13 Reasons Why

As a rule I avoid teen dramas but couldn’t resist the lure of 13 Reasons Why. I expected a lame story that was poorly acted, but that would perhaps examine high-school bullying and suicide in ways that lived up to the hand-wringing hype. I got the opposite. 13 Reasons Why is an astonishingly well-acted TV series with cracking mystery and intrigue, and boasts many effective stylistic choices. Unfortunately its message is the wrong one. And yet the premise for that message works dramatically well, which makes the series rather interesting to assess.

For those who know nothing about it — and keep in mind I’m describing the TV series, not the book which I haven’t read — the story is narrated by a girl from the grave, who has killed herself for “13 reasons” (read: 13 assholes) which she has recorded on old-fashioned audiotapes so there’s no chance of her indictments going viral. She blames 13 people for her decision to kill herself, or perhaps only 12, since one of the kids (Clay, the main character, in the above pic) is very nice and sensitive; Hannah admits he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes, yet she also implies that his failure to be more assertive in pursuing her romantically was a severe push to her suicide. Her other reasons for killing herself run the gamut: she was bullied, slut-shamed, stalked, lashed out at unjustly, assaulted, and then finally raped. The tapes function as a psychotic chain letter calling out everyone who did these things to her. The tapes are then passed from one asshole to the next, so that each has to look in the mirror and confront the beast within. Which means that each kid gets to hear Hannah’s judgments on the other twelve, and as a result these jerks come to share an unspeakable secret. Hannah has taken careful measures to be sure that her tormentors will indeed listen to and pass on these tapes in sequence as she instructs them to do, and not destroy them or throw them away.

As I said, the acting performances are great, and the two leads Katherine Langord (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) deserve special praise. Every time they’re on screen together they channel the right chemistry, unable to admit their feelings but plainly drawn to each other. Every step in their relationship feels like a weird success story that doesn’t go anywhere, which only tightens the tragedy in the present. Flashbacks can be an annoying device, but 13 Reasons Why uses them brilliantly, and they occur frequently and without warning. As Clay listens to the tapes, the past peels away like an onion, revealing more and more ugly secrets. The show takes bold risks for a teen drama — the kind we need to see more of in the genre. But as I also said, there are problems, which I will address in turn.

Problem #1: The “power of kindness”

The gravest flaw is the lead premise: that if kids stop bullying and start being more kind to their peers, suicides will drop. The fact is that the vast majority of teen suicides are the result of mental illness, not external problems like bullying, which may contribute to suicide but are very rarely the root cause. An analogy would be mass shootings, for which gun control is often seen as the remedy. We do need tighter gun laws for many reasons, but mass shootings isn’t one of them. (Mass killers almost invariably use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban; mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do; improved background checks are useless since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization. Etc, etc.)

Bullying is like easy gun access, a serious problem, and to its credit 13 Reasons Why portrays bullying in realistic ways that I hope will prompt more discussion and paths to remediation. But however effective we become at abuse management, it will hardly make a dent in suicide. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorders are what need heavy attention, but in 13 Reasons Why mental illness is not presented as the reason — or even a reason — for Hannah’s desperate decision. Her classmates get all the blame, to the extent that one of them is even driven to say that, “We all killed Hannah Baker”. While it’s good to see bullies and jerks own up to their actions, it’s the wrong message to send that they all (and in more or less equal measure) caused Hannah’s death.

Even the protagonist Clay berates himself, in his case for doing the right thing! As they are kissing and about to have sex, Hannah suddenly has flashbacks to her bullies, and tells him to stop, which he does. Everyone knows that’s the right thing. Then she tells him hysterically to leave the room, which he also does after repeatedly asking if she’s okay. She has to repeat her dismissal multiple times because he’s so worried about her, and yet his implied “crime” is that he finally obeyed her instead of defying her and staying in the room to insist on consoling her and explaining that he loves her. On the tape Hannah says this is what she really wanted him to do. That’s a grossly irresponsible message. It’s hard enough to educate people that “no means no”, and here we have the double standard that “no means no” when it comes to sex, but the opposite when it comes to what follows.

The show condemns Clay repeatedly for not being proactive enough, and he accepts full blame: “I cost a girl her life,” he says, “because I was afraid to love her.” That’s a realistic reaction owing to survivor guilt, but Clay is wrong to blame himself. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter is condemned similarly, when he refuses to chase after Hannah when she flees his office in frustration. The show writers operate out of a surprisingly judgmental framework made worse by their mistaken assumptions about kindness.

In sum, by focusing on everything the 13 kids did (or supposedly didn’t do enough, in the case of Clay and Mr. Porter), to the exclusion of any mention of mental illness on the part of Hannah, 13 Reasons Why vastly overrates the power of kindness. Hannah’s suicide is presented solely as the result of external causes. Even rape is rarely, in and of itself, the cause of suicide. (Rape can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, which are mental illnesses, and in those cases 13% of rape victims will indeed attempt suicide.) Being kind is obviously a good message, but in a drama about suicide it becomes misplaced.

Problem #2: Glorified Hannah, demonized peers

If kindness is the (supposed) antidote to suicide, then suicide can be seen as an act of righteousness to wreak vengeance on one’s bullies. This is what critics of 13 Reasons Why complain about: that the novel and TV series glorify teen suicide, and that the example of Hannah may even inspire copycats. First of all, any real-world copycat of Hannah is about as likely as a serial-killer inspired by a film like Seven, or a cop killer inspired by Breaking Bad to dissolve the corpse in a bath of acid. Yes those sort of things happen but only extremely rarely. No matter how graphic and sensational, literature and film seldom gives people homicidal or suicidal ideas they feel compelled to enact on. (The exception would be philosophical or religious scripture, as for example the Qur’an which inspires daily routine mass-murder activity, and even then we don’t condone the banning of holy writ.) Censorship is never the answer, and shame on the school administrators and librarians who have advocated removing 13 Reasons Why from circulation.

There is some truth to the claim that the TV show glorifies Hannah. Her suicide, after all, is portrayed as a form of empowerment, as she exacts retribution from the grave against those who were nasty to her. It’s unrealistic but works as a dramatic narrative, because as the tapes proceed Hannah becomes as much a “villain” as a tragic protagonist. The narrative is so consumed by her over-heaping guilt trips on these kids that it loses sight of her as a person and her mental problems (again: the show doesn’t indicate that she has any). Most of the 13 kids aren’t so bad. They’re jerks in varying degrees and misguided in the ways of teenagers. Four of them even commit crimes: Tyler stalks Hannah and photographs her through her bedroom window at night; Marcus assaults her publicly, just to show off for his friends; Sheri drives her home from a party, accidentally knocks over a stop-sign, and then ditches her by the side of the road without reporting the accident to the police as Hannah urges, thus later causing the death of a classmate at that intersection; Bryce rapes her, after already raping another another girl days before, in his home swimming pool. Everyone agrees that Bryce should fall off a cliff, and I might be inclined to push Marcus over with him, but Tyler and Sheri are sympathetic characters even if their crimes are inexcusable.

