Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Twenty-five years later: Stephen King’s It

with 7 comments

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.

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. That’s the beauty of a lot of Stephen King’s works. The horror always “comes around,” being used to enhance the human/character drama that is playing out. The story never weighs on the back of the horror. For example, Cujo is a story about family, and how infidelity and secrets can harm one. The dog becomes a metaphor for something that both brings a family together in the traditional sense, but also something that brings them together in a horrifying way. I love King.


    November 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

  2. I agree completely. Pet Sematary, for instance, is one of the most agonizing attempts by any novelist to come to grips with the reality of death and grieving. As with It, I find that some of the horror elements haven’t aged as well, but the underlying human story remains as powerful as ever.


    November 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

  3. There is a remarkable scene in 11/22/63 that returns to Derry and some familiar faces… which was just so cool,to revisit in a new light.

    As far as It is concerned, as I said in a recent post, it’s my favorite King so far. The rock fight scene that takes place partway through the novel has to be one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve encountered in a novel for what it brings to the table. And you are right, it is not about killer clowns just as 11/22/63 is not really about the Kennedy assassination, but so much more.

    Jamie Todd Rubin

    November 22, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  4. I definitely want to check out 11/22/63. King seems to be on a tear these days—Under the Dome was a lot of fun, too.


    November 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

  5. The Stand may be the best bookI’ll never read again. I remember it vividly and with EVERY mark of respect, but my tolerance for The Horrible took a nosedive at about age 20 (over a decade ago), so I am sure I shouldn’t even try to slog through the first 200 pages of rotting flesh.

    But I’ll always tell people that it’s possibly the only Big Apocalyptic Good-v.-Evil story I’ve ever encountered where the resolution feels actually realistic, because Good doesn’t win: evil self-destructs. And I am in awe of the moral (self-)reckoning faced by the liminal characters Nadine and Howard, in awe both of the characters’ experience and the freshness and clarity with which King gives their experience to the readers.

    Alec isn’t even the only now-professional author whom I know from intense collegiate humanities experiences to speak of Stephen King as this indispensibly foundational modern American novelist. I’m beginning to suspect it’s not uncommon for practicing writers to zero in on the true masters of their craft, regardless of genre “disguises.” I like to say (and write) that good science fiction and fanatasy is often just about externalizing the exceptionally important conflicts that, in this world, we don’t actually get to act out. The technology or magic may at base be giving us readers the opportunity to feel physically the cuts and bruises of interpersonal relationships … and the transcendence. See for fine examples Lord of Light, Xenogenesis, and the short stories of Nancy Kress’s Trinity.


    November 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm

  6. The Stand is amazing, but I’ll admit to having some problems with the ending—it’s undeniably effective, but the author’s hand pulling the strings is just a little too visible. But I agree that Harold is one of the most compelling characters King ever created. (I’m also curious as to what other “now-professional author” you’re talking about here…)


    November 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

  7. Marie Brennan. You should hear her talk about The Dark Tower (particularly as this jaw-dropping effort for an author to involve EVERYTHING he’s ever cared about in a single world).

    Also, as a dead-languages geek (though perhaps one in hibernation), you might be interested in trying to help her out with namings for the religion in her new fantasy series.


    November 24, 2011 at 7:56 am

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