What would be the point of it all without clowns?
—Stanton Stokely, p.150
Well, here I am in Deacons Kill again. No one seems to remember Barney Rubble's stoneman attack documented in The Kill from last year. Sheriff John Chard is gone for the Pacific Coast, but Doc Warren's still here. In fact, there appears to be some characters who have morphed into other people or, at the least, changed their names. I mean, take Sally Bissell, for instance. She's got a daughter 9-years-old, like Jacob Helbig's Carla, whose death leads off The Kill. To her daughter, she typically spits out bile like, "honest to God, I swear, you'll be the death of me! What are you up to now?"(Tor PBO, ISBN 0812525418, c.1983, p.35) Sounds just like scrawny ol' Helbig, but in a higher pitch.
Danny Lester, remember him? Owner of Danny's Diner who took a header into his own short order grill? Well, he died, but his daughter, Susan, has got the legs of the female lead and is "going to make it on her own"(p.44), which certainly channels some of Megan "yuppie fox" Todd blowing out of NYC for Deacons Kill.
But this time, there's no invisible old choda crashing in a fire tower. Just the opposite, as the Kill's valley is blanketed with the worst snowstorm in remembered history. Everyone's trapped for days as everything goes white, freezing, and nondescript. No phones, no open roads, no internet. Lotsa town meetings. Lists and assignments. Shoveling.
What a perfect time for clowns to arrive.
Susan Lester sees one straightaway in a phantom train pulling into the Kill's railway station on abandoned tracks. It's early into the storm, so it is sluiced off as white-out hallucination. The next day at exactly 9:45am(1) she tells Richie Mead—the fledgling sheriff trying to fill sheriff Chard's holster kit—about the train, not mentioning any grease-painted faces with red, bulb noses. Ringmaster Stanton Stokely materializes to ease furrowed brows over the train's arrival. Everyone who hasn't seen a clown yet is too hurried to pay much attention, let alone spring for a big top ticket.
So, with the ensemble cast played out over the Kill each with their separate defining moments, and the 2-day snowstorm chopped into succinct timeframe chapters—some of them lasting mere reading seconds on a single page—the mystery falls to the ominous portent of a Victorian train fulla sick clowns sitting in the snowed-over railway station. The plot has its commas challenged by a double duty assigning of its terrors of the natural (snowstorm) and supernatural (clownstorm) for the victimized population. It sacrifices character development by keeping it minimal for less confusion, and leaving more room for the sticking points of horror to progress the story. With the exception of Susan and Richie's slow-fused attraction sparking into a 4th date sometime in the future, the rest of the cast share a vignette mix from cliched to ghastly actions.
The perfect example of this is the sidebar of the Bissell family. Carla's an obvious bullying harridan and her husband, Leon, a slow-brained non-combatant. Little Alice, well, she's pretty much a placard for Sympathy. The whole group is a stereotypical snapshot. Carla browbeats her hubby into driving them out of a dangerous situation into a deadly one. At night, miles out, their van spins out for the final time. Leon tries walking out, carrying his lamb-like daughter. Carla stays in the van and gets her head torn off by a clown. Three-quarters frostbitten, Leon makes it back to town by dawn, unaware he's carrying a slab of ice formally known as his daughter. It goes from the predictable to a quick intake of breath, then exhaled into sweeping pathos. It's Horror in a bottle.
With fundamental characterizations and a tight, un-expandable plot(2), the atmospheric part of the formula soars. Author Ryan's conjuring of a snowstorm of this magnitude is breathtaking. And I mean at minus below degrees with wind chill in three digits. He piles lots and lots of verbiage on describing the terror of losing your hold over the physical world. And, although he does not delve deep into what I'd call Carny Noir(3), he uses his clowns not as representations but as scarecrows for a more core sense of man's unease when overwhelmed by the "random savagery"(p.196) of Nature. Isn't a hurricane's path as whimsical as choosing giant floppy red shoes? Isn't lava just orange hair pouring down from a balding dome? Isn't a rodeo clown jumping into a barrel merely us laughing at the hoary face of adversity? And, aren't clowns a reminder to not take ourselves so seriously when mouthing any self-centered directives regarding anything, including Nature's conservancy? No? Well then at least acquiesce that clowns—their original purpose, not what Stephen King wants us to think about them—leave us thinking how silly our notions of superiority are when facing the tremendous magnitude of life on Earth, and that we take ourselves way too seriously, okay?
There is not a single clown personality in Dead White, re-affirming their literary use here as signage. They are like highway caution cones in the snow—albeit pointing to themselves!—and burn up faster than presto logs when asked for by the discipline of the plot.(4) There is not plausible grounding for their return to Deacons Kill anyway(5), since its residents did not contribute to their current state of un-demise. Ringmaster Stokely is strictly one-dimensional and not pursued as a worthy adversary(6). All these affectations add up to a de-construction of any clown-based presumptions, indicating a different meaning than what to traditionally expect. It is telling that the clowns go up in flames, the congenital opposite to snow.
Deeper meaning? Naw, it's just author Ryan running the clowns-are-scary routine on ya. He just wants to tell you a rousing story, and throw in how it feels to be very, very cold and frightened in a snowstorm.
1) I know this fact because author Ryan has added a typical yet annoying pimple to his thriller-style, ensemble cast outline. Instead of chapters, he's using the ol' tickin' clock organizer to be sure no one falls in behind or gets out of line while tension is ramped around the clockface racing into the final timeout.
2)The driving point is, of course, to solve the mystery, and if you don't see restitution—or, at least, its green-eyed cousin, revenge—as its supernatural motivation here, then you must be new in town, stranger. I guess you could try on salvation as a reason since Stokely, in the end, is described as "a man released at last to eternal peace"(p.346). But released/forgiven for what malfeasance, against them or otherwise? The other choice is mass hallucination of the townfolk, since no body actually sees the clown beheadings or finds the corpses in the timeframe of the novel. In a metadata sense, Stokely and his clowns seem quite transparent as compared to the ferociousness of the storm.
3) More fuel for the fire here.
4) I wonder, after the clowns go up like roman candles—juggling severed heads, they sure know how to get a laugh—does Deacons Kill get to keep the nifty Victorian train set?
5) Well, there's reference to Stokely's pain and suffering—"Knowledge like that, working in concert with excruciating pain, could unhinge the mind of any man."(p.299)—hardly enough to base a whole phenomenon upon. Further evidence author Ryan is not interested in clown revenants, but natural dangers.
6) The villain here is the murderous weather, not some overly-mannered joker in a top hat. "a goddamn monster out there . . . It just roars into town, starts knocking thing around, probably hurting people too, and all we can do is sit here and wait for it to go away."(p.79) Further, "not a footprint marked the snow. All traces of human life, human movement, human effort, had been erased."(p109)
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09/20/2014 by Larry Crawford