In the Watches of the Night

19 September 2017*

It’s 3:46 AM, and I can’t sleep. Because I’m thinking about It.

Not the movie—I haven’t seen it yet—but the book; I finished it about twelve hours ago.

I’m not awake because I’m scared, although the fact that I’m sitting here in the dark and can’t see anything beyond the screen of my laptop is a bit unsettling. And I don’t think I’m awake because I’m approaching pre-middle age and am confronted by what Bradbury called “the soul’s midnight.” No, I’m awake now because, as often happens, some random night-noise woke me. But instead of drifting back to sleep like usual, my mind almost instantly lit right back to the same thoughts it was having when I fell asleep a few hours ago.

This has been my summer of It. I started reading it back in late July, and I’ve been living with the Losers almost constantly for two months. I think it’s safe to say that It is one of the best books I’ve ever read—ranking right up there among my favorites—and that there are so many things wrong with it, in both construction and content—and that I might never read it again.

I grew up in It’s shadow. I watched the original mini-series broadcast in 1990—I was just coming up on eight, and I have no idea where my parents were, bless their hearts, but I doubt they were watching with us—and I was appropriately traumatized. Well into my teens, as one example, I was terrified-fading-into-wary of the seldom-used staircase in my great grandpa’s house, as I’d never been quite able to dispel from my head the image of the clown-mummy slowly descending an old Victorian staircase toward the trapped Stan Uris. And grownup Stan the Man’s talking head in the fridge later didn’t do me any favors, either.

Surprisingly, though, novel-It didn’t terrify me. Sure, it’s definitely made the early morning dark a little less comfortable, but over the last several weeks I haven’t found myself singing “La Vie en Rose” in the shower in our quiet apartment as often as I thought I would. What It did do, however, was break my heart, over and over.

I haven’t read a lot of King, so I guess I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. I wasn’t expecting to find so much to love in his prose and in the sometimes idyllic moments he crafts in the middle of this tale about a demonic clown that feeds almost exclusively on children. I definitely wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the Losers, the circle of seven friends around which the story revolves. But I did—collectively and individually, children and grownups alike. For two months I relived my childhood as their childhood. I was bullied, watched monster movies, ran through the barrens, played guns, laughed, cried, threw rocks, grew up, grew young, and fought for my life with them.

I’d like to give concrete examples of each of these experiences, of each how and why the book affected me so profoundly, but I don’t want to give anything too specific away. I know that a book published in 1986 has legally and ethically moved well outside of the Spoiler-free Zone, but I still don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or already read it but might want to. Still, I think I might be able to share a couple of scenes from one chapter/section without doing too much damage. Bear in mind, though, it’s a big, complex book, and any excerpt I share won’t come close to conveying all of the book’s flavors.

Now, Mike Hanlon. He’s something of a pariah even compared to the other six Losers because he is the only black kid in Derry, Maine, where the book is set. However, in some ways his childhood might have been the happiest, Pennywise the Dancing Clown notwithstanding. Reading the scenes that show Mike’s home and parents, I found myself truly envious of him. I have two amazing parents myself, so I think my envy is more nostalgia and missing my childhood than anything. (pre-p.s. I guess I’ll have to turn on the light to transcribe a couple of them, but I won’t complain much about that right now.) Here’s the first:

