WARNING: The following post contains gigantic, mountain-sized spoilers for the Stephen King novel IT. If you haven’t already read that story, I can’t diagnose what your problem is, but do yourself and humanity a favour and rectify that hideous oversights at your earliest convenience and BEFORE you read any further, okay? I’ll be right here, but we really need to talk as equals.
Kit Power on Stephen Kings It
The first thing you need to know is that I was 11 years old the first time I read IT. There’s several implications that flow from that statement, the first and most pressing being what on earth my parents were thinking. I’m quite sure my mum didn’t have a clue what was between the pages of the lurid red slipcase on the hardback book we’d gotten for 25p from the book club offer on the back of the Radio Times. I’m pretty sure she was just happy to see me reading, glad that the doorstop-sized tome meant that at least it would take me a while, unlike the Doctor Who target paperbacks that I usually devoured in a weekend (side note: If your first encounter with ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ is the paperback form, my strong advice is to make it your only one – to say the TV version does not improve is to understate to the point of stupidity). My dad, on the other hand... My dad had read IT, so what can his excuse possibly have been? I should just ask him, but it’s more fun by far to speculate. I think that his reasoning was that I could handle IT, and that if I couldn’t, I’d just stop reading it. In this, he was both right and wrong, but I will be forever grateful that he trusted my own far-reaching instincts, even as I doubt my own capacity to do the same with my own children.
Because IT just blew the doors off.
For starters – and I can say this with a confidence that few others can match – King completely NAILS the experience of being a child in this book. I couldn’t just see the Losers Club, I knew them. By the time I’d been properly introduced to them all, and we’d gone down the smoke hole to have a vision, I was one of them, breathing in the thick acrid fumes, trying not to cough, willing the visions to come.
I laughed with those kids, and I got sad when they did, and I hated their bullies, even as Mr. King took me inside their minds, showed me how damaged they were too, how their meanness was fundamentally a by-product of neglect and parental indifference or hostility. Showed me not the trite old bullshit thing about bullies being cowards (because how, exactly, does that help when you’re the shortest kid in class? No-one’s ever going to be scared of you...) but rather that they are broken, malformed by circumstance and shitty role-modelling, human animals reacting as animals always do to pain.
Showed is the key word above. IT is a big book, a long book, and one of the many advantages that gives is that Mr. King never has to tell us anything – he can just show it. And he does, time and time again – he sees it, he shows it, he does not judge it. There is a lot of death in this book. Specifically, a lot of child death. We witness it often, and it is unflinching, though perhaps it’s interesting that of all the horrors of George Denbrough’s shocking chapter one ‘death –by-dismemberment’ and Patrick Hocksetter’s flying leeches, the ones that haunt me the most are the ones that happen just off camera – the children who fall into the water-tank and are simply left in the dark to swim until they can’t swim anymore, or the toddler whose father murders him with a hammer, we learn from a police statement. There is a lot of death, and true to ‘real life’, often that threat of death comes from those closest to us, those who should care for us the most. Art imitates life.
Here’s the thing though – IT is not a fucking metaphor. It isn’t. Henry Bowers would have been a fucked up kid and a bully because his dad was a crazy asshole, but the reason he ends up attempting to carve his name into Ben’s stomach is not because of that – it’s because he lives in a town inhabited by a creature so malevolent that it poisons the very air, the groundwater, the atmosphere. Derry has all the ugliness of a large town that will never be a city, but the reason so many psychotically horrible things keep happening is because this creature that feeds on fear and pain has its psychic hooks in every single person unlucky enough to live there. IT is not a metaphor for the fears of childhood, or the alienation of kids from adults – all those things are present and correct and explored in this novel, but there’s also a real creature that can read your mind and then shape-shift into whatever you fear most and which will then use that moment of horrified paralysis to eat the flesh from your young bones. Because child –flesh is the tastiest, and scared child-flesh the scrummiest of all.
Can you comprehend how much this blew the mind of an eleven year old boy with an overactive imagination? This book gave me the keys to the kingdom (pun not intended) of human nature. All life was here – all the horrible things people could do to each other and why they did them, the magic of childhood – man, I actually understood the magic of childhood while I was still living it, because some adult could remember it well enough that he could beam it into my brain from his house in Maine and show it to me from the outside and in, through the eyes of these amazing kids and the amazing adults they would become, and I understood getting older, and what it would mean. I saw it all.
And oh yes, those kids. Those wonderful, wonderful kids. The Loser’s Club. My friends. Ben, Bev, Mike, Stan, Richie (lord, Richie), Eddie and Bill. My first black friend, my first Jewish friend. These kids. I remember so vividly how much I wished I could hang out with them in the barrens in the summer of ’58, drinking Coke from glass bottles, smoking Bev’s pilfered cigarettes, listening to the radio playing rock and roll. Ah fuck it, why pretend? I did. My imagination was strong enough, and the writing was good enough. I was there. I think a part of me never fully left.
I read it every winter up to the age of 19 or 20, and I’ve read it a few times since, and it’s still untouchable, to me. Some of you had Huck Fin, or Just William, or whoever. I had the Loser’s Club, they were my people, and we stood together against the scariest fucking thing you could ever imagine, and though the cost was unbearably high, we did prevail, and Derry was destroyed, and we forgot because we must, except the words on the page are there, and we can go back any time we want and see each other again, young and fearless and terrified and laughing.
I haven’t touched on a tenth of what makes this behemoth of a novel such a towering work of imagination. I don’t need to. If you’ve got this far, you either already know, or never will.
Either way, I’m headed back to Derry again, before the year is out. I want to hear Richie doing his Kennedy impression. I want to hear Beverly laugh. I want to watch Ben watching her laugh, feeling the blush and simple, powerful love in his chest as my own. I want to build a dam with Mike and Stan and poor sweet Eddie. And I want to see that look in Bill’s eyes, hear that scarily adult gravel in his voice when he says “It killed my fucking brother. I want to kill it.”
Go get IT, Big Bill. I’m right behind you.
PS - I mentioned the magic of childhood, above. The specific thing King was talking about there was the resilience of kids’ minds - how they can calmly absorb and normalise horror that would send most adults gibbering to the nearest padded room for a nice medicated lie-down. It could just be a lame assertion to fuel the plot, because otherwise how do The Loser's Club not all end up in Juniper Hill? Except it's not, it's a fact, and I know, because I read IT when I was eleven. My guess is Dad knew it too. Thanks again, Dad.
The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife