COME HOME COME HOME COME HOME
Sorry! Anyway, I have spent the past couple weeks on a deep sewer dive into the world of IT, Stephen King’s giant no-brakes master class on horror/mind-searing twenty-car pile-up of bad ideas. What’s great in IT is breathtaking. It’s some of his best work on the themes that made his name. You can call IT the Great American Novel and people who have read it will, at least, know what you mean. OTOH what’s not great in IT includes some of the worst ideas of a man who also wrote Dreamcatcher.
I finally watched the 1990 miniseries, then rewatched the recent movies, then reread the 1200pp tome itself, then listened to the six-part series from the Losers’ Club podcast. Below, I will try not to dump my absolutely every thought on this whole IT situation, but say only things that might be of interest to regular followers of the dancing Dragon.
# What is IT about? You can say it’s about the nature of fear, or the nature of belief and the possibility of a Higher Power in a seemingly desolate and destroying world, or the passage from childhood to adulthood, and I’ll talk a bit about all those things below. But in the great tag-yourself of Stephen King’s obsessions, I’m “home.” What it is like to know a place, and to know how much cruelty it has harbored; and to love it, to return to it, anyway.
Even from the first time I read IT, I loved the “interludes” in which librarian Mike Hanlon turns another blood-soaked page of the history of Derry, Maine. When I finished a chapter and saw that the next thing was another “interlude,” my heart would start to pound and I would thrill and dread what was coming next. Derry is so carefully-mapped that I started imagining an IT playset from Mattel, with like, a giant plastic Crawling Eye that you can roll along the streets, a Standpipe that swings open like the Barbie Dream House to reveal the terrible dead boys, a memorial fountain and a ruined ironworks and a Kissing Bridge. And underneath are the sewers, although the weird thing is that you can’t see how the sewer maze level works even when you lift off the top layer. Derry feels like the map I hold in my head of my childhood places, all the places I have been so many times that the ghosts come in layers. This is where we stole fruit off the trees. This is where I played under the porch. This is where the dog chased me home. In Derry, bad memories pool like fog.
If you know anything about the plot of IT, you probably know that the villain is an evil clown named Pennywise; that’s not quite true even in literal terms, but on a thematic level, King makes very clear that Pennywise is Derry and Derry is the USA. Pennywise has lived in Derry for a very, very long time, but it (he? no) isn’t the source of the town’s evils. Pennywise magnifies, but does not create. King isn’t ideological about this stuff, but it’s important that Pennywise feeds on gay-bashing and anti-Black terror, industrial accidents and murders of union men. And King puts all that stuff in there because if there is one thing he knows and loves, it is small cities in Maine. One of the most striking images in the book is the gang of kids, the Losers’ Club, playing in the Barrens: an overgrown waste ground of mud and weeds and pricker bushes below the town, next to the dump and reeking from the sewage that spills out from pipes threaded through the wilderness. A stinking trashground where the kids shared the happiest hours of their lives. A place created by civic abandonment, and yet repurposed for happiness, because children can’t help but love what they inherit. Children distort their souls so they can love where they have to live.
The miniseries and the movies have opposite strengths here. The miniseries captures the civil-architecture aspect of IT, a novel whose poles are the library and the sewers. There’s grandeur in the great central vault of the sewers in the miniseries: a cathedral for all the history the town wishes to forget. And then the movies have that horrifying Romper Room–style TV show, “It’s fun to play in the sewers!”, and the unexplained mural showing the city’s leading citizens standing around the massacred Bradley Gang.
There’s one thing about “Pennywise is Derry is America” that neither the miniseries nor the movies understand, but the book does: You have to destroy Derry. (There’s a reason the final chapter of my novel draft is called, “The Last Washingtonians.”)
# Craft: King is totally not in control of his material here. Which is why his skill is so striking! There are all kinds of clunky aspects to the structure of the book: Why are the Losers apart so much, why must every section follow one of them individually and then loop back to grab another and then another and then another? Why is he forcing sections into artificial and pointless parallel structure via their headings? But then at the climax he’s weaving past and present, dream/hallucination/religious vision and grounded reality. Stitching them together at lightning speed, running on pure vibes and making it all feel natural and right.
There are great moments here, from individual lines (a guy backs into the shelves behind a bar and “glassware gossiped briefly as the bottles knocked together”) to unexpected sub-sub-subgenres (King is an absolute master of chase scenes… the Michael Mann of prose). There are beautiful insights, “sleep with the night light on” scares, complex characters including one heartbreaking villain, a powerful balance of loss and victory, a touching coda, and a truly inimitable skid into bonkers cosmic wildness. Some people dislike Pennywise’s gags but I always love when comedy is part of the horror, when the absurdity is part of the abuse, Pennywise’s janky little dance: “Tell your friends I am the last of a dying race. The only survivor of a dying planet. I have come to rob all the women... rape all the men... and learn to do the Peppermint Twist!”
