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The definitive evil clown is the shape-shifting monster in Stephen King’s “It” (unless we are talking about John Wayne Gacy, and, frankly, I think the State of Illinois said all that needs to be said concerning that guy with a stiff dose of potassium chloride).  I hungrily read “It” when I was approximately the same age as the pre-teen protagonists (although the book alternates between their lives as kids in 1958 and successful early-middle aged adults in 1985).  It made an indelible impression on 12-year old me: I have been mulling over this magnum opus among penny dreadfuls for 33 years. Its hold on my imagination has outlasted much finer books. Since I have thought about it so long and since I am writing about killer clowns, I guess I should write about it…er “It” (the book I mean…the movies were terrible). [Also, beware: spoilers (and killer clowns) ahead.]

What is truly horrifying about Stephen King novels is never really the rubber monster who is ostensibly the villain.  Shape-shifting predatory clown spiders from outer space almost surely don’t exist (or if they do, we have neither evidence nor any possible chains of epistemological logic which could lead us to such an astonishing conclusion).  The monster is therefor a stand-in–a metaphor for our real fears.  Since the book is gigantic and contains many, many murderous attacks by the eponymous shape-shifting monster (and also, revealingly, violent episodes from other entities which we will address shortly), King has a clever way to touch on all sorts of different phobias like fear of blood, fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, fear of germs, fear of madness, fear of heights, fear of drowning, fear of guns, fear of being eaten etc…etc…

Yet it is not these episodes which give the book its uncanny terror.  As we bounce between the lives of the 11 year olds living in 1958 (who have discovered that a monstrous predator living in the sewer is murdering their peers) and the lives of 1985 yuppies who realize the monster has returned to kill again, there are interludes where the author’s proxy, the wise town librarian, tells us about previous cycles of murders going back every 27 years until before there were humans in Maine.  These are the best parts of the book–painted with bravura strokes of dark imagination from all of the eras of American history.  There was a trapping post which vanished without trace into the brooding northwoods,  a hideous industrial accident on Easter which killed all of the town’s children who were hunting Easter Eggs, and an extra-judicial killing of some 30s gangsters which got out of hand. Worst of all, there was arson at a mixed-race nightclub, when white supremacists burned a lot of unsuspecting people to death.

The reader comes to recognize that it is the social compact underlying Derry which is horrifying.  The librarian-narrator hints at what King never explicitly says:  Derry prospers because it successfully turns its back on these nightmarish outbursts and then sweeps them into the sewer.  Ghastly human sacrifice lies beneath the Victorian cottages, the Standpipe, the five-and-dime, the Paul Bunyan statue, and the war memorial; yet people get back to selling VCRs, cheap whiskey, car insurance, and forestry products to each other without even noticing.

I worked for a year at the Smithsonian–“the nation’s attic”–and the things which are not on display there are so much more powerful and revealing than the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the first lady’s gowns, and Archy Bunker’s chair (although those things do tell a story, don’t they?).  The Smithsonian has room after room of evil machines which destroyed their operators, it has boxes of cowboy boots made with human skin, it has the triangle shirt-waist factory door with scratches in the charred metal.  It has the Enola Gay!  Looking at the collection behind the scenes in aggregate reveals how many of the stories of history we just sort of forget.  Such a survey also painfully contextualizes the tiny span of our lives within a vastly larger story (which is a horror born of absolute certainty which looms larger than any shapeshifting predatory clown).

Like Hop Frog’s murder within a prank, or Pagliacci’s murder within a play within an opera, there are layers of verisimilitude in King’s book. There are truths which only pre-adults can savvy.  The monster in the sewer beneath the town shows up in tales within tales within the larger canon of history (which is, of course all within a big novel).  The onion-like levels of false reality are disconcerting, but necessary to make us realize that the setting of this work is not Derry but America.

The real monster in the room in “It” is, of course, the good people of Derry. If you really peel off the clown mask you don’t find a space spider, you find Americans who believe they are absolutely right in giving their daughter a shiner when she comes home late, or cutting some corners to keep the factory open, or in doing what it takes to “protect” their town from gangsters and immoral night clubs.  Likewise all of the child abuse, molestation, and neglect is as real as rainwater (and similarly un-noteworthy).  You don’t have to buy a Steven King novel to find that sort of thing: you can read much more shocking examples in today’s news.

