I have recently had the opportunity to re-read It, the 1986 novel by Stephen King.* I first read It probably in 1987 (early paperback edition) or perhaps across 1987 and 1988. By that time I had already dug deep into King’s existing catalogue, and it was obvious that It was an ambitious work. I’ll confess that while I found It creepy in various ways I never found it precisely scary, at least not in the same way that I found Salem’s Lot absolutely terrifying; Pennywise was horrific, but was also locked down geographically and I could presumably avoid being killed by It as long as I avoided Derry, Maine (I have successfully managed to do this deep into my adult life). Salem’s Lot gave me nightmares, probably because of the 1979 Tobe Hooper adaptation, but I only ever had one bad dream about It (although Pennywise floating, in my bedroom, grinning and cackling at me was altogether memorable and unnerving).
The reason this is interesting (and thus why I’ve decided to share with you, Gentle Reader) is that It is a novel about the passage of time and the withering of memory. For those unfamiliar, a group of eleven-year olds defeat a monster (“It”) in 1958, then largely forget about the experience as they go on about their lives. Twenty-seven years later they return to the scene of the battle to discover that the monster remains. There’s thus a certain interest and appropriateness to reading a second time, thirty-six years after the first. I was very curious about what I would remember, what I would half-remember, and what I wouldn’t remember at all.
For the re-read I opted for the Audible version narrated by Steven Weber. Some folks have issues with Steven Weber’s narration, but I didn’t have any problems with it. I find that when I read a book on Audible that I’ve read before in paper form, I remember some things without being prodded, and some after a light reminder, but experience some parts of the story as if I’d never read the book at all. With It, I imagined that this would be my experience even if I had re-read the book in paperback; it has been a good long time, after all.
Some of this experiment is obscured by the fact of the two adaptations of the novel (more on that later) but there was enough, I think, to be worthwhile. In my re-read I have determined, above all else, that it was wholly inappropriate for a thirteen year old to read It, and I certainly would caution either of my daughters against reading It at this point. Some thoughts that emerged from the re-read…
Violence at Home
One thing I find remarkable in my reappraisal is the realization that King very often locates horror within the family and the community. In It, at least two of the seven main characters have deeply abusive family situations that characterize them as both children and adults, an approach which is hardly unusual for early era King. Carrie is obviously constructed around a horrific pattern of child abuse, the Shining puts domestic violence front and center, and Salem’s Lot recounts multiple stories of intra-family brutality. It is certainly fascinating that the most popular author in American history has consistently located the horrors that he describes into the deep core of American family life. Even in Shawshank Redemption, Andy’s conviction stems from the collapse of his family and the consequent murder of his wife, while Red is serving a life term for actually murdering his wife in service of an insurance scam.
By and large these horrors do not stem from supernatural causes, and they do not go away when the supernatural forces that exploit them are defeated. Generally speaking, the perpetrators of domestic violence get their just resorts, although only after causing great damage and usually from a supernatural source. I certainly never forgot the end of Patrick Hockstetter, although I forgot many of the steps along the way. I remembered that he had killed animals in an abandoned refrigerator, but I had forgotten that he murdered his own brother in the crib. I wonder if that’s almost subliminally comforting; Tom Rogan and Jack Torrance and Henry Bowers are all destroyed in gruesome ways, unlike most purveyors of domestic and schoolyard violence.
King’s Female Problem
One would imagine that locating horror in the structure of the family rather than in the eldritch beyond or in, say, capitalism would endear King to scholars of gender but for a variety of reasons it has not. This may be because King has so often depicted female characters as enthusiastic enablers, if not direct perpetrators, of domestic brutality. This dynamic is absolutely on display in It; even Bev Marsh is drawn as largely enabling her own abuse at the hands of her husband, Tom Rogan. Mainly, though, the problems emerge in the depiction of Eddie Kasparak’s relationships with his wife and his mother.
