‘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.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” is the American Psycho of fairy tales: the hero breaks into someone’s house, steals his possessions, and murders him when caught in the deed. Most retellings add an exculpatory backstory (the giant killed Jack’s father, or something), but the tale has enough malevolence to be an interesting choice for one of the Disney studio’s “fairy tale + mouse” adaptions.
Mickey and the Beanstalk was released with center billing in 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free, and re-cut for TV several times with different narrators, including Ludwig Von Drake, Shari Lewis, and Winnie the Pooh voice actor Samuel Holloway. The tale begins in Happy Valley, where “all the world is gay”. The gayness stems from a magical harp, which is stolen one fateful night, The crops fail and the river dries up, leaving three unfortunate peasants (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy) facing starvation. There’s a funny gag involving Mickey Mouse slicing invisibly thin sandwiches from a single slice of bread.
Mickey foolishly trades their last cow for some magic beans, which grows into a huge beanstalk, reaching up into the clouds and a giant’s castle. The giant, incidentally, is one hell of a dude. You’d think merely being a giant would be enough, but he also possesses magical powers allowing him to fly or transform into anything. It’s like the Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson sex tape, where we discover that, in addition to being a millionaire rockstar, Tommy Lee also has a huge penis. Some guys get all the luck.
When a plan to trick the giant into turning into a fly and swatting him fails, Donald and Goofy are locked inside a snuff box. This leads to the film’s most nail-biting moment – Mickey stealing the key from the giant’s pocket while he sleeps. It’s unfortunately necessary to kill the giant at this point, which they achieve through a method that doesn’t make a lot of sense given what we know about the giant.
It’s well animated, well conceived, and has some laughs. If I had a complaint, it doesn’t find a use for Goofy. Disney’s “big three” are types: Mickey as the straight man, Donald is angry, spiteful, and insecure, and Goofy is the good-natured fool. The latter role is here filled by the giant, giving Goofy nothing to do (except a cute scene where he tries to rescue his hat from atop a giant-sized block of jelly).
There is (perhaps) a deeper level to this film than I initially realised.
In 1913, an aqueduct was built, diverting the Owens River to Los Angeles. This enabled La-La Land to grow to its current size, but it had a dark side: Owens Lake completely dried up, devastating Owens Valley and ruining the livelihood of many farmers. The man responsible for this was William Mulholland.
It might be a coincidence, but the name of the giant is “Big Willie”. I also note that Owens Lake is only a three hour drive from Burbank.
The last bastion for socially unacceptable behavior is when the perpetuator is an animal. They attack us, and destroy our property, and it’s hilarious. If they were capable of speech, perhaps we’d even allow them to make racist jokes and misgender trans people.
It’s not that they lack the intelligence to understand their actions, it’s that their systems of values are fundamentally unrelatable to ours. A human looks upon a carefully laid table and sees effort and organisation; a housecat sees fun shiny objects to bat and knock around. You get the sense that even if you could explain to a housecat what it’s doing, it wouldn’t care. Misbehaving animals are funny, but also disquietening: as though we’re getting a taste of what an alien invasion might be like.
Untitled Goose Game is an indie puzzle/adventure game where you play as a goose, wandering around one of those insufferably whimsical British towns that have names like Toddlefold or Nippleshire. You have a checklist of tasks to complete, which basically reduce to “annoy as many people as possible.”
You steal laundry, destroy gardens, ruin picnics, and honk at people, The game bears some resemblance to Pulse Entertainment’s notorious 1996 adventure game Bad Mojo, where you are a cockroach, and your objectives are to basically…be a cockroach. Here, as there, you are invited to reject your own species, and view them as the Other. Most humans (with the exception of two women who find the goose hilarious) are enemies, to be avoided or navigated around.
It will take you a couple of hours to beat. When the game is on the verge of overstaying its welcome, it ends.
The graphics are cell shaded or flat shaded (or whatever the fuck the trendy term for it is now), . Environments are clean, while retaining enough detail to have verisimilitude. The human models walk with a jerky, odd gait, but I believe this is intentional: from a goose’s perspective, humans are ridiculous. The music is dynamic, changing to reflect the in-game action, and the sound design is nicely detailed (the acoustics of the goose’s honks change when its beak is inside a glass bottle, for instance).
I grew weary of debates about games vs art a long time ago. Most of the games praised as “artistic” are in fact regurgitations of cinematic tropes. They only seem profound because you’re comparing them with Candy Crush. In a 2010 Cracked column, Robert Brockway praised the “artistry” of a scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare where you crawl around and die of radiation burns. Is this the groundbreaking artistry of videogaming? Cultural commentary about how war is hell?
Untitled Goose Game is a clearer statement of videogaming as an art form. It has no story, no “point”, and ludonarrative interaction drives the game. Even title seems more suggestive of a painting (where it’s common for work) than something from Hollywood.
Untitled Goose Game is now in the inevitable backlash stage of its hype cycle, but it’s perfectly good at being what it is, even if it’s something that’s confusing and meaningless to a lot of people. It has an unusual premise, and it’s even a little philosophical. When William Wallace was arrested and charged with treason, he retorted. “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Animals are not our subjects. They exist outside our world.
The supposed eighteenth chapter to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, revealing what happened to the three missing women.
“Supposed” because the internet is rife with conspiracy theories that Joan Lindsay didn’t write it, that it’s a hoax, et cetera.
I’m not convinced. The number of parties necessary to orchestrate such a fraud (Lindsay’s estate, editor, publisher, and so on) would be huge, and the prose definitely reads like Lindsay’s (note, for example, the frequent usage of “little” in its diminutive/feminine sense.)
Until someone presents evidence otherwise, I take Secret at face value: as the unpublished work of Joan Lindsay.
It’s understandable that people want to decanonize The Secret of Hanging Rock. Everyone who reads it reacts the same way: with disappointment. I don’t know of a single person who thinks it improves the book. It’s a few pages long, and much of its text was retrofitted into chapter 3 of Hanging Rock. In short, the girls disappeared into a rift in time. There are some allusions to quantum cosmology, as well as Aboriginal “dreamtime” and therianism. That’s it.
It’s a stupid ending. Maybe any ending would be stupid. Hanging Rock was like a crossword puzzle in a newspaper: fun until you solve it: then it becomes a fish-wrapper.
Secret was so threadbare and underwhelming that I started pondering other things: such as the ethics of publishing a dead writer’s unfinished work. Nirvana fans are familiar with this game: every few years someone finds a shoebox of tapes and we’re subjected to yet another posthumous Kurt Cobain “album” of unfinished material that he definitely wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear.
Is it right to do this? Release all of a famous artist’s outtakes once they’re too dead to complain?
I can see the opposite argument; authors don’t have unlimited fiat to declare that nobody read their work, particularly for something of public and literary importance (like Picnic at Hanging Rock). If someone wrote the cure for cancer on a piece of paper and commanded the world to never read it, we probably shouldn’t honor that request, either.
At the end, Hanging Rock was about time, and how time blurs reality. Reading the book is a maddening experience: you know that whatever happened to the girls, it’s knowledge out of your reach. Knowing what happens yanks the story back down to earth, and destroys its appeal. Hanging Rock left you like Aesop’s fox, snapping at grapes that are just out of reach. Secret cuts down the tree and lets you gorge on grapes until you’re become violently sick. Enjoy your stomach-ache.
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.