Review of IT by Stephen King

July 14, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Horror Audiobook - IT by Stephen KingIT
By Stephen King; Read by Steven Weber
45 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2010
Themes: / Horror / Childhood / Adulthood / Monsters /

You don’t have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever, love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.
—Stephen King, IT

What quality separates an adult from a child? Is it responsibility in the former and unbridled freedom in the latter? Do adults possess a higher order of thinking? Or, to take a cynical view, are adults merely physically larger (perhaps they/we never really do grow up)?

I happen to think there is a difference, though it’s hard to say precisely what. You could describe adulthood as a phase through which we all must pass, else we remain stunted and undeveloped, looking backward instead of forward, unable to transform into the mature beings that the hard world requires. Indefinable and amorphous, you may as well call this period of transition it. Stephen King did, and in 1985 he wrote a massive book by the same name about this very subject.

As is King’s forte, IT is also a horror story, and a terrifying one at that. The villain of IT is a creature that lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine, one that takes the shape of our worst fears. IT’s favorite shape is a painted clown known as Pennywise, friendly at first glance but whose greasepaint smile reveals a double-row of Gillette razor teeth. Pennywise can also take the form of a werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and more. Whatever a particular child finds most terrifying, Pennywise can take its shape.

Pennywise has been preyed on the children of Derry for untold generations, emerging from a deep slumber in the sewers every 27 years to feed. After a year of gruesome killings (written up in the press as mysterious child disappearances, or frequently blamed on other sources), the cycles end with a culminating event, typically an awful orgy of destruction, after which the creature resumes its hibernation.

But Pennywise—aka., IT—always comes back. Derry is perennially under its pall and seems to accept the darkness as “just the way things are” and the horrors continue in cyclical fashion. But then comes the summer of 1958. A group of 10 and 11-year-old children called the Loser’s Club, led by a stuttering, charismatic child known as Bill Denbrough, unite to battle Pennywise. All have had close brushes with the monster. Scarred by their experiences but united in purpose (Bill’s six year old brother Georgie is dragged into the sewer and killed in a gruesome scene at the beginning of the novel, and Bill vows revenge), they travel into Derry’s byzantine sewer systems to put an end to the monster. Following an epic confrontation in the creature’s den the children vow to return to Derry should Pennywise/IT ever return.

One of the club, Mike Hanlon, remains behind in the ensuring decades to watch and wait. When Pennywise does re-emerge 27 years later the children of the Loser’s Club are now adults in their late 30s. Some higher power has mercifully allowed them to forget the terrible events of their childhood and move on with their lives. But now they have to fight the terrible evil once more and growing up has diminished them in some way. This time around they find themselves less equipped to fight.

IT is a great story full of memorable events, places, and characters. King imbues Derry with its own personality, and the town feels like a member of the cast. King skillfully weaves in events from Derry’s awful past, including past murder sprees and the culminating bloodbaths that sent IT back into the sewers, including a horrific nightclub fire (The Black Spot) and the explosion of the Kitchener Ironworks.

But in the end, what I like most about IT, and what separates the book from much of the rest of King’s oeuvre, is its thoughtful exploration of that amorphous crossing of the bar from youth to maturity. To get where you want to go in life you have to grow up, King says, but it’s not a simple process. The transition from childhood to adulthood is a complex and bittersweet, its benefits equivocal. Adulthood brings with it at least some measure of financial, parental, and geographic freedom. We can leave those hometowns that are so frequently a source of shame and failure and hidden darkness. But in so doing we lose a lot, too—our dreams, our innocence, our closest friends, and sometimes even our faith in a higher power. And the only way to defeat Pennywise—that monstrous, childhood IT—is through faith.

King has been accused by his critics of being shallow, all style and no substance (he did himself no favors by once calling himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries”). But I’ve found that his best material has more depth than meets than eye. IT is not just about battling monsters. Or rather it is about that, but the monsters are also the real, adult fears of loneliness, guilt, and dependency, of growing up, of confronting the monsters of one’s past and trying to move on. We are all incomplete until we face our past and determine who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to live our lives. This personal struggle, as much as visceral, horrific battles with Pennywise, is what brings me back to IT again and again.

