Stephen King’s books contain much that is childish, even infantile, but that alone is no scandal. We have all been children, and we hold the hidden signs of that ordeal—even a serious interest in art begins in childish make-believe. King seems to have no other subject than the ways by which childhood conceives of itself, and his resolute loyalty to that subject seems finally a little sad. It is also rewarding: at thirty-nine he is said to have sold fifty million copies of his twenty books.* Yet his work avoids a cynical or exploitative note. I would judge that he believes in what he does, that he writes not just to make money but to exorcise demons, his and ours.
It begins, demonically enough, in 1957, when a six-year old boy has his arm torn off by what appears to be a circus clown lurking down a storm drain. This happens in Derry, Maine, where similarly dreadful things have been recorded, at intervals of about twenty-seven years, since 1741, when the entire settlement, some three hundred Yankee souls, simply vanished. The general murder rate in Derry is about six times the average for small New England municipalities, and Derry’s young people have had a particularly rough time: in addition to many officially recorded murders and “accidents,” 170 children disappeared there in 1931, and 127 in 1958, high for a town of 35,000. But even though many of the victims were later found horribly mutilated, the press for some reason never took up the case.
King organizes the tale as two parallel stories, one tracing the activities of seven unprepossessing fifth-graders (“The Losers’ Club”) who discovered and fought the horror in 1958, the other describing their return to Derry in 1985 when the cycle resumes. In their youth the Losers were a sorry crew, but time has consoled them. Their leader, “Stuttering Bill” Denbrough, has become a famous horror novelist and married a movie star. Ben Hanscomb, the lonely fat kid who played with his erector set and hung out at the public library, is now trim and handsome, and also (according to Time) “perhaps the most promising young architect in America.” Richie Tozier, the wise-cracking rock-and-roll nut who wore glasses and got good grades, is a big-time disc jockey in Los Angeles. Beverly Marsh, the tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks, is a sexy Chicago fashion designer. Eddie Kasprak, the asthmatic mama’s boy who survived on vitamin pills and nasal sprays, now owns a limo company in Manhattan. Stanley Uris, the class Jew, runs his own accounting firm in Atlanta. Only Mike Hanlon stayed in Derry, to work as a librarian. Mike is black, King tells us rather late in the novel, and so most of the precincts of childhood “otherness” eventually report in.
As children they all had in common unpopularity, various special talents (Ben could build things, Eddie had an uncanny sense of direction, etc.), a fascination with horror movies and fantasy fiction, and a fatal allure as victims for a vicious set of schoolyard bullies. As adults they are all childless, strangely forgetful about the summer of 1958, and (except for Mike Hanlon) blessed with worldly successes which may have been arranged to distract their attention. They now remember each other only vaguely, yet when Hanlon summons them back to Derry to complete their dangerous task, they obey, except for Stanley Uris, who cuts his wrists in the bath.
For readers of earlier fantasists like H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, or E. Nesbit (King’s tale seems a kind of ghastly commentary on Nesbit’s cheerful Five Children and It), the story thus far is unsurprising. An evil something from beyond the stars has been haunting Derry since long before its European settlement, indeed since before its European settlement, indeed since before the Ice Age. “It” now inhabits the town’s sewer system, emerging from hibernation every twenty-seven years in various guises—as Mr. Bob Gray, aka Pennyworth the Dancing Clown, as a syphilitic hobo who lurks in the cellar of an abandoned house and offers fellatio to passing schoolboys, or as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Rodan, or whatever other popular monstrosity It’s victims are most deeply scared by. It feeds on “the chemicals of fear,” and having acquired unrecognized power over most of Derry, It aspires to a larger dominion over (gulp!) the whole world. Only brave and imaginative children, or adults who learn to remember and honor their childish selves, can hope to foil It, as the Losers finally do in 1985.
But if the story of It is negligible, what sells all those books? King is not simply pandering to a mass audience that’s too stupid to see the absurdity of his stories. His novels are usually long and organized with some complexity, plainly but not badly written, and you need to know more than comic books and movies to enjoy them. In fact it helps to have read some serious literature: the sections of It carry epigraphs taken not only from old rock-and-roll lyrics but from W.C. Williams, George Seferis, Virgil (in Latin), Emily Dickinson, Karl Shapiro, and Dickens.
