Book Review: Stephen King’s It

It’s time for some unpopular opinions to start off my “It Week” in preparation for the new movie. While there are a lot of things to enjoy about the book, I will say firmly that this is not one of my favorite Stephen King titles, and today we’re going to talk about why.

It Book

SPOILER WARNING: While there are not any big plot spoilers, this review is aimed more toward people who have already read the book.

It, much like King’s short story collection Just After Sunset, took the best and worst of his writing and intertwined them so seamlessly that I still don’t fully know how I feel about the story as I’m sitting down to review it after months of contemplation.

This last spring I re-read the book for the first time since I was ten years old, and what struck me immediately upon getting to the end is that the fear comes from an entirely different place when reading through as an adult.

(I feel like it might be worth noting at this time that I wasn’t scared by the novel either of the times that I read it, but to different degrees I could understand why others were.)

As a child not much younger than our beloved protagonists, the scenes that had the most impact were the vivid descriptions of what scared the children. The crawling eye, the mummy, the leper, the werewolf, the clown, and of course, the giant spider (and having not yet overcome my arachnophobia at the time, that was the worst one.) The gore was very vivid, and it was one of the aspects I remembered most clearly going into the book the second time.

Re-reading It, I feel like the most chilling aspects weren’t what scared the children, or even what scared the adults – it was where the children took comfort. It was in the little things between the scares that I found most disturbing. It was Beverly fantasizing about Bill’s “thing” and Ben feeling flushed by Bev’s exposed side-boob. There was one particular scene that I found particularly troubling (and those of you who have read the book will probably know which one.) While I wasn’t exactly offended by the content, and could see its relevance to the plot, I just don’t want to read about the sexual chemistry between children.

It’s different when the “children” are teenagers, or even in high fantasy/ historical fiction where it’s a part of the culture, but these are eleven year old kids in relatively modern times. I’m all about being sex positive, and about horror being sensual, but this was uncomfortable to say the least. That’s actually sort of impressive, because there aren’t a lot of writers who can make me that uncomfortable and still have me reading for over a thousand pages.

Moving past that and into defending the novel again, there were a lot of places where a better understanding of sexual content added to my experience of the book – in particular it helped me understand Beverly’s relationship with Tom better than I ever could as a child. It added a lot of tension to areas of the book that seemed drawn out before. It made it scarier on a different level, and in a different way – but I have to admit that I miss having the experience of being able to take the scares at face value because it made the surface layer of It (both the book and the creature) that much more terrifying. I didn’t need the disturbing and sometimes sexually disturbing undertones because the masks were all scary enough on their own.

There were some other things that bothered me about the book as well, and a lot of them have turned into King tropes. They might not have been an issue earlier in his career when this was published, and they definitely didn’t bother me my first time through the book, but there are a lot of recurring themes here.

 

  • Something’s wrong with a city in Maine.
  • The writer gets to be the hero.
  • The bullies have no redeeming values.
  • The bullies in the flashbacks are easily identifiable by an overabundance of racial slurs.

 

And let’s talk about that for a minute. I have seen more offensive racial slurs in Stephen King books than I have seen everywhere else combined. Maybe I’m sheltered, maybe it can be attributed to being a millennial, who knows? What I do know is that not all minorities have to overcome violent adversity in every horror epic. It’s one of those things where in the context of each book it makes sense for the discrimination to be there as much as it is, but overall it’s a rather unpleasant pattern for the reader – and re-reading It was where I finally had my limit.

While I’m on the things that I disliked about this book, let’s just go ahead and knock the last two out of the way.

It was slow.

I grew up reading King, idolizing him, learning from him, and he’s one of the writers who has influenced me most. I always take it as the greatest compliment when people tell me they see that influence. When I read about his battles with editors I’ve sided with him and the longer version every single time, but if there were ever an instance where some stuff could have been cut, this would have been the one.

It’s not that it’s not going somewhere – and by the time you get to “The Ritual of Chud” the pacing has hit a perfect stride, but it took its sweet time getting there.

To an extent I like the richness of the town and the characters and the classic level of detail that made me appreciation King so much as a writer in the first place. That’s something I love about so many of his books – but I feel like it might have been overkill in this instance. I don’t think it would have been, except for that the character dynamics weren’t as complex in this book as in many of his others. The characters were, but their relationships were all fairly straightforward, and I felt like my hand was being held in a lot of areas because of how everything was spelled out.

There’s a section that’s told from the point of view of Patrick Hockstetter. We get to see a little bit into his history and the events in his life leading up to his death. Not that the section wasn’t interesting, but it didn’t add a lot to his character or the plot. He’s not any more sympathetic by the end and we don’t find out anything we couldn’t have speculated at anyway. (Beverly had seen the pencil box of dead flies, and I think if she saw a refrigerator full of animal carcasses that Henry was using to blackmail Patrick, we could have figured out what Patrick’s connection was there.)

It was the same situation with a lot of the scenes we see from Henry’s point of view – they took away the mystique for me of how It gets into the townspeople and it didn’t add a lot to the story. Sure, we learned Henry was crazy and being guided by It. Didn’t we know that anyway? Were those scenes worth all the extra time that they took, or was they just sort of filler in an otherwise great story that didn’t really need them?

Finally, we’re getting to my last problem. It sounds like nitpicking, but it’s something that I just have to share; the laughing.

Yeah, okay, all of the scenes where The Losers Club bursts out laughing over something regardless of how funny it is, illustrate the creature’s weakness and the power that the group has. It even builds up to a point where the symbolism of this is spelled out for the audience.:

 

-hadn’t they, the seven of them, spent most of this, the longest, scariest summer of their lives, laughing like loons? You laugh because what’s fearful and unknown is also what’s funny, you laugh the way a small child will sometimes laugh and cry at the same time when a capering circus clown approaches, knowing it is supposed to be funny . . . but it is also unknown, full of the unknown’s eternal power.

I get the relevance but it’s one of those things that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. I noticed a couple hundred pages in just how often laughter was being described, and it was something that plagued me after that until the very end of the book as the awkward laughter of the Losers Club is relentless.

I didn’t hate the book, but it was a lot easier to overlook certain flaws during my first exposure to the story, and I felt like it doesn’t hold up to repeat readings as well as many of King’s other works – and it isn’t one of his books that I feel is the most praiseworthy. It’s hard for me to see It have yet another resurgence in popularity when King books that I feel are far superior are constantly overlooked – but that will be saved for another article.

 

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