Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Seven children and It

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Note: With the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It out in theaters today, it seems like a good time to revisit my thoughts on one of my favorite novels. The material in this post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2011 and October 2, 2013.

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction must be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, as well as places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that haunts me the most is Stephen King’s It, which might seem like an unlikely candidate for America’s greatest popular novel. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small city in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, into which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, storytelling, and the melancholy process by which we leave our childhood selves behind. The result is a monster of a novel that seems to have bewildered even its own creator. King has said that It was an attempt to put everything into one story, 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, but in its scope, ambition, and emotional power, It represents the best of what genre fiction can do, and in the twenty-five 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. I’ve pointed out before that the best time to discover Stephen King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. It is the ultimate example, because in an era when the “young adult” category has been diluted by works really written for 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. (Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, like Ben Hanscom.) With its sex, gore, and rock music, It was an education in itself, and also the most realistic depiction of my 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 appreciate the intensity and accuracy of his evocation of youth. This is really a book about childhood, and only incidentally about horror. King is the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny his roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but the qualities that first drew me to his work aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there.

As a result, It no longer scares me much, any more than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining does on my twentieth viewing. Reading it again a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that while so much of it remained fresh—its humor, its sense of place, its immersion in the popular 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 revisit It, which I’ve probably read in pieces at least a dozen times, the more its supernatural element seems 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, of a monster that takes a multitude of shapes and returns once a generation, he found a potent image for the ways in which we’re haunted by our youth but unable to fully recall it. A novel isn’t always about what we initially suspect it is, and when I think back to It now, the last thing that comes to mind is the killer clown in the sewers or the convoluted cosmology that assumes center stage in the book’s untidy conclusion. What I love, 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. And King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled, has drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it. It’s a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends hundreds of pages exploring it, until we feel that we could find our way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a fantasy where you’re still the child you always meant to be. If its succession of boogeymen no longer has the power to frighten, it’s only because I’ve reached the age of its protagonists as adults, and I’ve started the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day, as a child’s purity of terror gives way to more ordinary anxieties. The monster in It sleeps for a quarter of a century before it returns, which is perhaps a sign that everyone who read this book when it came out should revisit it 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

September 8, 2017 at 9:01 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with , ,

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