On Stephen King and Storm Drains

I have a weird history with Stephen King and his fiction.

Admittedly, I probably haven’t read his best books. The first Stephen King book I read was one that was given to me by a friend who assured me I would love it. I did not. It was called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I was surprised both by how boring it was and particularly by how not-scary it was. I mean, I had heard my whole life that Stephen King was a master of horror whose books were chilling and disturbing, and honestly the book was kind of meandering and had a creepy atmosphere, but in general it was pretty underwhelming.

I thought that Stephen King deserved another chance, however, and at the time I was working my first job and had absolutely no bills to pay, and I was nineteen, so of course I had no compunction spending way too much money on a super special deluxe edition of what was at the time his newest work: Under the Dome. It was a good concept, a story about a small town that’s trapped under an invisible dome that cannot be moved by any means, and how quickly society breaks down. Apparently the original title was an unfinished story called The Cannibals, and honestly that sounds much more interesting than what the book turned out to be.

I spent something like fifty dollars on a special edition of the book that came with some cards that had illustrations on them, really high quality paper and binding, and a weird cover that had the title in a flimsy ribbon rather than actually printing it on the book. Except for that ribbon thing, I was pretty impressed by the design of the book itself, and I was thirsty to read what waited within.

Under the Dome was about a thousand pages of wandering, meandering storytelling, introducing dozens of characters only to kill them off a few chapters later. I also wasn’t crazy about all the massive buildup to the incredibly underwhelming ending (SPOILER): oh right it was aliens all along. Not much explanation beyond that. Also the dome disappears and sends tons of polluted air that is killing everyone inside flying off to the rest of the state, and surely that’s going to have some bad effects but it isn’t really addressed. And there’s no epilogue at all, you get all that buildup just for the dome to disappear and the book to end on the next page.

At any rate, it was while reading this book that I began to notice the things about Stephen King’s writing that I really don’t like: everyone, be they man, woman, or child, all kind of have this jaded outlook on life and speak like truckers. I don’t mean profanity, because I don’t mind profanity. There’s just something weirdly scatological about the way everyone speaks. Everything comes down to metaphors about farts and shit and piss, or weird sayings that might sound natural coming out of a grizzled truck-driver at a 2AM pit-stop but just sound bewildering coming out of the mouth of a nine-year-old. And everyone is secretly some kind of monster. Everyone is secretly a murderer or a pedophile or a rapist, there doesn’t seem to be anyone immune from this.

Now, I get why that’s interesting in and of itself. Everyone does have the capacity to do horrible things under the right circumstances. But the character in King’s books are automatically portrayed as hiding a dark secret. The other thing that really stuck out to me was the catch phrases. I don’t remember if Under the Dome had many, but right about this time I was dating a guy who loved horror movies, who decided we were going to watch every horror movie ever adapted from Stephen King’s work. I have to say that a lot of them were great: there’s no denying Stephen King comes up with brilliant ideas. The Mist was a particular favorite, and I both loved and hated the bittersweet ending.

Carrie was a great movie, and as the weeks went on, my boyfriend and I worked our way through both versions of the Shining, through the two-part miniseries of It, Rose Red, Pet Semetary, Dreamcatcher, Misery, 1408, Secret Window, Storm of the Century, The Stand, the second version of Carrie, and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten. I still missed some classics: we didn’t watch Firestarter, Children of the Corn, The Green Mile or the Shawshank Redemption. But it’s fair to say I got a pretty good taste of what Stephen King’s ficiton is like.

A lot of those films dealt with similar themes: childhood, everyone secretly being some kind of monster, loads of catchphrases and incredibly corny moments, and even though these were adaptations and not the books themselves, I knew from reading some of King’s work that these aspects were probably present in his books too. Another thing about Stephen King books is that I just find myself feeling really uncomfortable reading them. I get that when you have a horror novel, you want to feel unnerved, but I just kind of felt anxiety, like I was trapped in a windowless room and running out of oxygen. That isn’t fun for me. I love fantasy. So it may be that I’m just the kind of person who is automatically diametrically opposed to Stephen King’s work.

