Our 1950s columnist, Retro Dee is out of action due to the California Wildfires. We pray for her safe return to her home and to these pages as soon as possible. In the meantime, we offer a timely post from her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever.
Did anybody notice (well, I’m sure you did) that several Stephen King books take place in the 1950’s? I always thought this was ironic since the 50’s were such a bright, happy time. But Mr. King, –the KING of Horror– gave us a different view of The Best Era Ever.
I began reading Stephen King novels at the ripe old age of 10. (Yes, nothing is like reading a Stephen King book when you are 10. ) It was also around that age that I began to love and adore the 1950’s. I realized that the 50’s were a great time, and Mr. King’s characters seemed to contest this in a way… the cruel, almost demonically possessed bullies, the children who were far to sex-savvy for that era and the eerie displacement of innocent love songs as the background music.
After so many years, I finally realize why I find this unusual blend intriguing… While I am a romantic, soft and sweet kind of gal, there is also a darker side to Retro Dee… For example, I have always loved ghost stories (and the paranormal in general.) I also love a good murder mystery and I am inevitably drawn towards tales of tragedy and the macabre.
True that the 1950’s were a decade of “Creature Features”, but this is by no means the same as the gloom and doom brought about in the 1990’s with the trends of grunge and goth. A simple monster movie does not equate to pure, psychological horror if you really do the math. But somehow, with Stephen King, you get both.
I read this book at a young age and it really disturbed me. But it was also a damn entertaining read. Most of us are familiar with it now as a Pop Culture Classic. But when I was a kid, the book was fairly new and the movie that came out on HBO in the 1990’s is the only one I’ve seen (or plan to see). I don’t take kindly to most movie re-makes, and I shudder to think of what they did with this one in the year 2017. I can only take my modern mind so far.
The story of IT really came crashing back into my brain about 2 years ago, when I started liking the 50’s again. I kept recalling parts of the book in which King references “The Nifty Fifties”. While creepy and well-written, many of the elements are hardly true to the era: street language that didn’t become prevalent among young people until the 70’s or 80’s and the lack of innocence that the main characters possessed. It is basically an 80’s story partially set in the 50’s with some kind of cultural paradox… then you add a clown with spider’s legs… I don’t know how the whole story didn’t suck when you look at the shoddy plot-line, but somehow it doesn’t. Somehow, it still gives me the chills when I think of “The Losers Club” and the crap they found in the sewers of Derry, Maine.
As a girl, I was somewhat obsessed with the female protagonist of this book, Beverly Marsh. She was everything I wasn’t and everything I wished I could be. Strong, attractive, street-smart and the flame of every young boy’s heart. Sometimes I’d pretend I was Beverly while I was out by myself and trying (unsuccessfully) to climb trees.
Then one night I was home alone smoking a pack of Marlboro lights, when I decided to listen to some oldies. I found a station playing “That’ll Be The Day”. As I was listening, I somehow morphed into a fantasy world that was half Stephen King, half 1950’s, just like the book. Then at the end of the song, the D.J. catapulted me back into reality when he said: “There’s one from the Rock N Roll graveyard! Buddy Holly with ‘That’ll Be The Day.’”
“He’s not supposed to be dead yet, you jerk,” I thought, and turned the radio off. So much for my fantasy.
Years later, I was listening to “The Very Best of Buddy Holly and The Crickets” when I suddenly remembered that evening long ago in the 1990’s when I pretended to be Beverly Marsh. To make matters worse, I found an article in the paper that said the new It movie was coming out- and this time, Tim Curry wasn’t even playing Pennywise!
I decided to stay away from that film and the re-kindled IT craze over all. It’s bad enough that when I hear a scratchy, poor quality recording of “Peggy Sue” and I picture myself cautiously investigating a dusty attic where a self-playing record player has somehow been tripped… then someone comes up behind me to slit my throat. Yeah. Thanks a lot, Mr. King. (Although I’m sure he’d be happy to know that!)
Bottom line, as to what drew me into this story all those years ago: it’s King’s writing. His work is so freakin’ good that it pulls you in like quicksand. And if you can relate to any of the characters even a little… you’ll find yourself in the middle of a horror maelstrom right in your own little mind.