King tries to conflate cultural material that teachers, critics, and other squares urge young people to keep distinct; his is the sort of brash mixing of high and low that Mad magazine was doing heavy-handedly before writers like Pynchon, Barthelme, and Coover did it much more elegantly. King is closer to Mad than to Pynchon, to be sure, but he has his moments. I’m amused and touched when in It Mike Hanlon sees his face in the mirror as being that of “a bank teller in a Western movie, the fellow who never has any lines, the one who just gets to put his hands up and look scared when the robbers come in.” (That the teller’s face was always white and Mike’s is black adds a complexity that King doesn’t spell out. If not exactly amused, I’m startled when, at the moment the Losers finally destroy It down in the sewers, the toilets of Derry suddenly explode, killing among others an unfortunate woman “who was sitting on the john at the time and reading the current Banana Republic catalogue.” And I like the remark about Hanlon’s diary of the horrors by an anonymous commentator who knows King’s methods: “One supposes the thought of popular publication had done more than cross Mr. Hanlon’s mind.”
King has a nice eye for the weaknesses of the commercial culture (including horror fiction itself) that is his primary connection with most of his audience, and his dislikes, which are not necessarily those of all his readers, do him credit: racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, child abuse, machismo, social snobbery, and Middle American narrowness in general. But for him such present evils are only aspects of a larger and older one, for which It is the mighty metaphor:
It was aware of their oath, and had known they would come back…. When It woke It would be healed, renewed—but their childhoods would be burned away like seven fatty candles. The former power of their imaginations would be muted and weak. They would no longer imagine that there were piranha in the Kenduskeag or that if you stepped on a crack you might really break your mother’s back or that if you killed a ladybug which lit on your shirt your house would catch fire that night. Instead, they would believe in insurance. Instead, they would believe in wine with dinner—something nice but not too pretentious, like a Pouilly-Fuissé ’83, and let that breathe, waiter, would you?… They would believe in Dr. Ruth when it came to getting well fucked and Jerry Falwell when it came to getting well saved. As each year passed their dreams would grow smaller.
Both It and King are evidently neo-Wordsworthians, but his readers who don’t know this will still see the point. Many of them began reading him a decade or so ago, in their teens or early twenties, and millions of epigones have followed and aged a little too. No time is a good time to grow up in, but King’s people have had to live with an unusually nasty world, what with Vietnam, pollution, drugs, social and sexual revolutions, apartheid, mass murders, and terrorism, yuppies and AIDS and the moral majority. “It” is not just a large, pregnant, spiderlike monster swimming in our waste products (“They all had, after all, seen spiders before,” King remarks); It is a mindless wasting of human substance and possibility which we know about without reading Stephen King.
King’s message is welcome, and its gothic wrappings can easily be discarded. But in It and King’s other books there’s something that makes one uneasy, less a message than an unresolved anxiety. At one point Richie Dozier the disc jockey reflects about the power of rock and roll to make “all the skinny kids, fat kids, ugly kids, shy kids—the world’s losers, in short” feel “bigger, stronger, more there.” No doubt it does, and King, whose love of rock is open and endearing, clearly hopes that his books have similar power. But so do uglier things like heroin and crack, or beating up smaller or weaker losers. What kind of power are we talking about, and what does it want to do? What can it do?
For King, the adult world is It, the devourer of imagination and of life itself. The parents of the Losers are similar: Eddie’s father died before the story begins, Ben’s is mysteriously absent, Bill’s is remote and indifferent, Beverly’s is a blue-collar tyrant with incest on his mind; the other three fathers are fair to good, but two of them die of cancer before the story ends; the mothers, if generally more available, are smothering or ineffectual. The Losers themselves have no children, nominally because It wants no new generation of such enemies, but effectively, perhaps, because King needs them to remain young enough at heart to destroy It once and for all—it’s hard to be a child and a parent at the same time. For the book’s bad children, the dullwitted bullies who do some of It’s work and for whom family life is much harder and sadder than it is for the Losers, King strangely expresses no sympathy at all. When the worst of them actually murders his truly monstrous father, I sense a pattern that King either isn’t clearly aware of or chooses not to acknowledge. This might have private meaning—King’s own father left home when his son was two, and was not heard from again, but whatever the case, the “imagination” that King would have his readers preserve from the virus of adulthood contains grim images of hostility and aggression between the generations.
