A Horror Confession: “It” (2017)

I’ve been pretty upfront about my Stephen King newb-ness. So I’ll just get it out now: I never read It, and as of this writing I’ve only seen little pieces of the 1990 miniseries. The first Stephen King anything I think I ever saw all the way through was Pet Sematary, followed by The Shining. I’ve since read both of those novels, along with the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. In the intervening years I’ve seen bits and pieces of other films, like The Night Flier, Cujo, and probably some others. But that’s about it.

I remember the 1990 TV version happening, vaguely. I remember adults talking about it, though that may have been after the fact; and I remember somebody (my father?) having a copy of the novel, which was enough to frighten me. (I was eight at the time.) I knew that Pennywise was the villain, and that he was actually some kind of spider-demon thing, and I think I knew that he ate kids. That’s where my knowledge ended.

So now, in 2017, I didn’t have a ton of prior knowledge or expectations going into this. That said, I’ll just get this other thing out of the way right now: I really liked this movie.

Something about the vague knowledge of It as a source of fear from my youth (even, again, without having read/seen it myself), coupled with the powerful imagery of a child-eating monster, really got me. It’s just so awful. The opening scene has poor Georgie–and really, poor Georgie!–getting his arm bitten off by this awful Lovecraftian clown-monster in the sewer. Today I watched that scene in the original Tim Curry version, and it lacks the awfulness of the new one. I was frankly stunned that they showed a six-year-old kid getting mangled by a sewer demon.. I don’t know if I should praise the film for that, but it was definitely an affecting scene.

A brief summary for fellow newbies: It tells the story of a demonic being that stalks the children of Derry, Maine, preying on their fear (but also literally eating them). When poor Georgie disappears (in the film version–the novel’s different), his brother Bill launches a year-long campaign to discover what happened to him. Bill’s quest ultimately ropes in his friends, a bunch of unpopular kids who have all been terrorized by the monster, and they learn that “it” only appears every twenty-seven years, wreaking havoc and causing lots of grisly deaths for a year at a time before disappearing again. The creature is a shapeshifter, appearing to its intended victims as the things they fear most; but its preferred form is a clown called Pennywise. (I don’t happen to suffer from so-called caulrophobia, but if you do, this all must just be awful for you.)

Everything about this film was memorable. The central group of young actors were great, with every single one of the Losers’ Club giving stand-up performances. And Bill Skarsgård’s evil clown Pennywise is equally great, suitably creepy and weird and frightening, not so much to me, but to the children who are his prey. Little me would have absolutely died of fright.

It felt a tiny bit abrupt, and the monster talks too much–though that’s probably something to lay at King’s feet more than the film makers’. A few of the jittery running-at-the-screen scares were standard contemporary horror schlock, but they were used sparingly and integrated more organically into the plot than other recent examples. (Looking at you, every James Wan film.)

I don’t think I can do this adequate credit in a brief review, so I’ll just reiterate that I thought it was very good. The scares were genuine, the writing and acting were on point, the music was effective, and nothing felt forced or Wan-ish. I’m thrilled that Andy Muschietti, the director of the just horribly blah Mama, was able to pull this off. It’s inspired me to buy the novel, which I’ll undoubtedly review on here one of these days. You should see it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Horror lit double bill: “The Demonologist” (2013) / “The Loney” (2014)

Once again, I’ve been away too long. In my defense I can only offer a few new reviews over at HorrorTalk. But to prove what a good scholar of scary stuff I am, today I’ve got a double-whammy book review of two very different kinds of horror novels.


Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist is the story of David Ullman, a literature prof at Columbia University who is summoned under mysterious circumstances to Venice. Thinking the whole thing a lark, Ullman brings his daughter Tess along. In Venice Ullman witnesses–and is compelled to film–a demoniac, a man possessed by a dark spirit. It seems that the demon has chosen Ullman to be its messenger to the world, and to ensure he does his part, it possesses his daughter and forces her to jump from the roof of their hotel into the canals of Venice. Tess’ body is never found, and Ullman returns to the US broken and haunted.

The rest of the novel is Ullman’s scattered, slightly nonsensical quest to understand what the demon wants him to do, based on the vague hope that Tess is still alive and will be returned to him if he plays his part well enough. The demon sends him vague clues about places to go and people to meet, all as a way of bearing witness to the reality of Hell and its powers.  To add a sense of urgency, David is pursued by an unnamed hitman, apparently sent by the Church, who have a vested interest in covering up the proof of demonic influences in the world. (This part doesn’t quite make sense to me: you’d think the church could benefit from proof of supernatural evil in the world, using its position as arbiter of God’s will to exert greater control over society. But what do I know?)

