Tattered Tomes: Stephen King’s It Revisited

Stephen King ITAs college and girls consumed my life right out of high school, my reading slowed down tremendously. With the exception of my British Lit class and my composition class thesis contrasting and comparing Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot, there wasn’t much fiction reading in my life. It came out in 1986 when I was a sophomore in college with a low GPA and no future except for study. It took me nearly two years to get my grades up to par, and it was then, sometime around the end of 1988, that I finally read It for the first time. Back then, readers had a bad habit of judging books by size and weight. A large book meant more story, more bang for your buck. With King being at the top of his game, when It finally released in mass-market paperback, I realized that YES, finally another giant book by Stephen King. This was bigger than The Stand (the uncut version of The Stand wouldn’t come out for another two years), so maybe it was just as epic, just as exciting, just as excellent as The Stand.

I was in for a major disappointment.

Rereading It was a reluctant decision to see if time away from the book, twenty-eight years to be exact, would be enough to change my opinion of the book. Maybe it was because I knew I was reading it for review, which meant I would need to really pay sharp attention and focus on the story, or because its daunting size is just plain scary in the age where novellas and novelettes pack quite the punch, but reading it was a chore, and not a pleasurable one. I cannot emphasize enough that the writing in this book is some of the best King has ever put on the page. Unfortunately, all that pretty writing kills the pace of the story, rendering it at times frustrating and full of deceptive anticipation.

During the last thirty years, mainstream fiction has been slowly shifting to the shorter novel. Of course, there are still massive books being published every year, but what we find now, compared to then, is more action, stronger characters, and a much deeper focus on the dramatic twists and turns that keep us turning the pages, resulting in shorter books. Reader attention spans have changed as well. The Internet Age sends everything out in bite-sized, easy to digest chunks. Wordy pieces get a ‘too-long, didn’t read’ tag, further abbreviated down to tl: dr. The internet has affected everyone’s reading habits, myself included. Reading should be pleasurable, an experience worth revisiting again and again. Of all of King’s books I’ve reread this year, It was the only one so far that struck me the wrong way. I’m sure the feeling is mutual for many readers, yet it remains one of everyone’s favorite King novels.

If many other readers and fans tend to agree that It is a little long in the tooth, why does it rate so highly? One possible answer is the villain. Pennywise, the shape-shifting ‘It’ of the story, is one of King’s strongest antagonists. It’s worth mentioning that Pennywise’s claim to fame might be more the result of Tim Curry’s excellent portrayal of the character in the It network miniseries. Curry brings every character he’s ever played to life in ways no one ever sees coming, and Pennywise is the character horror fans think of when the word ‘clown’ comes into conversation. It’s easy to deduce that King’s novel has been made more famous by an actor’s portrayal of the villain than the actual character in the book. That’s quite a shame actually, especially since King’s vision of the character makes Curry’s performance, as outstanding as it was, dull by comparison.

“It wasn’t clown make-up the clown was wearing. Nor was the clown simply swaddled in a bunch of bandages. There were bandages, most of them around its neck and wrists, blowing back in the wind, but Ben could see the clown’s face clearly. It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, and flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust…”

Pennywise is not really a clown, but the embodiment of our own deepest fears. For some unknown reason, soon after the miniseries released, people around the world suddenly became more aware they were deathly afraid of clowns. There’s another shame there, because I’ve never been afraid of clowns. I love clowns. Always have. Regardless, this shape-shifter is what people remember the most about the novel. Ask casual King fans to name a character from the story and they will always say Pennywise. Almost no one will ever say Mike Hanlon, the actual narrator of the story.

King chooses wisely to break the story up into the events of 1958 and 1985. What a great way to tell the whole story of how the Loser’s Club formed, and fought, It, vowing to return to Derry should the evil ever begin again. The evil does return, as it has every thirty years. It was written at a time when King was able to just about publish anything he wanted to put out. I remember meeting editors at conferences that worked for Viking back in the day, saying that King’s novels had to be wheeled around in a wheelbarrow. This was before the internet and email. Things are a lot easier now. A thousand page novel likely came from a two-thousand-page manuscript, so it’s easy to imagine an intern wheeling several reams of boxed paper around from office to office. When you have that much leeway with the book, of course it makes sense to tell as much of the story as you can get away with. Yet, just because it makes sense to tell the whole story, that’s no reason to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink. King’s best decision on how to tell the story became his worst decision in the execution of the story. The result is a beautifully written, bloated mess of indulgence that stands in the shadow of an actor’s portrayal of the villain of the story.

Fans of horror fiction, especially those of Stephen King and Peter Straub, know King and Straub collaborated on projects together before and since It was released, primarily the books The Talisman and Black House. It should come as no surprise to anyone that King’s It was directly influenced by Straub’s earlier novel, Floating Dragon. No, King didn’t rip his friend off. There’s a huge difference between being influenced by something and stealing, but there are similarities that bear mentioning. The format of the novels, basically a first person narrative told in a blended 3rd person multiple perspective style leaning heavy on creative license, is used for both It and Floating Dragon. Straub decided to keep the past, for the most part, right where it belonged, while King devoted a huge chunk of the novel to the time period to show us the events of 1958. Both stories feature an ancient evil returning after many years away, yet Straub’s characters discover the mystery on their own as they go along in the story, while the Loser’s Club all forgot about the events and don’t remember what happened until they all return to Derry. The main characters in Floating Dragon are descendants of the town’s original founders, the catalyst that brings the evil back into the world. Both novels use interludes to break up the story, allowing the narrator to directly address the reader. King obviously loved Straub’s novel, probably to the point that he wanted to write a similar story of his own, and we are richer for that decision.

This reread of It was not what I expected at all for the most part. I hoped to return to the story eager to be lost in the words, reliving my first experience with mature eyes, looking for that sense of familiarity that comes from a reread, testing my memory, enhancing it even. Instead I found myself reading some of the best written scenes King has ever written, but ultimately unsatisfied that such scenes failed to move me along in the story. As a whole, each scene is crucial for the characters. We see them older, and thirty years before as children, and they are more rounded for it. We care about them because we are them. We know their fears, their loves, their lives. I fear that if there was a way King could edit the book and re-release it today in a shorter version, it would not be the same book at all, that it would always feel like something was missing, even though that is the very thing that makes it such a difficult read. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve changed, and my reading needs are much different now than they were back in 1986. I see a huge book now and I’m likely to not read it, or even want to read it. It’s not about the time, it’s about the experience. Why invest in such a wordy endeavor when there are much shorter books that are chock full of story that hit in all the right spots?  Regardless, I still think It is a novel horror readers should revisit, simply because they might have a different experience than I’ve had. For me, it remains one of the few of King’s books with the most potential, delivered in the least desirable way.


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