It makes some sense to say, as King does, that art and life were Stephen King novels before he ever wrote one. Places like Derry—and all towns are a little like Derry—have had their Jew-baiters and gay-bashers and child-molesters all along. It’s all very well to say that the Bible is horror fiction, that Idi Amin and Jim Jones prove that monsters are real and come cheap, that one of childhood’s great truths is that “Grownups are the real monsters.” But Having said this, what then? Some part of everyone grows up, learns a more complex idea of justice and obligation than children have, and suffers for having learned it. When Bill Denbrough, at age ten, sees that by persuading his comrades to believe in and oppose It he is risking their lives to serve himself, he despises himself: “Oh Christ, he groaned to himself, if this is the stuff adults have to think about I never want to grow up.” But the joke’s on him—he will grow up all right, to think and write about this stuff, just like Stephen King, and along with the philosophic mind, the years will bring him a cure for his stuttering, a beautiful and loving wife, and $800,000 a year.
It is King’s immortality ode. To his young enthusiasts he keeps saying, rather loudly, Don’t ever change!, even while he whispers to those who already have changed, The best is yet to be. At the end Bill Denbrough drowsily thinks: “It is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood.” It’s not such wisdom that makes It, or earlier and better books of King’s like Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, so unexpectedly (if only intermittently) interesting. King’s sober truths are striking only when they are entangled in the popular paraphernalia which he can so deftly and affectionately manipulate.
Certainly It seems almost serious when compared with a “respectable” adult best seller like James Clavell’s Whirlwind, which now joins Shoagun, Tai-Pan, King Rat, and Noble House in Clavell’s “Asian Saga.” Whirlwind, a “now” book for which the publisher reportedly paid Clavell $5 million, the highest price ever paid for a novel, takes place in Iran between February 9 and March 4, 1979, just after the flight of the Shah and the advent of Khomeini but well before the hostage crisis. Almost 1150 densely printed pages are devoted to these twenty-four days; the evident aim is to let us know just what all of an enormous international cast of characters were doing moment by moment. But they often weren’t doing much of anything, and the consequence is not fiction but chronicle run mad, a triumph of “data overload” over the faintest illusion of reality:
Inside the Range Rover it was warm and comfortable. Azadeh wore padded, modern ski gear and a cashmere sweater underneath, matching blue, and short boots. Now she took off her jacket and her neat woolen ski cap, and her full-flowing, naturally wavy dark hair fell to her shoulders. Near noon they stopped for a picnic lunch beside a mountain stream. In the early afternoon they drove through orchards of apple, pear, and cherry trees, now bleak and leafless and naked in the landscape, then came to the outskirts of Qazvin, a town of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants and many mosques.
“How many mosques are there in all Iran, Azadeh?” he asked.
“Once I was told twenty thousand,” she answered sleepily, opening her eyes and peering ahead. “Ah, Qazvin! You’ve made good time, Erikki.” A yawn swamped her and she settled more comfortably and went back into half sleep. “There’re twenty thousand mosques and fifty thousand mullahs, so they say. At this rate we’ll be in Tehran in a couple of hours….”
This would be a good passage for a reading comprehension test:
- How many mullahs are said to be in Iran? a) 150,000? b) twenty thousand? c) fifty thousand? d) many?
- At this rate, in a couple of hours we’ll be: a) in Qazvin; b) in Tehran; c) only on the next page.
It would also do as an outline for a miniseries, with cues to the coiffeur and the wardrobe department. But it can hardly be called writing.
The events—there is no story—cluster loosely around an Anglo-Scottish helicopter company which has been serving the Iranian oil fields. We follow its pilots, managers, and support employees through these chaotic days; some of them have Iranian wives and in-laws, who lead the narrative outward into the local landscape, culture, and politics; assorted mullahs, bandits, revolutionaries, bourgeois profiteers, and spies prowl and prowl around (as P.G. Wodehouse would say) like the troops of Midian. The Europeans are hard to keep straight since so many of them have Scottish names (or cute ones—there’s a “Nogger,” an “Effer,” and a “Scragger”) and since they’re all doing the same thing, saving their personal and organizational hides. The Islamic characters appear to have lost something in translation; within a page, for example, a Kurdish sheik says “So you dare to disobey me?” “You wish to beg for mercy?” “What trickery is this” and “Are you mad?”—sounding more like a heavy from and old Universal serial than a descendent of the great Saladin. And the factionalism of this revolution, as Clavell scrupulously reports it, may give the unschooled Western reader a headache—I learned to remember that the Tudeh are Communists, the Green Bands Khomeini’s Shi’ites, and the SAVAK the Shah’s secret police, but I never did figure out who the mujhadin and the fedayeen are.
