Commentary: IT by Stephen King

This is not a review because how do you review something so epic? This is an expanded version of my thoughts and comments on one of my all-time favorite novels. Beyond top 5, this is top 3.

I re-read IT for the second time during January 2019 as part of a readalong hosted on instagram by Luke (luke.at.what.im.reading) and I decided to annotate my copy. Currently, that consists of a few hundred tabs. Eventually, it will also be notes in the margins. I have my pristine hardback, and I’ll have my well-loved and destroyed paperback to remind myself what I loved.

The tabs: hot pink was general quotes I liked, usually those from the narrator not a specific character; orange was Bev moments/quotes (of course); yellow was Bill moments/quotes; green was Ben moments/quotes; blue was Mike moments/quotes; light purple was things about IT and the other entities as well as the plot moments that paid off later; and dark purple was anything the other characters did. Looking back if I had another color I probably would have done one for Richie too – I’ll explain why later.

The Losers…the first time you read this book I think it’s the love triangle of Bev, Bill, and Ben that stays in your mind. Bill is an overwhelming character and this is mostly his story so when you step away that’s what you remember. The second time around I assigned a specific color to Mike because of the role he played, not because I remembered the Interludes or how much of the voice of the story belongs to him. Mike gets so under-utilized in the adaptations and it made me feel brand new disappointment with the new one. They stole his story and I’m just going to say that I think there was a racial element to that decision, unconscious or otherwise. Why would they take this amazing representation of a young black male in the 60’s who had a strong, supportive nuclear family and make him an orphan being raised by a toxic family member? That just makes my skin crawl. Mike’s story deserved better, and I am hoping the second movie does better by him.

Richie is also so much more than I remembered. He was the funny guy, the mouth, but I forgot how much heart he has too. The adventures that are just Richie and Bill, and how much Richie loves him, are lovely. Richie also plays a lot bigger role in the defeat of IT than he gets credit for in the 60s, and he basically saves all their butts in the 80s. Of all the Losers, I think Richie is one of the most self-aware. He knows who he is and that he struggles to control parts of himself – but also knows those parts will develop into something more. And damn does he love his friends.

One of the things I was seeing during the readalong was people’s discomfort with the racism and violence toward gay men, specifically, and discussing whether or not those scenes and how they were written was necessary. Horror, and most especially Stephen King, hold up a mirror to the monsters we really are. The racial and homophobic violence are written to be taking place 60 and 30 years ago – but how familiar did those scenarios sound? The violence, vitriol, and hatred experienced by Mike and his family, experienced by Adrian, are things that still happen to this day. Are you uncomfortable with those scenes? GOOD. It means you are experiencing cognitive dissonance that the world is not different, and that we are uncomfortable because these things are still happening. This kind of violence is still in King’s recent books because we haven’t fixed anything. My discomfort with those scenes came from a place of fear and pain because it reminds me the world is not much better, and that there’s still work I can be doing to improve it.

It’s also why I love the tiny glimpses we get into Victor Criss. We want to believe we’d be Bill and stand up, but a lot of times – we’re Victor. Something feels wrong and we know things might have gone too far, but we don’t know how to break out of our pattern and confront the Henry Bowers that we meet in our lives. We don’t know how to confront, change, or break away from toxic people. If only he had, eh?

Since the first time I read this book, I have become a lot more informed, maybe even an expert, at issues related to socio-sexual power dynamics, abuse, trauma, and relationship violence. All of that information changed the way I saw Bev’s journey in IT and The Scene.

Listen, it is weird. I can also have the conversation about whether or not it was necessary as a way to reconnect the Losers. It definitely makes me uncomfortable and it’s not because of cognitive dissonance, it’s because we have to think about what sex means, and what sex means to an uninformed young person running on fear and instinct.

Bev’s journey is about the way we prematurely sexualize young girls – the second their body develops, even though their brain has not, they stop being a child and become an object. Bev is treated like a sexual being and doesn’t even realize that’s what’s happening – people make assumptions about her actions and emotions based on her body. Think about the way Bev loved Bill – it was innocent, it wasn’t physical – and the ability of the group to be friends with each other without complications. There was an awareness that Bev was a girl, and different, and a potential object for EMOTIONAL affection – but none of them thought about sex because that’s not where the brains of children go. They go to a totally different kind of love.