     On one occasion Mike had asked his father why, since they harvested rocks every April, there were always more of them the following April.
     They had been standing at the dumping-off place near sunset on the last day of that year’s rock harvest. A beaten dirt track, not quite serious enough to be called a road, led from the bottom of the west field to this gully near the bank of the Kenduskeag. The gully was a jumbled wasteland of rocks that had been dragged off Will’s land through the years.
     Looking down at this badlands, which he had made first alone and then with the help of his son (somewhere under the rocks, he knew, were the rotting remains of the stumps had yanked out one at a time before any of the fields could be tilled), Will had lighted a cigarette and said, “My daddy used to tell me that God loved rocks, houseflies, weeds, and poor people above all the rest of His creations, and that’s why He made so many of them.”
     “But every year it’s like they come back.”
     “Yeah, I think they do,” Will said. “That’s the only way I know how to explain it.”
     A loon cried from the far side of the Kenduskeag in a dusky sunset that had turned the water a deep orange-red. It was a lonely sound, so lonely that it made Mike’s tired arms tighten with gooseflesh.
     “I love you, Daddy,” he said suddenly, feeling his love so strongly that tears stung his eyes.
     “Why, I love you too, Mikey,” his father said, and hugged him tight in his strong arms. Mike felt the rough fabric of his father’s flannel shirt against his cheek. “Now what do you say we go on back? We got just time to get a bath each before the good woman puts supper on the table.”
     “Ayuh,” Mike said.
     “Ayuh yourself,” Will Hanlon said, and they both laughed, feeling tired but feeling good, arms and legs worked but not overworked, their hands rock-roughened but not hurting too bad.

And the second:

     It was not all school and chores, chores and school; Will Hanlon had told his wife more than once that a boy needed time to go fishing, even if it wasn’t fishing he was really doing. When Mike came home from school he first put his books on the TV in the parlor, second made himself some kind of snack (he was particularly partial to peanut-butter-and-onion sandwiches, a taste that made her mother raise her hands in helpless horror), and third studied the note his father had left him, telling Mike where he, Will, was and what Mike’s chores were—certain rows to be weeded or picked, baskets to be carried, produce to be rotated, the barn to be swept, whatever. But on at least one schooldays a week—and sometime two—there would be no note. And on these days Mike would go fishing, even if it wasn’t really fishing he was doing. Those were great days … days when he had no particular place to go and consequently felt no urge to get there in a hurry.
     Once in a while his father left him another sort of note: “No chores,” one might say. “Go over to Old Cape & look at trolley tracks.” Mike would go over to the Old Cape area, find the streets with the tracks still embedded in them, and inspect them closely, marveling to think of things like trains that had run right though the middle of the streets. That night he and his father might talk about them, and his dad would show him pictures from his Derry album of the trolleys actually running: a funny pole went from the roof of the trolley up to an electrical wire, and there were cigarette ads on the side. Another time he had sent Mike to Memorial Park, where the Standpipe was, to look at a birdbath, and once they had gone to the courthouse together to look at a terrible machine that Chief Borton had found in the attic. This gadget was called a tramp-chair. It was cast-iron, and there were manacles built into the arms and legs. Rounded knobs stuck out of back of the seat. It reminded Mike of a photograph he had seen in some book—a photograph of the electric chair at Sing Sing. Chief Borton let Mike sit in the tramp-chair and try on the manacles.
     After the first ominous novelty of wearing the manacles wore off, Mike looked questioningly at his father and Chief Boston, not sure why this was supposed to be such a horrible punishment for the “vags” (Bolton’s word for them) that had drifted into town in the twenties and thirties. The knobs made the chair a little uncomfortable to sit in, sure, and the manacles on your wrists and ankles made it hard to shift to a more comfortable position, but—
     “Well, you’re just a kid,” Chief Borton said, laughing. “What do you weigh? Seventy, eight pounds? Most of the vags Sheriff Sully posted into that chair in the old days would go twice that. They’d feel a bit oncomfortable after two or three, and right bad after four or five. After seven or eight hours they’d staat bellerin, and after sixteen or seventeen they’d staat cryin, mostly. And by the time there twenty-four-hour tour was up, they’d be willin to swear before God and man that the next time they came riding the rods up New England way they’d give Derry a wide berth. So far as I know, most of em did. Twenty-four hours in the tramp-chair was a helluva persuader.”
     Suddenly there seemed to be more knobs in the chair, digging more deeply into his buttocks, spine, the small of this back, even the nape of this neck. “Can I get out now, please?” he said politely, and Chief Borton laughed again. There was a moment, one panicked instant of time, when Mike though the Chief would only dangle the key to the manacles in from of Mike’s yes and say, Sure I’ll let you out … when you’re twenty-four hours is up.
     “Why did you take me there, Daddy?” he asked on the way home.
     “You’ll know when you’re older,” Will had replied.
     “You don’t like Chief Borton, do you?”
     “No,” his father had replied in a voice so curt that Make hadn’t dared ask any more.
     But Mike enjoyed most of the places in Derry his father sent or took him to, and by the time Mike was ten Will had succeeded in conveying his own interest in the layers of Derry’s history to his son. Sometimes, as when he had been trailing his fingers over the slightly pebbled surface of the stand in which the Memorial Park birdbath was set, or when he had squatted down to look more closely at the trolley tracks which grooved Mont Street in the Old Cape, he would be struck by a profound sense of time … time as something real, as something that had unseen weight, the way sunlight was supposed to have weight (some of the kids in school had laughed when Mrs. Greenguss told them that, but Mike had been too stunned by the concept to laugh; his first thought had been, Light has weight? Oh my Lord, that’s terrible!) … time as something that would eventually bury him.

