“Fan theories” have become increasingly popular in recent years (now you know what they are). Like the related phenomenon of “creepypastas”, they’re exciting at first but soon fall into repetitive cliches: bad guy is secretly good, good guy is secretly bad, dumb guy is secretly a genius, up is secretly down, main character is secretly dying of cancer and hallucinating. There’s 10-15 basic fan theories and soon you’ll have seen them all.
However, the best fan theories are compelling enough to make people forget that they’re theories, and start talking about them as if they’re accepted canon.
In Star Wars, the Imperial stormtroopers miss a lot. They do more missing than Graham Lineham addressing a transgender man. Their accuracy has become such a joke that it’s given rise to terminology such as the Stormtrooper effect.
In 2015, a theory was proposed that stormtroopers are being ordered to miss, in order to keep Luke alive and fulfill Vader’s plans. It was posted on the Fan Theories subreddit, and the author never pretends it’s anything more than fanciful speculation. The theory quickly spread across the internet, however, and soon nobody was treating it as a theory. Soon, it became a generic “checkmate, atheists” rebuttal to the most casual mention of Stormtrooper accuracy. For example, this meme on imgur (with no less than THREE lines of text explaining the joke, holy shit dude) has the top-voted comment :
haven’t we established that the stormtroopers miss on purpose?
…No. We have not. There is zero textual evidence that they miss on purpose. There’s a theory that they do, and in light of the facts, the theory’s probably wrong.
1) Why fire guns at all if they want the heroes to live?
As any marksman is taught, you never, ever point a gun at something you don’t want to kill. It doesn’t matter if you try to miss. What if a stormtrooper kills Luke with a stray shot? Blast rifle bolts have an area effect (as seen in the Docking Bay 94 scene, where blasts take out large sections of concrete), so even a “miss” might kill Luke with shrapnel.
2) They miss when there’s no reason to.
We see Stormtroopers miss R2D2 and C3PO on the Tantive IV, miss Han Solo when he’s leaving Mos Eisley, miss Ewoks, etc.
3) It’s not true that they want everyone on the Millenium Falcon to escape.
Luke Skywalker needs to live because he’s capital-I Important. Leia needs to live because she knows the location of the Rebel base. They could have plausibly wanted Han Solo alive, as he was the pilot of the ship.
…But why miss when shooting at Chewbacca, a wookie of no tactical value?
4) there aren’t many positive examples of Stormtroopers hitting shots.
Here we see Stormtroopers storm the Tantive IV, and accomplish the feat of killing several guys in a narrow hallway with no cover. It looks like hard work.
Here’s the scene of the execution of the Jedi. Stormtroopers shoot them at point blank range. Not an amazing feat of marksmanship.
4) “These blast points… too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
Ben Skywalker’s quote re: a wrecked sandcrawler doesn’t necessarily imply that stormtroopers are good shots. He could mean “they knew where to aim, as opposed to Sand People who just blast away indiscriminately”. This is the risk of using dialog as evidence.
When consuming art, it’s possible to see things that aren’t there. Sometimes these mirages persist, are spread across time and culture, and the imaginary thing becomes part of the “official” tale. Nowhere in the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty does it say that he’s an egg.
“Stormtroopers miss on purpose” was created as an imaginative “what if” theory. However, it now seems to be accepted as the gospel truth of what’s happening in Star Wars. Much of history is probably composed in a similar way.
This book (155 pages long, written in the biggest print I’ve ever seen in a book not for children or blind people) is about how everyone is conspiring against everyone about everything.
Of course, when you point at everything you’re really pointing at nothing. If the New World Order truly existed and included everyone from HW+GW Bush, Gorbachev, Kissinger, Mao, “Adolph Hitler” (sic), Stalin, Reagan, Osama bin Laden, along with all the world’s royal families and all the world’s billionaires, there would be no point in writing a book like this. The New World Order has won, they control everything, and a book detailing their crimes would never see print.
This is the odd thing about Alex Jones’ world: there’s no room in it for Alex Jones. The One World Government would never suffer a man like him to live. The book ends with a request to send him money. “The Republic is in great danger of being completely overthrown.” This rather prompts the incredulous response: “You just told me that every President since Eisenhower meets annually at Bohemian Grove to perform human sacrifice. What’s left to overthrow?”
