When I was a kid, my mom and sister were big Stephen King fans. I remember my sister being a part of the Stephen King book club (those commercials for it used to freak me out). The cover art for the books were amazing (that first edition Gunslinger is on point), but the most intriguing was the cover for It with a clawed green hand reaching up from a sewer grate for the paper-mache boat. They both read the book shortly after it’s release, and I remember thinking how good the book must have been. Flash forward two to three years and the TV mini-series aired starring Tim Curry in an iconic role as Pennywise and ruined many childhoods.
I grew up in the hey-day of the horror icon and thinking such characters were the epitome of horror. As I’ve grown up, I have realized that there is more to genre story telling than scary guys killing people. And I’ve also begun reading more to get my fix of good horror stories, so I’ve been wading through a backlog of Stephen King books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. It is one of them.
I’m really glad I did not read this book as a kid. Not because it is too scary but because there is so much I wouldn’t have understood; this is a book written for people in their thirties. The story focuses on six childhood friends, all in the mid 30’s, who are called back home by a mutual friend to finish something they started as kids. They are to once again do battle in their hometown of Derry, ME with a nameless evil they dubbed It, and thought they had killed years before. All six of them blocked the traumatic event from their minds and much of the story concerns them trying to remember how they defeated It to begin with and also regain their forgotten childhood together. They made a pact in blood that if It (aka Pennywise the Dancing Clown) ever came back, they would too, and see the damn thing dead once and for all.
King opens the book with all of them trying to come to grips with what the mission before them. None of them are happy to have such old wound re-opened. The trauma of the event shakes all of them and their loved ones to the core. One of them kills himself rather than go back to Derry. All of them have found themselves highly successful in life, a by-product of some of the magic they absorbed when they did battle with the evil, and a high price to pay for such things.
The story follows the six survivors as they are led by memories to who they once wore individually and collectively. The strength of King’s writing is, and has always been, his characters. They drive the story. This book is no exception and this is the reason It is considered one of his best novels. King gives the novel a sense of history, time, and place. The town of Derry is fully realized as a character unto itself, and almost as evil as Pennywise as the town has become somewhat complicit with the evil’s existence. Pennywise feeds off of the town and the town flourishes for it’s compliance. It’s only after Bill Denbrough’s little brother is killed that things are shaken up. Bill is powerful and out for revenge for the death of his brother, consequences be damned, and Pennywise finds himself challenged for the first time in his existence.
Despite the books strengths, this doesn’t mean I think this is a perfect book. Near the end there is a plot point that is straight out of Richard Laymons play book where 11 year olds have sex because they got lost in a tunnel. That’s just stupid. and out of place, and completely unnecessary. The biggest issue I had though is King goes back and forth from the past to the present (1985 was the present at the time the book was written) very frequently, especially at the outset of the book and I had trouble getting into the story because of the abrupt changes. Just when I felt the story was getting into a groove, BLAMO, back to the past.
However, as I got into the story I realized what he was getting at. The past is revealed to the reader at the same pace it is remembered by the characters. Time is a flat circle. The past and the present start to eventually collide, especially near the end where the surviving adults do battle with Pennywise. All of the flashbacks have a reason integral to the story, but I felt the placement was odd. However, King kills it near the end. The surviving adults do battle with It, and King intersperses the “present day” action with flashbacks to the youths first assault on the evil creature. It shows how far they’ve come as people, yet how they are essentially the same.
in the end that’s the metaphor of the novel. We grow up and the friends we had as kids are eventually, slowly faded from memory at a pace so gradual we don’t even realize it’s happening. The magic of childhood is what kills Pennywise, and the adults have to struggle to find that magic once again, as we all have to sometimes to keep the darkness at bay. The sense of wonderment and discovery of childhood is what gives the novel it’s soul, so to speak. The childhood incubation of our current persona and realization of how we came to be who we are and the bad experiences we block out, and eventually have to overcome is what’s on display here. Also, a healthy dose of belief in divine intervention and the power of rock and roll. This is why I’m glad I waited until now to read this book. The sense of reflection on youth would not have resonated or cut as deeply as it did if I’d read it as a kid. It would have been completely lost on me, and that would have been a huge waste as the feelings it evokes are the strength of the story and why it’s a classic.
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