It is so easy to hate Sonia Kasparak… easier than hating Tom Rogan, easier than hating Henry Bowers, easier even than hating Pennywise. And if anything Eddie’s wife, Myra Kasbrak, is treated even more brutally; she helpless and incredibly annoying and is literally nothing but an extension of Eddie’s mom (to the point that she was played by the same actress in the most recent adaptation). Say what you will about Tom Rogan, but he was both brutal and capable, able to track Bev across half a continent and insert himself into the storyline before King saw the common decency in having It explode Tom’s brain. Myra remains forever in New York limo limbo; none of Bill, Mike, or the rest see fit to even call her on the phone and inform her of Eddie’s death before the events of the novel pass from their minds. One is left to wonder whether Myra Kasbrak is the only person to remember that Eddie even existed, or if he passes out of her mind as well (probably to extremely confusing effect). Unfortunately, King expresses not even the faintest interest in closing out her small part of the storyline, which is understandable but also terribly, and perhaps unnecessarily, cruel.
And of course we should take note that It is revealed, in the end, to be something that is essentially female. King and his characters take pains to note this, concluding that despite the fact that It has consistently represented as male, in fact It’s reproductive capacity marks the creature as essentially feminine. There’s a dissertation to be written in that somewhere.
I don’t know what to say about this. I had more or less completely forgotten the orgy until some folks brought it up in context of the 2017 adaptation, but when reminded I certainly remember it. I cannot defend the inclusion of the orgy, and I won’t even try. I can’t really work through what King may have been thinking when he included it, although I do have some ideas; he has definitely in his work wanted to contribute to the conversation about the relationship between horror and sex that was so memorably described in early ’80s horror series like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The orgy, I think, was intended as pushback against the notion that sex equals death in a horror context.
It is also fair to say that King honors the fact that underage children talk and think obsessively about sex. King describes the politics of a pretty girls hanging out with nerdy guys with painful accuracy from the point of view of the nerdy guys, much less so that of the girl, which may go some distance to explaining what happened. The question for 11 year olds isn’t so much attraction as the understanding that attraction is inevitable; kids see a body and understand that they ought to want it before they actually want it. King is the best that I have ever read at describing the transition from childhood to adolescence on these terms, perhaps because King is one of the few authors who is allowed to describe such.
But this is not to say that that the orgy was necessary in any way. Neither of the adaptations carry a whiff of it and neither suffers from the loss. It remains so difficult to read and listen to (I pity poor Steven Weber for having to read it out loud) that it’s best simply to skip and pretend it doesn’t exist.
The Magical Negro Problem?
Especially in his early career, Stephen King wrote Black characters as if he were a white guy from Maine who didn’t know a lot of Black people and wasn’t quite sure how to fit them into the very white worlds that he was describing. Over time King has tried a lot of different ways to develop and use Black characters, and It represents an evolution of his approach.
I think that the first Black character of any significance in King’s work is Dick Halloran. Dick Halloran is literally a magical negro, albeit in a world full of magical beings. Halloran performs many of the roles of magical negro, including explaining the Shine to Danny Torrance and later enabling Wendy and Danny to escape. Notably, in the novel Halloran does not sacrifice himself; he’s critical to the rescue but he doesn’t die along the way. However, I’m inclined to forgive King on this because he also gives Halloran on interior dialogue and an intelligible set of motivations.
Mike Hanlon is an interesting case, in no small part because I’m not convinced he started off Black. The young version of Hanlon doesn’t appear until deep in the novel, and even after his appears bears few obvious racial indicators until he starts interacting with Henry Bowers, the local racist bully. I very much wonder whether King envisioned Hanlon as Black from the start, or decided along the way that making him Black solved some plot problems (another reason for Bowers antagonism, an excuse to smuggle Dick Halloran into the novel). Hanlon is not well drawn as a child (only Stan Uris ends up more thinly developed) but he’s arguably the protagonist, and is certainly the character we spend the most time with over the scope of the novel. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that while King regularly uses racial language in telling Mike’s childhood story, his adult story is almost entirely free of any reference to race (at least until Henry Bowers shows up). It’s odd that the fact the only Black guy in town is the one who’s tasked with investigating Derry’s deep, dark secrets does not merit any commentary from the multitude of old timers that Hanlon interviews across the course of the novel. I’ve seen arguments that King mistreats Hanlon by excluding him from the final confrontation with It, which somehow de-emphasizes his contribution, but I don’t buy it; Hanlon is the cog upon which the plot turns, and I think that elaborate efforts to avoid any whiff of the Magical Negro problem often constrain storytelling and character development just as much as the problem itself.
