Twenty-five years later: Stephen King’s It
For all the ongoing debate over Stephen King’s stature as a serious novelist, as far as I’m concerned, the issue was settled exactly twenty-five years ago this September, with the publication of what continues to be my favorite popular novel ever published in America. That’s a grandiose statement, to be sure, but it’s also exactly the kind of sentiment likely to be inspired by It, a thousand-page monster of a novel that seems to have bewildered even its own creator. King has repeatedly said, most recently in an interview with Time, that It was an attempt to put everything he cared about into one novel, a sort of “final exam on horror,” and it shows: few novels of any genre have invented so much. A book so large and sprawling inevitably has its flaws, some of which I’ll mention below. But in its scope, ambition, and emotional power, It represents the best of what genre fiction can do, and almost twenty years since I first encountered it, it continues to grip my imagination. For me, it remains the popular novel, the primal reading experience I’m always trying to recreate, and literally dream of discovering again.
And I was lucky to read it at just the right age—or rather, the wrong age, which is really the same thing. A while back, I pointed out that the best time to discover Stephen King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. In some ways, It is the ultimate example, because in an era when the “young adult” category has been diluted by works really written for slumming grownups, this is legitimately the greatest young adult novel of all time, at least in the sense that reading it can turn children into adults. As the novel begins, its main characters, the Losers, are in the fifth grade, and I was only a year or so older when I first read it, which turned out to be exactly the right moment. With its sex, gore, and violence, It was an education, and also the most realistic depiction of my own inner life I’d ever seen. And it’s only now, after I’ve gone through precisely the process of forgetting that King spends much of the novel warning us about, that I can truly appreciate the intensity and accuracy of his evocation of childhood.
Because this is a book about childhood and imagination, and only incidentally about horror. Reading it again recently, I was surprised to discover that while much of the novel remained fresh—its humor, its sense of place, its immersion in the pop culture of two different eras, both of them now period pieces—the horror aspects felt a little tired. It might seem strange to say this about the most epic of horror novels, but the more I reread It, which I’ve probably read in pieces at least ten or fifteen times, the more the horror comes to seem like a fictional convenience, a clothesline on which to hang a series of episodes about memory and coming of age. King, in his prime, treated horror less as a subject than as a medium, and in this book’s central conceit—a monster that takes a multitude of shapes and returns once a generation—he found a potent image for the ways in which we are haunted by our youth but unable to recall it in its full beauty and mystery, something I was too young to recognize at the time.
The lesson of It, then, is that a novel isn’t always about what we initially think it is. When I remember It, the last thing that comes to mind is that killer clown in the sewers—unless I happen across this picture late at night—or the convoluted cosmology that takes center stage in the novel’s untidy conclusion. What I recall, instead, are King’s descriptions of a clubhouse in the woods, of a first crush, and of how it feels to live in an inner world still peopled by creatures from comics, movies, and horror novels. If the book’s succession of boogeymen no longer has the power to frighten, it’s only because I’ve entered that stage in my life that King darkly told me would come, when a child’s purity of terror has given way to more ordinary anxieties. The monster in It sleeps for a quarter of a century, then returns, which is perhaps a sign that everyone who read this book when it came out—and it was the bestselling novel of 1986—should revisit it again now. Because the children who first read It are grownups at last. And they might be surprised by how much this novel still has to say.