Justin is particularly well-used. In the early episodes I couldn’t stand him, but we later learn that he comes from a hideous home life, where his mother is a drug addict and his stepfather is physically abusive. Justin “allowed” Bryce to circulate the photo of Hannah’s legs, and then to rape Jessica at a party, without trying to stop him in either case, and he genuinely beats himself up for the latter. He feels guilty to the point that he will do anything for Jessica to atone for his inadequacy — even offering to kill Bryce for her. This doesn’t make him decent, but I did feel for him as he deteriorates into an emotional wreck. Then there is Alex, a sensitive guy, but whose father is a macho police cop who encourages Alex to be aggressive to prove his manliness. Alex is the one who most regrets mistreating Hannah, to the point, in a ridiculous shocker, that he ends up taking his own life at the end of the show. My understanding is that Alex doesn’t commit suicide in the novel, and indeed this was a very poor adaptation on the part of the script writers; I didn’t buy Alex’s suicide at all. But aside from that, his character is handled well; there’s nothing especially reprehensible about him. He just acts childish in a way that Hannah takes to heart.

In my opinion, only three of the 13 are truly heartless: Bryce, Courtney, and Marcus (in descending order of assholery). Bryce is a remorseless rapist, Courtney a vile backstabber, and Marcus a despicable save-ass. Ryan is soulless too though harder to gauge. (For my grades of the 13 in terms of the damage they cause to Hannah vs. how bad they are as people, see the appendix at the bottom of the post).

What I’m saying is that the glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. And that’s very realistic. It may not be the message the show writers intended, but it comes through against the grain of their “We all killed Hannah Baker” nonsense. Hannah turns out to be a great character, if you look at it the right way.

Problem #3: The character of Tony

Clay speaks for many viewers, and certainly for myself, when he scorns Tony as an “unhelpful Yoda” who does little more than appear out of nowhere, look down on Clay with patronizing condescension, and offer nothing by way of wisdom other than tell Clay he must listen to the tapes to learn everything for himself. I understand he’s the guardian of Hannah’s plan so that everything goes according to her wishes, but he should have been kept off-screen more instead of repeatedly turning up just at the right moments in this melodramatically contrived way. There were times, frankly, when Tony almost ruined the show for me.

The upshot is that I really liked 13 Reasons Why and may even read the book to see how the source material differs. It’s a well-crafted drama with moral missteps, but those errors have been forcing the right questions on a massive scale. From that point of view I could judge it a complete success.

 

Appendix: The Rogues Gallery

In rating Hannah’s tormentors, I assign “damage” and “asshole” grades, each on a scale of 0-10. Sometimes both grades are high, but some of the kids are relatively decent (low asshole grades) even if they did something which really hurt Hannah (high damage grades). The damage points are interesting to consider, bearing in mind that despite Hannah’s accusations, none of these offenses usually cause suicide in the real-world, or at least without the presence of mental illness.

Episode 1: Justin Foley (Tape 1, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 6

He sneaks a photo of Hannah’s spread legs while they’re in a park, and then allows Bryce to send it viral around the school, thus starting the chain of rumors and slut-shaming. Justin however is more weak and ineffectual than a really bad person. He’s guilty mostly of what he allows Bryce to do (as also in episode 9). In later episodes he becomes a much more sympathetic character as we learn about his abusive home life.

Episode 2: Jessica Davis (Tape 1, Side B)

Damage grade: 4
Asshole grade: 3

She wrongly blames Hannah for her boyfriend breakup, smacks Hannah hard across the face, and ends their friendship. The result is that Hannah retreats into loneliness and never makes any friends after Jessica. But Jessica isn’t malicious, she’s just bitchy and insecure. Losing friends — even unfairly — is a part of life unfortunately. Though getting belted in the face when you don’t deserve it is rather uncalled for.

Episode 3: Alex Standall (Tape 2, Side A)

Damage grade: 3
Asshole grade: 1

He makes a list of “bests and worsts” in the school, and includes Hannah as having the best ass, thus aiding in the ruin of her friendship with Jessica, while also lending credence to the rumors started by Justin. Alex is actually a decent kid (especially considering the macho dad who raises him), and he very quickly becomes sorry for his childish behavior and the impact it has on Hannah. His “bests and worsts” list doesn’t single out Hannah for special shame, and in my view his act is comparatively mild as pranks go.

Episode 4: Tyler Down (Tape 2, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 4

No one likes a stalker, and Tyler (like Hannah) takes abuse from the entire school for his ongoing photography efforts. He stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her at night through her bedroom window — which is a crime and scars Hannah since she can’t feel safe in her own home. On the other hand, as a person, Tyler is motivated by sincere affection for Hannah, and I see him more as a pathetic loser than a genuinely dangerous creep. Thus my low asshole grade compared to the serious damage he causes.

Episode 5: Courtney Crimsen (Tape 3, Side A)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

After Bryce I consider her the worst of the 13. At first she fills the friendship void left by Jessica, in addition to being a fun lesbo-lover on the side. But when Tyler takes photos of their sexual activities in Hannah’s bed and then sends them viral around the school, Courtney not only shuts Hannah out but throws her under the bus in the worst way just to keep her lesbian orientation secret. She passes off her affair as someone else having sex with Hannah (since Tyler’s photo is unclear), slut-shaming Hannah with a vengeance. It would be one thing if Courtney’s fear of homophobia were more understandable. But she has two gay fathers, it’s the 21st century, and the student body doesn’t seem disproportionately bigoted. She gets even worse in later episodes, denying Hannah’s claim that Bryce is a rapist in order to shield herself when she is subpoenaed for a deposition. Courtney is a true asshole, and one who repeatedly shocked me in watching this series.

Episode 6: Marcus Cole (Tape 3, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

He’s a close rival to Courtney, and I score his points the same. He’s a positive role model for the school with a respectable image, but behind that facade he’s vile. He tries to finger Hannah while sitting with her at a diner, and more to show off for his friends who are watching nearby than to gratify himself. This is the first time Hannah is sexually assaulted and it does considerable damage to her self-image. Also like Courtney, by the end of the series Marcus is hell-bent on saving his ass and reputation at all costs, even if it means siding with a rapist like Bryce. I would rank Courtney slightly worse than him by the margin of her treachery — she became Hannah’s friend for a short time before shafting her mercilessly, while Marcus was never Hannah’s friend to begin with — but it’s admittedly a close call.

