Please, Do Not Send in The Clowns

by admin | December 29, 2011 9:46 pm

I began reading Stephen King’s latest novel, “11/22/63” over Christmas break, having requested and received it as a gift from Abbie, my youngest daughter. I have not read anything by King in years after a phase in the 1990s plowing through “The Stand,” “It” and others in short order — often scaring myself past sleeping soundly.
King belongs to the genre of writing that a colleague terms “booger tales.” I don’t know where my coworker came up with the phrase, which refers to books or movies designed to scare the bejeebers out of the reader or viewer. But it stuck. I assiduously avoid booger movies, a habit that began after watching “Psycho” many years ago. Real life is scary enough without paying money to be frightened witless.

I’m not as squeamish about books, since one can put down a booger book at any time and skip the scary parts if desired. The printed word, no matter how adept the writer, simply doesn’t have the shocking effect as watching on the big screen when someone jumps out of the bushes to attack the teen couple strolling after dark in the park. Or whatever.

King’s “It” features the scariest, evilest clown in modern literature. The novel is set in Derry, Maine, a favorite King locale that doesn’t actually exist. (There is a Derry in New Hampshire, the state where I was raised until nearly a teenager.) The Derry that King describes is broadly reminiscent of the small New Hampshire town in which I lived, near Concord, the state’s capital. Enough strange and sad events occurred there during my youth — a girl strangled on Good Friday, 1964 by her insane aunt in her home on the next street over from ours, a suicide by shotgun a block away, another classmate gone missing and found murdered months later — that “It” resonated in that place deep within, where we try to keep our childhood fears buried. Besides, I have never liked clowns, so King’s novel only reinforced my antipathy.

King, who lives in Bangor, Maine, once did a fine favor for my middle daughter, Mere. When she was in high school she wrote King a fan letter. Weeks later a box showed up at our house, postmarked from Bangor. The box had previously been used, with the original recipient’s address marked out in black. Inside was a limited-edition publisher’s copy of the fourth Dark Tower book, “Wizard and Glass,” and a personal note from him. It was obvious that King had found a used box, packed this personally and trudged down to the post office to send it to a 16-year-old fan. Mere had written King that she lived in Lufkin and loved to drink Orbitz, which she describes as a strange fruit drink with little floating tapioca balls in it.

King wrote:

“Dear Meredith Borders, there’s still plenty of the magic in the world. Your letter proves it. From a fellow Orbitz junkie, Stephen King, 2/3/98.” King later mentioned my daughter’s hometown in his next two books, in one describing a fellow “mucking out horse stalls in Lufkin, Texas.”

Where was I? Oh, “11/22/63.” That, of course, is the day President Kennedy was shot, news I received while in Mrs. Mahoney’s third-grade class in Allenstown, N.H. In King’s novel, a recently divorced English teacher in —yes — Derry, Maine, discovers a way to travel back in time and possibly change the outcome of certain events, such as a father in Derry killing several members of his family, and the death of a young president. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you if I wanted, since I’m only about one-fourth of the way through this 850-page turner. King can spin a good yarn, so this is a needed break from dense histories and biographies.

Early on, King mentions Moxie, a Maine-based soft drink that I tried and failed to enjoy as a child. It’s a bitter carbonated concoction invented in the late 19th century. Moxie might explain why Maine residents have a reputation for being a bit curmudgeonly — unlike the sunny folks of the great state of New Hampshire. I’m kidding about all that, of course. Moxie, from what I recall, tastes somewhat like root beer without sweetener. The beverage is still produced, though the company website admits Moxie is an “acquired taste.” Sort of like Orbitz, I suppose. Floating tapioca balls?

My daughter Mere is now a full-time writer and editor. She got her start writing reviews of horror movies for her own blog. She clearly did not inherit her love for booger movies from her dad. She now gets paid to write and edit for Badass Digest, an Austin-based website that reviews pop culture. She works very hard. I’m obviously quite proud.
I believe Stephen King played no small part in her success, though he likely will never know that. That’s why returning to read one of his books, set in a place so eerily similar to where I grew up, is a fascinating, if somewhat scary, ride.

I just hope no clowns show up.

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