Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: February 2011
There used to be a bookshelf that took up an entire wall in my childhood home. It was built into a recess, and made up of dark brown wood. The edges were carpeted—the same rough, tight-knit blue carpeting with specks of green that spread across the entire living room. We had hermit crabs that hung from the edges of the bookcase, claws caught in the carpet, when they escaped their plastic aquariums and went exploring.
I can’t remember all the books and trinkets on those shelves, but there were a lot of them. One prominent display was a whole collection of tall leather-bound hardbacks about life in the American West. I remember the adultness of these because one volume was title The Bastard. My parents still have them in the living room, and they do look nice all lined up.
Higher up, I remember a paperback of It.
I was an organized and deliberate child, and I rarely adventured outside my established routines and patterns. I had my own bookcase in my room, but I don’t recall the books themselves rotating much. If I acquired a few new books, they stayed there a long time. We would visit the library, but I wouldn’t bring home stacks of new titles—I’d bring home one or two that were probably recommended to me. I’m much the same today. I’d rather hear about a single title and seek it out than wander the shelves and pull off something intriguing but wholly unknown.
I would climb up the living room shelf and see what was on it, though. I think I had to stand on the edge of the couch to reach high enough. The cover of It was fascinating and frightening. Although this wasn’t the version I ended up reading years later, the cover I’ve included at the top of this page will always be the one I remember. It’s so strikingly clear: there is a monster in the sewer. That’s it, really. There’s also the iconic boat so that you think of children, and of the past. The type of hand (claw?) is an interesting choice because it’s generally evocative of a child-eating beast but not very accurate to the text. Perhaps it was close enough to the beasties in the movie Gremlins that I had a point of reference for being spooked. But it all came down to that stellar imagery: there is a monster in the sewer.
And I was plenty spookable as a child. I could handle Gremlins, but movies like that were probably my upper limit. There’s no amount of curiosity that would get me to crack open It, not even to glimpse at the first couple pages. The book itself, with its sturdy and determined presence, gave off plenty of personality for me to be wary. Not to mention that name in all caps: STEPHEN KING. It was a name that vaguely conjured a demented psyche, and was all the more powerful due to me not knowing anything tangible about the person. My parents were never horror fans, but my uncle was, and I suppose that’s how this book may have ended up on our shelf. But at home my parents never watched scary movies or left macabre entertainment laying around. Except for It. The outlier.
I know what happened to this copy. We had a garage sale, one of those sunny weekend events that held outsized importance. Here were strangers on our property. Here were all our things that for a quarter were no longer our things. My brother and I spent hours organizing which baseball cards to sell, and because we wanted to sell only the ones we didn’t want, we hardly sold any at all. There go the various Star Wars action figures that were older than either of us, which originally belonged to my older brothers and should never have left the basement. Someone walked away with the entire Ewok village for a steal. (Somehow my parents retained an X-Wing fighter and an AT-AT walker, and my son is getting to know the objects when he visits their place.)
A kid bought the Stephen King book. I don’t know how we knew him but I remember his face. My mom commented that it seemed appropriate a weird kid like him would choose that book. I agreed with her, of course, not wanting to ask for a single detail about the kid or that book. I was glad he took It out of our house. I was rid of the monster in the sewer. I hope the boy wasn’t too scared of the book, but that instead one day it solaced him. Perhaps he needed his own Losers Club to help him through life.
Fast forward through a few hundred books read in and out of school, over the course of thousands of days, and I finally got around to reading Stephen King. His books helped me realize that genre could be morphed and shattered, that an author is an individual and labels mean little. His ambitious universe, all centering around The Dark Tower stories, caused me to dive into his sprawling back catalogue. I wanted the grand mythology and to read the good, the bad, the ugly. I still have many to go, but I’ve read enough to consider myself a fan. And I knew that if I were to recommend King to someone, The Dark Tower is not always suitable for casual interest. By social and literary osmosis, I soaked up the common opinion that The Stand was the standalone great, not least of which because it features the wily Randall Flagg. I have recommended this book to others, but now I don’t think it was the right move.
The standalone great work by Stephen King is It.
February in Minnesota. Years after my initial run of reading King, I decide to finally read the paperback a friend had loaned me. I also wanted to go skiing again, so I took a weekday off from work and went by myself. I’m not much into the sport but I can do the small hills for the simple gliding pleasures. I also knew that the opportunities for breaks were half the draw, so I planned my day. My inner jacket pocket was just big enough to hold It. I’d do a few runs, trying to click into an activity that leads to very little thinking. Then I’d go to the modest “chateau” and order a hot beverage, perhaps strong. There was a central fireplace to dry socks, boots, gloves. I dove into It, soaking up 40, 60, 80 pages at a go. Then I’d head out into the calm sunny snow for more movement.