Okay, so those are less like excerpts and more like XXL-cerpts, but I think they’re wonderful examples of King’s style and of what made me love It so much. The whole book is like that—even the scenes that ostensibly have nothing to do with Pennywise and his awful appetite—sometimes-fluid-sometimes-ghoulish prose dancing or skittering over the lines that separate beautiful from ugly, sublime from mundane, joyful from tragic, human from monstrous, and comforting from terrifying. And at around 1,200 pages, it’s an exhausting dervish of a read, one I’m not sure I’ll ever again have the stamina to undertake. But if you’re feeling fearless and youthful and you’ve never read It before—and if you’re not into that whole sleeping-through-the-night thing—I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*I’m publishing this a week after the fact because I’m a chronic tinkerer and almost never post anything the day I actually write it. I need help.

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The Stuff of Legends, Myths, or Drunken Nonsense

I’ve had a tab to this article open in my iPad’s browser for more than three months. It’s about the razing of Ray Bradbury’s house.

I can’t bring myself to close it.

Ray died almost three years ago, but knowing his house still stood was a sort of balm. I posted about the house back in July, just after was it sold. If I’d known the buyer was going to tear it down, I would’ve tried to organize a public fit of hysteria or something.

Of course no building can stand forever. But I hoped this one might have been the exception. A grand, eternal Second Empire, not a slowly slackening clockwork.

It’s weird to feel so connected to a place I’ve never been, and to feel so sad when it’s gone. Kind of like the emotional unrest we all experienced at the loss of our local Kenny Rogers Roasters.

Ray’s house was such an integral part of his work, and his work is such an integral part of me. And if I can manage to never grow up, I wanna be just like Ray. He helped me believe in immortality, and helped me to understand that death is often a part of living forever.

What I wouldn’t give to spend an afternoon with him in his perfectly chaotic basement office, talking about dinosaurs, and séances, and the Egyptian sands of Illinois, and the weather on Phobos .

large-Ray Bradbury at the typewriter

But I guess, in truth, I’ve spent more than my fair share of warm, print-scented afternoons with Ray—and rocket fire–bright mornings, and sinister midnights, and weary-souled 3:00 AMs, too—so I shouldn’t really have much room for melancholy. I still miss him, though, this man and friend I never met but have known so well since I was 12. I wish he were still sitting at that desk.

Of course no one can live forever. But I hoped Ray might have been the exception.

And a small part of me will never give up the idea that maybe he is.

Hooray for this, the Oingo Boingo-est of Months!

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. And I hope Ray, the eternal MC of October, will forgive me for not opening with one of his. First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys, would’ve been a fine choice, too. Today though, I feel like Maud’s words are a better place to start. Plus, as a PBS-raised lad, one of my childhood crushes was Megan Follows, and I think Ray would approve of me letting my boyishness take the lead.