Episode 7: Zach Dempsey (Tape 4, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 4

He may be part of the Justin-Marcus-Bryce circle, but I actually think Zach is a pretty decent guy. He does something cruel to Hannah and it wounds her, but I see him as going against his nature on this point. He sabotages her (stealing and destroying the comfort notes left for her in the Brown Paper Bag Program), not out of malice but because he’s unable to cope with rejection. Because he’s rich and popular and good looking, he’s probably used to getting his way all the time, so when he extends a kind hand to Hannah (and to his credit he is genuinely upset by Marcus’ outrageous’ assault on her), he can’t get over it like he should when she spurns his intentions.

Episode 8: Ryan Shaver (Tape 4, Side B)

Damage grade: 2
Asshole grade: 8

I see Ryan as the inverse of someone like Tyler. What he does is less bad than who he is. He’s on the tapes for publishing one of Hannah’s personal poems in the school’s literary magazine. He published it as an anonymous piece, but some students guessed Hannah wrote it, which embarrassed her. Frankly I don’t see this as a terrible injustice against Hannah (especially since it’s anonymous), though it’s true he should not have published it without her permission. More insufferable is Ryan’s arrogance. His superiority complex makes him thoroughly immune to complaints about the way he offends and bothers people. That’s basically the definition of an asshole.

Episode 9: Justin Foley (Tape 5, Side A)

Damage grade: 5
Asshole grade: 6

Episode 9 is unique, not only for taking a second swing at one of Hannah’s tormentors, but this time for something that doesn’t even effect Hannah directly. Jessica is the victim here, not Hannah, who is a hidden observer. Hannah is effected in terms of the guilt she suffers for staying quiet and hidden as Jessica is raped before her eyes, which in my view makes her worthy of as much blame as Justin.

So again, as on his first tape entry (episode 1), Justin is indicted by Hannah primarily for what he allows Bryce to do, which in this case is criminal. He lets Bryce enter the bedroom where Jessica is lying drunk-unconscious, and of course Bryce rapes her. Hannah is hiding (she has just thrown Clay out of the room after almost fucking him) and so witnesses the rape. As stated before, Justin is weak but not nasty, and while that doesn’t excuse his unwillingness to oppose Bryce, he later beats himself up for Jessica’s trauma. I give Justin a damage score of 5, in reflection of how his ineffectual behavior against Bryce’s rape of Jessica impacts Hannah. (It would be a 10 if it was Bryce’s damage score as it impacts Jessica, and perhaps a 7 or 8 if it were Bryce’s score as it impacts Hannah.) But Hannah is a colossal hypocrite for coming down hard on Justin when she is guilty of the same thing. If she wasn’t willing to club Bryce over the head with something, she should have at least yelled and gone for help.

Episode 10: Sheri Holland (Tape 5, Side B)

Damage grade: 9
Asshole grade: 2

She’s the inverse of Ryan: a good person on the inside whose single lapse in judgment results in disaster, namely the death of a classmate. She drives Hannah home at night from a night party and crashes into a stop sign, but instead of calling the police as Hannah urges, she panics and ditches Hannah by the side of the road. That night someone is killed driving through the intersection. Sheri is so appalled by her error that she eventually goes out of her way to do things for the grieving parents of the classmate.

Episode 11: Clay Jensen (Tape 6, Side A)

Damage grade: 10 (*)
Asshole grade: 0

There’s not an asshole-bone in Clay’s body, and Hannah acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. But he’s on them anyway because Hannah wishes that he had ignored her demand that he leave the bedroom after she freaked out during their foreplay. For this he blames himself (“I killed Hannah because I was too scared to love her”), and this is clearly the show writers’ message which crops up elsewhere. It’s an irresponsible message. No means no, and Clay was correct to do exactly as Hannah told him — stopping the sex and leaving the room.

As Hannah tells it, I would have to conclude that the damage Clay did to her by not staying in the room and pursuing his romantic intentions earns him a score of 10. It clearly tore her to pieces. But since he did what can only be construed as the right thing, he doesn’t really deserve any damage points. If guys are expected to do the opposite of what a girl tells them in one case, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t act the same way when it comes to sex.

Episode 12: Bryce Walker (Tape 6, Side B)

Damage grade: 10
Asshole grade: 10

No commentary required. Bryce is an unrepentant rapist who belongs in jail.

Episode 13: Mr. Porter (Tape 7, Side A)

Damage grade: 5 (*)
Asshole grade: 1

The guidance counselor is like Clay. His moral compass is perfectly fine, and he tries to convince Hannah that life is worth living. His fault, as Hannah sees it, is that he failed to chase after her and beg her to come back when she flees his office in frustration. Which is uncharitable of Hannah in the extreme. Counselors and therapists shouldn’t be expected to chase after patients like this, any more than guys like Clay should be expected to flout a girl’s command to get lost and leave her alone. I do give him one asshole point for suggesting that she could “just move on” if she isn’t willing to name her rapist. Even if that’s pragmatically what some rape victims choose to do (not file criminal charges), one should never use the phrase “just move on” with a rape victim. I give him a damage grade of 5 right down the middle; on the one hand, his counseling failure is portrayed by Hannah as the last straw and a big one, but in essence she had already made her decision after Bryce; Mr. Porter was a last-ditch effort.

Retrospective: The 20 Albums of Rush (1974-2012)

The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.

Hard-Progressive (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.

Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.

Progressive-Classic (’77-’81)

As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

Synth (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.

Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

Pop-Alternative (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.

Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.

Progressive-Metal (’02-’12)

The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.

Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.

 

How They Rank

1. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. As awesome as that suite is, “A Passage to Bangkok” is my personal favorite track, dealing with marijuana tourism. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).

Best Tracks: 2112, Passage to Bangkok, Lessons, Twilight Zone — in other words, virtually the entire album.

2. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, though I buck convention in favor of the operatic 2112. But seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s most celebrated song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.

Best Tracks: Limelight, Witch Hunt, The Camera Eye, Vital Signs.

3. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.

Best Tracks: Subdivisions, The Weapon, The Analog Kid, Chemistry.

4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth, and that’s not a valid objection. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.

Best Tracks: Lock and Key, Time Stand Still, Mission, Prime Mover.

5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.

Best Tracks: The Anarchist, Halo Effect, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden.

6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.

Best Tracks: Closer to the Heart, Xanadu.

7. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside my top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.

Best Tracks: The Spirit of Radio, Natural Science.

8. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see #13). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.

Best Tracks: Red Sector A, Distant Early Warning.

9. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.

Best Tracks: Nobody’s Hero, Animate.

10. Hemispheres. 1978. 4 stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.

Best Tracks: The Trees, Circumstances.

11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.

Best Tracks: Show Don’t Tell, War Paint.

12. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.

Best Tracks: Finding My Way, Working Man.

13. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.

Best Tracks: The Big Money, Manhattan Project.

14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.

Best Tracks: Test for Echo, Resist.

15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.

Best Tracks: Anthem, By-Tor and the Snowdog.

16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.

17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.

18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.

19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.

20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.

The Best of Stephen King

In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.

As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.

[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]

wizard and glass1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.

PetSematary2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.

3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.

the-gunslingers4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.

5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.

talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.

misery7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.

8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.

The+Dead+Zone+[front+cover]9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.

10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me back in the day, for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is a brutally effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.

Assessing Lincoln: Slavery, the Indians, and Civil Liberties

This week a congressman out of North Carolina claimed that Abraham Lincoln was like Adolf Hitler. A crackpot claim, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprising one, given that extremes call forth extremes. After all, Lincoln is usually rated the best president in American history, and has attained a mythological status that makes it almost criminal to question his sanctity. It doesn’t help matters that the ones who do question it are usually either crackpots like Larry Pittman, or revisionists with Confederate sympathies.

The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked. Not only was the South very obviously trying to protect slavery, but whenever the rule of law had interfered with maintaining slavery in the past, the South became a burning advocate for federal power. Only after the executive branch was no longer friendly to slavery (i.e. after Lincoln’s election), did the South begin to harp on states’ rights.

Revisionists over-vilify Lincoln for his “unconstitutional” suppression of the South. While it is arguable that Lincoln should have acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and let the South peacefully secede, he did have the authority, under the mildly centralizing Constitution, to put down the southern insurrection. So the war effort was not itself unconstitutional. That he maneuvered the South into starting the war, on the other hand, by making them fire the first shot — a point widely accepted, even by scholarly giants like Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton — was certainly unethical. But that’s actually a minor offense. The real point is that the Civil War should not have been fought at all.

Here’s the run-down of what I consider to be Lincoln’s worst sins. They fall under what he did for slavery, the Indians, and civil liberties. He fails in all categories.

1. Slavery. If the Civil War ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over it. In Ivan Eland’s view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly. Recarving Rushmore supplies those alternatives:

(1) If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery.

Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of “Jim Crow” laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln ignore. The North’s ruthless war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try to “build democracy”, like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good.

Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even “backwater” Mexico has ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too. And it was ended without resorting to bloody wars. Lincoln himself had entertained the compensation option, so this isn’t an unfair hindsight judgment. He was aware of how the world was moving, both at home and abroad.

2. The Indians. Try asking them what they think of Lincoln. They say he was one of the Five Worst Presidents for the Native American Tribes, and they’re obviously right. Even by 19th-century manifest-destiny standards, Lincoln was a demon. He seized one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. When this kind of thing happens in places like Bosnia and Dafur, we call it ethnic cleansing. The journey for the Indians was a death march, a lot like the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson: thousands of them were herded across a scorching desert, “escorted” by Lincoln’s army who killed those who lagged behind. The survivors who made it to the reservation were shoved into squalid camps infested with disease.

No one would excuse this behavior if it weren’t the president named Abraham Lincoln we were talking about, who has been mythologized to the extent that he can’t possibly, really, have been this bad. But he was. He worked against the Indian tribes them at every turn, and with more ruthlessness than most of the 19th century presidents. He cheated the Sioux out their lands as well, and when they revolted, he unleashed General Pope on them, who promised to exterminate the Sioux, who were “maniacs and wild beasts, and by no means people with whom treaties or compromise can be made”. Lincoln afterwards signed off on 38 Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, and on December 26, 1862 the largest mass execution in United States history took place under his authority. Only a dishonest apologist could salvage anything for Lincoln’s reputation out of this.

3. Civil Liberties. Lincoln was an enemy of the First Amendment. He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. There have been only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech: John Adams and Woodrow Wilson. Today, Donald Trump shows himself to be on the same page as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson.

Lincoln likewise “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, or in other words detained them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). To date there has been only one other president who has claimed and exercised this right — you guessed it, George W. Bush. In Lincoln’s case, he simply ignored Supreme Court Justice Robert Taney’s order that habeas corpus could be suspended only by Congress and not the president. Lincoln played the dictator and suspended it anyway. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights.

“Tear down the memorial”

It’s always easy to judge by hindsight and fancy how we could do better. I’m under no illusion that I would make a good president. But I’ll say this: As president I sure as hell would never start an unnecessary war by making the other side fire first, and then use the federal army to kill hundreds of thousands of people, cripple tens of thousands more for life, destroy their economy, burn their towns to the ground, abolish my own people’s civil liberties, and inflict all the other miserable costs of war, just to prevent certain states from leaving the goddamn union. Yes, Lincoln did have the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what Confederate revisionists claim), but that doesn’t mean he should have; and I would not have. As president I hope I would have had the wisdom to pursue one of the two options entertained by Eland:

“Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists advocated, or offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South — as they did in most other places of the world — helped out by a slave haven in the free North. In sum, a close study of Lincoln’s presidency leads to thoughts of tearing down the Lincoln Memorial.” (Recarving Rushmore, p 130)

Lincoln was no Hitler (only a crackpot would say that), nor was he the villain of Southern revisionism. But he was indeed a bad president — one of the worst, I believe, in our nation’s history.

Paul’s Death Metaphors: A Conflicted Soteriology

If you need something to read for Good Friday/Easter, make it Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors. It’s a detailed analysis of how Paul thought Christ’s death had saving power, and while no single answer emerges, at least one can be safely excluded: the Protestant idea of penal substitution. The idea that “Christ stands in for the sinner” is absent in Paul’s letters, despite his rich variety of death metaphors.

There are four metaphors, as Finlan shows: (1) martyrdom, (2) sacrifice, (3) scapegoat, and (4) ransom payment. For Paul, Christ was a martyr who also functioned as a sacrificial paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one. The metaphors are different and even at odds with each other, so let’s go through them.

Paul’s favorite metaphor: martyrdom

I call it his favorite because he uses it most. It is best explained in Jeffrey Gibson’s essay, “Paul’s Dying Formula”, cited by Finlan, which argues that Paul inverted the “noble death” theme found in Greek literature (see pp 196-197). “X dies for Y” referred to the warrior ideal by which heroes die for friends, family, city, or religious ideas, though never for enemies. So when Paul says that “Christ died for sinners”, and for his enemies at that (and by submitting to dishonor on the cross rather than going down in combat), he was invoking martyrdom and giving it a brutal twist. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people and he went down in shame. The point is that “Christ died for us” doesn’t refer to sacrifice or atonement (far less penal substitution). It refers to martyrdom.

