy like his equal. So the guy's worried about him when he comes in and proceeds to drink enough to kill three men twice his size.
KP: I think it's through the Bartenders regard for Ben that we grow to like him too - that's a good observation, and a really smart technique.
JN: And yet, Ben holds his liquor. For all of the fear we see in Stan and Richie before him, in Ben's case I'm not sure the alcohol is entirely liquid courage. He's scared, sure, but he's also a man who knows what has to be done.
KP: Yes. Also, he's using an Indian ritual - an echo of the smoke-hole? An understanding that he'll need that ability to connect with magic to survive what's to come, and an attempt to do so? He's clearly very smart, as well as scared as hell.
KP: One writing note I had from here. There's a moment where the bartender is taken aback by a look in Ben's eyes and knocks the glasses. King writes 'His ass hit the backbar and the glassware gossiped briefly as the bottles knocked together'. That just floored me. Gossiped.
JN: Yes, isn't that great? I was gonna point that out too. So perfect.
JN: So, speaking of the old Indian ritual -- which I'd never thought of before, great call -- does that mean Eddie Kaspbrak has his own? Sure, the fact that he's a walking pharmacy can mostly be attributed to the fact that his mom created this monster, and he subsequently married his mother, but does Eddie Kaspbrak have his own potions, totems, things-to-fill-his-peace-pipe, if you will?
KP: Sure he does. The aspirator being the most powerful, as we discover. But I think you're right, that's why he empties that (frighteningly well observed and detailed) medicine cabinet - the bit where he goes back for Myra’s Midol is hilarious.
KP: Here's a thought though - Ben gives up the silver dollars, Eddie holds onto his medications. Given how things play out, is there significance there? Something about learning when to let go?
JN: Yeah, I love that. Nice thought! Meanwhile, Eddie has "made it" too. He's driving around Al Pacino, for God's sake. But at heart he's still that weak, terrified little boy who needs someone else to look out for him.
KP: Yeah, and as you say he's married his mother, essentially. So his power is also his crutch and weakness. Again there’s the contrast - Ben is a bachelor (for reasons we discover), and Eddie is locked into his own past. Tough to be Eddie. And yet, and yet... his core is strength, not weakness. The kindness with which he handles his wife in the moments before he leaves, his tenderness... He's a sweet guy.
JN: I thought about that, too. How, even as he leaves her in tears, the last thing he wants to do is hurt her. It isn't about that at all. He's a good person. But this is something he has to do. It's something he has to do BECAUSE he is a good person, in fact. He made a promise, and he must keep it.
KP: That's it. Lots more 'story within a story' here too with the flashbacks to his mother and the x-ray machine... And I guess now we gotta deal with Bev and The Whuppin'...
JN: If there's a character I hate more than Tom, I'm having trouble remembering who it is at the moment . . . .
KP: Heh. Truth. What's particularly impressive to me is that within the chapter we get a good insight into why Tom is as he is, and predictably he's a product of his own childhood... and we still hate him. It’s a note perfect illustration of how to understand is not to excuse, and an incredible piece of writing.
JN: Exactly. He's not just a cardboard villain. He's this way for a reason. Classic case of an abusive relationship in which "he said he was sorry, so that makes it OK."
KP: Sure. But we know better don't we? Thanks to King putting us into Tom’s head, we know he's not sorry at all - that he's a predator.
JN: Scary guy. How the slightest thing -- like Bev lighting a cigarette, forgetting what happened the last time -- can set him off. And it's all about control. It's not about the cigarette. It's about her FORGETTING that he has forbidden her to smoke. She might as well have spit in his face.
KP: Yeah. 'Are you there, Tom? Are you?' So good. And the moment when Bev stands, when all that energy comes out and Tom gets what's been coming lo these many years - I know it's crass wish fulfilment in a lot of ways, but I don't care. I fucking love it when Bev kicks his ass.
JN: Yeah, I could barely refrain from shouting at the page, "Yeah! Do it! Get 'im, girl! This has been a long time coming!"
KP: But what a chilling and brilliant portrait of an abusive relationship and its final dissolution. In 30 pages or so. Masterful. Of course, first time through, there's the added tension of not knowing if she's gonna make it... which just makes her eventual escape that much sweeter.
JN: Yes . . . after she finally goes through with it, she's left alone and scared. Her wallet, with all her credit cards and money, are back home. Is she really nothing without him? Of course not. But that's where her mind would be, in that moment. Brilliant. (yes, I'm trying to set a record for how many times I can use the word "brilliant" in this piece)
KP: Alone and scared and laughing. Beat that with a stick.
JN: A little crazy? Perhaps. But she ain't seen nothing yet.
KP: Story within a story again - Tom goes to the fridge for a beer (which isn't there) and by the time he's back, we've gotten their whole relationship and his backstory too. Insanely good storytelling. Makes it look easy. And I guess we should get to Bill, talking of story within a story.
JN: Bill. The unofficial "leader" of the Loser's Club. A guy who now writes horror stories himself for a living.
KP: Yeah, and at least partial King stand in, right? I mean, the rant about the writing class in college feels to me like something right out of the pages of ‘On Writing’, only less diplomatic...
JN: I was just getting ready to say the same thing. Reckon there's a lot of autobiographical stuff in Bill's story, as far as the rebellion against his snooty professor is concerned, etc.? Absolutely. Yeah, we're on the same page. (nyuk-nyuk)
KP: Heh. Reminds of the bit in Hamlet where Hamlet starts bitching about the 'modern' approach to acting...
KP: Interesting that of all our Losers, Bill is the only one who gives concrete info about where he's headed.
JN: Yes. And now here's a man with a genuinely STRONG relationship with his significant other (not that Eddie didn't have it, but these appear to be much more stable people, overall) who is willing to walk away because of a promise he's made. That long-ago promise is THAT important to him. To all of them.
