Following the killing this past week of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Abu-Salhaof, the three North Carolina Muslim students, my inclusion of Steven King’s It in my American Fantasy class seems timely. Perhaps more than any other contemporary author, King dreams America’s nightmares, and one of the nightmares he explores in It is America’s penchant for killing.
“It” is the deranged clown Pennywise, who functions as an archetype of communal violence. He is timeless, and in King’s novel he returns to wreak havoc in the town of Derry, Maine every 25 years or so. In one instance he prompts white supremacists to burn down a black bar with everyone in it, in another to mow down with overwhelming firepower a group of outlaws. In the two years covered by the novel, 1958 and 1985, he is killing children. “It,” it’s useful to remember, is the English word for “id.”
Because the thought that their children are being murdered is so horrific, people find ways to deny that it is really happening, just as they push from their minds the horrific incidents of Derry’s past. They would rather think of themselves as the kind of town one encounters in Leave It to Beaver.
The seven children who comprise “the Losers Club,” however, see It for what it is and confront the clown. In 1958 they rely on their innocence to fight It. In 1985 they must (to quote Jesus) become as little children in order to defeat the monster again.
I’ll be discussing in future posts if King’s novel provides any guidance to countering the violence that we see periodically erupting in different parts of America. In today’s post I examine what King sees when he looks at our country.
Like Poe and Hawthorne, in whose gothic tradition he writes, King sees a contradiction at the heart of America. The Puritans envisioned building a “city upon a hill” and thought that they could start history anew, cleansed of past taint. I discussed last week how the “white city” of the 1893 Columbian Exposition drew on this ideal and in turn inspired The Wizard of Oz (1900). In his introduction, L. Frank Baum writes,
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
Baum in turn inspired Disney, who also sought to leave out the nightmares. Historian Peter Manseau describes the same process at work in a new book in which he argues that some of John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical power lay in their invocation of the city upon the hill vision. They were promising us that we could be clean again.
Manseau notes that the vision is founded upon a lie, which the 19th century gothic writers also recognized. If you have to think of yourself as pure, you just drive your evil into the subconscious, and the Puritans were haunted by visions of the devil. Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown thinks he can follow the saintly path of his Puritan ancestors, only to discover from the devil that they committed horrific acts:
I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.
It doesn’t seem a stretch to see either the devil or Pennywise as intimate friends of Craig Hicks, who first assembled an arsenal of guns and then murdered the Muslim students. Or for that matter, to see the clown directing the actions of the police officers who killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice; or the vigilantes who killed Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis; or the Newtown killer, the Aurora killer, the Fort Hood killer… Every month adds new names to the list. In many ways, King seems less to be writing a gothic fantasy and more to be simply recording American life today.
For instance, King has his finger on America’s love of guns, which is integrally bound up in much of the killing. Note, for instance, how he describes the orgasmic bloodletting where Derry unloads on the outlaw gang:
It was all over in four, maybe five minutes, but it seemed a whole hell of a lot longer while it was happening. Pete and Al and Jimmy Gordon just sat there on the courthouse steps and poured bullets into the back end of the Chevrolet. I saw Bob Tanner down on one knee, firing and working the bolt on that old rifle of his like a madman. Jagermeyer and Theramenius were shooting into the right side of the La Salle from under the theater marquee and Greg Cole stood in the gutter, holding that .45 automatic out in both hands, pulling the trigger just as fast as he could work it…There must have been fifty, sixty men firing all at once.
To view America from the outside, with our lax gun laws and our killings, must be to see a community gripped by insanity. Like the inhabitants of Derry, however, those of us who live here close down our minds after our initial horror and fatalistically move on. Only an idealistic child, in all his or her naivete, could imagine putting a stop to the rampages of homicidal clowns.