Sometimes They Come Back
This extremely disturbing story is about a boy whose brother gets killed in a train tunnel, sometime in the late 1950’s. I never read the book, but I saw the movie on TV. That right there probably took some of the reality out of it… but the movie was still horrible enough. It was everything the 50’s were NOT. Mean, cruel, twisted and tragic. The bullies were four teen-aged greasers who drove around in a black car and tormented two poor brothers, much younger good boys straight out of the 50’s.
One day the youngest boy and the four bullies get trapped in a tunnel and they all die. The older brother goes running away, crying. The neighbors are asking “What’s wrong, Jimmy?” Jimmy goes home and tells his mother that the little brother was killed.
Years later, Jimmy is an adult. He’s married and is a High School teacher. He is calling role when he sees a familiar name on the list. LAWSON… The bully leader. Somehow Lawson shows back up and he’s in the class looking just like he did back in the 50’s: something like Arthur Fonzarelli on crack. The other three bullies show up in the class as well and they are determined to seek revenge on Jimmy because they blame him for their deaths in the tunnel.
It’s really a very typical kind of story, there’s not a lot to it. The bullies pursue Jimmy, his wife, his son… It actually kind of reminds me of those “Haunted” TV shows about the houses possessed by evil spirits and the family has to cleanse it… only with a Nifty Fifties twist.
There’s a sequel also for TV called Sometimes They Come Back Again, but it really sucked and has nothing to do with the 50’s, except that the bullies are the same characters, but this production is so lame that they’re not even played by the same actors.
Stand By Me
This theatrical release was a huge hit sometime in the mid-1980’s, I guess, and is itself a classic now. I think I was 11 or 12 when I first saw Stand By Me. I rented it with a friend one summer day. She was older than me and she’d already seen it and she deemed it a “must see”.
The setting is very specific: Labor Day Weekend, 1959. It’s about a boy and his friends, a coming of age story. Unlike many of King’s stories, it’s not phantasmagoric. It’s basically a really plausible plot without any kind of paranormal elements to it. I think I missed A LOT of the details because I didn’t read the book it’s based on, The Body. Also part of my inability to really connect with the characters could have to do with the fact that it’s more of a boy’s tale…. kind of like The Sand Lot or Field of Dreams.
But the one thing that stands out to me is the soundtrack. It’s fantastic (I covered all this in Keeping the 50’s Alive: Movies Set in The 50’s! ) but not just fantastic, deeply memorable. I truly wonder what it would have been like to read the book first, without the music, because to me, the music is really what makes the story and of course is only in the movie format.
We all have weird moments in our lives where we think our minds are playing tricks on us. In my case I go as far as to say I think I’m “going crazy”. It’s tongue in cheek, then again sometimes I really think I am going crazy. One evening two years ago, the very evening I found the 50’s again, in fact… I was listening to Buddy Holly for the first time since I was 13. And the song “Everyday” came on. Suddenly, I envisioned kids riding bikes down the street. It was like I was dreaming, only I was awake. It was a clear vision, the kind psychics claim to have. Of course, it was not a psychic experience at all. It was merely a good example of how we, as humans, can associate music so strongly with memories. It is really rather an interesting thing… The reason I saw boys riding bikes was because I was recalling the scene in Stand By Me when the song was playing in the movie. Once I realized that I felt a lot saner. 🙂 Then I remembered how much I loved that song even when I was only 13. I had no idea who it was by. I called it “The Song from Stand By Me” or “The Roller Coaster Song”. Basically, I knew it was a 50’s song and that’s that. I guess I’ve come a long way now that I’m a well-documented Buddy Holly fan. I even know that it was Norman Petty’s wife, Vi, who did the instrumental part. I used to think it was a Xylophone but it’s not. And I finally stopped picturing Sweet Tooth from Twisted Metal when I hear it. Almost.
Yeah I got off track again, but there’s a surprise. This is really all I can think of that took place in the 50’s Stephen King wise, but it’s quite enough. If nothing else, I like the contrast. The best, most innocent era ever, blended with sheer horror. Not a bad thing, at least at Halloween.
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