"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A King and I Remember 'It'

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most frightening experiences I have ever had began during a visit to Bangor, Maine--Stephen King’s hometown. While serving as a missionary, I participated in the Mormon equivalent of an exorcism. To this day I don’t know if it was real or merely psychogenic. I lean toward the latter, but I don’t care. It was the most spooked I had ever been in my life. The feeling of terror was genuine. And it happened one night in Maine.

I’m inclined to take the novel It personally, fantasy and all. Stephen King novels set in Maine have become a means for me to revisit the state and cope with the odd homesickness I feel for it. Through adventure, brotherhood, and trauma, I bonded strongly with the place. Maine, with its gritty history and quirky culture, is cavernous enough to hold the tallest tale a horror-smith like King can craft.

Say what you want about genre fiction, horror novels in particular, It is a masterwork. At the core of this vast and elaborate work is a traditional tale of children preyed on by a monster. Yet given the grand scope, the compliment of fully-realized main characters, along with a multi-generational back story, this novel is a worthy entry in the pantheon of epics. The book is also a wonderful piece of Americana. Though it has plenty of pulp, It is not just pulp fiction.

It is the first King novel where I chose to read at a slower pace, especially during the middle third. I felt speeding through that section would be cheating myself. Actually, the novel’s structure encourages moderately paced reading. Past and present plotlines alternate section by section. The story arc is further segmented with colorful Interludes that develop the town of Derry as a character. Each of these building blocks functions almost as an independent story. At all times, memory functions as revelation.

Ultimately the novel triumphed by getting me to fall in love with the chamber-sized ensemble who served as a collective protagonist. Even as these children ritualistically approached the monster’s lair, they and I found moments worth giggling about. Memories of my childhood surfaced as well, moments fraught with sharp pain and jarring embarrassment, moments that I and my buddies countered with giggling.

Still, It is a work of horror, replete with nauseating brutality and messy sexuality. I would have reached the last page sooner, but there were several times I had to take the night off. However, for all its abrasiveness It also champions the pure aspects of childhood. Youthful essence wields power not only against a monster, but against the corrupting forces of aging and settling. In Its mythology, if not theology, full surrender to adulthood is apostasy.

Truly this novel is about calling up the past, youth specifically, to achieve something magical and redemptive. It inspired me to take a similarly troubling journey into memory. As I worked on an earlier draft of this post, I faced a troubling moment where I started to question the accuracy of my reminiscence of being young and terrified in Maine. After all, my brief time there is now some 16 years distant.
Did my spiritual adventure in Maine really happen in the sequence and locations I supposed? Or am I only a common blogger absentmindedly rearranging the past in order to link himself to a famous writer? I scurried out to my car and grabbed a road atlas to check the geography. The towns I remembered being in and the sequence in which I visited them still line up. I did have my own It-like experience in Maine. I’ll spare the details for now and simply say, read It. It’s a much better tale than mine.

While vying with a monster, King’s circle of heroes also duels with their memories. As the narrator suggests, memory can be a curse. The price of remembering is vulnerability to the worst influences we tried to leave behind by growing up. If memory has any value then, perhaps it derives from its ability to refill us with the pure vitality that childhood alone seems to hold. That energy, that light, which this novel so ably taps into, is worth preserving with vigilance. As the novelist proclaims, “All the rest is darkness.”

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Time Well Spent with King's '11/22/63'

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the simple reasons fledgling writers are told to “write what you know” is practicality. If you aren’t an experienced writer with ample time, connections and money, a research-intensive project might drown you before you even start the rough draft. This, as Stephen King indicates in his Afterword, is the reason he didn’t write 11/22/63 when he first conceived it back in 1972.

Oddly enough, though conventional horror marks the major beats of this novel, and historical research ornaments every page, 11/22/63 is neither a horror novel nor a grand tour of JFK assassination lore. Rather, it is a deeply introspective and often sentimental journey told first-person by a protagonist who is neither John F. Kennedy nor Lee Harvey Oswald. The main character is none other than a high school English teacher from Maine. So the novel is also very much an example of King writing what he knows.

While I found this book quite satisfying, I do have one major issue. For a story built around time-travel, 11/22/63 is at times maddeningly linear. Granted, it needs to be. This is a character piece as much as it is a thriller. So King uses the bulk of the novel to believably dramatize how a workaday English teacher transforms into a shadowy enigma capable of identifying with Oswald. This slow-boil delivery, fitted out with copious diversions into scenic detail, often causes the pace to drag. I sometimes felt like I was trapped on a dear friend’s couch as he explained every single vacation photo in a thick album.

Still, the novel hits far more than it misses. I think the most compelling use of history is King’s treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here there is a riveting interplay between the historical ordeal that indeed took place and the fictional characters who find themselves propelled deeper into personal crisis as a result. On the wholly fictional end of things, King produces some wonderfully haunting moments by threading this novel’s mythology into the one he crafted for his acclaimed novel It.

Lastly, there is one paragraph in 11/22/63 that mesmerized me. The moment after I read it, I declared it my favorite paragraph of King’s writing. I won’t quote the whole thing, but it is an awesome mingling of shimmering prose, cutting social commentary, and lyrical musing. When you read 11/22/63, look for the paragraph that begins as follows:

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. ...”

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Green vs. Brown in Waterloo Recreation Area

The below photos were taken March 31st. They feature moments in time from three wonderful walking trails beginning at the Eddy Discovery Center. To my eyes, the continued prevalence of brown causes the green in these images to pop. In any case, it is a wonderful time to visit this beautiful spot in Washtenaw County, Michigan.

Click on each photo to see the full-size image.

On the Lowland Trail

Fallen Tree in Waterloo Recreation Area

A fallen tree, one of many, caught my eye while walking the Lowland Trail. Just off the pathway, the ground becomes a mix of mud, skunk cabbage and patches of grass.


En Route to the Bog

Early Spring Flowers in Waterloo Recreation Area

The early portion of the Bog Trail covers the same terrain as the Lowland Trail. Above are some early spring flowers as a local raccoon might see them.


The Enchanted 'Spring Pond Trail'

Tree branches loom over Spring Pond

More than any other portion of Waterloo Recreation Area, the Spring Pond Trail feels a bit enchanted to me. If legend were to say that Michigan has a lady in a lake who possesses a magical sword, this is where I'd come first to check.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Facebook Approach to Space Advocacy

For over a year, I have been trying to get my Facebook friends excited about space exploration. Alas, there seems to be only one way to draw interest from Facebook users...cat pictures. So here goes.

I'd like you to meet two of my best friends. The first is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson's new book on NASA and space exploration: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. My other new best friend is the cat. Not long ago I was sitting on my porch reading Tyson's compelling arguments about how NASA can be a boon to our society, economically and socially. Then Touché appeared.

Touché is a neighborhood kitty. He goes from house to house and meows loudly until he gets someone's attention. Once Touché is confident he has a person's attention, he moves on to the next human he can find. He also preys on low-flying butterflies, but that's not important right now. Incidentally, I call him Touché because that is the only appropriate thing to say after he meows at you. Trust me, I know. 

As you can see, when I showed Dr. Tyson's highly readable and often humorous book to Touché, he took an immediate interest...just like my friends on Facebook should.

The above picture is a false-color image of Touché taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The darker regions of the kitty represent the portion of his soul that believes NASA is vital to humanit... Okay, obviously I was lying just now. But is there any denying that this kitty has embraced the wonders of space exploration? That's right. The only appropriate response is Touché.