Review: Stephen King’s IT (The Novel)

I was in seventh grade the first time my mom took me to the used bookstore that opened up in our small, farming town. It was owned and operated by one of the librarians in our city, who also happened to be a family friend. I struggle to remember the storefront now, but I’ll never forget the name of the store, because I thought it was freaking brilliant. The store was called Shabby Pages, and it was at Shabby Pages where 13-year-old me stumbled into the world of Stephen King.

I had to beg my mother for the entire time we were in there, but I walked out of that store with a used copy of Everything’s Eventual, a story collection King published in 2002. I devoured the book the following week while I was camping on vacation, and an implacable love for the works of the most renowned author of the last 50 years was born. Later in that same week, I purchased 13 more of his books at a flea market.

Among these 13 new treasures was a 1,000 page behemoth with a one-word title. IT. The book’s cover featured a bare skull with blue stars in the eye hollows, an instantly recognizable red clown nose, and red lines coming from the side of the skull that reminded me of an American flag on a breezy day. All of this was on a black background with King’s name plastered across the top along with the phrase “#1 Bestseller” which is synonymous with his work.

it-book.jpg

Here’s my actual copy of IT– old, wet book smell and all. I can’t bring myself to part with it because it holds so much sentimental value.

I had tons of books to choose from, but I picked IT because I remembered my older cousins telling me a story when I was younger about a movie where a clown kills people and only kids can see it happening. After a quick Google search, I was able to confirm that I had the exact same story in print form. I quickly found a quiet spot alone and began reading.

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know and can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”  – IT, Page 1

I didn’t know it then, but I was about to stumble upon my favorite book of all time.

I finished IT within the month, between bouts of insomnia and frequent nightmares, and instantly knew I had to get my hands on the movie. I had no success in my search for a DVD copy at a series of stores, so I turned to the internet for help. Eventually, I was able to find a playlist of YouTube videos that comprised the full length of the film, all 187 minutes of Tim Curry running around terrorizing kids. I was two years older than the children in the story, but I was probably scared even more than they were. I slept in my mother’s bed the night I finished the film because I was so frightened. As a 13-year-old, this was something tough to swallow.

Scared shitless though I was, I couldn’t get enough of the IT universe. I spent hours on the internet, trying to find movie rumors and fan trailers, possibilities of prequels and sequels, and general background info about the story. This was circa 2009, when rumors of the IT remake with Cary Fukunaga were just beginning. I followed along with every casting rumor, every producer change, every leaked possibility.

I say all of that to say this:

I’ve been waiting for an It remake for a very long time.

That time is now.

As time drew near September 8th, I began to immerse myself back into It’s world. I figured my re-immersion would start and stop with a rewatch of the 1990 miniseries, but I got about halfway through that before I realized I had to reread the book again. I’d read over parts of IT through the years, but never committed myself to a full-on reread. I began in July, roughly 8 years after my first go around, and I finished it on September 3rd. And it was awesome.

The new movie is out now, so I think it only makes sense to review the source material. Long intro aside, here’s my review of IT, the novel. Enjoy.

*

Aside from its size, the first thing one must know about IT before tackling the book is that the storyline is far from linear. King has pulled off something rather difficult in the novel; it actually takes place in two decades, 27 years apart, and the time spent in each year is equal and consistent. We’re dealing with more than the occasional flashback here; the book really is two-fold.

IT begins in the fall of 1957 in the town of Derry, Maine. Like Castle Rock, Derry is a fictional town in which King sets a few of his stories, though IT is far and away the most well-known. The first chapter of the book takes us inside the mind of George Denbrough, a six-year-old boy who is sailing a boat made of newspaper down the flooded streets of the city. By the first chapter’s close, George has been brutally murdered by Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and we’ve been given our first taste of one of the scariest villains in horror history. Say goodbye to Dracula, because Pennywise will be your new worst nightmare.

In the following chapter, time has fast-forwarded to 1984, and Pennywise is back up to his old tricks. This sets the stage for the rest of the book, where we jump back and forth between the year 1958 and 1984 following a group of seven children and their adult selves as they work to stop whatever evil is wreaking havoc in their town. This group includes the murdered George Denbrough’s brother Stuttering Bill, as well as six more of Derry’s misfits who are drawn together as children and take to calling themselves “The Loser’s Club.”  Fueled by the death of his younger brother, Bill will stop at nothing until Pennywise is back in the dirt (or wherever the fuck he came from) for good.

Since I have mostly positive things to say about the novel, I’ll step up to the plate and deal with the bad stuff first. Since this is a 1,000-page story, it’s fair to expect King to have dropped the ball in some spots, but he did it a few times in some pretty significant ways. The most glaring issue with IT is that King tries to include too much of the same thing. He gets in the habit of going into the viewpoints for all seven of the losers for certain key events in the story, both as children and adults. It’d be one thing if he stopped after brining the initial group together, but he doesn’t. There’s a section of the book where the group splits up and takes “walking tours” to refamiliarize themselves with Derry after being gone for nearly three decades. We follow Ben Hanscom to one part of the city, Richie Tozier to another, and check in with Mike Hanlon along the way. Pennywise shows up and causes terror in some form every.single.time. The larger point is to show how Pennywise affects each person individually, but the finished product comes off as stale and predictable, cookie cutter and formulaic. Instead of being scared by the time the 6th or 7th subchapter (read: character viewpoint) rolls around, we’re clamoring to move on to the next part. It’s a relatively small issue, but one that could have saved us a nice chunk of time had somebody’s story been skipped over once in a while. It wasn’t necessary every time, despite the fact that it allowed King to include more scares. There are two other sections in the novel, each titled “A Tale of the Missing” that are mostly superfluous as well. You’ll still enjoy the hell out of them, but they add little in terms of plot development. I think Uncle Stevie gets a bit caught up in his own fucked up world and drags on a bit longer than necessary, but it’s not a total loss. Patrick Hockstetter’s story is particularly demented.