Also like, everyone remembers that this book has a drastically ill-conceived scene about preteen sexuality, but even if you remember that IT’s also racist, you’ve totally forgotten just how bad the racism is. There’s an important lesson here: things can be both anti-racist and super racist! (Cruising, my despised beloved, is an inextricable mix of queer and homophobic tropes. Many such cases!) IT is a book whose heroes draw strength from their experiences of humiliation as a girl, a fat kid, a Jewish kid, or a Black kid. It also treats the girl as The Sex One; it’s obsessed with how fat the fat kid is; and it makes the Jewish kid and especially the Black kid laugh along with just wildly bigoted “jokes.” I can buy that Stan Uris would go along with how weird the goyishe kids are about his Jewishness, in fact his ambivalent relationship to being Jewish is arguably well-portrayed, but Mike loses his entire sardonic and forthright personality when he’s confronted with ironic (???) racism. A real clinic in what you can know about your own perspective and what you can’t. Say what you will about the “sensitivity reader,” but that’s why you want one; and King’s own changes over the years make me suspect that he would have been grateful had somebody said what Aisha says on the Losers’ Club podcast, “If Richie said that to me it wouldn’t be ‘Beep-beep, Richie.’ It’d be punch-punch, Richie.”
Way too much about both King and this book are revealed in the moment when a woman’s nipples stiffen because she remembers an incident of anti-Jewish bigotry against her.
And yet. The first section describing Bev makes her otherworldly, the woman sublime, Lilith as written by Angela Carter. King writes her like that because she’s The Girl and therefore The Sex One. And yet I loved it. I don’t love the three million times she has to be The Sex One later, but King salvages treasure from the wrack of his own Boomer dude assumptions.
# Lol speaking of sex and the Baby Boom generation… Stephen King has this v. generational thing where he’s always against anything he sees as sexually-repressive (my generation, by contrast, is like, “Why is fun so sad?”), and IT is written during that ’70s – ’80s stretch where a generation had rejected the sexual mores of its predecessors but had not yet developed a morality of its own. I would nuance the discussion a bit differently from what Jesse Walker is doing here, and obviously as a Catholic my underlying moral commitments are weirder than his, but IT is a good example of the generational conflict over sexual boundaries. King emphasizes consent (in a gross way—it’s why the infamous sex scene has to be Bev’s idea, if it’s the girl’s idea then the boys are absolved) and like tenderness and feelings, but also, they all have sex when they’re eleven and we are constantly reminded of the eleven-ness of them.
Two points about that scene: I’ve noticed that people who read IT when they themselves were around 11 or 12 are more likely to defend it, and to say that it resonated with them and even gave them hope that sex would not be an initiation into something awful, a loss, but that it could be tender and an extension of the love they experienced in childhood friendships. I uhhh don’t actually think you as an author should stay that deeply embedded in the prepubescent mind, but I do think King wrote this bad thing because he got deep into the skin of childhood.
And while our ideas about the age of consent have shifted dramatically, as Jesse notes, IT still represents the majority view on one thing: sex as the passage from childhood to adulthood, the glass tunnel connecting the adult and children’s wings of the Derry Public Library. (I’m telling you, IT is urbanism horror.) There’s visceral power in that idea, which makes the Christian rejection of it all the more striking. Christ died a Virgin; in the crucible of celibacy we see a stranger form of adulthood.
IT, too, offers other images of the difference between adult and child. Kids are almost ghosts, Bev thinks, kids can be ignored and worked around, though kids also may be living reminders of all that we don’t love to remember. Kids are memory, adults are forgetting; childhood may involve intense suffering, but adulthood comes with loss. My own favorite idea about adulthood from IT comes when the Losers’ Club comes to Eddie’s hospital bed: “He was seeing in them what his mother had seen in him that afternoon: that odd combination of power and helplessness. The yellow stormlight lay on their skins, making their faces seem ghostlike, distant, shadowy.”
King doesn’t spell it out, but I imagine that the power that is taking the kids over the threshold to adulthood is their new knowledge of so much that their parents have kept from them. The helplessness is, maybe, their understanding that they can no longer deny the truth about their town. They are in the hands of a higher power and they won’t be done until that Power is done with them.
Jump Little Children, “Cathedrals.” In the cathedrals of New York and Rome/There is a feeling that you should just come home….
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Evil clown photo by “Señor Codo,” via Wikimedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons license.
"Children distort their souls so they can love where they have to live." < whoa.