But internal contradictions don’t matter to people like Jones. A 2012 scientific study found that conspiracy theorists will believe in differing conspiracies at once, even when they’re at odds with one another. For example, the more likely you are to answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana faked her own death”, the more likely you are to answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana was murdered.” I’ve noticed something similar. I’ve seen Holocaust denialists simultaneously argue that 1) Auschwitz had no crematoriums, and 2) the rate at which the camps could cremate bodies was insufficient to conduct the Holocaust. I’ve seen 9/11 truthers simultaneously argue that 1) the pilots were CIA patsies 2) no plane hit the Pentagon or the Towers.
Most people are driven by a need to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theorists, however, are driven by intellectual narcissism: they alone know the truth, and everyone else is stupid. So they watch Youtube videos and scroll Twitter for sixteen hours a day, packing as many “truth bombs” into their heads as possible. The fact that many of these contradict each other doesn’t even register.
I found the book to be a slog. Jones has a wearisome, hectoring style – one suited to an opinionated radio host who’s used to steamrolling over guests and callers – and reading it made me feel sorry for whoever has to sit down with him for Thanksgiving dinner. You clearly couldn’t have a reasonable discussion with this guy about anything.
Sometimes the stream-of-consciousness style produces funny results. On page 15 Jones recounts the tale of Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but he gets it jumbled: he has Nero fiddling while setting fire to Rome (perhaps with a firebrand held between his toes?) Most of the time, though, it just makes the book even sloppier, and less grounded in fact. On page 101, he writes “For years, we warned people about FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The federal documents have been around for decades and include round-up plans and concentration camps.” Such handwaving would be fine as an off-the-cuff remark on the radio. But in a book the reader feels justified in seeing excerpts from these supposed “federal documents”. Or sources. Or anything.
Descent Into Tyranny was written in 2002. I was curious to see how Jones’ political outlook evolved over time. I vaguely remember Infowars being a vaguely left-libertarianish outlet at the start, and the book certainly devotes time to conspiracies beloved of left-wingers, like IMF and the World Bank and Waco, Texas. It’s published by a small outlet called Progressive Press, whose other fine titles can be viewed here. (Sample excerpt: “The “Arab Spring” is revealed as part of the scheme to extend the Anglo-Zionist empire and its neo-liberal regime of plunder over the entire planet.”).
Jones was much less fond of “Vladymir Putin” (sic) in 2002. In the section entitled “Putin Uses Terror”, he reveals that Putin destroyed an apartment complex using explosive plastique, killing 350 people. Fifteen years later Jones would be on Twitter writing stuff like “Looking forward to Putin giving me the new hashtags to use against Hillary and the dems… “ In fairness, Putin’s killing of 350 people happened a long time ago. You have to let stuff slide eventually.
The book runs out of material by the end, and Jones pads it out with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Communist Manifesto (which he thinks was written by“global banking cartels”.) All that’s missing is Huckleberry Finn and summer reading list experience would be complete.
Some people become JoJo fans naturally; I was forcibly converted. I was part of a movie-watching group and whenever we ran out of material our host would inflict JoJo marathons on us. I still recall his mounting panic when we didn’t share his enthusiasm (“…this gets really good around Stardust Crusaders, I promise!”)
It took me a long time to like JoJo, and even now I’m not a superfan. But I “get” what it’s about. Not in the sense of plot (a cursed mask, sibling rivalry, an ancient blood debt), but what it’s really about: the glory of the West. Or, less politely, weebishness in reverse.
Traditionally, weebs are white kids who are fascinated by Japan (or the Japan they see in anime) and assign various romantic ideals upon it. The stereotypical weeb is overweight, undersocialized, a disappointment to his parents, and a failure with women – he holds no love for the place of his birth. Japan represents a kind of Avalon to him, an isle across the waters where nerds and misfits are accepted.