Controlling the sexuality of a young girl was also clearly there when it comes to the way Bev’s father treats her. He exerted fairly total control over his family, and there is always something about a maturing girl that is a little bit wild. I like to believe it’s because we are suddenly filled with the potential for creation (which is not necessarily sexual) and it scares people who are obsessed with power and control. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that he also exercised power and control over his wife – I think she could see what was coming for Bev and was going to try and do what she could to protect her, or stop it before too much happened. Bev is raw power and potential, growing into something beautiful. It’s so easy to knock that down, and when you look at the rest of her life’s journey – they succeeded. She dated and married men who only wanted to suffocate her because that was what she knew.

So when we go back to her childhood and her confusion over her father’s obsession with something that is not even on her mind, it makes Bev contemplate physical love and it’s ties to emotional love. When the Scene happens, it is Bev taking absolute control of her body and her power. In that moment, the only person influencing her decision was her. To her, the physical act was only an act of love and connection, not this dark, furtive thing it would become. The person with the power was Bev, and she made the choice to use it. It’s still extremely weird, but it’s ultimately empowering. It was an act of love.

Still unnecessary, but from a narrative standpoint it is in line with the rest of her journey.

This second time around also reminded me of one of the best quotes, and my friend Brad was nice enough to make an image of it for me.

Chances are that “people who build their houses in your heart” is going to end up tattooed on my body.

Anyway, IT is always a 5 star read for me, and this second time around it blew me away all over again how staggeringly good it is. I was an emotional wreck. I can barely even think of IT as a horror novel. People who are focused on Pennywise the Clown without understanding what the clown is, or that the story is SO MUCH BIGGER than that drive me crazy. It’s about love and friendship, and the things that make the world worth surviving in. I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it again, so I’ll have forgotten just enough for the journey to feel fresh again.

Review: the Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

So, I took a break from reviews for all of 2018 – a lot was happening. I got pregnant, got a new job, moved to a new state, and then had a baby a whole month early. Everyone is happy and healthy, but it means some things take a pause. However, in 2019 I am back on the review train. I’ll be posting smaller version to GoodReads, and longer reviews here. Add me there if we aren’t friends!

First review of the year – the Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. I blasted through this December 1-3, 2018 as part of a @kingbuddyreads readalong. It is definitely in my top 10, maybe even my top 5, books by King.

From GoodReads:

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland strays from the path while she and her recently divorced mother and brother take a hike along a branch of the Appalachian Trail. Lost for days, wandering farther and farther astray, Trisha has only her portable radio for comfort. A huge fan of Tom Gordon, a Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, she listens to baseball games and fantasizes that her hero will save her. Nature isn’t her only adversary, though – something dangerous may be tracking Trisha through the dark woods.

First, the language here is gorgeous. King dips more into the poetic than usual, which I think is easier to do when you’re talking about nature. There were so many vivid lines that made me feel like I was there which was thrilling, even if claustrophobic and terrifying at times.

Trisha is also well-rendered, and we don’t see King do vulnerable tween girls as often as we get younger boys. She’s so tough and doesn’t know it, which is probably why she survives the way that she does out in the woods. I also appreciated the moment when she was emotionally okay with being out and alone, and she was proud of herself for surviving at all. I think it’s good to see characters recognize that they are whole on their own, and Trisha has that moment in the woods.

Second, back to language – there is a rare efficiency of language in TGWLTG that we don’t get from our loquacious King very often. I think the book was almost geared toward a YA audience which might have led to the shorter novel, but there are times in other novels where you kind of wish King had a pickier editor because as much as I love his works they get a bit bloated. Probably because he is who he is and people will read it anyway, but the tightness of the writing and storytelling in fewer words in this book appealed to me. It was as if I got to see another side to this author who is so prolific you think you know what to expect. I was surprised here, and I loved that.

The enemy – and I say enemy, not necessarily villain – is also excellent. I understand enough at the end to get why things ended the way they did, but I am also left with questions that I can live with going unanswered. It’s a very primal story. Trisha’s fight to survive with no enemy would have been strong enough on it’s own, and I thought that’s where it was going for the first half of the story, but it was this extra piece that upped the tension. At the end, you’d understand if the enemy wins. Not because evil triumphs, but because it’s how nature works. The fight between Trisha and the thing that watches is ultimately fundamental. That was fun to read. I’m being vague on the enemy because spoilers would really spoil this book.

This was a 5 star read for me, obviously, and probably one of the more accessible books for non-King or vague-King fans. It was one I actually thought to myself – my father-in-law would like this. He’s generally not a horror person, there’s just something about it I think he’d appreciate. A definite recommended read.