I will say that IT is not without its problems, including a sequence that remains controversial among King’s readers. Without spoiling the story, it involves a coming of age ritual in the sewers that is a bit off-putting and jarring, even though I do understand its purposes. Some of the characters feel a bit one-trick and allegorical (representative of concepts rather than three-dimensional human beings). Other readers have complained that IT’s big secret—Pennywise’s final reveal—a bit of a let-down after 1,000 pages of build up. King is unfortunately often guilty of unsatisfying endings to otherwise great novels, and IT arguably suffers from the same problem. I don’t necessarily agree, as I find the epilogue incredibly satisfying, but others have made this criticism.

But despite its flaws, IT is one of my favorite books by King. With a memorable monster, a nice cast of characters, and a compelling, decades-spanning storyline with an epic final showdown, IT is a horrific page turner with deeper literary ambitions that it mostly fulfills.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

October 29, 2008 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

The Graveyard Book by Neil GaimanThe Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman; Read by Neil Gaiman
Audible Download – Approx. 8 Hours[UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2008
Themes: / Fantasy / Ghosts / Childhood / Revenge / Parenting / Afterlife / Humor / YA /

In a few words: Not as disturbing as Coraline (which is… a bit) and every ounce as entertaining as I hoped.

Now, details: The Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman’s latest YA novel. The story is about Nobody Owens, a young boy who starts the novel as a toddler that ends up in a graveyard late at night, all by himself. I’ll let Gaiman tell you how that happens, because the journey is all the fun here. Nobody Owens grows up, and Gaiman’s ghosts do all the parenting.

Again, Gaiman manages to be both sinister and funny at the same time, like he’s telling you the worst thing you’ve ever heard, but with a smile and a wink. Here’s the first lines of Chapter 1:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black gold, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you may not even know you had been cut. Not immediately.

You’d think what follows would be a bit grisly, and I suppose it is, but it’s all so fantastic that I smiled through most of that chapter, with the sort of glow I get around Halloween. A pair of ghosts (the Owens’s) raising a live boy, that boy growing up and learning his letters off gravestones and his life’s philosophy from the perspective of dead but well-meaning people; well, it’s just a great idea, and it’s perfectly presented by Gaiman. My kids love it too. This is the kind of book that will be revisited in my house often. In addition, I’d say that if you have a Harry Potter fan on your Christmas list, this book might be just the right fit, and it has the added bonus of introducing him or her to the likes of Neil Gaiman, which in turn could open that fan up to the rest of the world of books as well.

Gaiman also narrates, and like I’ve said elsewhere, he’s one of the few authors I’ve heard that could make a comfortable living as an audiobook narrator. I can’t imagine this audiobook being read by someone else, and I’m very happy that it isn’t.

Edited to add the SFFaudio Essential, which was forgotten by the reviewer. He has been sacked.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Greatest Horror Stories of the 20th Century

May 19, 2005 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Horror Audiobooks - The Greatest Horror StoriesThe Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century
Edited by Martin Greenberg; Read by Various Readers
4 Cassettes – Approx. 6 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Dove Audio
Published: 1998
ISBN: 0787117234
Themes: / Horror / Fantasy / Science Fiction / Urban Fantasy / Magic / Curses / Telepathy / Childhood / Demons /

“Featuring some of the masters of the genre, past and present, The Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century are as remarkable for their literary value as for their scream factor. Whether you are a passionate horror lover or a devotee in the making, you will find much to entertain. Listen for screams as ancient and unspeakable evil meets the modern psyche.”

Judicious use of musical cues are the only enhancement to these horror stories. Twelve horrific short stories, to be sure, but are they truly the greatest of the 20th century? Read on, MacDuff….

“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner
Read by Michael Gross
A creepy Lovecraftian tale that almost could have been written by H.P. Lovecraft himself. It was first published in Weird Tales’ March 1936 issue. A worthy addition to the list of The Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century list and Michael Gross does a good job with it. And by the way, the R.O.U.S.’s probably don’t really exist.

“Calling Card” by Ramsey Campbell
Read by Juliet Mills
First published in 1982, Ramsey Campbell’s entry in this anthology is more confusing than scary. Juliet Mills is fine but she couldn’t help unravel what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Something about a nice old lady and her mailman delivering a 60-year-old Christmas card?

“Something Had To Be Done” by David Drake
Read by John Aprea
First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine’s February 1975 issue, this is an excellent Vietnam War era is a freakshow of the ‘coming home in a bodybag story’. It combines the friendly fire and frag stories of that war with the accelerating fear of the supernatural – the tension builds until the closing moment – very similar in tone and quality to Robert R. McCammon’s Nightcrawlers. Reader John Aprea does good work with good material!