Hirohiko Araki is an anti-weeb: a Japanese person who’s in love with Western culture. I guess the bamboo is always greener on the other side. Japanese authors are often attracted to a certain element of Western culture (Edogawa Rampo loved the Gothic movement, Yukio Mishima loved fascism, Haruki Murakami loves bohemians) but Hirohiko Araki’s tastes are exceptionally omnivorous. He loves everything about us.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is about rockstars, pirates, highwaymen, knights, athletes, gangsters, gamblers, and rakes. Everyone’s an archetype of masculinity, cool beyond cool, a muscular, flamboyant ubermensch. JoJo takes Western machismo and exaggerates it to cartoonish, absurd levels.
It’s pretty gay at times. I don’t know whether JoJo’s homoeroticism was intended, but it’s striking that the manga has one female character, and she’s passive and pathetic, serving as a prize for the strutting male peacocks to fight over.
The love weebs have for Japan is often an intellectually shallow one, and they tend to get stuff wrong. Hirohiko Araki gets details about western culture wrong, too. For example, the villainous Dio resurrects a pair of medieval warriors, Brufold and Tarkus, to help kill Jonathan Joestar. We’re told that they’re knights who served Mary, Queen of Scots…but neither of them look like knights. Tarkus (left) is armored like a Roman Centurion. Brufold (wearing a horned helmet) is clearly modelled after a Viking warrior. These are not knights.
Or consider the family name, “Joestar”, which sounds jarringly wrong to the Western ear – people don’t have surnames like that. It reminds me of the infamous Fighting Baseball player roster, where a Japanese game programmer had to invent a bunch of American-sounding names and came up with “Sleve McDichael” and “Bobson Dugnutt”.
But realism isn’t important in JoJo. Perhaps hyperrealism is, though: everything given a little push over the cliff (in the words of Nigel Tufnel). JoJo is the world of could-have-been truths that are exaggerated to compensate for the fact that they never existed.
Obviously a name like Dio Brando gives the game away – a stilted amalgamation of a heavy metal rockstar and a Hollywood actor. As is the character of Zeppeli, who is visually modelled upon Salvadore Dali. JoJo often surprises the reader with its degree of literacy and wit.
I enjoyed the start of Phantom Blood more than the end. The way Dio Brando whiplashes from gentlemanliness to psychotic brutality is hilarious and shocking, and puts the reader squarely in Jonathan’s corner. And the “down-to-earth” nature of the tale was pleasant: something gets lost when the hero is battling a sentient hairstyle.
The final few volumes sort of blur together. Jonathan faces a threat, learns a new power or ability to overcome it, faces an even bigger threat, learns a new power or ability, and so on. It’s like a treadmill that speeds up all the time – soon you’re tired and want to get off. It was probably more enjoyable in its original run, where the repetition is less obvious. Probably better as an anime, too, where colours and music help establish JoJo’s mojo. I’m curious to see where the Joestar family goes next: hopefully a Jonathan Joestar vs Sleve McDichael crossover.
‘The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It’d take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you’re lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go.’ – Max Rockatansky
One man chains another to a pipe in a burning building (or some other place that will kill him if he doesn’t escape). He gives the chained man a hacksaw and a choice: cut through the chain, or cut through a limb.
This scenario appears in George Miller’s apocalyptic film Mad Max. It also appears in Alan Moore’s Watchmen (likely as a homage or parody).
Hurling the dogs’ corpses at Grice, Rorschach then handcuffed the man to a pipe and doused the room with kerosene. After handing Grice a hacksaw and stating that it would be futile for Grice to attempt to cut through the handcuffs (implying that he would have to cut off his hand), Rorschach set fire to the room and exited the house. He watched outside for over an hour in the unlikely event that Grice might free himself in time; Grice did not survive. – Watchmen Wiki
It also appears in the first Saw movie.
Adam finds a bag containing two hacksaws inside the toilet, which they try to use to cut through their chains, but Adam’s saw breaks. Lawrence realizes the saws are meant to be used on their feet, and identifies their captor as the Jigsaw Killer, whom Lawrence knows of because he was once a suspect. – Wikipedia
It’s as brutal an act as one can imagine, but it has an element of chivalry (or moral handwashing). After all, you’re being given a chance.
…Or are you? The man who chained you up a) knows better than you how long you have to escape and b) wants you dead. Would he give you a hacksaw if there was any way you could escape in time, however remote?
This is such a common (and weirdly specific) trope in fiction that I started wondering: what’s the absolute first time it appears? Is there an ur-hacksaw scene that predates all others?