Structure of the Novel
In some ways It must have been an easy novel to write. I don’t mean this to make light of what was obviously a significant amount of work, only to say that the book has a structure that readily lends a map for writing. Once the magic number seven was settled upon, the story pretty much outlines itself; every character has a set number of scenes as a child and as an adult, with relatively predictable transitions from character to character, all with the built-in framing device of a memory problem that overtakes the entire population of the town. Within this, I was not surprised to find that Stan Uris was the most thinly drawn of all the characters, having the least impactful presence among the children and no presence at all as an adult. I wonder whether King decided to kill Stan off early because he struggled to develop the character, or if he declined the develop the character because he knew Stan would die. Of the rest of the children all but Mike are clearly drawn and fully realized. Among the adults, I was surprised to find that Ben Hanscom was so thinly characterized as an adult; he is richly introduced but over the course of the adult portion of the novel he basically disappears into the background, his only notable characteristic being that he’s a trim adult rather than a fat kid. Bill Denbrough is well-drawn on both sides, although as a child his story is mostly told in terms of what the others think of him, rather than with respect to his internal motivations. He’s a King doppleganger, so I suppose those motivations must have seemed intuitively obvious at the time. I was surprised to find that Eddie Kasbrak was perhaps the most fully realized character on both sides, which was interesting because he really is a tricky character to write.
I wouldn’t quite say that It exemplifies King’s inability to get an ending right, but it does delve into his broader mythology (and even that mythology is at an underdeveloped stage) in ways that are almost impossible to depict in a screen adaptation. The weirdness of both final confrontations contributes to the sense that It is a profoundly otherworldly creature that is incomprehensible through words and images. I find the fact that the characters simply leave the scene at the end and mostly forget about one another to be terribly appropriate; indeed, it’s one of the happiest endings to any Stephen King novel ever (apart from poor Myra Kasbrak).
Both of the adaptations of It are pretty good. The 1989 version (starring Tim Curry as It and Richard Thompson as Bill) remains very creepy despite having aged badly in some obvious ways. Both adaptations understate Bill’s stutter; the Audible version is useful in this regard, as it capture just how difficult it is for the people around Bill to understand what he’s saying. The 2017 adaptation of the first half of the book is surely the strongest of the group, capturing better than the others the sheer terror of a group of children who have no resources to battle a monster other than themselves. The second half of the 2020s adaptation isn’t nearly as good as the first; only the scene where Bev meets It in her father’s old apartment is truly creepy. King’s insight in developing the It character is that adults and children experience terror in different ways, so it’s not terribly surprising that the adult half hits with less weight.
The End of Fairy Tales
I was inspired to re-read It in part because I read Fairy Tale, one of his most recent novels. Fairy Tale is the first new King book that I’ve read in a great long while, and on balance I quite enjoyed it. The parallels with Fairy Tale feel a touch obscure but eventually achieve a certain degree of clarity; both stories are, after all, about a young hero who defeats a Lovecraftian beast from somewhere beyond another world with nothing but words and strong feelings. King also sprinkles It with fairy tale references, so it’s not at all difficult to sort out his thinking. Fairy Tale mostly seems to be distinct from the rest of the King-o-Verse, and it’s interesting to me that notwithstanding the pop culture impact of It, the book occupies only a very narrow corner of that same universe. King has occasionally, half-heartedly gestured towards a continuation of the story, but it’s 2023; the five surviving members of the group would be pushing eighty, and the next occurrence of It wouldn’t take place until 2039.
In any case, I don’t regret re-reading the book. A book isn’t quite like a river; generally speaking the book remains the same even as the person changes. Nevertheless, I think I experienced a special kind of joy re-engaging with this particular book as an adult, after a great many years of remembering the experience of it as a child. Perhaps I’ll read It again in another 36 years…
*There is no longer any point in debating the literary merit or academic relevance of Stephen King. With respect to the former he can write beautifully and evocatively, but does not always do so. With respect to the latter he is surely no worse than the second or third most important novelist in the history of American letters. The highbrows can squawk all they like, but no American novelist has maintained consistent popularity and consistently high cultural profile in the way that King has.