Review: Within These Walls

When you move into a house where a cult murder occurred to write about the murder, it can’t end well. A review of Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn. (4/5)

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn was released in April 2015, and I read it December 8, 2017. I basically ignored all other responsibilities I had on Friday to finish this book. Particularly with horror/thriller novels I am not good at reading them in pieces as the tension doesn’t dissipate for me when I close the book to go do other things. Anyway, I binged this and it was great.

A summary from Amazon:

How far would you go for success? What would you be capable of if the promise of forever was real?

With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed-up true-crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback, one more shot at the bestselling success he once enjoyed. His chance comes when he’s promised exclusive access to death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the notorious cult leader and mass murderer who’s ready to break his silence after thirty years, and who contacted Lucas personally from his maximum-security cell. With nothing left to lose, Lucas leaves New York to live and work from the scene of the crime: a split-level farmhouse on a gray-sanded beach in Washington State whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners—runaways who were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. There, Lucas sets out to capture the real story of the departed faithful. Except that he’s not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life…and within these walls, they’re far from dead.

Warning, this is going to be slightly spoilery.

One of the strongest parts of the novel for me was Vee – she’s normal. Normal in the sense that she’s struggling, angsty, a bit morbid, and trying find where she fits in. I was especially disturbed at the role she played in the novel because she is so much younger than the people Halcomb recruited and influenced at only 12. It made sense because it meant it would be even easier to manipulate a child on the cusp of adolescence who had no life experience to give her any doubts at all. At first, I was actually disappointed in her. About 3/4 through the book I was just thinking “ugh, why? This does not seem in character.” But then when I thought about the way living in that house and the influences within it were impacting both Vee and Lucas, it made sense that Vee would not take a minute to second guess what was happening to her. Sometimes I forgot Vee was only 12, but I don’t think others in the novel did which also led to the authenticity of her voice and responses – I too, would have loved to be left alone all the time when I was 12 and was not allowed to do so.

Lucas made me feel all sorts of ways. I understood what it felt like to disappear inside writing and time passes and you don’t notice it or forget to eat or break promises. But he was so aware of it and kept doing it anyway – he knew that things weren’t right in that house, that something was wrong, and opened himself up to being taken over. While It’s clear Halcomb still had influence and was dangerous, Lucas is at fault, in the long run. He lies, he hedges, he procrastinates, and he acts selfishly. On a spectrum of good father to bad father, he lands on the bad father end of the spectrum.

The atmosphere is SO FANTASTIC. I feel a little bit shamed for my immediate love of the old school retro house with conversation pit living room that everyone made fun of, but I also felt like I could picture the house really well. I could picture why the shadows were creepy. The atmosphere was just right in terms of the house being isolated, the house being a special location that caused the characters would question if something was real or not, and the way each character’s own specific fears were well articulated. Ahlborn describes their fears in a multi-sensation way that it’s easier for the fear to come off the page, and reminds the reader that the characters are always being watched. If they are in that house, they are never alone. It’s very creepy.

Any fan of horror, who has even a passing interest in cults, will enjoy this book. I appreciated the point that people aren’t aware they are joining a cult when they do. That’s kind of the point – you don’t know what’s happening until you’re too stuck to get out.

I would also love to read about young Jeffrey Halcomb and his time in Veldt, KS. I have so many questions, and the origins of the cult leader was one of the parts of the book that intrigued me the most. I’m often more interested in the origins of the criminal than in the crimes themselves.

Overall, I give Within These Walls 4/5 for being eerie and dark and making me say “Oh no!” to the ending. And that there was an extra twist at the that I wasn’t expecting. Abandon hope, anyone who reads this, and prepare to walk into darkness. This was my first Ania Ahlborn that I got from the library, and I will be checking out the others on the shelves.

Book Talk – the Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee

The Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee came out on April 1, 2016 and I read it August 15-16, 2017.

A synopsis, from Amazon:

In a house built on truth something lays hidden. Beth and Stu Davenport moved to the English hillside town of Meadowford Bridge to give their young son, Gabriel, an idyllic, rural childhood. But in a single evening, the Davenports’ dream is shattered by a hidden, ancient darkness– and their lives are forever changed. Years later, Gabriel Davenport, now a capable, curious young man, makes the ill-fated decision to go looking for answers about his mysterious past. As soon as he begins his quest, his life becomes a place of shadows. The people he loves and trusts are acting abnormally. The strange woman who lives upstairs is even more haunted than usual. Even his most trusted friend seems to be hiding something. As one fateful night deepens, and the line blurs between darkness and light, Gabriel must confront the terrible events that destroyed his family all those years ago. He is faced with a choice: continue living the life that was never his to begin with, or give himself over to a terrifying new reality more sinister than anything he’s ever known. The darkness is watching.


