My reasons for finally picking up Stephen King’s It are manifold. First of all, it is a canonical King work that I feel guilty having not read—I’ve gone through most of his other big novels, but not this one. I have seen (and, with caveats, loved) the 1990 television miniseries adapted from the novel (dominated, of course, by Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise). Thirdly, It was the bestselling novel of 1986, the year I was born, which in reality isn’t really significant, but it sort of feels significant, like this is my book is a way that others of his aren’t. It’s silly and irrational, but there ya go. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, It casts an enormous shadow over King’s oeuvre. The novel stands with The Stand, The Shining, and Misery as one of the most iconic horror novels of all time.
So, for this post and two more, I’m going to track my experience reading this King classic. I’m obviously going to hold off giving a final review until I’ve finished the novel. These posts will be a little different from what we usually do here on Genre Lasagna, but I thought a 1,100 page horror monolith deserved a bit more attention than I’d be able to give it in a standard review. And there is no way, summer free time notwithstanding, that I’d be able to finish this beast in two weeks. This first post will cover roughly the first third of the book.
So, here we go:
Stephen King has an incredible talent for modulating between different levels of narrative density. He can tell a very tight story in a small space, as evidenced by works like “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and his many excellent short stories. Other times, he lets himself go. And when Stephen King lets himself go, he lets himself go.
It is that kind of book. My wrists honestly hurt after holding the hardcover for any length of time. Rocks smaller than it have fallen from space and caused serious property damage. It’s an enormous novel that attempts to bring an entire city, with all of its historical atrocities and secrets, to life. The Derry of It is a fully realized narrative setting, and the depths to which King explores the town and its unique affliction is kind of staggering and at times overwhelming.
Story is, every twenty-seven or –eight years, bad things happen in Derry with unusual frequency. These range from a freak accident at the Derry Ironworks in the 1800s, (which resulted in hundreds of children hunting for Easter eggs being blown up), to a rash of child disappearances in the early 1900s. Something in very wrong in Derry. The novel’s famous opening scenes depicts six-year-old George Denbrough following a paper boat as it floats down swollen rain gutters. After the boat slips down a storm drain, Georgie meets something terrible hiding there.
The story moves back and forth between the present-day Derry of 1986 and the summer of 1958, following a cast of six or seven (depending on the time) principle characters in both time periods. One of my favorite things about the book is the time and space that King devotes to fleshing out the principle characters, giving them depth and resonance even before the real action of the novel starts. Each character in It (Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscomb, Beverly Marsh, Richie Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stanley Uris, and Mike Hanlon) gets a large tract of narrative space to establish his or her unique and fortuitous circumstances in 1986. Each of them receives a phone call from Mike Hanlon, who unlike the others never left Derry, asking them to make good on a promise each of them made to return if something started to happen again.
The novel so far is walking a very interesting line in terms of its release of information. From the sections in 1986, we know that the group fought something as kids, apparently won, and then promised to return if needed. A huge narrative moment is foreshadowed and alluded to almost immediately. It would be very easy for this information to deflate the tension of the sections taking place in 1958, which detail the events that brought the group together and, we assume, their confrontation and victory over the ambiguous, malicious evil force that is threatening Derry, but it doesn’t. Knowing that something is going to happen actually works to heighten the tension and raise the stakes. King smartly keeps the focus, in both time periods, on the characters. There are monsters here, and some truly scary scenes, but the moments I’m enjoying most are the interactions between the child characters. Each of them is distinct and well drawn, and their interactions with each other have a ring of truth that I can’t quantify but nonetheless deeply appreciate.
The first section of the book is very much putting pieces into play. To be clear, there are shelves and shelves of complete novels that aren’t as long as the first third of It. I can totally see some readers being annoyed by the pace of this book. It’s long. It’s often slow. The prose can be meandering and indulgent. I’ve read almost 400 pages so far, and the six main characters in the 1986 front story have not yet been reunited. In the hands of a lesser author, this sort of pace would be a defect and not a feature, but I don’t feel that way with this book. It’s a large, at times unwieldy story. But it’s also kind of amazing.
Which is not to say that King doesn’t make some questionable moves. Certain citizens of Derry in 1986 are rampantly and violently homophobic, spousal and child abuse is a theme, and there’s a sort of laughable representation of a self-proclaimed feminist. These alone aren’t really defects in the book, but King’s omniscient narrator adopts these personas in places and revels in them so gleefully that they began to detract from the message of the book rather than add to it. Still, these moments of coarseness are fairly brief and minor.
There’s a scope and ambition here that’s rare in novels—a quality that is so satisfying when done well. I’m nearing a big turning point in the plot. The pieces are in motion, and soon the board will be set. Even only a third of the way into the book, I have a deep affection for the characters, and I’m invested in seeing how they respond to the resurfacing of their deepest childhood fears. King understands that the most interesting aspect of horror is always the darkness at the heart of the characters, not in the beasties who lurk in storm drains. For that reason, I’m going to keep reading.