I gave him another shot and read through several shorts stories from Everything’s Eventual, none of which particularly caught my interest. I had heard a lot of good things about the Dark Tower, and since it was a fantasy series and I love fantasy, I thought maybe I’d finally found the right fit. I read the Gunslinger in one day, I think about five hours, and that’s the only book in my life I’ve ever read in one sitting. Unfortunately it wasn’t because I was so enraptured by it or anything, I just wanted to get to the end. I remember bits and pieces of it. I’ve always hated westerns, cowboys, and deserts, so obviously that whole aesthetic was wasted on me. I really hated Roland for the choice he makes at the end of the book. I won’t spoil what happens but he does something very shitty and is eaten up with guilt for doing it, and I think that as a reader I’m supposed to empathize with him and this incredibly difficult choice he had to make, but mostly I just felt like Roland was kind of a dick.

I still want to give some of his other books a try. I want to read Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and maybe a couple of others. His most recent collaboration Sleeping Beauties has a very interesting concept. I’ve heard people rave about his memoir, On Writing, and I’ve read the first chapter or so and thought it was alright. Funnily enough, the only thing in Stephen King’s books that I REALLY enjoyed reading were the forewards and afterwards. I loved hearing his perspective on being a writer, on being famous, and how humble he is. It seems to me that King himself is convinced that a lot of his fame has to do with the fact that his first few books were successful, so everyone automatically loves everything written afterward. I applaud him for being so honest and self-reflective. I do notice that he has a tendency to write, um, a LOT of books about writers who live in Maine being haunted by monsters, and obviously that’s no accident I’m sure. I don’t really like his short fiction but in fairness to him I probably didn’t choose his greatest works to sample.

When I discovered that It was being adapted as a film, I was happy to hear it and thought it would probably be good. I did watch the TV miniseries back during my ex-boyfriends Stephen King movie run, and I was surprised at how terribly it’s held up over time. It wasn’t scary at all, it was incredibly campy and silly and ridiculous. As a child, I was vaguely aware of the existence of It and I remember finding it to be a terrifying concept, so seeing it as an adult it was kind of funny how incredibly not-scary it was.

Honestly, I don’t think Stephen King is really classified properly as a horror writer. Like I said, I haven’t read his classics, but a lot of his work has a very optimistic feel to it, it’s about normal people overcoming incredible darkness. It is no different, it’s about a group of childhood friends who triumph with the power of their will and their bonds with one another. It comes out to the same love-wins-over-evil trope that is a trope for a reason, because it’s a good concept. It is a little exasperating when everything ends the same way, but it’s still a good enough way to write a story.

I actually didn’t remember that the original film adaptation of It was a miniseries, I thought it was a movie. And I actually didn’t remember anything at all about the second part when the kids fight It as an adult, so either I didn’t pay attention, didn’t watch it, or just didn’t care. I do remember getting very bored, though.

So at my job we sell a few books, and one of them was the first Dark Tower novel, so I grabbed it while I was bored and flipped through the first few pages, thinking maybe I’d give that series another try. Although full disclosure, I did spoil the ending for myself a long time ago, but that’s beside the point. Despite trying, I still found the first chapter of the Gunslinger very boring. Then I saw a magazine called the ultimate guide to Stephen King or something, and I actually read through pretty much the whole thing, and I found the details about the upcoming It film to be really interesting. So when the movie was finally released I thought about going to see it in theaters, which would be a big deal for me because I’m typically very nervous about horror movies and I certainly don’t go to see them in theaters.

Last weekend I did something even more out of the usual for me, I went to see It in theaters all by myself. I was very nervous at first and did spend a little time messaging friends for comfort so I didn’t feel so alone. I had expected the movie to be good and I’d heard all the rave reviews about it, and they were right.

The movie begins with rain, which is automatically going to get my attention because I love rain. Apparently the word for that is pluviophile. What I love even more than rain is the sound of rain mixed with piano, and the movie begins with just that, so I was automatically hooked. The opening scene is pretty familiar by this point: a little boy in a yellow raincoat named Georgie takes out a homemade sailbot and runs alongside it as it sails down the rainy streets, disappears into a storm drain, and there he meets It, calling itself Pennywise, and is enticed to reach his hand in. In the book, Pennywise bites off his arm and leaves him to bleed out. In the miniseries, Pennywise grabs him and pulls him down into the sewer. The film combines these two by having Pennywise bite of Georgie’s arms in a pretty terrifying display where his mouth pulls back to reveal several rows of teeth, and a very painful scene where the actor who plays Georgie squirms helplessly in the rain in front of the storm drain.

