In honour of Halloween … part two. My favourite ghost story, or an essay on Stephen King
My top three ghost stories are Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Maybe This Time by Jenny Crusie and Stephen King’s IT. My all time favourite though, is IT.
When I was a teenager I was somewhat obsessed with the supernatural. I had books about real hauntings and devoured ghost stories. What I discovered is that, to me, the most terrifying literary spirits are those that prey on children. For me, as for Pennywise, it seemed true that the fear of children added ‘salt’.
As a child I would allow myself the most delicious thrill of vicarious terror, reading books like The Shining and IT late into the night. Now that I am a mother whose literal nightmares all surround something happening to the children, I find that the concept of an entity that lives on the fear of little ones remains particularly chilling. Children are innocent. Most of us are hard-wired to protect them. Only a monster would hurt a child, and sadly not all monsters are supernatural.
King understands this and he populates his novels with heroic children; ordinary youngsters who stand and fight evil, endangering them as he forces them to grow through each story arc in ways that no child ever should (in a particularly uncomfortable twist, the eleven year old Beverley saves her friends from IT by having sex with each of them).
Although The Shining is King’s best known ghost story, (“Here’s Johnny”) for me IT has the edge.
There is a victimised child in The Shining, Danny, but he is not alone. Danny has moved to the Overlook hotel with his parents. Although he ends up hunted by the one person he should be able to count on to protect him (his father), his mother retains her sanity and fights to escape with him. Furthermore, this child is neither ordinary nor powerless. He has ‘the shining’ and is able to call for help using his mind. This enables Halloran to come and help save him and his mother from the Overlook.
The gang of Losers in IT are truly alone, cut off completely from the adults who are supposed to help them.
“Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.”
“I started after him…and the clown looked back. I saw Its eyes, and all at once I understood who It was.”
“Who was it, Don?” Harold Gardner asked softly.
“It was Derry,” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town.”
The grown ups do not see IT, they live in state of blindness and complicity, unable to believe the children, let alone help them.
Pennywise the Clown (the face of the monster in IT, not strictly a ghost, but an entity, however, that draws me into a discussion on what a ghost actually is, so I won’t go further down that rabbit hole), has stayed with me longer than that of the ghosts from the Overlook because Pennywise preys on ordinary, powerless children, much like the ghosts in Turn of the Screw.
“In regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was … its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. … If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children – ?”
Pennywise himself makes the children insane with terror before he kills them.
They float,’ it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–’
King has created a bogeyman in Pennywise that has given nightmares and coulrophobia (fear of clowns) to a generation.
But it is not simply King’s ability to create a terrifying monster that makes his book my favourite (above Turn of the Screw for heaven’s sake) it is his prose. There is a misconception that horror writers are the B-movie equivalent of the literary world, pulp fiction authors, not ‘literary’. That makes me angry. For King in particular this simply is not true. He writes beautiful, elegant prose, stunning in its simplicity. He can produce description that reaches into the human heart and squeezes it. He is unbendingly honest, offering up observations about his own emotions for the consumption of his readers (he once said that The Shining was partially inspired by his occasional, suppressed violent feelings towards his own children).
“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
Moreover, it is the chills that King gives the reader rather than the gore that won me over. I love the way that King’s whole oeuvre is interconnected, I love the way his bad guys stay with you for years afterwards.
This is what King has to say about terror …
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
So when I decided to write a ghost story, was I influenced by my favourite? There is no point prevaricating, the answer is a resounding yes. Although the ghosts that I write about are not evil (they are all murder victims), the influence of King on The Weight of Souls is transparent. In fact anyone who reads my novel will swiftly notice what my editor has called ‘an incredibly creepy clown’ (he was even creepier in the first draft).
When I had to come up with the most terrifying apparition I could for the first ghost Taylor ever sees, my mind handed me a clown. It wasn’t until I had written the scene that I realised how heavily influenced he was by Pennywise and King’s definition of ‘terror’: Taylor can tell that the clown is following her, she sees his balloons floating wherever she goes, she hears his giant clown shoes behind her ‘flap-slap’ but when she spins around, there is nothing there.
Still, I kept him, my shadow of Pennywise, as tribute to King and how he made me feel as a teenager. King terrified me, not only with the stories that he told, but by the way he told them. I so wanted to be a novelist and King’s writing both intimidated me and showed me how to write. ‘I want to write like that’ I thought.