I’ve spoken before about how ideas pass through the writer’s particular creative lens and thus come out differently even if they set out to duplicate. This is also true as the writer’s lens changes over time.
A writer in his younger years may be more hopeful and therefore write more uplifting stories about admirable characters whereas a writer in midlife might really be feeling the pressure of being a father and husband and provider and so might write stories full of chaos and compromise.
Or a writer might be in the grip of a horrific coke and alcohol addiction which causes him to sow discord and disharmony in his works.
After finishing Salem’s Lot and still waiting for Dr. Sleep to come out, I thought I’d revisit one of my favorite, if obviously flawed, King novels: It. I last read this story when it came out in (I think) 1985 and I still remember the growing feeling that I was reading a masterpiece as I plowed through its Bible-like density. Only to discover one of the most disappointing endings to an otherwise great book in history.
But I went ahead and bought the Audible version, thinking that, since I knew that about the book, I could reread it just to enjoy the awesome first 90% of it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the bleakness of that first 90%.
By King’s own admission – in On Writing among other places, the man is not an enigma by any means – he spent much of the 1980s holed up with a serious substance abuse problem. He claims it was so bad he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that thing readers do where they try to impress things from a work of fiction onto the real life of the author. But, yes I am. I am actually about to do that because the difference between the lives of the character’s in Salem’s Lot and It is mind boggling.
It actually sounds like a story told by a debilitated drug addict. No one is happy. Everyone is in a destructive relationship. Women are literally taking a beating. Parents are awful. Wives are clinging, cloying, nagging monstrosities that make Pennywise look like an afterthought. And underneath it all is this lingering evil that sucks everyone back in no matter how hard they try to get out. Maybe most telling of all: the characters all feel compelled by an outside force to return to that evil.
Pennywise the murderous clown monster is terrifying and creepy but I almost didn’t make it that far. I was ready to quit reading during the section told in the voice of Bev’s abusive husband. It was more horrific than any sharp-toothed clown living in the sewer. Mostly because there aren’t really any murderous clowns living in sewers but all over the world there are millions of women living in that kind of relationship from hell.
The idea that drug addiction might have had some impact on this story is also bolstered by the weird ending. As Wild Bill Burroughs knew all too well, that stuff really helps you think outside the box. The problem is if you’re a mega-powerful international best seller when you think outside the box, there isn’t anyone there to bring you back to earth when you get a little too far outside.
Also, if you look at the books he wrote in the back half of the 1980s, you kind of get a feel for his frame of mind. For me, it started with Thinner – that was just a hateful book – and ends with The Dark Half – a book that on the surface appears to be about healing the internal divisions. Whatever was driving his heel during that period, I remember being physically relieved when Insomnia came out. It wasn’t as great as many of his books, but it was a return to hopefulness from the bleak landscape he and Richard Bachman had been inhabiting. It became fun to read him again.
Anyway, I feel awful for what I’ve done here. Mostly because I hate it when people do it to me.
“Wow the parents in that story are really awful. You must be writing about your terrible childhood.”
Actually, I had a happy childhood which is why when I’m looking around for something bad to write about, I think: Hey, I had a happy childhood. You know what would be really terrible? A bad one. And then I write about that.
On the other hand, writers exist so that we have something other than our commutes to talk about. Right?