So the novel “It” gains some of its strength from evoking childhood fears and common phobias (like the fear of clowns or spiders) but it draws its real nightmare strength by holding up a dark mirror to America and revealing how our social structures are riddled with ominous failures and horribly unjust interludes…which we simply pretend don’t exist.

Clowns themselves are not real.  They are just people wearing makeup and costumes.  People though are too real and, in case you don’t follow the news, there is nothing scarier than us.  The small town folk of the novel are addicted to a meretricious idea of success.  They will ignore unspeakable things to uphold this self-image. The killer clown is like one of Shakespeare’s jesters trying to whisper this unpalatable truth in our ears as we grind through days at the retail shop, the dying factory, and the office.

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Ok! Well, evidently it’s evil clown week here at Ferrebeekeeper so I guess we better aim for the juggler and find some evil clowns to start with.  As we will see later this week, clowns, jesters, mimes, buffoons, and comic/disturbing tricksters go wayyyyy back to the roots of civilization (and beyond?) in pretty much every civilization. Brother Jung really seems to have been on something…um, I mean onto something when he identified this as an enduring human archetype.  However the definitive evil clown as a well-known literary trope is rather more recent.  Our Western clown tradition descends from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Comic buffoons were a mainstay in the bits of Roman comedy which have survived, yet, although the clowns of Terence and Plautus were lusty and sometimes violent, they are principally oafs who are not necessarily together enough or self-aware enough to be properly evil.  The Roman clowns of antiquity were certainly grotesque and disturbing though (and we only have bits and pieces of Roman art, culture, and literature–it’s possible there were evil clowns we just don’t know about).  This tradition of clowns as earthy, honest, and physical continued on through the dark ages.  Medieval jesters, such as we find highlighted in the works of Shakespeare, were slanted characters: they are risible and rather sad, yet they can speak truth to the most powerful figures (and they seem to know some of the dark secrets of the grave as well).  The Yorick scene from Hamlet does not involve an evil clown per-se, but it is a messed-up and gruesome scene.

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To my (sadly incomplete) knowledge the first proper evil clown of our study is found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The grotesque cripple Hop Frog (from the 1849 story “Hop Frog”) is a small person and slave who is forced to serve as a jester and general punching bag for a cruel king (you can read the entire original story right here, and should do so now if you want to avoid spoilers).  Hop Frog is a pitiable figure whose deformity pains him and who is unable to protect his one friend, the lovely small woman, Trippetta, as the grotesque narcissistic monarch and his seven wicked councilors torment them.

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Poe’s brilliance is that he makes us sympathize fully with the dwarf (the literary antecedent to Oskar Matzerath and Tyrion Lannister) and despise the king.  Indeed the evil king is practically an evil clown himself: he’s a showman who brutally insults and hurts people “as a joke” (this cruel, debauched, and loutish ruler seems weirdly familiar). We thus become complicit in Hop Frog’s scheme for revenge.  And Hop Frog gets full vengeance!  The trick he pulls on the king and the seven cruel ministers results in the death of all eight–in the most mortifying, painful, and public spectacle possible, while Hop Frog uses his upper arm-strength (and planning abilities) to escape with Trippetta.  Hop Frog is quite sympathetic…at first but the reader’s sympathy is part of Poe’s own cruel jape.  The way the little jester gets the king to conspire in his own demise (the murder seems like a staged prank–to such a degree that nobody helps the dying monarch and courtiers)  is so hideous that, by the end of the story, the reader does not know what to think and has nobody to sympathize with.  There is a room filled with charred bodies dangling on chains and the clown (and his paramour) are nowhere to be found.

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The fame of Poe’s work (and the bourgeoning circuses of the rapidly industrializing 19th century) brought more evil clowns to prominence during that century! In Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci (which means “clowns”) the jealous and manipulative Tonio obtains revenge upon Nedda and her lover while dressed as a clown…inside a play…inside an opera.

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With both Hop Frog and Pagliacci the murderous wrath of a costumed maniac is only part of the horror.  Arguably the staged manipulation of different levels of verisimilitude is the truly disconcerting aspect of the works. Even in their earliest manifestations, the best trick of the evil clown was to stage manage the audience’s fear into something which crept through different layers of artifice into the real worlf.  These tricks within tricks… inside plays within plays… become a dark hall of mirrors where the fears of social disorder metastasize into something darker… [to be continued]

 

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