I might have found it. Ironically, it might be in a book that was never actually written.
The 120 Days of Sodom is the legendary and never-completed epic by 18th century aristocrat Marquis de Sade. Written on a single roll of paper while its author was imprisoned in the Bastille, its production was interrupted in 1789 by the French Revolution. Only the first part is extant: the second and third parts exist in outline form.
In the third part, we come across this scene:
“He chains one of the girl’s hands and secures the chain to the wall; he leaves her thus, without food. Near her is a large knife, and just beyond her reach sits an excellent meal: if she wishes to eat, she has but to cut through her forearm; otherwise, she dies of starvation. Prior to this he has embuggered her. He observes her through a window.”
This has some interesting parallels to Mad Max.
- The chain
- The cutting instrument
- The “ticking clock” (in this case, the girl will starve if she does not escape)
- The victim must self-mutilate
It has some differences.
- A knife is not a hacksaw.
- Cutting through the chain isn’t suggested as a possibility (although she probably would have tried)
- The girl won’t become free if she cuts off her forearm. She will have earned a meal, and will then be subjected to further tortures.
There’s another big difference between this scene and its later incarnations.
Max Rockatansky and Rorschach are (dark) heroes. Even Jigsaw is given some odd philosophical motivations for his deeds. Nothing like this exists for the barbarous noblemen of Sodom, who have retired to a chateau in Germany to destroy as many young lives as possible. Their evil is a black hole, existing beyond any reasonable motive.
Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Say, once said that supply creates its own demand. In the Marquis’s case, the same holds true for sadism. When men have knives, they use them.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is an classic in Australian psychological horror. It’s a genuinely disturbing book. Thinking about it makes me feel queasy and cold. It’s also Australia’s Blair Witch: a literary stunt that left its own provenance unclear. Many thought that the book told a true story, and even now you’ll meet folk who talk about the events of Hanging Rock as if they really happened.
It was written in 1967 and is set over half a century earlier, at a girls’ boarding school in Victoria, Australia. A group of four people (three students and teacher), leave a picnic to explore the nearby Hanging Rock formation. Three are never seen again. The fourth is discovered days later, nearly dead from sunstroke. When she recovers, she has no memory of what happened to the others.
The rest of the book is the community coming to terms with the mystery. A bloodhound fails to find the missing women, as does a local “black tracker”. An army of well-meaning volunteer searchers soon blanket Hanging Rock in footprints and trail-marks, destroying whatever evidence might have existed. The final people to see the party report some odd things: the three students were in a trancelike state, with staid mathematics teacher Greta McShaw literally undressed to her underwear. The reader actually follows the girls until the final moment, and knows some additional facts that the other characters don’t. But ultimately, we don’t know what happened, either. Isolated facts are grains of sand, and we need hard stone.
Whatever happened at Hanging Rock (and there are signs that certain characters know more than they are telling), the lack of resolution is like a thorn embedded in flesh, driving the community to frustration and then madness and then further tragedy.
The events of the story bear an odd resemblance to Finland’s Lake Bodom murders, where three backpackers were slaughtered, with the sole survivor possessing no memory of the night’s events. Bodom happened in 1960, but I doubt Joan Lindsay was aware of it. Finland is far from Australia, and in 1967 was even further. And unlike the United States (where a Bodom-style murder would have led to sixteen made-for-TV movies, a Netflix series by Jordan Peele, and teenage girls on Tumblr obsessed with finding and marrying the killer), Finland isn’t culturally fascinated by violent crimes, nor does it possess the regency to spread them all over the world.
Like Lake Bodom, Hanging Rock exists in the real world. I learned some interesting things about it on Wikipedia. It’s more properly called Mount Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who held that civilisation is corrupt and nature is moral. Geologically, Hanging Rock is a mamelon, after the French word for nipple (is it important that all the main characters are female?)
Joan Lindsay does a good job of making Hanging Rock sound old-fashioned. Like any turn-of-the-century novelist, she almost puts on a pair of white gloves and chaperones you through the pages. This is the sort of book where you read sentences like “All this was nearly six years before this chronicle begins”. Only a few anachronistic words reveal the book’s modernity – such as “deadbeat”, an American slang word that entered common usage in the 1940s.
