A story my mother often tells involves a porcelain clown and its subsequent demise at the hands of her favorite son. As legend would have it—yes, legend—my two-year-old self decided the clown was an affront to humanity, and smashed it with a baseball before it could infect the world with its evil. It’s not a particularly interesting story, but it comes up whenever conversation turns to clown phobia, which many people admittedly have. I suppose the story serves as a confirmation for those who are afraid of clowns. It’s a parable that verifies—yes, indeed—clowns are inherently evil, even a two-year-old child can see that.
A not-so-interesting fact never mentioned in the story’s retelling is that while my two-year-old self was shattering that porcelain clown in 1982, Stephen King was holed up in Bangor, Maine, writing his horror classic “It.” For those who don’t know, “It” is a story about children fighting against an evil entity that has taken the form of a clown.
The more I think about that coincidence the creepier it gets. It’s not an earth-shattering coincidence the likes of which would make someone believe in the supernatural and immediately tremble in fear. The fear is subtle; it gnaws at you. It causes that moment of discomfort in the recesses of your brain, and then you begin doubting reality.
It’s an unspectacular coincidence, my mind says. Something like it probably happened to tons of kids at that time. It’s a stupid thought...
But it IS sort of weird…
And then, of course, the overactive imagination takes over. What if King was literally writing at the moment I stopped and turned to look at the porcelain clown? What if it was a particularly grisly scene where a child was being attacked by the big baddie of King’s novel, Pennywise the Clown? What if I stared at the porcelain clown in my bedroom and heard the clack-clack of a distant typewriter just as a chill ran the length of my back? Maybe I grabbed the baseball at that moment for comfort; never letting my eyes leave the motionless porcelain clown, intuition telling me something was wrong. Maybe at that exact second Stephen King was typing the description of Pennywise the Clown reaching toward young Ben Hanscom, while in my bedroom I saw—or thought I saw—the eyes of my porcelain clown move ever so slightly in my direction. Maybe a voice echoed in my head asking me if I wanted a balloon. Maybe it told me I could float. Maybe at that moment the red painted smile of the porcelain clown opened slowly to reveal a row of jagged rotting teeth, and terrified, I threw the baseball as hard as I could, wishing for it all to end.
Maybe our imaginations can run away with us sometimes.
I recently read Stephen King’s “It,” after wanting to see the new movie, but procrastinating long enough that it had left my local theater. Reading the book seemed a good substitute. I won’t review the book here, as it seems a foolish thing to do more than thirty years after the release of said book. Especially when the book is already considered a classic of its genre. My opinion seems rather inconsequential. I will say this, however: “It” haunts me.
I sit and think about why the book haunts me, and it is not just the story, its themes, and concepts I can’t shake. I’m haunted by the real life inception of the book. I’m haunted by the possibilities of what was going on in Stephen King’s head when he wrote “It.”
It would take a lot more writing than a simple blog post to really dive into this topic—and frankly, I don’t really want to dive into it—but boiled down to its essence is this: Stephen King wrote a horror book about terrible things happening to a group of eleven-year-old kids (six boys; one girl), and he began writing this book just a few months after his own daughter had turned eleven. Again, his daughter turned eleven, and King spent the next four years writing about terrible things happening to children of her age. He wrote things violent, he wrote things emotional, and he even wrote things sexual.
Now, I understand that as writers we very often take inspiration from our own lives to create stories. That is not a new concept by any means. I used my own experience with adopting a rescue dog to fuel the story of “The Dean Machine.” To a large degree, I get it. But I just can’t get past the idea of having an eleven-year-old-daughter and then writing “It.”
I suppose if I really think about it, it’s only natural to be afraid that certain things might happen to your daughter. You want to protect her from life and its pitfalls. Your mind might go to some dark places when thinking of the things you want to protect her from, and as a writer you might use your own fears to fuel your work.
But in “It,” the thing that terrifies, and abuses the little girl the most isn’t the clown, or even the outside world. The bad guy in her life is her father. It’s as if Stephen King’s greatest fear for his daughter, was what he might do to her. I can’t shake the feeling that Stephen King wrote “It” to scare himself. Like the book is his own personal worst nightmare.
I don’t know. I’m probably over thinking all of this. But I guess that’s what I find haunting. The idea that maybe our imaginations can run away with us sometimes.
Dylan Lee Peters is the author of the fantasy adventure series "Everflame," the sci-fi fantasy "The Dean Machine," and most recently the epic fantasy series "The Hands of Ruin."
ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/3/2014
1. Anthem by Ayn Rand
Just say the word dystopia and I’m in. Anthem has remained my favorite book for years. Its mix of science fiction, Rand’s philosophy and self-righteous rebellion keep me coming back, over and over. It’s a very quick read and I think that’s partly what inspired me to make the Everflame books rapid reads. If there is any one part of the Everflame series in which this book most directly inspired, it would have to be Tenturo’s rebirth upon the red planet. Anthem remains the only book that I have an audio version of, as well as the only book I’ve had to purchase multiple times because I give my copy away to people. If you read only one book on this list, read this one.
