In my last post, I offered a rough taxonomy of cinematic evil clowns. I did not, of course, offer an exhaustive list of examples; although such a list would make a great coffee table book. It’s worth noting that film and television aren’t the only place that you’ll find these jolly gargoyles; they are also frequent visitors to the world of print.
Pennywise, of course, lives in both worlds; both a cinematic example of the ultimate evil clown (as originally embodied by Tim Curry and, more recently, by Bill Skarsgård) and as a literary example of same. It is King’s best book in many ways*. The characters are archetypal and unforgettable, the story is completely engrossing, and the titular monster is one of the most terrifying boogeymen ever cooked up by a human brain.
Our friend Pennywise isn’t the only evil clown to pop up in horror literature like a jack-in-the-box from Hell. Ramsey Campbell’s 2007 novel The Grin of the Dark is an excellent and unsettling ghost-train ride through the dissolution of Simon Lester, a film critic whose descent into obsession and delusion can be read as either a metaphysical or metaphorical infestation by a long-dead silent film clown. Grin is a hypnotic, claustrophobic book that provides readers with both a memorably unsettling clown and a portrait of a person undone by his journey down a rabbit hole that may only exist in his mind. It’s a must-read for coulrophobes and, if you’ve never read Ramsey Campbell before, a very good place to start.
If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in Thomas Ligotti than Ramsey Campbell, you’re in luck. Ligotti has also mined the rich vein of horror that is the demonic clown. “The Last Feast of Harlequin” first appeared in the April 1990 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and is currently available in the Penguin Classics edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, which collects two of his previous books of short stories. It’s a must-own for anyone who loves horror – I’ve written before about my love of Thomas Ligotti, and “Last Feast” is a great example of why. It’s loosely Lovecraftian in its approach and mythos; it concerns an academic searching for his mentor, an anthropologist who vanished while investigating an obscure festival in a remote Midwestern town called Mirocaw. The prose is exquisite and the atmosphere dense, surreal, and creepy – upon reading “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” you won’t look at clowns the same way ever again.
As a final note, the evil clown serves as a prime argument that the membrane between film and print is a permeable one. As an example of this (in addition to Pennywise), let me cite no less a figure than the Joker, who I touched on briefly in my previous post. The Joker got his start in print in Batman #1:
…but Mr. J’s character design was partially inspired (according to Batman creator Bob Kane) by the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, which remains incredibly creepy to this very day. Behold German actor Conrad Veidt as the tormented (and disfigured) Gwynplaine:
…but, note this. The Man Who Laughs is itself an adaptation of the book of the same name, penned by Victor Hugo in 1869. This image is from the frontispiece to the second volume of the 1869 edition:
The lineage of the clown from 1869 to 2019 isn’t a direct, unbroken line – it’s more of a trail of greasepaint fingerprints, prints left in both film and prose. Based on the success of It Chapter Two, the terrifying career of the evil clown isn’t over yet – it may just be getting started, in fact. My own contribution to this genre is called “auguste,” and can be found in the collection Deadman Humour: 13 Fears of a Clown, which is now available at Amazon (in paperback or Kindle), Kobo, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble (in e-book or print). Pick up your copy today!
*: I say this acknowledging that It was written between 1978 and 1986 by a white heterosexual male and thus, of course, has problematic elements. I recognize these elements and think they are absolutely worth discussing in the context of when and by whom It was written.