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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.

Spider Gate to Hoveton Hall Gardens

Spider Gate to Hoveton Hall Gardens

There are few images as powerful and straightforward as a door.  Doors represent change and transition —when one steps across the threshold one has literally moved on from one place to another.  This apparently simple purpose of doors has a deeper metaphorical aspect as well: a pauper daily walks by the gates of the palace but they do not open for him; a baby is carried out of the hospital into the world; an inmate is dragged into a prison and is held there by the portcullis.  The most dramatic doors are huge operatic gates which represent significant transition.  These magnificent structures tend to be found outside palaces, parks, insane asylums, and cemeteries, but sometimes they seem to have no purpose at all…

An ornate gate outside St. Petersburg, Russia

An ornate gate outside St. Petersburg, Russia

As we approach Halloween—the one night of the year when the doors between this world and the next are thrown open (well, according to myth anyway), it is appropriate to celebrate the  foreboding gates in our world. Below is a gallery of magnificent gates–not all are truly gothic (a few images of non-gothic gates were too good to pass up) but they are all affecting and impressive.

University of Chicago: Cobb Gate

University of Chicago: Cobb Gate

Town Gate at Suakin (Anthony Ham)

Town Gate at Suakin (Anthony Ham)

Gatehouse at Ballysaggartmore

Gatehouse at Ballysaggartmore

Gate to Chirk Castle, Wales

Gate to Chirk Castle, Wales

Crown Hill Cemetery Gate

Crown Hill Cemetery Gate

Forest Hill Cemetery, Boston

Forest Hill Cemetery, Boston

Unknown Gate

Unknown Gate

Private Modern Gate

Private Modern Gate

Gothic gate in old park in Taitsy

Gothic gate in old park in Taitsy

Gate Lodge to Annesgrove Gardens

Gate Lodge to Annesgrove Gardens

Gate to Fort Canning Green, Singapore

Gate to Fort Canning Green, Singapore

Gate to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Gate to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Gate to Hood Cemetery, Philadelphia

Gate to Hood Cemetery, Philadelphia

Neubrandenburg Town Gate

Neubrandenburg Town Gate

A rich person's iron gate

A rich person’s iron gate

Mount Royal Cemetery , Montreal

Mount Royal Cemetery , Montreal

Unknown Abandoned Gate

Unknown Abandoned Gate

Gate at Oxford University

Gate at Oxford University

Gate to Walled City of Rothenburg

Gate to Walled City of Rothenburg

Steven King standing at the gate of his house in Bangor Maine

Stephen King standing at the gate of his house in Bangor Maine

Traverse City Insane Asylum, Michigan

Traverse City Insane Asylum, Michigan

Oedipus and the Sphinx (by Francois Xavier Fabre)

The Sphinx, another daughter of Echidna, was a monster with a human head (and torso), a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent for a tail.  Although the Egyptians and the Cypriots had long mythological traditions incorporating many different sphinxes, to the Greeks the Sphinx was one individual monster sent by Hera (or possibly Ares) to torment the city of Thebes.  She sat on a bluff outside the city and accosted travelers with a question.  When they were unable to answer correctly, she sprang down and strangled them to death. The question she asked is probably the most famous riddle in existence, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

Long-suffering Oedipus may have been accursed by ghastly fate but he alone was able to see through the monster’s abstract symbolism and give the correct answer—man, who crawls on all four as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and leans on a cane in his dotage. The sphinx had really counted on the metaphoric “day” to throw people off.  In fury and despair she hurled herself to her death once her question was answered.

The riddle challenge is ancient and its roots wind down into the advent of literature (and probably long before).  There are riddles in the bible and in Sumerian epic poetry. The internet, however, has fundamentally changed the challenge.  Back in the eighties if someone asked you a riddle and you were stumped, that was it.  Either you had to beg them for the answer, or you were out of luck.  Now you can always scour the web until you find the answer.  Here are a few of my favorite riddles.  The first is a somewhat frustrating riddle from the bible [hint: imagine you are a long-haired killing machine].  The second was asked to me by my first lover (I could never solve it and she wouldn’t tell me the answer—I finally had to ask my friend Adam for a solution).  The third was by literary giant Jonathan Swift who famously loved riddles. The fourth is a Stephen King riddle and my personal favorite (quiet you highbrows!).  I made up the fifth and sixth myself–which explains why the meter is more important than the meaning.  The last riddle is of course from Lewis Carroll.  Good luck!  I’ll give you the answers on Sunday:

1. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it. And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

2. What does God never see that a king sees seldom, that we see every day?

3. We are all very little creatures;
all of us have different features.
One of us in glass is set;
One of us you’ll find in jet.
Another you may see in tin,
And a fourth is boxed within.
If the fifth you should pursue,
It can never fly from you.
What are we?

4. With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe, I am cunning, ruthless and tall; in the end, I rule all.

5. It’s short on spring but long in fall.  It has a bluff that you can’t call.  It has a wall but lacks a roof.  It has a foot that’s not a hoof.

6. Devours muck but has sweet breath. Arrives with love and then with death.

7.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Um...can I have another hint?

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