I love October. It always feels like the true beginning of Autumn. It’s when crisp straw-broom breezes sweep up all the apple orchards, pumpkin patches, crackling golden trees, caramels, skeletal corn stalks, cinnamon sticks, and nutmeg seeds, and scatter them about in every direction. It’s when mischief is anticipated and encouraged, even by the virtuous. When specters ride the growing shadows, some full of antagonistic-but-amiable celebration and laughter, and others eager to burn and topple and terrify as much as they can before they’re warded away by winter’s arrival, by collective faith, and by the presence of a different order of spirits who touch our minds with hope and songs of great joy and on earth peace, good will toward men.

San Diego and his friends are welcome to their perpetual springs. Most people would gladly settle under forever-sunny skies. But I need the clouds and the rain and the cider and the hocus-pocus.*

In October, the world transforms. Every yard becomes a graveyard, every leaf skittering down the sidewalk becomes a promise of something mysterious, and every kid running through freshly harvested fields becomes gypsy royalty.

And an even better reason still: I fell in love with my wife in October. I could’ve led with that, and the rest would’ve been a few odd Fun Size Skittles in a pillow case full of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

*Hocus Pocus—arguably humankind’s greatest artistic achievement. We should all just play it on a loop for the next 30 days.

Somewhere a Band Is Still Playing

Summer for me begins a season of rituals, none more sacrosanct than my annual reading of Dandelion Wine. I think this will be my fifteenth time through. I’m getting to it a little later than normal this year, but thankfully not so late that my OCD has decided to take up the cause. Dandelion Wine, and Farewell Summer with it (at least for the last several years), is a warm precursor to the pumpkin-and-dead-leaf-and-promise-of-frost-scented tales of newborn assassinsdark carnivals, and October mansions that will dominate my September and October.

As I’ve already had Bradbury on my mind, I was delighted a few days ago to bump back into a story I first read in late May. It’s a small write-up on the listing of the Bradbury family home in Los Angeles.

Cheviot-Front

Of course Ray painted the house “dandelion yellow.”

Creeper that I am, I’ve kind of kept my eye on it, and according to the realtor’s site it just sold for $1,765,000. I guess I got outbid a little. Sigh.

Along with the chance to glimpse where Ray wrote and found inspiration for so many of his classic stories, the article links to a quiet, beautiful piece written by Sam Weller, Bradbury’s official biographer. Part eulogy and part reminiscence, it paints the home as it was before and just after Ray’s death. Weller is a genuine fan, and he’s always written about Ray with less objectivity than serious literary critics might find appropriate. Which is, I would imagine, exactly how Ray would want it.

I think Ray was giving himself something to aspire to as he gustily typed out Granger’s words to Montag. A direction to guide the next six decades of his life. Something even the most eloquent admirer would be unable to top. And it worked. We knew exactly what to say two summers ago when Ray died. “He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”

And since I’ve geeked out this far, I might as well let Granger speak a bit more of his wisdom.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between you and the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

What a great reason to write. Or to garden. Or to paint a picture or raise a child or build a car or a treehouse or a time machine or take a photo or listen to and record the stories of a loved one or go to Mars or learn to play music or …

Well, I was going to stop there for the day … but I can’t. So …

I don’t think it surprises anyone that my literary hero is a true puer aeternus. My own dusting of Peter Pan is pretty obvious. The small part of me that is more or less grown up will forever marvel at Ray’s craft, his mastery of metaphor and theme. But it’s the boy in me who will run with his young poet-guide cohort through the jungle-hot midnight ravines and dusty Egyptian attics and into white-xylophone-bone-littered Martian ruins and through hobo camps where Moses and Plato and Byron and Thomas Jefferson warm their renewed flesh around phoenix-flame campfires.

And here I was getting ready to lose it even further and launch into Mr. Electrico for a few minutes, but I think the damage has been done. So instead, one of my favorite quotes from Ray. It’s not his deepest granted, but it’s among his most honest and it pretty handily sums up my love for him and his work.

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