As long as The Stand, the layers in It go deeper. The story is a swing-for-the-fences attempt at capturing childhood, memory, loss, tradition, love, community, friendship, desire, and, of course, the various shades of fear, horror, terror. The book is gruesome and strange in its details, King going all-in to sometimes questionable, but often fascinating, results. The structure of multiple timelines, now overly familiar to many of us across all media, is used to expert effect. The story of growing up as a kid in the 1950s is real nostalgia to some, but hypothetical Americana to most of us. This was a childhood I never knew, but on the page I could sense, touch, almost taste it. Through King’s signature lack of irony and full throttle empathy, the reader is forced to stand next to each character and confront every incarnation of the titular beast.
But the power of It is not in its details, as wonderfully realized as they are, nor in its use of the clown imagery, now a tired motif that fails to cause fear in those who didn’t grow up with the King book or the first miniseries. What makes It a success is the pervasive tone, the mixture of dread and sorrow that permeate the book, as well as the weight of the past, brought to life by the vivid flashbacks of the town of Derry that make up some of the most stunning parts of the novel. It was this dread, this feeling, that seeped into my mind. I didn’t flinch at slamming doors or look over my shoulder in the weeks I spent reading the book. But I did have a dream.
In life, I had spent a week the previous summer being a camp counselor for the first time, and was excited to devote more energy to this newfound cause. Being in charge of youth was new to me, an exciting and serious responsibility, and the brief few days at camp were my only real interaction with kids. By February, I dreamt of those children, and of what chased them. What chased us. Pennywise was there, in a specific and nameless moment that existed only for me. Here were the young kids around me; I was the adult. There was a thin vertical pipe. He could smell our presence. A misstep and we end. He was so close. I woke up with a sinking feeling of having glimpsed what’s really worth being afraid of: the negation of all things right and good. The amoral pointlessness of a universe that would allow swift harm to descend on the helpless.
He was so close.
I had seen the miniseries once as a preteen. My uncle hosted my friends and I to watch movies that were edgy (in my experience). When the character Bishop in Aliens was torn apart, we looked differently at the melted ice cream in our bowls. And for some reason we sat through the entirety of It. I hid my face behind a pillow as best I could without being too obvious, not really wanting to look but also needing to look. Although there weren’t a lot of truly scary scenes, I didn’t know that going in and I remained mildly tortured throughout the whole thing. I thought the clown coming up through the shower drain was one of the creepiest parts, but I was relieved when we all laughed together at the balloons popping in the library. After I finally read the book as an adult I downloaded the series and made my future wife watch it with me. There’s a good Stand By Me vibe in the kids’ timeline, but overall, this is just not a good work of art. The opening suicide image from the adult storyline is unsettling, but the rest is boring. And the less about the giant spider the better.
But now, all these years after first spying that paperback up on the shelf (perhaps 27 years later?), It fever has taken over once more. The timing was perfect for a movie that leans on the nostalgia of at least two different camps: those who remembered the book and those who remembered the miniseries. Apparently a crafty marketing scheme brought in a bunch of interest from teenagers who weren’t aware of either former incarnation, which must be exciting for those viewers. Add the factor of entertainment consumers who adored Stranger Things and the chosen 1980s setting for the It remake could not have been better planned. The deadlights aligned to form that rare thing: a modern horror remake/adaptation that is extremely successful.
And what a fun movie it is. A haunted house adventure with a spot-on Pennywise yet only a few actual deaths (though plenty of other nasty imagery), it seems tailor-made for my kind of viewing. I’m a horror fan in books only and generally don’t have the fortitude to endure most scary films. I want something creepy and intriguing, but which doesn’t stick with me and cause lingering fear or anxiety after the credits roll. I knew more or less what I was getting into with 2017’s It, and the veering tone (with often hilarious one-liners) helped me have fun between the gotcha moments. It really was just like watching Stranger Things with a harder rating. (Also, I appreciated how there were almost no scenes that took place at night or in dark rooms. This is viewer friendliness 101. I could see what was happening on screen.)
When I got home from the movie the house was quiet and the family was asleep. As I was snacking in the kitchen, I thought I heard something but brushed it off as an errant noise. Then I heard it again: a whispered “Leeeeevi.” At the top of the stairs I flipped on the basement lights and my wife popped into the doorframe. I swore and threw my cookie right at her. Goddamnit. I did think about the movie for a few nights and woke up alarmed whenever I heard my wife move around in the middle of the night, but that eventually faded. Now I want to see the film again and make her join me this time. She thinks scary clowns are lame. And they kind of are. But as we know, It is something more. Something to do with love, loss, and memory, the force of the Other moving around us and through us like one big wheel. Something so close.