Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.
It's too long¹, or you've already seen the movie, or clowns don't scare you, or your first Stephen King book soured you on the rest, or honestly, it’s just too friggin' long, so can we just re-watch the movie instead and put this all behind us? In the depressing event that the possible excuses just presented are actually ones some people unironically use to justify not reading It, I would advise them to kindly tell such unpleasant thoughts to begone with their falsehoods, never to return, the better to enjoy this book uninhibitedly. I couldn’t hesitate less when I say It is the best Stephen King book ever to have passed these eyes and imagination. "But hang on," you say, "ain't you only ever read one other King book?” True enough, thanks to Dean Koontz, It is only my second King book. If going through King’s entire oeuvre is required for going around and saying those kinds of things, then I’m about as qualified to pass such a judgment as hamsters are on matters of international politics. But let’s pretend we’re reasonable people and move on. Even if, assuming its legions of supporters still stand by their original words of praise, The Stand snatches that title when I finally muster the prerequisite patience and cojones to tackle and finish it, It would still be a frightening, funny, and fun experience, one not to be forgotten quickly, for better or worse.
Here’s where a plot summary is supposed to butt in and we forget it’s a click or scroll away. Suffice it to say that there’s a clown with no better thing to do than terrifying some small old town; a group of kids go to kill it a couple of times, the latter as adults because said clown is as stubborn as it is mysterious; and scary shenanigans ensue. Why on earth does that need 1,376 pages to cover? Highlight half the book, and half again of what’s left over, for deletion and have done with it already. Galloping gargoyles! But King, almost inexplicably and to general envy, makes it work. Not all of it is perfect. A few parts, and a very few at that (just two or three, really, one of which should fascinate chemists-to-be and bore everyone else), stand to gain from some clean-up, but any more and the book becomes incomprehensible. For nearly a fortnight, when I had time, I lived and breathed Derry, the Losers, and Pennywise. Given so many pages, it’s no simple task to get through them so fast, but with characters you come to care for, others to root against, and a story that gets better even when it seems to have peaked, King makes it easy. What’s absurd is that It may be lengthy and daunting, but at over a thousand pages, and around the ideal weight to knock someone unconscious with, it feels shorter than even some books at 300 pages or under.
But is it scary? Chucky, except in that misguided fifth movie, used to terrorize my dreams, and still fills me with remembered dread when I stand in front of beds, under which my overactive mind would picture him, knife in hand. Yet he doesn’t faze those who see no reason to fear something so easily kicked away before he could send them to an early grave (and completely miss my point that that little fucker is not above stabbing feet, and I like mine). One scary thing is not universally scary. King knows this well, almost too well not to have a room reserved for him at the madhouse, and so enters Pennywise. If clowns at birthday parties and Ronald McDonald statues never sent you shrieking in the other direction, that’s all right because King had the thoughtfulness to make Pennywise not merely a clown, but a shape-shifting terror that holds to your worst fears both a mirror and portal through which they step to, let me list the ways, “[unzip]” your guts, decorate apple trees with your head, fill your mouth full of fingers, and nail your genitalia to doors. That the body parts are separate parts goes without saying. The book has all that and much more.
Even in something of this size, it’s impossible to cover all manner of fears, not without overcrowding it at the expense of the story, but what makes the cut forms a scream team varied enough to hit the mark at least once, possibly more if you dispense with your unbelievable online-badass façade. There are werewolves for the classic monsters, giant animals and insects for the bizarre, and lepers and pus-filled food that pulses for the gross. Then, if those are too heavy-handed and blatant for your liking, King also offers more subtle and simpler scares more disturbing than outright scary, and for me, these had a far more lingering impression: photos of people who suddenly grin and wink at you, shadows where there should be none and where they should be, and those balloons, those fucking balloons. By themselves, balloons are perfectly ordinary and fine, but after reading It, they’ve become more unsettling to think about, especially in contexts in which they have no business being. If I were to turn my head to the right now and see a big, red balloon magically appear and tied to the balcony railing visible through my bedroom window twenty-three floors up, the sheer wrongness of its placement would bother me more in the long run than, say, something hairy popping out at me from behind a door. There’s a lot of that in It, too, both in more or less equal measure.
Before Pennywise’s bag of supernatural tricks and traumas gets stale, our Big Bad goes for the jugular, using as its pawns the human antagonists through whom it adds to the general chaos with which the Losers must, after barely surviving the assorted monsters, also contend. Bullies, abusive parents, violent husbands, and indifferent bystanders are a common sight. King gives us good cause to hate them because he makes us love the Losers. It isn’t love at first sight. In the first half of the book, I didn’t care much for most of the good guys, not for Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier whose silly antics bordered on the obnoxious, not for Beverly Marsh whose weakness and horrible taste in men angered me to see, not for asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak whose meek behavior made him little better than a waste of space, not for Stan Uris who was generally unremarkable, and not for Mike Hanlon because, obviously, he hadn’t fully come into the picture yet. Only Bill “Stuttering Bill” Denbrough and Ben “Haystack” Hanscom gave me hope there were more goodies to come. What’s surprising is not that King eventually does deliver, but that he does it so well. The character development is unreal. By the end, Richie was easily my favorite character; I had grown to tolerate his shtick which became endearing and even amusing at times (okay, a lot of the times), and to admire him in other ways. He also makes me want to read Gone With the Wind soon. Close behind is Eddie Kaspbrak, whose character growth in the book makes me want to give up my nebulous dreams of writing altogether because who can top that? But together, the protagonists make a group we want so much to see emerge victorious. The writing is not at all one-sided, either, and just as good going the other way. Henry Bowers, the school bully, also gets a hefty amount of page-time, and it’s never dull or forced when the Losers face off with him and his friends. Yet Henry, even as crazy as he is, is handily out-crazied by Patrick Hockstetter. A taste: because “his screaming mother had been holding the baby’s corpse in the open kitchen door, believing in some blind way that the cold air might revive it,” Patrick went to get “a sweater out of the downstairs closet” because he was “cold.” Three guesses as to how his baby brother died, and it isn’t crib death.
