The Older Boys
Ace Merrill demonstrating why smoking is bad for you.
I watched Stand By Me the other day. I haven’t seen it since I was a teen, so it was almost like seeing for the first time. Despite a somewhat cloying boomer nostalgia, it’s a good coming-of-age movie. The direction is crisp and efficient, and the kid actors are all solid to great. (Knowing what would become of Phoenix (and to a lesser degree Feldman) adds not a little pathos.)
I haven’t really thought about it before, but it struck me that “the older boys” in Stephen King’s novels are frequently really fucking scary. The Diamonds, the gang in Stand By Me, are punks and bullies, engaged in petty destruction and car theft because they’re bored and being wild alleviates that boredom. “Boys will be boys,” as the saying goes.
Their leader Ace Merrill, however, is menacing in a very different way. He is cut from the same cloth as Randall Flagg and so many of King’s other agents of chaos and horror. There is violence and the promise of bloodshed just below the surface of his cold eyes. When he pulls a switchblade on the boys towards the end, there is no doubt that he will use it.
(In Dance Macabre, King wrote dismissively of Fonzie, bemoaning how greasers were de-fanged and made cuddly by pop culture. Ace Merrill seems to be King’s way of giving them their fangs back.)
Stephen King has more in common with Ray Bradbury than I previously realized. On the surface, they’re pretty different; King is a horror novelist and Bradbury a fantasist (or magical realist, if you’re scared of admitting you like genre work). Both, however, expertly describe those near-endless summers of early teens, just on the cusp of adulthood. It’s just that Bradbury’s characters tend to remain in the twilight of childhood, whereas King’s trudge onwards to the myriad disappointments and tiny victories of grown-up life (not least sobriety.)
I connect with this fear because I was pushed around by the bigger boys too. It can be frightening, especially when you’re a bit of a loner and lacking in social skills. And growing older, I recognize some of King’s themes running through my own life, even though we’re from different generations. (Which is probably one of the resasons he’s the best-selling author of all time.)
King’s older boys are often the dark image of adulthood. They are the road best not taken. The lost boys gone bad. They’re confident and care-free, they don’t abide by the rules, and what’s worse, they don’t play fair.
We mostly seem to leave our childhood fears behind, but they can leave scars and no matter what, those will always be there, hovering in some dark corner. And sometimes, as King well knows, they come back.