When you climb Hanging Rock, you ascend a to a sharp point and then descend down gently rolling hills. The book’s structure is a little like that: the climax arrives in the first three chapters. The rest of the book is a gradual come-down. Some readers find this anticlimactic, but to me it adds to the book’s sense of unease. As you read on, you realise you are wandering further from solving the mystery. It’s as if the answer to the puzzle is a solid island, and the book is an ocean dragging you ever further away. It’s agonizing, and compelling.
So, do we ever learn what happened? Do we even get a look through a crack in the door? Make up your own mind, but there’s a reason they call it mystery fiction as opposed to solution fiction.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil explores the often-overlooked fact that George Orwell’s 1984 could be rewritten as a comedy with little effort.
In Room 101, Winston is tortured with his worst fear (rats). Why do this? Do they give everyone in Room 101 a personalized torture? What if my worst fear is something expensive, like having diamonds rubbed on my nipples? Why go to the trouble – wouldn’t a generic but still fearsome torture be equally effective? Why not just shoot Winston? (etc)
Brazil takes this latent absurdity, and focuses on it, enlarging it. As with 1984, absurdity doesn’t damage the film’s integrity at all. The movie’s seriously ridiculous and ridiculously serious.
It is a satire about bureaucracy grown so rampant that it throttles humanity like creeper vines. Paperwork. Chains of command. Spelling mistakes that lead to deaths. Blood-red tape. In Gilliam’s world, the future is a man filling out triplicate government forms, forever.
In real life, bureaucracy serves a valid purpose: it’s a cultural shock absorber. If I have poor impulse control, maybe I’ll think a $30,000 exhaust mod kit for my car is a good purchase. If I have to fill out 20 forms and wait a month, maybe I’ll decide I don’t need it after all. But there’s a dark side to bureaucracy: complex and multilayered systems allow responsibility to be diffused into vapor.
Brazil takes place at the furthest, blackest point of this dark side. A fly jams up a printer, turns a “T” into a “B” on an arrest warrant, and the wrong man dies. It’s not clear who’s to blame. The fly?
Sam Lowry is a low-level drone in a monstrous system. He is unhappy, and dreams of soaring above the world on perfect, tesselated wings. These dreams are the closest he comes to experiencing any sort of power, in a life boxed in and mangled both by a suffocating society and neurotic social set. All of the actors are good, but their main purpose is to stare obliviously at the huge, scary environment that rears up around them like prison bars.
As well he might, because the film gives you a lot to stare at. In fact, the true reason to see Brazil might be to sample Gilliam’s terrifying but strangely wondrous world.
There’s a Perry Bible Fellowship comic depicting far-future cinema-goers watching a film about World War II – full of sailing ships and medieval knights riding zebras into battle, and various other things. It’s a vivid image: all the strata of history collapsed into one because the future no longer cares about their distinction.
Brazil is a like that: it’s as if people from the year 3000 made a documentary about the 20th century. It’s both futuristic and laughably out of date. It’s chic and chintzy and garish and austere. It’s ten decades and several hundred fashions and movements mashed up together. But even this ignores Gilliam’s countless weird, inspired touches, such as the ropey, maggotlike tangles of air ducting inside Sam’s apartment. Everything looks great, with detailed sets and puppetry worthy of the Henson studio.
People in Brazil live weird, pampered lives, catered on by perpertually misfiring machines – we see one pouring orange juice on Sam Lowry’s toast. Everything always happens in the most inefficient way possible: for example, cars can only be exited by lifting up the entire roof. The one person who does his job properly is an unlicensed repairman, on the run from the law.
Brazil‘s ending is more pragmatic than 1984‘s but no less grim. In a world where all your (mis)judgement is done by the cancerous edifice of the state, there is no need to have a brain anymore. Certainly no need to use it.
An album full of tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for Load: it’s much better than that one was, needless to say. “Fuel” has nice energy and propulsion, although the guitars sound badly intonated. “The Memory Remains” has a solid set of melodic hooks. “Devil’s Dance” is actually a heavy metal song, although drawn from the Black Sabbath model rather than Slayer or Diamond Head. Every band at some point rips off the massive crawling bass riff from “Heaven and Hell”, and here’s Metallica’s turn. “The Unforgiven II” is very long but is ultimately the album standout, developing nicely and containing a good vocal performance (for once).