Much violence and some sex occur, but the sex consists largely of fanatic male Muslims exposing themselves to unveiled women while grunting about their brutish intentions, and the violence, though detailed, usually observes the rule that when good Europeans are on the verge of destruction, a mysterious shot will ring out to save them, while when bad Iranians think they have it made, the puritanical Green Bands will burst in from nowhere to spoil their sport. Clavell keeps alluding to excitements one would be only too grateful to feel, but an indecision about what his words mean to do continually stifles titillation:
…Bayazid pulled the pin out of a grenade and tossed it through the doorway. The explosion was huge. Smoke billowed out into the corridor. At once Bayazid leaped through the opening, gun leveled, Erikki beside him.
The room was wrecked, windows blown out, curtains ripped, the carpet bed torn apart, the remains of the guard crumpled against a wall. In the alcove at the far end of the huge room…the table was upended, a serving maid moaning, and two inert bodies half buried under tablecloth and smashed dishes. Erikki’s heart stopped as he recognized Azadeh. In panic he rushed over and shoved the debris off her[,]…lifted her into his arms, her hair flowing, and carried her into the light. His breathing did not start again until he was sure she was still alive—unconscious, only God knew how damaged, but alive. She wore a long blue cashmere peignoir that hid all of her, but promised everything. The tribesmen pouring into the room were swept by her beauty.
Some of my problems here are minor. I don’t understand how the grenade’s pin could make such a “huge” explosion. And it’s impressive of Erikki to hold his breath (or heartbeat?) long enough to get to the far end of a “huge” room, remove all that debris, pick Azadeh up, carry her into the light (wherever that is), and thoroughly check her vital signs. But the last two sentences are the most puzzling. I thought I was supposed to be enjoying the mayhem, but it’s Azadeh’s body and the “everything” it promises the tribesmen and me that are the bait. Yet there’s no body there, only its ghostly paradigm—long hair, blue cashmere—left over from the previous passage.
Why would anyone, of any age, occupation, or state of culture, want to read such a book? To some customers, I suppose, it may seem to offer instruction in recent history—what was that Iranian business all about? But Whirlwind never really says what it was about. Clavell is rather reticent about the imperfections of the Pahlavi regime, and though he shows some interest in the motives of the Shah’s enemies and in “the Islamic mind” generally, his Iranians are mostly pictured as an excitable, devious, venal, self-destructive lot. And the Western characters’ contempt for the Carter administration and the Callaghan government in England, so sweeping as to suggest that the author’s own politics are showing, doesn’t clarify issues.
Spies and counterspies are endemic in Whirlwind, but the serious devotee of espionage fiction will want to look elsewhere. We learn that the SAVAK was ruthless, M16 plucky but understaffed, the KGB cunning and brutal, and the CIA dumb and obvious, just about as we’d expect. (But I doubt that even the CIA would choose “Wesson Oil Marketing” as the name of a petroleum company it uses for cover.) Clavell’s suspense fails because all the spies keep quadruple-and quintuple-crossing everyone in sight, to the reader’s bewilderment; when anything clear emerges, it is on the order of the megalomaniac SAVAK man who plots to bend the Iranian multitudes to his will by feeding them psychedelic drugs. “How exciting this is,” someone says late in the book, but my sentiments are those of the British agent who says, “Christ! Where will it all end?” (And when?)
As someone who has misspent much of his life reading and somehow enjoying commercial fiction, good and awful, I must say that Whirlwind is by far the worst novel I’ve ever finished. I can’t imagine anyone reading it with pleasure, but reading is probably the wrong thing to do with it. Better just to have it handy as the sign of the intention, at least, to know more about important things, like Asia. Stephen King is not quite a “serious” writer, but he can reveal interesting moments of strangeness in ordinary American life; James Clavell’s novel has nothing to do with any life I’ve ever heard of.
December 18, 1986