The other major issue I have with IT is so well-documented and controversial that Stephen King had to personally address it. I really don’t want to spoil a pivotal point in the story, so I’ll hyperlink some info regarding the incident here and you can peruse at your own risk. Basically, though, in a novel full of fucked-up shit, this is far and away the piece de resistance. Your jaw will drop like you’re watching an episode of Game of Thrones , and you’ll be left sitting there wondering what in the world you’ve just read. You know, now that I think about it, the GOT descriptor really isn’t too far off. IT is like some campy 80s Game of Thrones where Pennywise takes Valar Morghulis a bit too literally.

Aside from the occasional misstep or oversaturation of information, IT really is a fantastic novel. I’ve been thinking over the last few days to figure out what exactly makes it (no, I didn’t want to make this fucking pun, it just couldn’t be helped) shine. I was tempted to go on a big, long rant about how Pennywise is just so brilliant, so funny, and so scary, but something else came to mind that I can’t pass up.

There’s a running question throughout the novel regarding the origin of It. Does It exist because Derry is such a horrible place, or does Derry exist because It has created such an environment? This game of chicken-before-egg didn’t hold much weight with 13-year-old me, but I was much more interested in the idea this time around…though I’m still not going to come down on a side. You have to do that yourself. I would pay special attention to this topic when it’s addressed as you read; it’s the most interesting part of the book, and something I’m still grappling with. Even the Puritans struggled with this one: Are we fundamentally evil people who try our best despite all our shortcomings, or are we intrinsically good, but able to be corrupted by an outside source? It’s a pretty advanced theme for a book that literary snobs scoff at because the book is predominantly written to scare. Next time your college professor shits on Stephen King, bring up the way this book tackles “evil” and watch he or she be amazed.

The beauty of IT (read: Pennywise) is that It takes the form of what scares us the most. For Ben Hanscom, Pennywise appears as a mummy, for Richie Tozier, he’s a werewolf, and for Eddie Kaspbrak, he’s a hobo-leper. For me, Pennywise is a stack of grad-school applications and GRE prep books. Pennywise takes the baseline form of a clown because clowns are things that terrify everyone on some levelDon’t let anyone tell you he isn’t at least somewhat bothered by grown men in makeup and multicolor facepaint; those bastards have been making us feel uncomfortable since our first group birthday party at six, and as recently as last year when that Staten Island thing got out of hand. By seeing the form of our deepest fears, we are inherently scared by IT before we actually encounter it. Isn’t that awesome? Stephen King created something that is tough-guy proof and managed to raise deep and philosophical questions about man in the process.

If “horror” books aren’t your thing–though I would argue that IT is so much more than just a quick scare–you can still benefit from reading IT. If you cast aside all the psycho killer clown stuff (like, if it didn’t exist AT ALL), you’re still left with a story of seven kids who band together to fend off bullies and find acceptance within each other. You’re still reminded of the way you spent your summer vacation before video games and cell phones were in the hands of every 10-year-old. Being with The Losers transports you back to the past in a pretty authentic way. I can honestly say I longed to be a kid in the 50s during the time I was reading this, and I’m not the type of person to say that. On a non-horror level, IT works to teach us about the value of friendship and promises. At the very least, it’ll make you regret not talking to that “weird” kid in school because it’ll make you realize that those kids have something to offer the world, too.

I could go on and on–I was actually planning to bore you with ways reading IT can help you improve as a writer, but I’m running out of time and space at this point. I’ll save that article for another day. I think my point has been made, though: Despite any reservations you may have about spending your next month reading a 1,000-page fiction book, IT’s worth it (You KNOW I went for that pun.)

I’ll certainly admit to a bit of bias in my review of IT, but, as with most books, I think there’s something in it for everyone. It’s hard to find a published piece of fiction that doesn’t resonate with us on some level.  We’re empathetic human beings. We feel stuff. It’s cool. Hopefully we never have to experience having our arms ripped off my Pennywise the clown, but it’s fun to read about it happening to others, right?

Even if I haven’t convinced you to read the book, you may as well go see the movie adaptation that just came out. It’s getting (last pun, I promise) scary good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and the trailers were intense. I just saw it Saturday night with my brother, and I can confirm–It’s solid work. I’ll post a review once I get this one up and have some time to collect my thoughts, so look for that in about a week or so. Until then, try to stay away from any sewers and abandoned buildings. You might also want to sleep with the light on. Don’t let Pennywise get to you in real life, cause you can bet that he’ll be haunting your dreams.

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