Monday, October 22, 2012

Thirteen thoughts on reading Stephen King's It at thrity-seven, twenty-one years after I first read it

Spoilers, like ghouls, may abound in the too-long post below. Consider this your warning (about the former; as for the latter you're on your own. It's October, after all).

1 If you were a teenager diving into the work of Stephen King in 1990, two books towered over all his others: The Stand and It. There was an obvious reason: they were the biggest, easily, clocking in at 1,200 and 1,100 pages, respectively. But It loomed larger for a more important reason: where The Stand was freaky, mind-bending, and extravagant, It was scary. Everyone you knew who'd read it said it was the scariest book they'd ever read. Including your sister, who knew scary books. So you devoured it. And it was.

2 All these years later, I retain an acknowledged soft spot for King. Oh, all the people who take to book review and op-ed pages, real or virtual, every couple of years to rehash the now-tired complaints about him have plenty of points. In fact, they're usually right about most of the details of their critique. HIs prose can be clunky, even laughably shoddy at times. He is unabashed about going for the gross-out. His dialogue is often terrible. But in at least eight or ten books, that doesn't matter a whit, because they simply work: these are machines designed to frighten you, and, teen or adult, they do.

3 One critique that the genre-guarding op-ed tut-tutters never seem to make is that King isn't funny. But he isn't--and he thinks he is. I bet he's funny (in a goofy uncle sort of way) in person, but on the page his jokes, usually found in dialogue, fall completely flat, barely eliciting a groan. As someone who prizes comedy in novels, I'm surprised again and again by how often King makes what he obviously thinks are jokes . . . and how hard it is to imagine even him actually laughing at them.

4 I remembered It being the scariest book I'd ever read. More than two decades later, it's still scary. The opening--which in the afterword to Cemetery Dance's twenty-fifth-anniversary edition King says he came up with only after figuring out the basic contours of his story--remains incredibly effective. What could be more terrifying than for a boy, having summoned up enough bravery to look into a storm drain--already a source of visceral fear of a non-supernatural sort--to see something alive down there? And to have that something be a clown? A clown who knows his name? We've all known about Pennywise for so long now that it's hard to imagine just how effective that first appearance must have been; even with foreknowledge, the scene remains satisfyingly chilling.

5 That scene--and especially the vicious, animalistic physical violence of Pennywise's attack when it comes--looms over the rest of the book, which, contrary to my memories, never quite reaches that level of fright again. And it's in part because of a relative lack of physicality: Pennywise and It spend most of the book tormenting the characters through visions rather than physical danger. Some of the visions (fortune cookies that spurt blood, for example) are plenty creepy, but for much of the book it's hard to believe the characters are in any physical danger. Whether it's because I'd encountered them before, or because I'm older and less susceptible, the visions simply weren't as frightening as I'd remembered.

6 One aspect of the book, however, is much more interesting when read in adulthood: that it all starts with a bunch of people in their late thirties receiving a phone call telling them it's time to make good on a promise that's now twenty-seven years old--a promise that, until that second, they don't remember at all. Once remembered, however, it has an irresistible power, drawing them inexorably back into the fight they thought they'd finished when they were teens.

That set-up allows King to cut back and forth between the heroes fighting It as eleven-year-olds and their struggles to work up the emotional, intellectual, and physical strength and courage to fight him again as adults. It's an incredibly effective way to dramatize the book's true themes of the difficulties of growing up and the surprising power and resilience that we have, even if we may not realize it, when we're children. It also can't help but draw us in: is there any way of being sure that we didn't make a similar promise at some point in our youth? Any way to know that we won't ever receive such a phone call?

7 In the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King writes explicitly about that theme:
I worked on the book in a dream. I remember very little about the writing of it, except for the idea that I'd gotten hold of something that felt very big to me, and something that talked about more than monsters. To me, It has always been a book about making the terrible transition over the bridge from childhood to adulthood (it's no accident that the final act Bill and his friends perform as child heroes is sexual).

8 The end of that quote alludes to the moment in the book that was, when I first read it, the most shocking: when the teens, in order to seal their bond and be able to defeat it, have sex. Teenage me, you might imagine, didn't really know what to make of that, and it bulked hugely in my memory for more than twenty years. But when I returned to the book as an adult, I found that the scene passes quickly, important but not outsized, in the midst of a number of surprise and struggles. Is it just that I already knew about it this time around, or is it nothing more than a function of being older? (I've also long wondered what that scene is like for a woman to read rather than a man--since King is a man and all but one of the characters is a boy, there is an imbalance that even the teenage me found uncomfortable.) Its inclusion is a strange, gutsy, and, yes, uncomfortable decision, but it doesn't color the whole novel the way it did when I was a teen.

9 That said, the ending overall, which I'd remembered being disappointing, like so many of King's endings, actually worked much better for me this time around. When I was a teen, what I wanted was a clear, complete explanation of who and what Pennywise and It were. (Much like at the same age I wanted an explicit, numbered list of Spenser's rules for living from Robert Parker.) To find that they were essentially ancient, cosmic concepts that are almost incomprehensible was a disappointment. Older, more prepared to accept that some, if not most, things are ultimately inexplicable, I didn't find myself minding it at all.