So how does martyrdom benefit the believer? What does Christ’s death “do” for the sinner, if not atone? Surprisingly, Finlan doesn’t mention David Seeley’s The Noble Death, which deals with the subject at some length. Like Gibson, Seeley thinks Paul’s view is closest to that of the Maccabean martyrs and Greco-Roman philosophers. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes defeat tyranny through defiance and obedience to the Torah, dying for it (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4). In a Greco-Roman context, a philosopher like Socrates dies in prison in order to free humanity from the fear of death and imprisonment (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4), an example followed by Cato who kills himself rather than be captured by Caesar. The deaths of the martyrs and philosophers benefit others who follow their example and die virtuously.

And what is the benefit to following Christ’s example? According to Paul, believers die with him at baptism, reenacting his death by destroying the sinful body and gaining release from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10). To be sure, Christians have only begun to die — and they’re not literally crucified like Jesus — but the “mimetic pattern”, says Seeley, is exactly the same. Just as copying a martyr gains victory over a tyrant, or copying a philosopher gains victory over fortune, copying Christ gains victory over sin and death. “Christ died for us” means that one can achieve the same victory by dying as Christ did. It does not mean that Christ died as a sacrifice of atonement, or ransom payment… though Paul does happen to believe that Christ’s death functioned in those ways too.

The importance of all four elements

Seeley notes that the idea of sacrifice sometimes creeps in to martyrdom theology. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs served as “an atoning sacrifice” (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea’s suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35); the blood of Christ was put forward in atonement as the messiah became a new “mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25). But Seeley thinks these sacrificial metaphors are subsidiary, supplementing the far more important martyrdom theme.

Finlan refutes attempts to downplay the importance of sacrifice and other elements. Martyrdom may have been Paul’s “favorite” idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was his most important. Martyrdom provided a platform for other ideas that were imperative for him and other Christians of his time: cultic sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom-payment:

“Martyrdom seems to have been absorbed into these other metaphors, to be interpreted by them; it may be the most fundamental of Paul’s concepts, but its meaning requires the usage of metaphors from the cultic and social realms.” (p 193)

This is the strength of Finlan’s approach, as it takes all of Paul’s ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. Here are the texts pertaining to each metaphor.

(1) Martyrdom/Noble Death — I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10

(2) Sacrifice — Rom 3:25, I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25

(3) Scapegoat — Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3

(4) Ransom/Redemption — I Cor 6:20, 7:23

Paul believed all of this, and it was a bold fusion on his part. Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices but rather expulsion victims, and opposite in every way. Sacrifices were pure and offered reverently to God; scapegoats impure and driven out harshly to a wilderness demon. The former were spotless and their blood was a cleansing agent; the latter were sin carriers, vile and corrupt (see pp 81-93). To portray an individual as a sacrifice and scapegoat at the same time, as Paul did, would have been an oxymoron. Putting all four together makes this game of metaphors schizophrenic in the extreme.

How sacrifice worked

But how did sacrifice, whether traditional Jewish or Christian, effect atonement? It served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God as a “food bribe”. The idea of propitiatory substitution was different from the later (Protestant) idea of penal substitution. In penal substitution the sacrifice “stands in” to take the punishment of the offender, and that’s what most of us today associate with atonement. But propitiatory substitution involves a pure sinless offering, offered as payment to a sovereign deity in order to appease his anger and wrath.

As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice also took on a purifying/expiatory role, the cleansing of impurity and sin. Lev 17:11 explains: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Lev 17:11) When harnessed properly, the life-force that resides within blood somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution.

In other words, by the time of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, propitiatory-substitution and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explained how sacrifice atones for sin. The context of Rom 3:25 shows that Paul believed both. His explanation that Christ is the new mercy seat involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Jews and God-fearers would have heard both (pp 141-143). Propitiatory themes dominate, however, since the cultic act of Rom 3:25 offsets the divine wrath recounted previously at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (p 144). But the idea of penal substitution, developed centuries later by Protestant reformers, is alien to Paul’s thought. (The Catholic view of satisfaction substitution is the one that more properly derives from propitiatory-substitution.)

That’s the sacrifice passage of Romans, anyway. What about the sacrifice passages of I Corinthians (5:7 and 11:25), where Christ is depicted not as a mercy seat (for the Day of Atonement), but as a paschal lamb (for Passover)? Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment. The ancient tradition of Israelites smearing lamb blood on the doors of their homes was so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. In the eucharist tradition (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood”, in the bread and wine, which was likewise intended to protect (not propitiate or purify as in the rite of atonement) his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders.

That’s a lot of ideas Paul makes room for, but for all the variety there’s not a hint of penal substitution. The only passage in the New Testament which possibly provides a basis for penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b, which owes to Isa 53:4-5, “by his wounds we are healed”. This may indicate that (for the writer of I Peter), Christ, like Israel’s servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ’s death as a penal substitute — certainly nothing in Paul.

The evolution of sacrifice

A fascinating part of Finlan’s book is his discussion of the way sacrifice evolves in practice and thought. Though it irritates many scholars to speak of evolution in a way that suggests “progress through spiritualization”, it’s a matter of fact that “a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question” (p 46). Finlan proposes that sacrifice evolves away from its primitive roots in six stages: substitution, moralization, interiorization, metaphorization, rejection, and spiritualization (see pp 47-70):

1. Substitution, occurring when human sacrifice (Gen 22:2) becomes replaced with animal sacrifice (or other foodstuffs) (Exod 13:2,12-13; 34:20; Num 18:15).

2. Moralization (or reformism), attributing new spiritual and abstract meanings to the practice of sacrifice (Psalm 4, Malachi).

3. Interiorization, asserting that what matters to the deity is the right attitude and a clean heart, though sacrifice is not rejected (I Sam 15, Psalm 51, Psalm 141, Proverb 15, Proverb 21, I & II Enoch).

4. Metaphorization, applying cultic ideas to non-cultic practices; sacrifice is valued on a metaphorical level (IV Maccabees, Paul, Philo, Greco-Roman philosophers).

5. Rejection, repudiating the sacrificial cult altogether (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah 1).

6. Spiritualization, interiorizing religious values to the extreme that transformation of the human character has become the chief goal of religious faith (Middle Platonic philosophies, the patristic and Greek Orthodox concept of theosis).

