(It: A Novel)
One of the things that I’ve always liked about Stephen King is that when he writes from the perspective of children, he never wraps up by acknowledging that the adults were right all along. Because they often aren’t right, and more to the point, when it comes to the world of children, they often don’t even know what they’re talking about — they’re oblivious. I started reading King when I was young enough to still know this from personal experience.
Of course, now I’m the adult. And I hope I’m not a monster. I try to be aware enough to know that I still don’t know all of the things — and when it comes to the world that my children live in, I may no longer even be truly capable of understanding all the things, at least as they experience them. I do try to hear them and believe them, because I don’t want to be a monster. Do I succeed? I don’t know. I guess I can’t know, unless they tell me. Which they probably won’t do unless I mess up badly.
Of course, I guess it’s likely that my kids will never run up against a sewer monster made up to look like a clown. But It isn’t really about that, is it? Or if it is about that, it’s only about that on the surface level. Underneath — in the sewers, if you like — there are a lot of awful people in It. If they were less awful, or there were fewer of them, the evil clown might not thrive there.
They don’t all mean to be evil, I suppose. Take Eddie Kaspbrek’s mother. Sure, she’s overbearing and stifling and stunting her only child horribly. But I feel some sympathy for her that I didn’t feel in the past — over two decades of parenting have taught me how badly children can scare you, how much you can love them, and how much the idea of holding them back — to keep them safe, you understand — can appeal to a parent. You have to fight it. Maybe not everyone is capable of fighting hard enough.
Or how about Big Bill’s parents, so mired in their grief that they’ve silently allowed their surviving child to shoulder the blame for the loss of their younger child? My heart hurts for Bill, who was a good big brother, and who deserves parents who would comfort him and reassure him that he did nothing wrong. But my heart also hurts for those parents. Losing a child is the biggest and scariest adult fear that I can imagine. I’d rather take on killer clowns and giant spiders myself than go through that. I can feel for parents who’ve experienced that, and handle it all wrong. There’s no good way to handle it.
The fact that they’re sympathetic doesn’t make Eddie’s mother or Bill’s parents actions — or inactions — any less monstrous, though.
And then there are the other kinds of monsters, the kind who aren’t doing it accidentally or unthinkingly or out of a well of pain. Al Marsh abuses his child. Butch Bowers abuses his child and twists his mind into the bargain.
And these are just parents. What about some of the other evil adults? The Legion of White Decency — just the KKK by another name. The townspeople who ignore the sights and sounds of children in trouble. The pharmacist who hides behind just being truthful, when he’s clearly getting off on hurting a child? The homophobes, the racists, the abusive husband. Grownup monsters, all of them.
And the more I think about it, the more I think that was the point. Remember, King’s human monsters are always the scariest ones. Not all of his books are from a child’s perspective — many are from the perspective of adults, and many of his adult heroes are generally good people. Heck, the protagonists of It are adults in parts of the book, and as adults, they retain the qualities that made them protagonists as kids. It’s not that all adults are bad — it’s that kids naturally live in a world populated by people who are larger than them and have authority over them and who don’t listen to them or understand them or take them seriously. And some of those people are monsters. And unfortunately, that’s as true outside the pages of a Stephen King novel as it is in it.
It is a fan favorite, of course. And it’s essential to the King canon — reading through it, I see so many references to other works. The Turtle, of course, will feature in the Dark Tower series. Eddie’s aunts live in Haven, which we’ll explore more in Tommyknockers. I found a reference to everything being “on track and on the beam” — more Dark Tower. Richie’s mummy bears similarities to David and Brian’s mummy in Desperation. Weird homeless guys try to give blowjobs to little boys, like we see with Jack in The Talisman — that’s probably not exactly a continuity reference, but I find it weird enough to notice and comment on. Tom Rogan, on his way to hunt down his wayward wife, is remarkably similar to Norman in Rose Madder. And maybe it’s a reference to “The Body” when Bill tells his friends to “stand by me, and I’ll stand by you guys.” Because hey, if the adults are monsters, the kids need to stand by each other. And terrible adults weren’t exactly in short supply in that story, either.
Of course, many of these references are found in works that come after It, which means that it’s more likely that they reference It than that It references them. But it’s still a tie-in. And when it comes to things like the Turtle — which is so strange when you don’t have the wider context to consider it in — it makes me think that he had some of these ideas earlier on than the publishing dates suggest, even if he didn’t know exactly where they were going yet.
No post about It would be complete without mentioning the movie adaptations, of course. There are two, and in a deviation from my normal lack of exposure to movie adaptations, I’ve seen both of these. I saw the 1990 miniseries when it aired. I was 10, and I’m sort of surprised my mom let me and my younger sister watch it. Not that she really censored our media all that much, but still… I have a nostalgic fondness for that movie, and I still think that Tim Curry played an amazing Pennywise. I also remember that my sister slept in my bed with me for weeks after watching that miniseries and remained scared of clowns for much longer. Later, when I read the book and realized just how much depth the miniseries missed, I enjoyed it less. But I would still watch it to kill some time.
I think in the newer movies, they tried to restore some of that depth — for example, by showing the death of Adrian Mellon in It: Chapter 2, something the ‘90 miniseries left out. Honestly, these two movies were a perfectly reasonable adaptation of the book, and while I still love Tim Curry as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard did a great job by making the part his own rather than trying to be Tim Curry as Pennywise. He couldn’t have pulled that off, but he could, and did, bring his own style to the part. As for the rest of the actors, I think both the children and adults do a fantastic job. But the movies still lose something for me. I think they’re more surface level — more about the scary clown-monster than about the racism, the homophobia, the child and spousal abuse, and the other societal ills that Stephen King was really writing about. And they also lack all of the connections to the rest of King’s canon. I like both the movies and the miniseries, but they’re always going to pale beside the book, at least for me.
It is another top ten or top five in the King canon, as far as I’m concerned. Yes it’s long and it takes time to read and that orgy of 11-year-olds was definitely not his best idea ever. But it’s still an amazing book that really takes you into the world, and really speaks about some things that are bigger and more important than fictional monsters. Bad things, but good things too, like friendship, what it is, and why we need it so badly.
“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”