“They float,” the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice…
I want to call Stephen King’s It a masterpiece. Not because I think it’s a perfect novel. It (It) has its flaws and controversies, there is no doubt about that. Like any good work of fiction, however, It has inspired a generation of cultural icons, a palpable fear of clowns in our culture, and a notorious yet beloved TV miniseries.
Perhaps It is better labeled as an epic. At over eleven-hundred pages and beginning in media-res, It feels epic if not at times entirely mythical. It certainly transcends the conventions of the horror genre as it embraces themes such as tragedy, the cosmos, and mythological creatures. King’s “epic” reminds me of a long heritage of grandiose literature from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Joyce’s Ulysses.
I’m starting to sound like a fanboy with all this praise. I won’t deny my feeling towards this novel: I love It. I can only talk about this novel from a place of enthusiasm.
This abundant enthusiasm, strangely enough, is probably because my first encounter with the story was the 1990 TV miniseries at the age of nine when the Losers Club were older kids to look up to. For a month straight, I couldn’t sleep with the lights turned off, and I certainly didn’t linger in the bathroom—ever. Pennywise the dancing clown, played by Tim Curry, enthralled me with his portrayal of a predator who lurks in the drain pipes, toting a bundle of balloons. And every night I dreamed that It—the shape-shifting, child eating creature of another dimension—made a meal of me.
In my early teens, I decided to read the novel—and boy did it exceed the fear and atmosphere the miniseries failed to capture. The cover wasn’t lying when it warned, “don’t read in the dark.”
Another month of dreaming with the lights on.
It isn’t terrifying for its gory or scary scenes alone. The combination of childhood innocence facing the grown-up world is what, ultimately, builds the novel’s emotional pull. That isolation. That ambiguity. That defencelessness. And those uncanny shapes Pennywise takes to torment the children is creepy.
This review comes from two places. The first is the nostalgic pull to return to It, much like the Losers Club when they are grownups returning to their childhood town of Derry. The second is the new It 2017 movie, directed by Andrew Muschietti, sounds and looks phenomenal. Early reviews have nothing but positive things to say.
I’m dying of anticipation.
Like any fanboy, I re-read the novel (even watched the miniseries!) in preparation for the September 8th release date of the new movie. Rest assured, I’m focusing on the Stephen King’s novel in this review.
He wanted to tell them that there were worse things than being frightened. You could be frightened by things like almost having a car hit you while you were riding a bike…You could be frightened of that crazy man Khruschev or of drowning and still function…But that thing in the Standpipe…
During a 1957 rainstorm, Georgie sails a boat crafted out of newspaper and turtle wax by his big brother, only to watch a gutter swallow it. His brother Bill is gonna kill him. Georgie looks into the darkness of the gutter, wondering where the little boat landed. Two yellow eyes stare back at Georgie. Hiya, Georgie, It speaks.
Bill never sees his brother again and spends the summer killing himself over Georgie’s death. So do his parents. He retreats to the Barrens—an underdeveloped plot of land and reservoir where Derry’s gray water pools.
It’s in the sanctity of the Barrens where the Losers Club forms (Bev, Bill, Ben, Eddie, Richie, and Mike), bonding over their mysterious encounters with a clown and the gang of bullies who terrorize the losers.
Georgie is not the only kid who is killed or who goes missing. Derry is cursed—plagued by gruesome murders and horrific tragedies. But the adults sure don’t seem to care. It’s as if they’re sleepwalking, offering neither reassurance or comfort to their children.
None of this stops the Losers Club from taking the fight to the clown, to It. Lead by Bill, the troop of Losers enters the sewers to rid Derry of its monster. However, twenty-seven years later, It stalks the sewers again, and the band of Losers must stop the cycle once and for all.
Indeed, It is an ancient creature, living underneath the town of Derry and thriving off its passion for violence. Every thirty years or so it awakens to the bell of death, hungry.
“It didn’t hover,” he said. “It floated. It floated. There were big bunches of balloons tied to each wing, and it floated”…
There’s no denying that It is a long, and “complex” novel. I wouldn’t categorize it as a pulp paperback or a quick weekend read, and not just because of the length. It is not a linear story. It has a mixture of narrators and perspectives, telling two parallel narratives: the kids and the adults.
There is so much flesh to the inner-workings of Derry that when King takes a detour from the main story to expand on a tragic moment in Derry’s history, I’m still engrossed. The novel takes many liberties in pausing the main storyline to build the world of Derry. But this isn’t cheap exposition or filler. I don’t think any of it could be cut or edited out because it all adds up to what I would call the creation myth that It becomes.
A myth which is picked up in other King novels—The Dark Tower series, Dreamcatcher, and Doctor Sleep come to mind.
I think of It as a creation myth because of its cosmological scale intermingling with the coming of age narrative. The creation of the adult person, the transition from child to adult, means the death of the child and the birth of the adult. Certainly, the Losers Club perishes in the sewers as they face against the monstrosity, and what returns is only a hollow of what entered. No wonder the Losers Club disbands that summer, and in thirty years they all forget the horror they faced in the sewers.
They forget their childhood.
Some might say that’s what it means to become an adult. The ritual for adulthood demands the sacrifice of childhood innocence.
But there was something else here. Bill sensed it, felt it, in a crazy way smelled it: some large presence in the dark. A Shape. He felt not fear but a sense of overmastering awe…
I said that It isn’t a perfect novel. King has written some controversial scenes that I won’t disclose here because, well, I don’t even feel good about them. After stumbling upon those scenes again, I certainly skipped over them. They have a specific metaphorical purpose with regards to innocence, there is no denying that, but they seem out of place nonetheless. Uncalled for even.
I’ll also add that there is a disparity in quality of the narration of the kids and the adults. The Losers Club is endearing, funny, and fun. For the first half of the novel, King mixes drama, comedy, and horror. When we get to the adults, particularly Mike Hanlon’s journals, there is much more melodrama that lacks the emotional gravity of the stories of the kids.
In other words, King captures something with the kids that he doesn’t capture with the adults.
Calling King’s It a masterpiece might give some people pause and goosebumps. I know many people don’t feel the same way—but that’s okay. The reason I consider It a masterpiece is because it has had such an impact on cultural memory and myself.
I’m not a horror fan by any means. Yet, I’m thrilled that there is a new adaptation coming to theatres. And every now and then I dream of Pennywise the dancing clown.