Paul values sacrifice on the metaphorical level, superseding without rejecting the temple cult. In saying that “God put forward Christ in a bloody death as a mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25), he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel. Or in saying that Christ is the new paschal lamb (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), he claims that the savior’s blood protects believers against the wrath of God poured out on oppressors and the wicked.

Supersessionism is inherent to levels 3/4 (interiorization/ metaphorization), when death and glory are seen simultaneously in the old system (as in II Cor 3:6-11; Philip 3:4b-11). But it gets complicated, because sometimes a view of sacrifice can be found straddling many levels. And there are subtypes within levels. For instance, level 4 metaphorization can involve either typology (Paul) or allegory (Philo). Typology can lean in a direction of level 2/3 (reform/interiorization) or 5 (rejection) without taking sides. Allegory, meanwhile, involves a strategy of replacement along levels 1/3/5 (literal/ interiorization/ rejection). So typology sees fulfillment, whereas allegory sees replacement; each is a variation of the level 4 stage. (See pp 68-70)

Jesus’ thoughts on the matter…?

What would the historical Jesus have thought about all this? Did he have a martyr’s complex and brace himself (and his followers) for a “noble death” as he prepared to take on Jerusalem? Did he have even more radical ideas — cultic ideas which scholars are loathe to attribute to Paul, let alone him? I suspect that, at the very least, Jesus had a martyr’s complex, believing that his suffering and death were part of the tribulation period that preceded the apocalypse. He may also have attributed sacrificial (Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29) and/or ransom elements (Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28) to his death as reported in the gospels, but I suspect that he didn’t.

Finlan’s book is the best I know of that does justice to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death. We may have little use for “barbaric” ideas like cultic atonement and bloody sacrifice, but for better or worse they were part of his theology, integrated into a broader framework of martyrdom. The variety of metaphors makes Paul conflicted to say the least, but there you have it.

Stan Uris and the Sewer Orgy in Stephen King’s It

It has long puzzled fans of the novel It why Stan Uris is the only one who kills himself when his childhood memories come flooding back. The other six kids’ encounters with It were as bad as Stan’s, and they weren’t driven to suicide. Something in particular pushed Stan over the edge, but the novel doesn’t explain what. Fans of the novel have tried:

(1) The usual answer is that Stan is the most skeptical member of the Club, relying on logic and reason more than anyone, and is the least of the seven willing to accept that It actually exists. Thus he was too emotionally fragile to face It a second time.

(2) However, it is also implied that Stan was the only one who had somehow become aware that It was female (and pregnant), something that Bill, Richie, and Ben learn in their second encounter with It as adults. Thus Stan chose death over returning to Derry to face the ancient terror that could lay eggs and multiply its terror a thousandfold.

The first suggestion is likely true, but if the second is also true, then it raises an interesting point about the sewer orgy. Stan would have probably freaked out over the idea of gang-banging “Queen” Beverly. She would have come across as a grotesque parody of It, orchestrating her own sex-rite down in Derry’s sewers, and in a mystical orgy that defies the sense and reason he holds precious. Beverly’s seduction of him would have probably amounted to a rape, and a more traumatic one than Eddie’s and the others’.

Many readers seem unaware that what Beverly is doing in the sewer orgy amounts to rape, but the text makes it pretty clear that it is, as I will show below. I’m not saying Beverly is a monster by any means. Eleven-year old kids aren’t accountable in the way adults and even teenagers are. She is actually easy to empathize with when she dominates the boys, because what she is ultimately doing is reclaiming something from an abusive father — her sense of self that her father diminished. Granted she is doing this at the expense of someone like Eddie, but even if she is wrong, it is the sort of wrong that should be weighed according to how we judge young kids who aren’t yet wise in the ways of the world.

Here is the text describing the first orgy act, with Eddie. My notes in bold follow the non-consensual elements.

Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him in the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want?” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me,” she says.

He tries to pull back but she holds him [using force] and he subsides against her. She has heard someone — Ben, she thinks — draw in his breath.

“Bevvie, I can’t do that. I don’t know how –“

“I think it’s easy. But you’ll have to get undressed.” She thinks about the intricacies of managing cast and shirt, first somehow separating and then rejoining them, and amends, “Your pants, anyway.”

“No, I can’t!” [“No” means “no”.]  But she thinks part of him can, and wants to, because his trembling has stopped and she feels something small and hard which presses against the right side of her belly. [Classic rationalizations, according to the standard dogma: rapists justify themselves this way when victims are betrayed by their bodies. Eddie’s body is saying yes, but his mind is saying no.]

“You can,” she says, and pulls him down. [The rape is now in session.] The surface beneath her bare back and legs is firm, clayey, dry. The distant thunder of the water is drowsy, soothing. She reaches for him. There is a moment when her father intervenes, harsh and forbidding, and then she closes her arms around Eddie’s neck, her smooth cheek against his smooth cheek, and as he tentatively touches her small breasts she sighs and thinks for the first time, This is Eddie, and she remembers a day in July — could it only have been last month? — when no one else turned up in the Barrens but Eddie, and he had a whole bunch of little Lulu comic books and they read together for most of the afternoon, Little Lulu looking for beebleberries and getting in all sorts of crazy situations. It had been fun.

She thinks of birds; in particular of the grackles and starlings and crows that come back in the spring, and her hands go to his belt and loosen it, and he says again that he can’t do that; she tells him that he can [again overriding his protests], she knows he can, and what she feels is not shame or fear now but a kind of triumph. [Many would see this as a shameless rapist reveling in her conquest.]

“Where?” he says, and that hard thing pushes urgently against her inner thigh.

“Here,” she says.

“Bevvie, I’ll fall on you!” he says, and she hears his breath start to whistle painfully.

“I think that’s sort of the idea,” she tells him and holds him gently and guides him. He pushes forward too fast and there is pain.

Ssssss! — she draws her breath in, her teeth biting at her lower lip and thinks of all the birds again, the spring birds, lining the roofpeaks of houses, taking wing all at once under low March clouds.

“Beverly?” he says uncertainly. “Are you okay?”

“Go slower,” she says. “It’ll be easier for you to breathe.” He does move more slowly, and after a while his breathing speeds up but she understands this i not because there is anything wrong with him.

The pain fades. Suddenly he moves more quickly, then stops, stiffens, and makes a sound — some sound. She senses that this is something for him, something extraordinarily, special, something like… like flying. She feels powerful: she feels a sense of triumph rise up strongly within her. [Reveling in her dominance.] Is this what her father was afraid of? Well he might be! There was power in this act, all right, a chain-breaking power that was blood-deep. She feels no physical pleasure, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy in it for her. [Confirming what rape specialists say: that for a rapist it’s the display of power, more than any physical pleasure, that gratifies and excites.] She senses the closeness. He puts his face against her neck and she holds him. He is crying. [He could be traumatized.] She holds him. And feels the part of him that made a connection between them begin to fade. It is not leaving her exactly; it is simply fading, becoming less.

