I’m on the tail-end of a monstrously disruptive cold, so I had to scrap my plans of having this review out by the 21st, Stephen King’s septuagenarian birthday. In the realm of missed opportunities, this rates as a fairly minor disappointment, but it would’ve fairly cool nonetheless.
It is one of the most quintessentially “Stephen King” stories, and it’s recent and wildly successful adaptation should, perhaps, not be seen as particularly surprising. In my mind, it holds a premier place in his oeuvre, alongside The Stand, Carrie, and The Shining. For all that, I’ve never read it. I’ve had a copy sitting on my bookshelf for close to 20 years, and, though I’ve opened its covers a time or three, have never gotten through the third chapter (which runs 100 interminable pages in my copy).
This is so quintessentially “Stephen King” for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, perhaps, is that it’s centered on the theme of not being able to fully escape from childhood trauma. Second, it’s a wildly successful book that, I’m sure, won’t go out of print for many, many decades following the eventual (hopefully very distant) demise of its author. But also, thirdly, because its just so…..so long. My copy is 1,138 pages, making it both the second longest book and the fourth 1,000 page book I’ve read this year. I say this not to whine about the excess, however. I’m such a fan of the man’s writing that I seldom complain about Stephen King not having an editor, like so many do. Even when he wonders (as he seemed to do in Under the Dome and 11.22.63, to use two recent examples), I still devour his books with such avidity that I can’t complain too much. And I think the aimlessness to his wonderings is kept to a minimum, here. Or, at least, the tone that’s created by his wondering adds something ineffable to the book; something that I feel is both important and meaningful.
So, generally, I quite enjoyed this book. Or, rather, I enjoyed this book in the way that I enjoy re-reading a book with which I’m vaguely familiar. Though I’ve never read it, I’ve started it multiple times, and I watched the 1990 mini-series, so I certainly had a familiarity with the plot that left few surprises for me. Which is a shame, because I think the inherent creepiness of Pennywise and the mysterious murders of the town’s children would’ve otherwise been fairly captivating.
But, even though I knew what to expect, and a general idea of the path the story would take, King is such a damn good storyteller that the journey was still pretty breathtaking. I think King is a fairly underrated craftsman, often given recognition for his popularity, but generally not regarded as being a great American man of letters. I think this is unjust, and easily place him amongst the greatest American writers of the 20th century. I was often reminded of this while reading It. So much of this book just works so damn well, and he is an absolute master of characterization who really gets what childhood is like.
For much of this book, I felt as though there was an autobiographical strain running through it. And I’m not even talking about the descriptions of childhood in small-town Maine during the 1950s. I wonder if, to some degree, the seven main characters are (intentionally or unintentionally) different facets of King’s personality. They just seemed to fully embody particular character traits, and were written to be individually unremarkable people who, united, are capable of much more. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts, in other words.
Especially as the book gets into the more esoteric, existential, and metaphysical aspects of Kingian mythos, there seemed to be hints of metafiction to the narrative (for instance, references to an unnamed “other” that lies just beyond our realm; even described as the “author” of existence, at one point). This brought to mind John Scalzi’s Redshirts or Tom Stoppard’s Rosecrantz and Guildenstern, and left me with more to think about than I expected from the book. That was a pleasant surprise.
There were, conversely, two unpleasant surprises, however.
The first wasn’t a surprise, but it was certainly unpleasant: child sex. I knew this scene was in the book because an old girlfriend of mine read the book and told me about it. And, if I’m being honest, was probably one reason I never really tried to finish the book before. I didn’t know [SPOILERS AHEAD] if I’d even want to read a book where a bunch of 11 year olds have sex with one another. Well, having read it, I don’t think it was quite so gross as I’d feared. But it still was….just an odd thing to read about. I mean, I get what he was going for…..but I really could’ve done without it.
The second was the gratuitous of racial expletives directed at the books sole black character. I mean, they were coming from unmistakably terrible characters who were tormenting the protagonists under the direction of Pennywise – but after the, I don’t know, 100th use of “NIGGER!”, I just grew a little queasy. Like, can we not dip into that well quite so often?
I don’t think Stephen King is racist, mind. And I get that it was all part of the time period in which the book is set, the racism of the antagonist, and the latent hostility of It that permeates the entire town of Derry, but…..in a book filled with some fairly disturbing and unsettling things, frothingly racist hatred on display was unnerving.
Overall, though, I think this is easily one of King’s masterpieces.
Reviewed 8 times since CBR4, with an average rating of 4.10.