It, Stephen King (Signet, 1987)

Horror, Science Fantasy

It_coverGrade: Γ — (Gamma) A good book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.

In brief:

As that this post happens to fall on Halloween, I thought it only appropriate that I review something more in the horror line, and who could be more appropriate for that than Stephen King.

It by Stephen King, is a classic horror tale told in two, alternating time lines – the first in the mid-to-late 1950’s, the second in the mid-1980’s.  The tale focuses on a group of kids (and later adults) who discover the terrible secret behind the once-every-generation murders of children that occur in Derry Maine.  While the tale is generally well written and has wonderful characters put in tremendous scenes of horror, it suffers from the kind of weak ending and overblown climax that King occasionally falls victim to.  A great read on one hand, a bit disappointing on the other.

Map_of_DerrySetting:

Derry, Maine (USA) 1957 to 1958 – juxtaposed with Derry Maine, 1984 to 1985.

In Depth:

I first read It upon its original release in 1986.  At that time I was going through a Stephen King phase and reading everything he produced. It put an end to that phase, and though I still read King’s novels from time to time, It somewhat broke the magic for me.

Stephen-King-001It’s not that It is a bad book.  Far from it.  It has truly creepy scenes and wonderful characters that capture the reader’s sympathy, imagination and attention.  It has descriptions that pull you into the tale, and tells a story of childhood horror that bleeds into adult despair. In one sense, It is marvelous.

stephen_king_s_it___pennywise_the_clown__by_darrilasylum-d5rs66pIn other sense, however, It is remarkably disappointing in a manner that showcases King’s greatest weaknesses while also demonstrating his greatest strengths.  It’s really hard to discuss this without spoilers, so I will describe the set up and explain how stylistically King disappointed me in this book.

In the 1950’s a group of pre-teen misfits is drawn together, first by their outsider status, then by the tragic and horrific events that begin to unfold in their home town.  For time beyond measure, the town of Derry, Maine has been haunted by a creature of vast supernatural ability;[1] a creature that feeds on the fears and deaths of children (among other things).  Appearing in forms that either lure or horrify kids (or often both), It‘s lurking presence draws the gang of preteen outsiders attention and sets up a chain of events that leads them to discover the creature’s presence and try to defeat the eponymous It.

ItcoveragainHere, in the set up, is one of the elements that best demonstrate how marvelous a writer King can be.  Using a combination of real world threats and childhood fears, King manages to weave a world in which even adult would become frightened of the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and a host of other 1950’s monster movie icons.  The single most used form of the creature, and that which most generally most associated with the book, is Pennywise the Clown, who transforms from a child friendly to child horrifying shape that would make anyone a coulrophobic.  For me, however, the most memorable form that the creature takes is pulled from one of the protagonists’ memories of a man suffering from syphilis. This image of the man, who the child thinks of as a leper,[2] is transformed by It into a monstrous form that stalks the kid and evolves into more frightening forms.

stephen_king__s_it_7_8_by_abonny-d5jqtx3To this end, the book also demonstrates one of King’s other great talents: the ability to put the reader in the mindset of someone that neither he nor the author is (or has been for many years).  In this case, it is not just the mind of a child on the edge of adolescence that King manages, but more importantly the kind of camaraderie that is all but unique to pre-teen kids.  Indeed, King’s ability to put you into the friendship of those kids is remarkable.  You feel their individual and team triumphs, failures, friendships and fears as if you were ten or eleven yourself.

stephen_king_it_cover_concept_by_kaliburstudio-d4i9kbnYet in contrast to this comes the thing that finally turned my love of King down to a respectful admiration – and put an end to my binge reading of his books: Stephen King doesn’t know how to end a story.

Well, that’s not fair.  He does, and sometimes they are brilliant.  The Shining, Salem’s Lot, Carrie, Pet Cemetery, Cujo, The Body, hell, even The Stand all have perfectly good endings.  But he often feels the need to put everything in the whole world on the line, and sometimes it goes over the top.  While in The Stand this Word-In-Danger element seemed appropriate, it came across as over-the-top and unnecessary in It. The stakes of fighting a child murdering ancient creature were high enough, they did not have to be raised.

Additionally, there was a bit at the climax of the childhood scenes that seemed, well, inappropriate. Symbolically, I understand what King was doing, but for me, it degraded the nature of the groups friendship rather than build a bridge between childhood and adolescence.  I can’t really go into it without spoilers, but when you get there, you’ll know what I’m on about.

So, in essence, I feel that It is a great journey with an overblown ending.  I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and it is far from King’s best.[3]


[1] This will hardly come as a surprise to King fans, as that Derry is the focus of a large number of his works, and central to the Gunslinger series.

[2] Indeed, here we see another key strength of King.  He never says the man has syphilis, he just describes the late stage symptoms and puts the character in a situation where it is obvious what ails him. Yet, while in the child’s point of view, he is always described as a leper – the only reference that a preteen boy of the 1950’s might have to describe such a person.

[3] A quick side note regarding the made-for-TV movie of this film: Meh….

As you can see from this picture, Pennywise just isn't scary in the movie... At least compared to the other illustrations, not to mention the imagination....

As you can see from this picture, Pennywise just isn’t scary in the movie… At least compared to the other illustrations, not to mention the imagination….

It seem cardboard and unappealing, with no element living up to the horror of the book, least of all Pennywise the Clown (played by the remarkably talented Tim Curry).  A must skip movie that degrades the best aspects of the book into clichés, if you ask me.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Coming of Age tale, Horror, Identity, paranormal or otherwise unexplained (possibly alien or magic) object, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Science Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Series, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Supernatural, Thoughtful, Thriller, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It, Stephen King (Signet, 1987)

  1. tomspeelman says:

    I read this book last spring and while I liked it in the end, this is the only King book I’ve ever read where it didn’t take me only one go. I had to spread it out over weeks, mostly because I think its length made me get a little sick of his style.

    And the bit I think you’re alluding to at the end? Yeah, that’s odd. My friends told me about that scene and I didn’t believe them at first, but when I got there…oh man, that was strange.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Yeah, it just didn’t really fit did it? Felt forced, like he was making a comment about adulthood and the end of innocence, etc, that just didn’t match the tale. Had it happened when they were adults, maybe… but even then…

      • tomspeelman says:

        It would still have been odd, yeah. I’m actually doing a paper on King right now; it’s surprising to see how a good deal of his work revolves around young adults and teenagers.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        I have thought the same thing myself. He does write them wonderfully well, particularly for a man who is older than I am. Also, I suppose that is an age where fear takes on more tangible forms – though hopefully not quite as tangible as as in It.

        On a more serious note, for me, this book seemed to sum up a huge number of his other stories. It tied together themes that were below the surface in so many of his books. Afterwards, I seemed to be able to see the workings of his worlds, and that removed some of the magic as it were.

        The same thing happened to be with John LeCarre and “The Perfect Spy.” In one sense his best book, in another, the end of an era.

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