This book is part ghost/haunted house, part demonic threat, and part vampire stories. It makes for a satisfying read because if you like the horror genre, a lot of boxes are ticked by this novel. I have still been itching for a good haunted house story and the almost haunted houseness of this book made that itch even worse.

But it brings me to one of my favorite things about this book: the setting. Setting is one of my own biggest weaknesses, so I pay close attention to the people who do it well. Lee does it very well. It starts with the Davenport house, but it’s also capturing the spirit of the village, of the shape of the roads, and the distance between neighbors. The real success is the Manor though; the house is a character in itself as much as it is a setting – the house itself is almost as possessed, as manipulated, and as broken as any of the people who inhabit it during the course of the story. Houses, dwellings, are always safer than we think they are, and the Manor learns that it is not invulnerable, and that secrets rarely stay buried. The Manor is also part of the character of Edward Carver, and the secrets the house reveals are either Carver’s own, or hurt him the most. This is definitely a story about secrets – the real and the supernatural kind – and the consequences for thinking keeping them is the best course of action.

The other thing I loved about this book was the eponymous Gabriel Davenport. He is a perfect depiction of that liminal space between child and young adult – he believes that he is ready to know the truth about what happened when he was a baby and that he can handle it, while simultaneously being terrified that he cannot. He’s also young enough and has lived such a life that he is aware of his emotions, aware of his fear, and sometimes he even finds the strength to overcome it and do the right thing. I enjoyed the chapters that were in his perspective the most because he was the least damaged in traditional ways (the damage we acquire upon growing up, and the loss of innocence) – Gabriel is ultimately still innocent, but has also been carrying an enormous burden and sense of blame his entire life which is a unique kind of damage. It made him easy to care for, and easy to empathize with.

The only character that ultimately frustrated me was Noah Isaacs, but I wonder what will be resolved with him in the next book, A Shining in the Shadows. One of the subtle questions that Making asks is what power faith has – and not just the religious kind, but the faith we place in other people. Noah’s religious faith is tested, even fails, and that effects the faith the other characters have in him. It’s about the faith the Gabriel has in Carver and Noah to “solve the problem” and save him, and when he begins to doubt that they can, he trusts someone that maybe he shouldn’t.

It’s a book with a very unique family unit, and it is both their strength and their vulnerability. It’s hard to see anything coming in this story, and I liked that a lot. I am definitely curious about what happens next.

If you like moody, scary, semi-violent horror novels then the Making of Gabriel Davenport is definitely for you.

 

A Rant About Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

This isn’t about Miriam, it’s about Harriet, but Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is killer (ha!) (4/5)

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig was published September 2015, and I read it February 16-18, 2017. It is the first book in the Miriam Black series – a brief summary:

Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Yeah, yeah way to go Chuck, great book. It was a 4/5 read for me – some parts were slow going and I’m taking a point off because I really want to hate Ashley but I mostly don’t. I am, however, deeply amused that a book character shares my name and was excited that for once it was a dude. I am a lady, but I know the origins of my name and think men need to reclaim it.


This book is dark, humorous, gory, and pretty graphic. You know how Stephen King sometimes writes really horrifically specific descriptions of bad things happening to genitals? It’s like that, but whole bodies and brains and emotions. But you’re also laughing and the tension is built SO FANTASTICALLY, especially the Interludes of the Interview. It took all of my self-control not to skip ahead and read those parts to see the whole sub-plot. There was also kind of a Pulp Fiction vibe, and I dug it.

I’m also super grateful to Chuck for the Interludes idea, because it really helped with something I was stuck on in my own novel.

Anyway, this isn’t really a review of Blackbirds, I just want to have a kind of spoilery rant about the character of Harriet.

Honestly, just thinking “carpet noodle” fills me with fury! Righteous, glorious fury! Not at Wendig, at Harriet. Wendig is awesome for this.

It just blew my mind that part of how Harriet became Harriet involved murdering a man because down with the fucking patriarchy…only to be manipulated and trapped under the thumb of another man. Only to be willing to disobey his orders to keep him all to herself – Harriet was oppressed by a man, and then controlled by one, and it’s like she couldn’t even see it. She couldn’t see that she was LEASHED! Ugh, even though Harriet was totally amoral and is not a person I would ever like to meet, the stunted possibility of her character just crushed me. Part of me was like – “Yeah, that’s right, carpet noodle, because once again you’re losing everything for a man who doesn’t even appreciate you!”