Although the first half of ReLoad would be a good album if it came from a different band (I can’t disentangle it from the superior early Metallica), the rest of the album’s just filler. Seek ye not good music in this wasteland. The band themselves have probably forgotten that “Slither”, “Crappy Diem Baby”, “Prince Charming”, etc exist.
“Low Man’s Lyric” is a folk/country experiment that’s memorable in all sorts of wrong ways. It runs seven and a half minutes, contains one of the most annoying choruses ever raped into plastic, and features a hurdy-gurdy: an instrument I was happily unaware of until now. Stephen King’s book Hearts in Atlantis contains a digression on the traits of “low men” – they wear hats with feathers in them, whistle at women from across the street, and so on. A trait he forgot to mention: they write songs with a hurdy-gurdy part. “Fixxxer” is another long one about Hetfield’s parental issues that isn’t particularly worth listening to.
The good: combine the good songs from Load and ReLoad, and you’d have an alright Spin Doctors album. The bad: re-read the past sentence.
In 1996, Metallica cut off something very important, a cosmetic feature that shouldn’t affect their music yet clearly did. Even now, they’re still recovering from this disastrous shearing.
I refer to the pointy ends of their logo. The self-titled album had them. This one doesn’t. As every heavy metal fan knows, this minor change is actually a musical circumcision of the worst sort, clipping the band of its masculine power.
Anthrax did it in 1995, and the made their worst album in 10 years. Iron Maiden did it in 1998, and made their worst album ever. Ten years later Judas Priest tried the same thing on Nostradamus, a 102-minute long conceptual yawner could be likened to the end of the universe: scientists think Nostradamus must someday end, but nobody’s listened for long enough to be sure. Can you think of a band that removed pointy bits from their logo and remained good? I can’t.
Load is the result of a huge amount of touring (the band played somewhere north of 350 shows in support of the self-titled), which apparently killed their interest in heavy metal altogether. Any semblance of thrash is gone, and so is most of the downtempo Ozzy Osbourne worship on the S/T. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s not a sellout. Maybe the public mistook its bluesy, Jimi Hendrix ripoffs for alternative rock and played it on college rock stations for a while, but it’s a throwback to 1976 from side to side.
“Ain’t My Bitch” rocks hard and showcases all the album’s flaws. Ulrich’s drums have a dull, popping quality with no body or sustain. Hetfield needs a vocal coach for his numerous speech impediments (bitch-AARRRGHH). Hammett’s wah pedal addiction is now at crippling proportions. The performance and production are both flat. The tremolo-picked riff in the chorus is the heaviest thing on the record, which is just sad.
“2 X 4” hardly seems to exist. I keep having to look at the tracklisting to remind myself it’s on there. A lot of the songs are like that – they’re extremely hard to talk about because they have no memorable features. Remember when a Metallica album had like, eight near-perfect songs that were each landmarks in their own way? That was good, but wouldn’t you rather have FOURTEEN really crappy ones?
Album highlights…I don’t know. “The Outlaw Torn”, probably. “Mama Said” would be a good ballad except for the loud slide-guitar lick – this is the song that probably inspired Manowar bassist Joey DeMaio’s infamous quip “I don’t listen to country music” when asked if he enjoyed Metallica.
The lowlight is the revolting “Hero of the Day”. Maudlin, noisy, and annoying, this song isn’t the hero of the next five minutes. “Ronnie” wants to have an Aerosmith-type swagger, but all it makes you want to do is listen to the actual Aerosmith.
The cover is blood and semen pressed between two slides of glass. This is fitting: Load is a tale of things out of their correct place. Blood belongs in our veins, semen belongs in our epididymis, and 95% of this record belongs in a bin marked FOR RECYCLING. Recommended for people who want to hear bad retro-style 70s rock half-assedly played by your dad. Metal fell very hard and very far in the 90s, and sadly, one of the very deepest troughs is marked by a band with Metal in its name.
A long book with a short description: “Gross Stuff(tm) happens to kids.” This, more than any other Stephen King book, is just a cavalcade of youngsters having traumatic experiences. Lest I be misunderstood, I fully endorse youngsters having traumatic experiences, but it does make for a book punctuated with lots of “what the fuck?” and “what am I reading?” and “why is this in the story?” and “do we need forensic-level analysis of all the boys’ penises?”