When his weight shifts away she sits up and touches his face in the darkness.

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Whatever it is. I don’t know, exactly.”

He shakes his head — she feels it with her hand against his cheek.

“I don’t think it was exactly like… you know, like the big boys say.  But it was… it was really something.” He speaks low, so the others can’t hear. “I love you, Bevvie.”

Her consciousness breaks down a little there. She’s quite sure there’s more talk some whispered, some loud, and can’t remember what is said. It doesn’t matter. Does she have to talk each of them into it all over again? Yes, probably. But it doesn’t matter. They have to be talked into it, this essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity. It doesn’t matter. What matters is love and desire. Here in this dark is as good a place as any. Better than some, maybe.

It’s a very well written scene, and again, in the context of the novel, Beverly’s thrills of triumph and dominance are more aimed at “getting back” at her horrible father than degrading any of the boys whom she considers her best friends. Eddie might not see it that way, of course, though he seems to have pulled through okay.

After Eddie, Beverly has sex with the other five boys — Mike, Richie, Stan, Ben, and Bill in that order. King skips over descriptions of Mike, Richie, and Stan (covering all three of them in a couple paragraphs), and describes the last two boys, Ben and Bill, with elaborate detail like Eddie. With Ben it begins as a rape, where like Eddie he protests but is overruled and compelled against his will. But halfway through it turns consensual — right after “power” shifts from Beverly to Ben (“She feels her power suddenly shift to him; she gives it gladly and goes with it.”) With Bill, the group-leader, the sex is consensual from start to finish.

It would have been interesting if King had written elaborate orgy scenes for the other three boys, especially Stan, who I can only imagine would have strongly resisted Beverly’s intentions. Who knows, it might have shed light on his suicide.

The Best of Martin Scorsese

This is a long-delayed installment in the favorite director’s blogathon. It was a given that Scorsese would be covered, but I needed to do a marathon of his films. Some are better than suggested by earlier viewings (notably Shutter Island) while others don’t quite live up to their reputation (get ready for a couple of blasphemies). Of his 24 feature films to date, here are what I consider the top 10.

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1. Silence. 2017. 5 stars. This is the film I thought Scorsese was aiming for all his life but never had a hope of pulling off. His other forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — were so bad that I said he should avoid the subject. He finally hit a home run. Silence is not only one of the best religious films of all time, it’s Scorsese’s very best film. I had to ponder this hard for the past two months and be sure I really believe it supplants Taxi Driver. The film is a special treat for someone like myself who loves the novel Shogun, set in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635) and portraying the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Scorsese’s film draws us into the “post-Christian” period of the late 1630s and he is just as shrewd as James Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than a glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed. It’s a deep story with a lot of thought behind it, one that I’ll be returning to many times.

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2. Taxi Driver. 1976. 5 stars. What can be said about Taxi Driver that hasn’t been chewed over by the Scorsese cognoscenti? Nothing probably, but I’ll offer this: that there is some of Travis Bickle in all of us. The misanthrope who thinks, with no conscious malice, that society is degenerate and beneath contempt. The sociopath driven to loneliness after failing to connect with people. The frustrated citizen who thinks his country needs an enema, and will assist in this regard by using violence. It struck me as I watched Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time that this ugly potential has more relevance than ever in today’s world — of increased income inequality, alternate facts, social media bubbles, and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Trump won the election on the platform that America is in shitty decay, thanks to regressive liberals and foreigners. (There’s plenty of truth to the former, unfortunately.) There’s a Travis in everyone, yes, but especially in disaffected white men who think it’s time for Travis to take action. I know it cheapens a masterpiece like Taxi Driver to reduce it to a political metaphor, but no one needs me to say the obvious, that it was the first Hollywood film for cinephiles and so brilliantly avant-garde. The metaphor in this case does it justice.

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3. Casino. 1995. 5 stars. The first heresy on my list is that Casino is superior to Goodfellas. Sue me, but it’s true. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper puts it, it’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” Whenever I watch Casino I’m completely swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. I’ve always said that Sharon Stone’s performance — raging alcoholic tantrums and all — is way underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. Robert De Niro offers a more sympathetic character than he did before, and doesn’t hold us at a distance. Casino uses the mob world to speak to our fallen state and makes me feel like a true insider to that world — that I share more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I care to admit. I always feel like I’m watching it for the first time, and that’s true magic.

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4. Goodfellas. 1990. 5 stars. Which isn’t to deny Goodfellas‘ excellence. It was an instant classic for every good reason. And this may be another heresy: it’s superior to The Godfather. Everyone talks about the opposite approaches of Coppola and Scorsese as if they’re equivalently great in their own ways. The Corleones were tragic figures who held our sympathy; gangsters like Jimmy and Tommy are brutes who kill people just because their piles are itching. But the latter is less an alternative than a corrective to the romanticized myth. The life of a gangster is empty and devoid of attraction, pure and simple. Critical to Scorsese’s success therefore is Henry’s character and the way we experience this repulsive mob world through his gradual disillusionment. The character of Tommy provides the jaw-dropping shock value and trigger-happy mania, and is also sickeningly funny in the way only Scorsese can write. Could any other director have come up with the scene where Tommy taunts the barroom kid, shoots him in the foot, and then later shoots him dead when the kid gets fed up and swears back at him? Or the scene (above image) where everyone in the restaurant (and certainly every audience member) is convinced he’s about to beat the living shit out of Henry for laughing at him?

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5. Shutter Island. 2010. 4 ½ stars. This one keeps getting better. On first viewing I was enraged by the elaborate role-playing reveal. I thought it was a cop-out, and a variant of the “it’s all in his mind” trope used by the laziest script writers. But I was wrong, and Shutter Island’s whole point is appreciated more on subsequent viewings. (As with The Sixth Sense, those later viewings show how obvious everything is.) It’s one of the best psychological horror films ever made, enhanced by the expressionistic style, ominous score, and constant sense of creeping unease. Ultimately it’s about the human drive to reinvent ourselves, which we all do, but most of us in small enough degrees so that we can function and know ourselves reasonably as we should. Andrew Laeddis has completely revised his identity, unable to cope with having killed his wife because she murdered their three little kids. Shutter Island becomes an experimental playground for him to tame his trauma, while we think all the time that he’s actually uncovering a hideous plot of doctors performing Nazi-like experiments on the psychologically disturbed. It’s a brilliant film, and a lot like David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me — easy to misjudge and be angered by for the wrong reasons when you first see it.

