BOOK REVIEW: IT by Stephen King

Do you remember it, that thing in your childhood that terrified you? I don’t mean things that scared you. When you are a kid most things are scary, or can seem so merely because we have no frame of reference – everything is unknown. I mean really scared you, kept you up all night, or made you make an excuse so you could sleep with your mum and dad. Hairy hands and devil dogs, ready to pull you down into hell or portend your imminent death. Freddy’s melting face and razor hands: no matter how hard you try, Freddy is gonna get you, sleepy head. Or maybe it was those shadows under the bed and in the wardrobe. The unseen places, where silence is an itch scratch, scratch, scratching at your sanity, daring you to stick a foot out of your bedcovers, so the hairy hand can rip off your leg at the knee and you’d die in a garden pond’s worth of your own blood.

Yeah, if you think hard enough, dig down deep, climb right in to those memories, remember the songs of your childhood, the smells, the litany of weird children’s TV stars and disc-jockeys, the friends whose names arealready dissolving like ashes in that perfectly logical, perfectly reasonable adult mind of yours, you’ll remember. Remember the corner of your eye. Remember the back alleys and cut throughs that mapped out your world. Remember that no matter how much freedom we had in the good old days, like all children, we were trapped in a small world,with no means of escape, no frame of reference and where no one really listened to us. You can keep what it is to yourself but remember it.

This is why IT is a masterpiece of horror writing. It is Stephen King’s thesis on horror. A

meditation on the nexus between childhood, place and memory.

Of course, as with most of King’s work it is set in Maine and features, you guessed it, a writer from Maine (now have a balloon, it floats, they all float), and more specifically the small town of Derry. And the writer is one of a group of seven friends, the losers, who become bound together either by luck or fate or the will of the great turtle. Like all great writing, King gives you just enough to decide for yourself and then lets your imagination do the rest – like with those shadows under your bed. The kids are bound together to fight a great evil in Derry, the town where every twenty-seven years kids go missing but no one does anything about it. Scapegoats and explanations are always found, and the town continues to prosper, as if in some Faustian pact it doesn’t remember making.

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The adults cannot see things as they really are. For them the world is ordered and logical, as far as it goes. But the kids know, even though they don’t speak to each other about it, like those creepy children’s TV presenters, there’s something not right, and why do your parents laugh at them and ask you what would you like the funny looking man with a cigar and a tracksuit to fix for you? Are they joking? Do they hate you? No, no they are not, and they don’t. They just can’t see it or refuse to. They won’t see the monsters. To do so would be to unpick their world and its twin institutions of authority and trust. Two very adult fantasies. And so it is that the children must fight the monster together.

Clichéd enough, you might think. Killer clowns, oh please! Accept it is not a cliché in King’s hands, partly because he is the man that is the reason for the cliché and mostly because he such a damn good writer. There’s much more going on here than mere monster horror, something more existential and metaphysical in exploring childhood and fear, but also love and friendship.

The novel alternates throughout between two timelines: that of our protagonists, the seven losers, as kids, and then as adults. In both timelines, the town of Derry is in the grips of a spate of child murders and disappearances, which the adults blame on some unidentified sex maniac. This structuring is used to great effect to slowly build tension and genuine psychological horror, as well as to draw rich and believable characters, both good and bad.

The characters and the happenstance of their lives, adult or child, is inextricably linked to the town of Derry. IT and the town gain some benefit from the relationship. King does this kind of thing very well, never giving us the full answer, only hinting and letting us fill in the rest. The Stand is another example of exploring good versus evil, and humans playing out the battle on earth, their wills buffeted by the powers of fate. In both these books, the trick is to get us to believe there is an existential battle being waged between universal forces, which Stephen King is so good at. Although, the conclusion from The Stand and IThas to be that free will is an illusion, at least to some extent.

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I have been reading more horror from the 1970s and 80s recently and most of that, even when well written and fun, still feels dated. The same cannot be said of IT, which remains fresh and visceral. Part of it secret is how well the novel also portrays love and friendship that when are at their strongest can behave as forces of nature, powerful and universal, or at least seem so – and that last bit is essential to the plot: the power of belief.

There is renewed interest in the story because of the new movie due for release this summer. I unfortunately re-watched the 1990 movie with Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown, aka IT. Quite frankly, Tim was the best thing about it, and sadly my teenage memory of the movie was sullied. Its main problem was, despite its 192-minute running time, it was a horror show of plot butchery. The book is long, but the length is necessary to achieve many of the effects, such as character development and the building of tension. At the same time the 1990 movie tried to keep the essential structure of the plot, which left it hollow and at times wooden to the point of unintended comedy. The challenge to the new movie will be to capture the essence of the book, while recognising the demands of the feature movie format. The trailer certainly looks promising, but then so did Prometheus, and look where that got us – a beautifully shot movie, with characters it was difficult to feel anything for and a plot that read like a betrayal to fans of the first two movies.

Alas, such things are sent to terrify us, like shadows under the bed and 1980s disc-jockeys. Sweet dreams children, and don’t let the bedbugs crawl into your ear and eat your brains while you are sleeping. Night, night.

Stephen King

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Stephen Edwin King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy.

You can purchase a copy of IT from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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Review by Daniel Soule

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Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing  the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.

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