It is the archetypal Stephen King “big secret in a small town” story. There’s a lurking horror in the sewers, and ever twenty-seven years it emerges (usually in the guise of a clown) to kill children.
It feeds and gains power through fear, and in fictional Derry, there’s a lot to be afraid of. Even without the clown, it sounds like a miserable place to grow up. Daily life involves dodging switchblade-wielding bullies, gay-bashing homophobes, dog-murdering Klansmen (not kidding), pedophile lepers (still not kidding), and adults that, as always, are so jaw-droppingly stupid that it’s amazing that they can tie their shoelaces.
The spotlight is on a group of middle-school children, who dub themselves “The Losers”. Their casting is familiar to any reader of 80s-90s young adult fiction: the Fat Kid (Ben Hanscom), the Asthma Kid (Eddie Kaspbrak), the Speech Impediment Kid (Bill Denbrough), the Screwball (Richie Tozier), the Jewish Kid (Stan Uris), the Black Kid (Mike Hanlon), and, of course, the Girl (Beverly Marsh). Denbrough has the most obvious connection to the monster – his younger brother was murdered by it – but in time, it will intricate itself in all their lives.
I enjoyed the quiet moments at the beginning, where the kids just hang out together. It isn’t all about pedophile lepers, and there are warm, funny, and nostalgic scenes that don’t contain any horror at all.
But all too soon, they are drawn into a battle against the monster in the sewers. They think they kill it, but twenty seven years, the murders begin again. The children (who aren’t children any more, and it’s hinted that whatever protective magic they once held may have ended), decide to return to Derry to destroy the monster for good. I sympathize with their cause, but honestly, is their hometown worth saving? Freeing Derry from It would be like exorcising a ghost from Camden, New Jersey. Even if you succeed, it’s not like that place will be anyone’s next holiday destination.
The exact nature of the monster becomes muddled in It‘s 1100-page length. At various points it’s suggested to be a projection of the town’s negative energy, a tulpa emerging from the fears and imaginations of children, a crashed UFO (?!?), a Lovecraftian abomination from the “multiverse”, a Manichean embodiment of the dark side (the light side is represented by a turtle), etc.
The clown is the monster’s iconic form, but it has many others, including a werewolf, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and a disembodied eye. Stephen King seems to be paying homage to the Universal horror films, and trying to make them scary again.
He only “seems” to be, because like a lot of his 1980s work, he’s trying so many contradictory things that any central authorial vision gets lost. The Lovecraftian elements sit oddly with the Monster Mash stuff, and the “xTrEmE hOrRoR” Ed Lee pastiches don’t seem of a piece with the nostalgic Wonder Years scenes. It’s the definition of a mixed book, filled with ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. An idea that works: the clown. An idea that doesn’t: the underaged gangbang.
It was adapted at least twice, once as a miniseries starring Tim Curry, and again, more recently, as a pair of horror movies heavily derived from Stranger Things (which itself was heavily derived from It). Neither had the courage to film It‘s most infamous scene, which takes place in the sewers and would have earned either movie an NC-17 if filmed verbatim.
Anyone making any sort of It movie has chosen a hard row to hoe. The book is gigantic, and confusing, and sprawling. The clown Pennywise is one of the most marketable villains ever, but the rest of the book is kind of a mess. It’s the product of the relentless, manic energy King had the 80s – an accurate cover would list “Cocaine” as the book’s co-writer, and to be honest, I’m not sure that King’s name wouldn’t get second billing
(This, foremost among King’s work, must have been hard to look up on early search engines, which tended to reject searches for pronouns. As far as unfortunate titles go, It is even less searchable than The Who.)
While walking in a desert, in the river of shade flowing between two dunes, you find a shape in the sand: a long stroke, capped at both ends by a much shorter stroke. What is it? Hard to say. It could be many things.
Then you find a second shape, a circle with a short, right-leaning stroke bisecting the lower right edge. It’s obviously the letter Q. Remarkably, you now recognise the first shape: the letter I. One shape is meaningless: two causes meaning to flood into your head.