Best quote: “But what is freedom? Freedom from what? There is nothing to take a man's freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.” ― Ayn Rand, Anthem
2. 1984 by George Orwell
Staying with the dystopia theme, 1984 was the only book I actually read in high school. (Believe it or not, I didn’t become an avid reader until after the age of eighteen.) As an angst-ridden young man, George Orwell seemed to hit the nail on the head in regard to how I felt about modern society. Sometimes the greatest books are the ones that help you realize you’re not alone in the way that you think, and 1984did that for me as a young man. I’m not quite sure 1984 inspired any part of the Everflame series directly, however, it did inspire me to become a reader and one who enjoys the written word.
Best quote: “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” ― George Orwell, 1984
3. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead is one of the only books on this list that has no aspect of fantasy or science fiction in the story. What I find so inspiring about Ayn Rand is her philosophy of the individual. The protagonist of this book, Howard Roark, is everything I ever wanted to be as an individual. When I read this book for the first time it truly felt as if his words were my own, his conversations were my conversations, and his thoughts were my thoughts. I was misunderstood in the very same way that he was misunderstood, others hated me in the very same way he was hated by others, and the few that loved me, loved me in the same way they loved Howard Roark.
Best quote: “But you see," said Roark quietly, "I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” ― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
4. Imajica by Clive Barker
Imajica changed my perspective on the fantasy genre and helped me realize that a fantasy book could move past the world of elves and dwarves. It was also the first fantasy book I had read that took place in a modern atmosphere. I would count Imajica as a fantasy epic that does not receive the credit it deserves and it surely got my creative side flowing in a way that other fantasy novels couldn’t hope to. Its most apparent influence in the Everflame series would have to be the Daughters of Earth and Sun. I recommend Imajica to any fantasy reader, but keep in mind that it has very adult themes.
Best quote: “Study nothing except in the knowledge that you already knew it. Worship nothing except in adoration of your true self. And fear nothing except in the certainty that you are your enemy's begetter and its only hope of healing.” ― Clive Barker, Imajica
5. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
How could one not include The Lord of the Rings? It would have to be tantamount to a modern musician never listening to The Beatles. The influences are intrinsic and obvious. A modern fantasy writer would be a fool to assume they are not influenced by this story, and the honest truth is that one finds they are trying to make sure that they don’t blatantly sample Tolkien’s work. If you haven’t read it, get to work.
Best quote: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
…and back to dystopia. What can I say, I’m a sucker for the concept of rebelling against an oppressor. I would say the brothers Floyd are probably the characters in the Everflame series that most embody my love of rebelling against a society you hold in disdain. Fahrenheit 451 helped foster that feeling. It’s a definite must read.
Best quote: “I'm seventeen and I'm crazy. My uncle says the two always go together. When people ask your age, he said, always say seventeen and insane.” ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
7. Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King
As I had already said, I didn’t really read much as a child, but I did carry this collection of short stories around with me for the better part of a year. I’ve always loved the way Stephen King could keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the payoff. I read through those short stories voraciously, dying to know the secrets King had yet to reveal. I’ve tried to replicate that sort of need to know what’s around the corner in my own writing. If I come even remotely close to achieving that curiosity in my readers I’ll count it as a success.
My favorite of the stories in this collection: The Ten o’Clock People
8. Dragonlance Legends (Time of the Twins, War of the Twins, Test of the Twins) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This is just a very solid fantasy trilogy and it was certainly the inspiration behind my desire to create characters that could be both good and evil. It was the first series I had ever read where the protagonist was the bad guy… or was he? I think the strength of this series is in the characters and that is certainly an element I try to achieve I my own writing.
9. Illusions by Richard Bach
Illusions is another book that everyone should read. You can add Jonathan Livingston Seagull into this as well. (same author) One thing I have learned in my life is that the people in this world who are successful and who get what they want are the people who face the fear of failure and defeat it. Doubt will destroy you. If you want something, believe you can obtain it and never give up the pursuit. If you fail, learn from that failure, get back up, and resume the fight.
Best quote: “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it however.” ― Richard Bach, Illusions
10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger by Albert Camus is like an old friend, or more like an old picture of myself. I look back on it with nostalgia, knowing that it was a part of me, and a part of who I was, but also knowing that I have grown past it and benefitted from knowing it. The Stranger is a sketch of Camus’ existentialism, and when I was younger, I identified with it greatly. Yet at some point, I realized that I wasn’t really an existential thinker as much as I was someone who felt numbed by the weight of life. It was working through the ideas in this book that helped me grow as a person and find within myself the fire that I call Everflame.
I encourage you to read all these books. I find great value in having them as a part of my life, and I believe each one has helped to make me who I am today.