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6. The Departed. 2006. 4 ½ stars. It may not have the artistic merit of Casino and Goodfellas, but every single moment in The Departed — every line of dialogue, act of treachery, and shocking death — is a genuine thrill. Scorsese went all in and produced a gangster film of pure entertainment, and one that keeps you guessing. The mob boss (Jack Nicholson) has planted a mole in the Massachusetts State Police (Matt Damon), but there is another mole (Leo DiCaprio) working undercover for those same police to nab the boss. And then in a twist, it turns out the crime boss is a “mole” himself, an informant for the FBI. The supporting Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin characters steal the show, which is saying a lot considering how good Damon and DiCaprio are as the leads. It’s very refreshing to see Irish American gangsters instead of the usual Italians. That said, it was a serious blunder on Scorsese’s part to have all the actors put on Boston accents. It’s a difficult accent to master and everyone sounds absolutely horrible, especially Jack Nicholson, but also Baldwin (whose heavy New York interferes) and Sheen and Farmiga. Only Damon and Wahlberg sound right, naturally, since they’re from Boston. The accents are so embarrassing that I wonder if Scorsese intended it for comedic effect.

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7. Bringing Out the Dead. 1999. 4 ½ stars. This is Taxi Driver with the nihilism dialed down, or as one critic has said, “Travis Bickle wants to cleanse the world and Frank Pierce wants to clean it”. Frank can’t obviously — aside from a few saving moments here and there — and is fated to work the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in a chronic state of depression. The aesthetic is even stronger than Taxi Driver‘s, as we see Frank drive his ambulance through the streets at night, as steam rises from hellish-looking manholes. It’s a great locale metaphor of sin (Scorsese only did better by Casino‘s Vegas = Sodom). The three supporting actors who play Frank’s ambulance partners blow away Nicholas Cage, who I’ve never been a fan of anyway. The first-night partner is John Goodman’s character, who avoids grief and depression by eating all the time. The second night is Ving Rhames, who plays a gospel Christian thriving on bloody emergencies to “demonstrate” Jesus’ healing power. The last-night partner is even more dramatic, Tom Sizemore, who finds his own releases through, yes, beating the shit out of helpless patients he can’t stand. Bringing Out the Dead is no masterpiece, but it’s powerful surrealism that deserves more praise than it gets.

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8. Mean Streets. 1973. 4 ½ stars. It’s amazing how good Mean Streets still is after all these years. When watched alongside Goodfellas and Casino it seems quaint, but this film made the later masterpieces possible. And I love the look of ’70s films (aside from the hideous dress and hair styles); it was the golden age of cinema when directors dreamed big and explored style without pretension. On the surface Mean Streets is about guys hanging out and getting into trouble, and a fond look at the gangs and troublemakers of Scorsese’s formative years in New York. It’s the first movie he had complete control over, his personal examination of Catholic guilt, and his attempt to reconcile that guilt with the world of crime. It was released during the transgressive peak of the early ’70s, the year 1973, during the streak of Malick’s Badlands, Lumet’s Serpico, and Friedkin’s Exorcist (what a feast!). I often say if there was a single year in the 20th century I could go back and live through, it would be 1973. That was the moment of the greatest cinematic breakthroughs, the best of progressive rock (Selling England by the Pound), and bubbling dark energies that would be released as the Dungeons & Dragons game in January the following year. A film like Mean Streets captures the essence of this awesome point in American culture.

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9. The Wolf of Wall Street. 2013. 4 stars. This is Goodfellas for corporate business, showing the mayhem of unrestrained greed, and some critics put it on the same plane of excellence as Goodfellas. They’re wrong, but I should be clear what I’m not faulting the film for. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle it portrays, any more than Goodfellas does; there isn’t a fiber of my being that is remotely seduced by stock broker lifestyle when I watch it. The better objection is the opposite problem — that Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t give us any sympathetic entry at all into the characters. Goodfellas did this through Henry Hill, who was scum, yes, but a scum with enough moral compass to be outraged over the senseless murder of a kid, to be sick and vomit over the sight of corpses, and he began as a low-level wannabe (and beaten by his father) unlike the thoroughly savage people who initiated him into the gangster world. There is no Henry Hill analog to anchor us in Wall Street’s insanely repugnant world, and that, I think, is what prevents the film from achieving the heights Scorsese was aiming for. But on whole Wolf is still very good, and there are individual scenes showing Scorsese having fun at his best, not least that in which the Jonah Hill character infamously suggests that someone take the suitcase of money and shove it up his wife’s Slatvian cunt.

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10. Cape Fear. 1991. 4 stars. My tenth slot was a toss up between this one and After Hours. I really wanted to include After Hours since it’s a comedy — a genre I seldom enjoy — and the obscure gem in Scorsese’s bad run of the ’80s. Alas, I simply can’t exclude Cape Fear. I got endless rewatch out of it, and in my opinion De Niro’s Max Cady is a more terrifying psychopath than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (a subject deserving its own blogpost). It’s Scorsese’s most commercial effort, but a very good one and vast improvement on the ’60s original. Not only is the acting leagues ahead, the creative innovations up the ante. The most obvious is the pivotal scene between De Niro and Juliette Lewis (above photo) in which he corners her in the high school theater and seduces her, which is far more insidious and frightening than the original scene involving a chase through the school halls. My father was a lawyer, but thankfully not a criminal lawyer. I’d hate to think about the copycats Max Cady has inspired to go after their lawyers and families.

So… what about Raging Bull?

Thus my second heresy: Raging Bull (1980) is obscenely overrated; it’s not the masterpiece it’s made to be. The aesthetic is impressive (shot in black-and-white) and the acting performances are beyond criticism, but what’s left after that? A “profound examination of masculinity”? I’m sorry, I don’t see it, and I certainly don’t get Raging Bull’s place in the American Film Institute’s hall of fame, the 4th best film of all time after Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca, or Entertainment Weekly’s ranking it the 5th best film of all time, after the same three others plus Chinatown. I may personally not care for Casablanca, but I can at least understand why it’s deemed precious. Raging Bull may as well be Any Given Sunday. And I’m in good enough company. When the film was released, the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman and scriptwriter Paul Schrader were thoroughly unimpressed with the result: “Wow,” said Chapman, coming out of the theater. “Marty really fucked that one up, didn’t he?” Schrader: “Yeah, he did. I don’t know what went wrong there.” But next year it won the Oscars, and the film would go down a legend. I have seen Raging Bull four times now, and I have paid lip service to its greatness in the past. No more. This list is an honest exercise, and I must honestly confess that the film is okay (3 stars) but not great, and one that I will probably never see again.