The Harry Potter books were like that. Written by a single mother drawing a £70 a week welfare cheque, they weren’t an overnight success. You probably only heard of them after Book 3 came out, by which point it was impossible to not have heard of them.
Even after it became a global phenomenon, Harry Potter confused a lot of people, particularly your parents, teacher, and youth pastor. What sort of book lurked between the covers? The premise was easily understandable – boy discovers that he’s a wizard – but were they children’s books? Young adult adventures? Fantasy stories? Gateway drugs into black magick and the occult? Did you file Harry Potter next to Roald Dahl, The Saddle Club, or Aleister Crowley?
The first book’s marketing reveals this confusion. Would children buy books written by a woman? Better initialise her name, just to be safe (Harry Potter fans used to lord over the rubes by saying “Joanne Kathleen” as loudly as possible). Her American publisher thought that Philosopher’s Stone was dry and static, and released it as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. They probably expected a turkey: the book was of near-unpublishable length (kids don’t read books that are 300 pages long) and it was also too British (American children won’t understand arcane Limeyland terminology like “ice lolly”, et cetera).
By Book 4, Harry Potter made a lot more sense. It was a heroic coming-of-age epic with elements of the fantastical. Being a new Harry Potter fan at this point was like tuning in to a song partway through the chorus – you tried to enjoy the moment while hastily backfilling your knowledge about the first three books. But for most of us, it was entertaining backfilling. Virtually everyone who reads the Harry Potter books all the way enjoys them greatly.
But to break butterflies under the wheel…what’s good about them, exactly?
JK Rowling has weaknesses as a writer: virtually every “he/she said” has an adverb clinging to it like a parasitic tick (“she said sharply”, “he said heavily,” “Harry said desperately”). When she describes something she provides cliche: eyes like dark tunnels, legs as thick as tree trunks. Her books (including this one) are often plotted around some piece of secret information that, once revealed, isn’t as interesting or important as its place in the story would suggest. Her worldbuilding is fun but unserious – nobody in a world of magic would need to wear glasses, for example, nor would they use flaming torches for light.
But she has strengths, too.
She has Evelyn Waugh’s ability to make anything funny or interesting: even if a character is sitting alone in a room, we get a wry observation about the room. Some passages are hilarious: I enjoyed rediscovering all my favorite lines in a recent re-reading. “Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground.”
She also possesses Waugh’s talent for effortlessly establishing character. Sometimes it takes her a single sentence – “Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work” – while sometimes she takes a little longer, like a boxer wearing down an opponent. The headmaster Dumbledore is a good case. When we first meet him, he seems like God, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent. But in later books (and even a little in this one), his benignity is tempered with slight dishonesty. He is a man who might tell a lie, if he decides the truth is not in your best interests.
Much of Philosopher’s Stone takes place in a classroom, which enables JK Rowling to kill two birds with one stone (we get exposition and worldbuilding from a teacher, while whispered conversations among students advance the plot). The classroom scenes are the workhorses of the Harry Potter books, a delight to read, and it’s always a shame when one ends. Harry’s first encounter with Severus Snape, the sinister Master of Potions, is a masterclass in character dynamics: we clearly see his resentment of Harry, his desire to publicly humiliate him, and a shuttered past that Harry can’t possibly know about but has to bear the brunt of anyway.
“We clearly see” applies to most things in Harry Potter, because JK Rowling writes some of the clearest prose I’ve ever seen. Despite the convoluted plots, you always know what’s happening in Harry Potter. Granted, it might be “something mysterious” or “something Harry doesn’t understand”, but we always, always, always understand the action described on the page. George Orwell compared prose to glass: stained glass windows are pretty, but you can’t see through them. Good writing is like transparent glass, providing a clear window into the action. JK Rowling’s prose is 99% transmittance 9H tempered glass.
The first book is the roughest, and tonally the most unique. There’s more whimsy than the later ones, more surreality, and less adherence to logic (certain elements, like ghosts and paintings that talk to you, would hang uneasily in dramatic stories were death is supposed to be final). You can see all the roads the Harry Potter books could have gone down, from Dahl to Amis to Milne. Perhaps JK Rowling herself was still uncertain about what Harry Potter was, but it was very clearly something.