10 Elsewhere in the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King explains why he decided to make It manifest itself in familiar horror movie forms:
I began thinking about the differences between our childhood fears--monsters, abandonment, monsters, mistreatment, monsters, bullies, monsters--and our more mundane adult fears, like whether or not our job's insurance program covers dental. It seemed to me that we forgot the vividness of those childhood fears as we grew to adults, which might make us uniquely vulnerable to them if they ever came back . . . not as the shadows of tree-limbs on the wall or an imagined movie-poster monster in the closet, but as real things.
The Lovecraftian idea of the mind broken by a horror too great for it to comprehend is a powerful one, and King plays nicely with the different ways that might work with the very different minds of adults and children. One thing I would find hard about parenting, if I had to do it, would be that: the realization that children's fears are as real and powerful as any of our own--more so, perhaps--and that there's only so much we can do to allay them. And, more to King's point, that if we had, as adults, to deal with the uncertainty, powerlessness, and sheer vivid imaginative malleability of our young lives, we just might snap.

11 King has long been obsessed with childhood, as are many imaginative writers, but It is, I think the place where he makes the best use of it (with, perhaps, the exception of "The Body"). What's long puzzled me--and perhaps should be the subject of a standalone post--is the power of his nostalgia. As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I don't have it at all. I have fond memories of family and friends and experiences, but I'm under absolutely no illusions that things were better, or more interesting, then. King, though . . . well, I wonder. He's obsessed with the rock music of that period, for example, seeming to still view it as a liberating force. Then there are bicycles and bullies and rock fights and and muscle cars and exploring and all the other incidentals of childhood, all seen through a relatively rosy haze. And that nostalgia started early--he wasn't even forty when he wrote It. Is this a generational trait or a personal one?

12 Speaking of generational traits: one strange omission in It is Vietnam. King cleverly comes up with the idea of all his heroes being childless--a penalty, they only later intuit, for their first victory over It. But while he sketches out their lives between 1957 and 1984 in some detail, Vietnam doesn't, if I remember correctly, come up at all. Yet they should have lost friends and family members, felt the fear and horror of it themselves. It's an odd omission, and I can't figure out whether it's intentional.

13 King's generation is famously skeptical of authority. That skepticism not infrequently verged into paranoia--a paranoia that, while understandable, makes some cultural products of the late 1960s and early 1970s tough to take nowadays, when we live in a more open, if no less easy, relationship with the darker aspects of our society, our government, and our elders. That paranoia underlies much of It, in the sense that the town itself, through its silence, is complicit in the horrors of its history.

But to me what feels more powerful, and much more frightening, is the sense of the ancient nature of the evil. We are but small people in a vast cosmos, and out there somewhere in that vastness there are powers. We rile them at our risk.


  1. A couple of comments:

    1. I never did get to IT in my periodic dips into King's oeuvre. For me it was, yes, The Stand, but the Tommyknockers that filled IT's place--although the ending is terrible.

    3. Totally not funny. I realized that reading The Tommyknockers. And then when I read On Writing I realized that he was often trying to be funny.

    6. Dream Catcher has a similar structure--although it is not very artful, at least at the beginning of the book, which is quite confusing. King always needed an editor; he really needed one late in his career.

    11. I would vote for generational--but with a caveat. I don't think those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s have nostalgia for our youths, but there is no doubt that we still find the popular culture we lived with both slightly ridiculous and incredibly powerful. Our generation doesn't see the 1970s through some pink lens; we recreate it again and again and again. (How many versions of Star Wars are there?)

    13. I think you could argue just the opposite here, too, and I'm not sure which is right, exactly. King's generation may have not been skeptical of authority enough: they assumed that once they had authority, they could change the world. Didn't so much. Maybe our generation is more skeptical of the power of authority, or institutions, to do much of anything.

  2. I'm not sure I ever read a Stephen King novel, but as a teenager in the '80s I read his short-story collections, and this observation rings true to me:

    HIs prose can be clunky, even laughably shoddy at times. He is unabashed about going for the gross-out. His dialogue is often terrible. But in at least eight or ten books, that doesn't matter a whit, because they simply work: these are machines designed to frighten you, and, teen or adult, they do.

    It's downright weird how vividly I remember certain stories, right down to particularly gross details. I've not read anything by King in more than 25 years, but my hunch is that flowery or distinctive prose would have obscured or blunted the images that stuck with many of us, often in spite of ourselves, for decades. Perhaps "regular-guy" prose only makes the horror more plausible?

  3. Jeff,
    What I find interesting, reading King as an adult, is seeing how his prose changed over time. 'Salem's Lot, for example, is clearly trying--and at times succeeding, at other times failing miserably--to bring a more literary sensibility to what was then the horror ghetto. It's admirable even when it doesn't work. Even with Pet Sematary and Chrstine he's obviously trying to broaden the palette of the horror novel on the level of the sentence. But his more recent books are much more straightforward, even businesslike in their prose. Does that reflect a downgrading of ambition or a growth of confidence that makes him not care as much about seeming literary? Who knows?

    And Josh, thanks for making a number of good points. The Tommyknockers was a close third in the pantheon among my friends, and you're right: even now I remember how much the ending drove me nuts. As for the '70s and '80s, the fact that I called one of my best friends the second she sent me the news about Lucasfilm says it all, doesn't it? And the distinction between generations seems right, too: one of the other characteristics of early Boomer cultural products of the late 1960s and '70s that's tough to swallow nowadays is their sheer confidence in their own rightness. It's perhaps understandable given all the context, but having grown up in a more skeptical age (or at least as someone who prefers critical thinking and honesty to all else), I find such self-confidence--especially in the face of such monumental horrors as Vietnam--stunning, even frightening. And the subsequent decades seem to bear that skepticism out. The middle ground, believing enough to push for change while remaining skeptical of your own knowledge and perspective . . . well, that's tough ground to find, and, once found, to hold. This coming Tuesday beckons and worries, after all.