I was really blown away by the beautiful cinematography of this particular shot. It’s hard to find a good screenshot to show you because the film hasn’t been released on home video yet, but after Pennywise bites off Georgie’s arm, he struggles to crawl away from the storm drain, screaming in agony. The actor’s performance is heart-wrenching, it’s hard not to feel incredibly sad at this very sweet kid being so mercilessly murdered. But even more than that, I loved the framing of the shot just before Pennywise reaches out of the storm drain to drag Georgie down into the sewer. It’s shown from above, with Georgie in his yellow raincoat crawling away from the drain, and rain pouring down hard on the whole scene. As he crawls, the blood from his arm fills up the water around him and the water begins to turn red. It’s just a really beautiful shot. Then Georgie is pulled down the drain and the movie’s prologue is done and the movie proper begins.

I won’t really go into too many more details about the film, except that there is one scene in particular that I have to mention because of how incredibly effective it was in the theater. There’s a scene where all of the kids gather in the main character Bill’s garage and look at slides on a projector of various incidents throughout the history of their town, Derry, and figure out It’s involvement with them. The projector starts working on it’s own and begins showing slides of Bill’s family, with Georgie in the photos, and the slides get faster and faster until they become a silent film. It’s interesting to note that Bill and Georgie’s mother is never shown directly in the movie, she is seen from the side playing piano at the very beginning of the film and mentioned by Bill’s father (who is shown), but is never explicitly shown and has no lines.

In the photos shown on the slides, Bill’s mother’s face is obscured by her hair blowing in the wind, and as her hair parts her face is revealed to be a smiling Pennywise.

Then the lights go out and the music stops, and real life movie theater is completely dark for a moment.

Then Pennywise leaps out of the projector screen at the children.

This is a particularly brilliant effect because the audience watching this movie is watching it in a theater, and the shot is framed so that the projector screen in Bill’s garage looks just like the projector screen of the movie theater, and for a split second, even though your brain knows better, you do have the feeling that Pennywise has just jumped out of the REAL movie screen and is screaming at the audience. It shocked everyone in the theater and made me jump. I really don’t like jump scares in general and the movie was mercifully short on them, but I can forgive the movie for that one because it was so genuinely unexpected.

I mean, looking back on it, sure, it does seem like the scene is obviously setting up Pennywise leaping out of the screen at the kids, but I honestly didn’t expect it, and during the moment when Pennywise jumped out of the screen, I remember several thoughts racing through my mind: one was that I vaguely wondered if this movie were in 3D and I’d missed something, then realizing it wasn’t in 3D, then the thought that scene would lend itself very well to 3D, and then how smart it was of the director to frame that shot like a real movie theater to convey the illusion of Pennywise jumping out of the screen. It simply wouldn’t work at home on a TV or on a computer monitor.

The movie was altogether very interesting and mercifully had a moment of rest where I was able to run away and go to the bathroom (I always have to pee at least once during a movie, so I have a bit of anxiety about how much I’m drinking and the timing of when I’m going to go). The ending was pretty satisfying, it was nice to see Pennywise speaking with the kids and trying to bargain for his life. I wasn’t exactly shocked by the sudden reveal at the end when the title card of the film flashes across the screen and it says IT, followed by a newly added “Chapter One.” I already knew that the filmmakers were producing a second film, as the book is set in two different time periods that overlap one another, one in which the kids fight It as children and one when they come to defeat It as adults.

After this, I skimmed the prologue of the book itself, and then skimmed through some more interesting parts that I wanted to read. There is some interesting underlying mythology about what exactly It is, it’s relationship to the universe and the universe’s creator, a mention of a kind of godlike deity guiding the children to defeat It, and all of this is heavily connected to the Dark Tower series. I had read in the Wikipedia synopsis of the book that there is a moment when the narrative switches to It’s point of view, so I was glad to find that and read it. I also read the very ending, as well as the penultimate scene that luckily never made it into either film adaptation, in which Beverly has sex with all of the boys in the sewer in order to try and bring them together. Sex scenes like that, particularly involving innocent kids who are just on the cusp of adolescence, have a way of making me feel incredibly melancholy and this one was upsetting to read too, but I do think it was pretty effective, if a little strange. But there was an element of Beverly reclaiming her power after her father attempted to take it from her.

All in all I’m really glad I saw It, and I didn’t let my initial fear of seeing it in theaters scare me away from doing it. I may also finally give Stephen King another chance sometime, although honestly I tend to assimilate the writing style of whoever I’m reading, and I don’t want my own writing to end up seeming too much like Stephen King, so I might put it off for a rainy day.

I’ll just stay away from storm drains.

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