Certain things about The Demonologist rub me the wrong way. Chief among these are the snarky, off-the-cuff dialogue and narration. Told in the first person, the book has more asides, more vaguely philosophical meditations on the demonic and parenthood, than it has forward action. Ullman and his love interest, a psychologist named O’Brien, have conversations that reflect a typically non-academic, Whedonian view of what academics are like. But we’re not like that. Nobody talks like that. And making scholars summarize ancient texts and vague cultural theories in dialogue irks me. In Pyper’s defense, the whole premise is that Ullman is chosen in part because of his expertise in Milton, and the idea of scholarship as such is important to the novel. But I’ve said before that I’m more willing to accept the supernatural as a basic premise in a horror story than to accept unrealistic portrayals of everyday life, and that holds true here. It’s fine to define demons and portray them in a certain way; we have no frame of reference. (Or at least, most of us don’t.) But we do have a frame of reference for scholarship, and it’s not like this.

For all that The Demonologist is worth a read. It’s not frightening and it’s not particularly innovative, aside from the way it sort of grafts The Exorcist onto The Da Vinci Code, but it has an interesting villain and a number of memorable scenes.

 


The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley is a different beast entirely. The title refers to a (fictional) stretch of northeastern English coast, famous locally for its treacherous waters and terrible weather. The novel is told from the perspective of a man identified only as Smith, who as a child belonged to an extraordinarily religious Catholic family. Smith’s brother Hanny is afflicted with an undefined developmental disorder, unable to speak and with the mind of a child. For several years Smith’s family made a pilgrimage to a shrine at the Loney in the hopes that God would heal Hanny. On the last of these trips some very unusual things happened, and Smith, from his vantage in the present, slowly unwinds the tale of that fateful trip forty years ago that somehow did lead to the miraculous healing of his brother.

If you’re considering plunging into The Loney, be warned that it is incredibly, ponderously, creakingly slow. This is not a Stephen King novel, with a series of frightening set pieces to look forward to, sandwiched between expository dialogue. This is an extended meditation on the brutal, bleak environment of the north of England, and if you like that sort of thing, you’ll love it. But if you don’t, if you’re expecting scares and creeping doom and eldritch horrors, you’ll be disappointed.

I consider all of the above to be strengths, and like other Gothic novels (especially this one), The Loney actually made me want to exist in the place it describes, despite knowing that there is in fact horror hidden there. I also appreciate the commentary on religious fundamentalism–Smith’s family and friends, and their entire parish, are absolutely nutty with faith–and expected the horror, when it came, to come from that quarter. Part of the genius of Hurley’s story, though, is that the horror doesn’t actually come from religious zealotry at all. Unthinking faith is scary enough, sure, and can lead people to do awful things; but there’s something else here, something totally outside the purview of the church (today, anyway), that is far worse than those mundane evils. What that something is isn’t really defined and only appears in the closing pages of the novel, but for once the unanswered questions don’t feel like lazy storytelling to me. Instead they are an integral part of the story. And it’s clear enough, with a little reflection, what’s really going on, what force is actually responsible for healing Hanny.

The issue of religion is worth lingering on here. I was raised Catholic–meaning, as I’ve likely said before, that I’m now thoroughly agnostic. But I’ve never encountered anything like the fundamentalist version of Catholicism Hurley describes. I’m from the US, of course, and there can be no question that Catholicism in the US is different than in other places. (If The Loney were set in the US, I suspect the main characters would be Evangelicals rather than Catholics.) My research in Ireland did bring me into contact with a different flavor of Catholicism, one more like what Hurley describes, though there was never the kind of desperate zealotry of Smith’s fellow parishioners. Given his name and the occasional references to Northern Ireland (a character in the novel, a priest, is originally from there), I’m guessing that Hurley himself has some direct experience with Irish Catholicism. But I wonder what effect his position as an English teacher in the UK has had on his view of the Catholic church. In days past Catholics were regarded as among the most superstitious of all Christian sects, and that stereotype is reflected in The Loney. On the other hand, the character of Father Bernard, the Irish priest, is a far more progressive, Vatican II-style Catholic than the parish he comes to preside over, and the lone voice of reason among the pilgrims to the Loney. There’s a lot to unpack here, in other words.

True to form I’ve taken a long time to make a simple point: I liked this book. The Loney is a strange, slow, wonderful novel, and I highly recommend it.