KP: Yeah. And of course the strength of that relationship is what leads to him giving his destination away, which will in turn... have significant consequences.
JN: Ever thought about how interesting it is that the man who works with WORDS for a living is the one who struggled with a terrible stutter?
KP: Nope, and I should have. I also like how we learn from Stan’s widow that at least one of his books has children being menaced by a monster - a titbit I didn't mentally put together fully until I reached this chapter and he starts talking about Georgie. How chilling is the part when he says that he'd reported the fact of his brother dying, but hadn’t actually THOUGHT about him in years?
JN: Was just getting ready to mention that! It wasn't that he simply hadn't told Audra, but he didn't really remember himself. He had a dead brother, but somehow the details of his death were forgotten. Great stuff. It's little details like that that I had forgotten myself (oddly enough) about this novel. Love it.
KP: The power of suppression? The horror of how the past can feel buried, and then one phone call and all the graves open?
JN: It's like, how could you ever forget something so terrible? Did the mind block it out, as it will often do with a traumatic experience? Sure, it's that. But we also know it's so much more . . . .
KP: Right. There's metaphors, but this isn't a metaphor. This is magic. So clever.
JN: The magic exists, alright.
KP: Time to talk about Mike?
JN: I love Mike!
KP: Me too. Love that his chapter opens with a Clive Barker quote, too.
JN: I love how we meet him via his records. He's spent a lot of time on this, and did NOT make those calls lightly.
KP: Indeed, by the end of the first part, he hasn't made them at all... The time dislocation thing, again. But we know what he in the writing does not - he is going to make those calls. And the guillotine he describes will kill one of them for sure.
JN: He says something about "the Turtle". Gotta mention that. Instantly, the reader goes: "WTF is that about?"
KP: Stan references The Turtle.
JN: You're right. One of my favourite passages from this section: "What's feeding in Derry? What's feeding ON Derry?"
KP: Yes!!!! Also the definition of haunted: 'A feeding ground for animals' - cue goose bumps...
JN: Yeah. Genius. Ya know, I don't think I've ever ranked IT as one of my favourites. At least, not among my Top Five. It'd probably rank among my Top 4 or 5 novels by King, but not all-time by anyone. I might have to rethink that after this.
KP: Heh. I'm shaped by it. It's just the age I was when I first came across it. I had no frame of reference, really, no other markers. I didn't know how good horror fiction could be. I think it's fair to say I learned it all at once...
JN: I love it, no doubt about it, but in the past I remember really feeling its length about 3/4 of the way through, wanting to just get through it (I feel the same way about THE STAND, but the feeling with that book is tenfold - I know I'm in the minority, but I always struggle with that one a bit, love the setup but overall I'm not quite as enamoured with it as most folks). I'm interested to see how the 40-year-old me will feel when we get to that point. Something tells me it ain't gonna be the same. That bodes well.
So far, so good. No doubt about it.
KP: As to The Stand, me too. Love it up to the last 200 pages or so. The resolution just doesn't work for me at all. I love the way Mike is trying to predict which of the Loser's might flip when they get the call, and Stan is an afterthought. And I also love how at the end of the first interlude, well over 100 pages in, we still have basically no clue what's going on...
JN: . . . and hence, King keeps you reading. Like I said before, NO WAY can you put this thing down. You barely even realize you've read well over 100 pages. That's the mark of a phenomenal writer, yeah?
KP: I would say so, yeah. Any closing thoughts overall on The Shadow Before?
JN: I think we're good. This is gonna be a fun series. Even if no one reads it, we'll have a blast. LOL. "Please God I don't have to call them. Please God."
KP: Too right! :D Can't wait to get stuck into June of 1958. It's gonna be a long summer...
JN: Yep. And, that said, let's get offa the computers and get into it? ;)
KP: Sounds good to me. Derry is calling us back...
JN: <Kit hears the sound of running water in the tub>
JN: Oh, no worries, man. Sorry to scare you. My wife is just giving the dog a bath.
KP: *climbs back out from under the table*
That’s it for Part 1! Join us at some undetermined future date when we will discuss ‘Part 2 – June of 1958’. And feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section below – James and Kit look forward to reading your thoughts.
is the author of a diverse selection of horror and suspense tales, dark fiction told with a distinct Southern voice and more often than not with a hint of pitch-black humor. His published novels include MIDNIGHT RAIN, THE WICKED, ANIMOSITY, and UGLY AS SIN. When he's not writing, he enjoys watching horror movies (and showing off what he knows about the genre with the recent release of his first NONfiction book: 666 HAIR-RAISING HORROR MOVIE TRIVIA QUESTIONS), listening to loud rock n' roll, and even dabbling in some stage-acting every now and then.
In real life, James lives in the mountains of North Carolina with his wife and their two sons. Online, he divides his time between Facebook and www.james-newman.com -
Kit Power lives in Milton Keynes, England, and insists he’s fine with that. His short fiction has been published by Burnt Offering Books and MonkeyKettle Books, and his debut e-novella ‘The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife’ (plus short story ‘The Debt’) was published by Black Beacon Books in January 2014. E-novella ‘Lifeline’, a thematic sequel to those tales, will be released on August 16th, and his debut novel (currently called ‘The God Issue’, but that may well change) is due out in Autumn 2014. Those of you who enjoy near-professional levels of prevarication are invited to check out his blog at http://kitpowerwriter.blogspot.co.uk/
He is also the lead singer and chief lyricist for legendary rock band The Disciples Of Gonzo, who have thus far managed to avoid world-conquering fame and fortune, though it’s clearly only a matter of time. They lurk online at http://disciplesofgonzo.com/