There’s much else in the 1,376 pages to keep your eyes glued to the book. King touches on a wide variety of topics. He would rage here against racism, bullying, child abuse, homophobia, and domestic violence. He would also enlighten us there on the writing process, birdwatching, pharmacy, and, most instructively, sex:“What you did when you fucked, according to Boogers, was you rubbed your cock against a girl’s stomach until it got hard (your cock, not the girl’s stomach).”(Thanks for the clarification!) Occasionally, he can’t resist ragging on academia, English roads, and his favorite baseball team: “The radio muttered about an escaped mental patient from somewhere who was supposed to be very dangerous, and then began muttering about the Red Sox who weren’t.” I expected the horror, but not the comedy, which King writes almost as well. Richie Tozier may be the stereotypical class clown, but I would take hilariously written clichés over poorly executed original ideas any day, especially if it means there are more exchanges like this: ”“Now are we going to take these rocks back to the clubhouse or am I going to bounce a few of them off your asshole skull?” [Beverly said.] “Lawks-a-mussy, Miss Scawlett, I ain’t got no asshole in mah skull!” Richie screeched, and Beverly laughed so hard she dropped her end of Eddie’s jacket and all the stones fell out.” The funnies also don’t stop there with Richie. Sometimes, King drops such charming imagery as this: “If this is Memory Lane, Eddie thinks, I’d trade it for one great big brain enema: a mental high colonic.” Other than amusement, he may move you to admiration with his writing, which I think some people dismiss too quickly. Thunderstorm clouds are compared to “huge transparent brains filled with bad thoughts.” Children scramble desperately at monsters’s backs, “feeling for a zipper.” Wide eyes aren’t simply “wide eyes,” but eyes that “[eat] up their faces.” Some things are “hard to see, half-swallowed in shadowsmoke and still white summerlight.” At one point, as even I could recognize, he channels Nabokov: “He even liked the word itself, a slide of air broken as if along a dotted line by the “k”-sound at the very back of your mouth: haiku.” To
snobbier² more experienced readers, such writing could come off as ham-fisted, clunky, tired, subpar, or whatever criticism they care to lay on it. For my purposes, it did the job well enough, and that’s enough.
That said, It’s not all smooth sailing. King repeats himself sometimes too much. The book would benefit from his taking a break from prefacing comparisons with “as if,” likening certain things to taffy, and somewhat overusing words like “tenebrous” and “ordure.” From time to time, the Losers would suddenly be laughing their heads off, their friendship would apparently solidify further, and I would be left thinking the punchline needed more work, the joke too contrived for the sake of characterization. Also distracting is how King doesn’t call things by what they are. A refrigerator is a Frigidaire, not a refrigerator. A microwave can’t be a microwave, but has to be an Amana RadarRange. In the first instance, it was obvious, but the second sent me Googling for clarification, wondering why a speed gun should be hanging in the kitchen. These nitpicks, however, being so trivial when set against the rest of the book, don’t come anywhere close enough to ruining the overall reading experience. Yet what almost did for me was a certain controversial scene near the end, the one I’m sure even newcomers must’ve heard about in passing, the one I struggle even now to reconcile with everything that came before and after it. Definitely, there were hints leading up to it, and they were not so much clever as subtle like bricks flying towards your face are subtle: pseudo-Chekov’s guns wedged in there after the fact and ringing hollow. Combined together, my misgivings give me pause when another part of me is so ready and eager to give this book five stars. It is still very good, and I could hardly have produced anything nearly so imaginative and engaging myself, but it’s not quite perfect, and you know what? That’s okay. The good³ dwarfs the bad.
It didn’t make me jump (no book has yet, that is, unless we’re not discounting that one scene in the first Harry Potter movie where, in the library, a face literally jumped out of a book and gave both Harry and me a big fright), but did leave me feeling shaken more times than I can remember. It made me laugh. It made me sad. It, more than some people in real life who were supposed to could, taught me more about friendship, courage, bravery, love, family, tolerance, acceptance, self-reliance, life, and death. It surprised me. It shouldn’t be missed, so why are you still putting it off? Also, they’re remaking the wrong damn Stephen King movies.
¹Much like this review, for which I’m sorry I’m not sorry.
²All of us are snobs, but some of us are snobbier than others.
³As difficult as this may be to believe, and as much as I didn’t want to, I was careful in this review to leave out the best this book has to offer, for all the words I can think of to say in its favor do it absolutely no justice. Louis C.K. once noted, in his usual way, how we waste words like “hilarious” and “amazing” on ultimately insignificant events like, respectively, someone passing gas unexpectedly and a cat actually doing what her owner would like for her to do. But even “amazing” doesn’t cut it here.