Yeah. So. You should read this book and then rant with me in the comments.

 

Review: the Winter People

When Ruthie’s mother goes missing, she is pulled into a mystery and a horror more far-reaching than she can imagine. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (5/5)

“If snow melts down to water does it still remember being snow?”

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon was published in 2014 – I read it December 4-5, 2016.
As summarized on Amazon:

West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.
 
Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

It’s a mystery about grief and letting go – about magic – about ghosts – and maybe even…zombies? I definitely fall into the camp of people who would call this a zombie novel, albeit an elegant and delicately crafted one.

The novel switches between times and points of view: in 1908 we are with Sara and Martin, and in the present time we are with Ruthie, and a woman named Katherine who is pulled into the mystery through trying to understand the source of her own loss.

How things tie together is so immensely layered – all these little pieces come together to form a picture that is multi-dimensional. Things from the past effect the future of course, but things from the present shed a lot of light on the past. It really asks you to consider – how far would you go to see a loved one again? What price would be too high?

It’s interesting as well that the relationships mothers have to daughters and the bonds we form with our families play such an important role – even the peripheral characters have important roles in the plot, and in the survival of the mystery so that it stretches all the way to the present.

I cannot say enough that this novel is just expertly crafted – there are no wasted words or scenes, there’s very little exposition for its own sake, and it makes you question. Art is supposed to make you feel something, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable or wonder or doubt. I hope that anyone who reads this novel feels uncomfortable. It makes us confront the cost of our choices.

Also, it manages to be totally supernatural in a way that seems completely plausible. It plays on the unknown – just enough is revealed or explained to make you keep your disbelief suspended, but in the end you still don’t entirely understand how the magic works. You even get the feeling that you don’t want to – and I love that.

“Oh what power the dead have over the living!”

I give the Winter People 5/5 – it’s an excellent read.

Review – Ink and Bone

A haunting is a two way street. A review of Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger. (3/5)

Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger was released June 7, 2016 – I finished it October 12, 2016.

inkandbone

Ink and Bone is part detective story, part supernatural thriller, all heartbreak.

Finley Montgomery is some kind of psychic, a Dreamer or Listener depending on who you ask, and she’s come back to the Hollows, NY to learn from her grandmother. Finley was born with her gifts, Eloise got them after a car accident that killed one of her children and her husband. Eloise collaborates with a private detective, Cooper Jones, to solve cases as well as comfort the living left behind. But the Hollows gets what it wants, and it’s reaching out for Finley. Cooper Jones gets a case where all psychic roads point to Finley – and she begins to embrace and explore her gift in order to rescue a kidnapped child from a family of monsters.

As someone who is still moving through grief over the loss of a friend, I found this book oddly comforting. In the world of Ink and Bone, a haunting is a two way street – sometimes the spirit chooses, but sometimes the living haunt the dead and don’t let them go. The sense of peace and awareness of something beyond was also positive without being preachy, without ascribing to any religious belief, and managed to ring true. There are spirits who are recently lost, as well as ones who’ve been haunting Finley’s family for a long time. She can be led astray, or led to the truth. Finley needs a little leading in this book.

This is really a book about exploring the connections we have with one another, and that some of those connections can’t be rationally explained. A lot of Carl Jung is pulled in and the concept that psychic abilities are just a part of the human brain and psyche that we don’t yet understand. Finley and Eloise explain abilities like a spectrum – everyone has a little bit of something, all they have to do is explore it and honor it.

I liked the relationships between Finley and her family members – they were complicated, sometimes negative, but ultimately loving. People don’t always understand each other or get along, and that’s especially frustrating when they’re related. Some of the descriptions or attributes of characters start out very shallow or stereotypical, but Unger always goes deeper. Even the mistress is more than meets the eye, when so much of the initial description is meant to make her seem like nothing. What we learn about some of the side characters almost says more about the narrating character than it does about the people they’re describing. Everyone has something you should recoil from, but they all have something redemptive – hope is a thread that pulls this novel together.

It was a quick, emotional read that I enjoyed getting lost in. It was a good book to cozy up with on a really rainy fall day. It pulls you in to a very vivid world. I give Ink and Bone a 3/5 for giving me a sense of peace, and an intriguing mystery.