“The Viaduct” by Brian Lumley
Read by Roger Rees
“The Viaduct” is a Stephen King-ish tale without the supernatural element – two boys make an enemy of another and come to a sticky end. This is the longest tale in the collection, overly long in my estimation. I was amazed how little content this story has, especially for its length, none of the characters are sympathetic and by the end I was almost rooting for them all to be killed- just as long as it was done soon. Ineffectual because of its length and exploitative and I don’t mean that as an insult, it plays, if it plays at all, on fear without telling us anything about ourselves or anything else. On the other hand Roger Rees’ reading was just fine. “The Viaduct” is in my opinion not up to the standards of some of the stories in this collection.

“Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber
Read by Beverly Garland
An early Fritz Leiber yarn, “Smoke Ghost” posits what a ghost from an urban industrial society would be like, as opposed rattling chains, old bed sheets and creaky haunted houses of the pre-industrial age. Frighteningly well written and very well read. First published in Unknown Magazine’s October 1941 issue.

“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg
Read by William Atherton
William Atherton did a very nice reading of this Hugo Award nominated and Nebula winning short story (1969). “Passengers” is more SF than horror but it is 100% worthy of inclusion. It is about the uninvited guests who wouldn’t leave. These evil aliens have invaded the Earth telepathically and at unpredictable times, seize control of a human mind and force a person to do… things(!). Society has adjusted, but not every individual person will go along with all the conventions humanity has adopted to deal with the “Passengers”. Silverberg’s story examines a relatively small SF theme, stories involving involuntary control of one’s body… think the character of Molly in Neuromancer or the Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s short story Sitting Around the Pool, Soaking Up Some Rays or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters – it is a horror story because it speaks to such a violation of one’s body. Also interesting is the counterfactual raised by the premise – illustrating how difficult it is to determine exactly where the boundary line between free-will and determinism lies.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner
Read by Patrick MacNee
Set in 1942, “Sticks” is a World Fantasy Award nominated story (1974) that is decidedly Lovecraftian in content and execution. Think Blair Witch Project meets pulp magazine illustrations and you’ll get the idea. Narrator Patrick MacNee does fine work with it too. With all this inspired by Lovecraft storytelling I only wish they’d included some of H.P.’s original prose, but in lieu of that “Sticks” is a good substitute.

“Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” by Robert Bloch
Read by Robert Forster
First published in Weird Tales’ July 1943 issue “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” is actually a better story than it reads now. What seems a mite cliched today was quite fresh in 1943 and this tale was one of the earliest works of fiction to use ‘the ripper redjack’ – something that is relatively common today. Some narrators have a voice that grabs you and won’t let go, Robert Forster is one of them, his range is good, he does a great English accent on this one too – but its his cadence and his gravelly voice that pull me into his orbit every time. Well read and a good yarn.

“The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury
Read by Alyssa Bresnahan
Alyssa Bresnahan, professional full time narrator and AudioFile Magazine Golden Voice, does a very good reading of Bradbury’s short story. “The Small Assassin” is about a young couple and their first child; everything would be okay if only the newborn would only accept the world outside the womb. Horror as parenthood – who’d of thunk it? Newly minted parents probably. This tale was previously recorded by Ray Bradbury himself by pioneering audiobooks publisher Caedmon.

“The Words Of Guru” by C.M. Kornbluth
Read by Susan Anspach
Originally published under Kornbluth’s “Kenneth Falconer” pseudonym, in Stirring Science Stories’ June 1941 issue. Well regarded despite its pulpy exposition, “The Words Of Guru” is a genre-crosser full of cosmic demonism and full-tilt weirdness that comes to a thundering crash just minutes after it starts.

“Casting The Runes” by M.R. James
Read by David Warner
I was quite lost listening to this one. I couldn’t tell who was speaking much of the time, this has to do with the fact that many of the characters aren’t given names and the fact that the way this tale was written it would flow far easier on the printed page than it does aurally. In the paper version some names are blanked out (as if censored), David Warner does his best to fill in these gaps which are unreproducable in audio, but ultimately his efforts are unsuccessful. Magic and curses. First published in 1911!

“Coin Of The Realm” by Charles L. Grant
Read by Louise Sorel
Reminiscent in theme of Neil Gaiman’s style of urban fantasy, “Coin Of The Realm” is an interesting tale of the employees of a toll booth on a lonely highway who occasionally collect some very odd coins from the drivers on their road. First published in a 1981 Arkham House collection entitled Tales from the Nightside.

Posted by Jesse Willis