Monday, February 12, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Stephen King's "It"

As it turns out, It has an unearned reputation. Pennywise the Clown is not the scary part of the book. Maybe he’s scary in the film, I don’t know, but in the book he’s only a symbol for a much bigger evil. It the creature is a glimmer or a spectre—she (yup) can change into whatever form she needs to, and Pennywise is her friendly shape, to lure children to her den. So let’s start there—clowns have been destroyed forever thanks to Stephen King. I’m okay with that because honestly, they weren’t doing themselves any favors before Pennywise. Clowns can rot, but I do want more people to read It.

Pennywise is arguably not even what the book is about. The heart and soul of It is the found family created by the Loser’s Club—a group of exhaustingly brave kids. By the end of their journey together, they’re bonded in more ways than one.

Without spoiling a major emotional event of the book, I will say I read the end of It through uncontrollable tears. Movies and television shows pull at my heart strings pretty easily, but I don’t remember the last time a BOOK had me in tears. Probably The Fault in Our Stars, which was about four or five years ago now, and nowhere near as powerful. 

Spoilers ahead, though it’s not a play-by-play of the book.


My library copy of Stephen King's It
“Pennywise” attacks Derry, Maine twice over the course of the book. These attacks occur 27 years apart, but the events are told simultaneously. The “early” story begins October 1957 and then runs through the summer of 58, ending just before the school year starts up for the Loser’s Club again. As adults, all but one of them has left Derry. Mike Hanlon works at the Derry library and keeps a journal of all the terrifying and dark things (some bordering on supernatural—but more on this later) that have happened throughout the town’s past. He is reluctant to call upon his childhood friends for several different reasons, not the least of which being that once he calls them, he has to admit that the evil they faced as children has returned once more.

The ‘kids’ that left have all had relative success in their careers. An effect of “It” keeping them away from Derry—reminiscent of the promises made by Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors (You bet I just compared the two)—they will have things they want if they let the creature live its life. There’s one major difference between It and Audrey (well. There are a ton, but one that matters)—It’s victims don’t know that they’re being controlled.

They all survive the first boss-battle in the most literal sense, but a supernatural version of PTSD keeps them from digging deeper into the how and why of what they made it through. No sooner do they emerge from the underground battlefield, but they begin forgetting what they just made it through. Getting the rest of the Losers Club to return is difficult for all the reasons returning to your childhood home is always difficult, with the added roadblock of damaged memories.

Eddie and Bev

Two of the child/parent relationships really stuck out for me.

The showdown between Eddie and his mother in the hospital resounded with me for several reasons. First of all, I finished a similar mother/son scene in my own manuscript just the day before. Reading the scene in It made me feel like I was on the right track. Eddie’s mom psychologically manipulates him into believing that he is weak and powerless without his meds. By extension, of course, this means he is weak and powerless without the woman who pays to have them refilled, the woman who ‘understands’ his maladies better than he ever will. She turns on the crocodile tears as soon as he begins to stand up for himself and it boiled my blood. Playing a victim card when you are actually victimizing someone over whom you have power is one of the evilest things a person can do.

Beverly’s relationship with her parents also hit a chord. Growing up in a female body is impossible to do without some commentary from somewhere else about said body. As an “early bloomer” I had the distinct pleasure of battling with how my body looked and felt and what ‘message’ I was sending to others simply by existing, starting at around 9 years old. So when Bev’s dad is always “worrying” over her, and when Eddie’s mom makes disparaging remarks about what people will say about a girl who spends time with so many boys, it was like reading pages of conversation from my own childhood.

What they’re really discussing, which is a major violation of Bev’s autonomy, is her body. Her development from child to woman includes the assumption that she is simultaneously developing into a sexual object—regardless of how she sees herself when she looks in the mirror. Granted, Bev is growing up in the late 1950s, so there’s something to be said for “era-appropriate misogyny”. However, the scenes could have been happening just as easily ten years ago or even currently.

Beverly’s father beats her. Her mother is complacent and may also be physically (but is most DEFINITELY emotionally) abused by him. He claims that he acts this way because he “worries”, and eventually he tells her he wants to “check if she’s intact.” The message is clear: bruises and beatings are fine, but you tear that hymen and you’re truly an injured woman.

The Littlefoot Effect

You know when you sit down to watch a movie that you’ve seen before, and you know something horrible is going to happen but you’ve got this strange impulse to believe things will be different this time?

It’s obvious from the word ‘go’ that the Loser’s Club won’t all make it through boss battle 2.0 and yet I held out hope that as their memories returned, they would somehow be saved from literal death once more. They do not all make it out alive. Some don’t even make it back to town to join the fight. But by the time they’re gearing up for the fight I had so completely fallen in love with their broken, pre-teen selves, and held on to so much hope for their broken adult selves, that I was praying for a happy ending.
You know you're a 90's kid when...
I was hoping against all hope that, somehow, they’d get to keep their memories after It was finally vanquished. But that’s part of the real horror of It—eventually your childhood (both the good and bad parts) fade to nothing. Eventually everything you knew as a kid crumbles under your feet and slips away to the ocean, never to be seen again. In contrast, Bill’s final journey on Silver, reviving Myra and saving her from a permanent vegetative state as Derry literally falls apart around him, is a beautiful reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way entirely.

Of course, Bill saves Myra and leaves Derry and, we’re meant to believe, also forgets everything eventually. It’s the forgetting that really had me a messy pile of tears—and it’s the forgetting that really takes It from a thriller to a masterful examination of the psychology of horror.


As the book progresses, we get backstories for each of the kids. They’re introduced as normal adults, but the thin façade of their lives is ripped away early on. The tragedy of their joyless adult existence is made even worse when their child versions show up. They struggled through enough as kids to find each other and fight off a demon creature of ultimate evil…shouldn’t that have earned them a happy adulthood? (no, foolish mortal. This is a horror book and perhaps the worst horror of all is the reality of this situation. No one is ever guaranteed a happy ending.)

King is a master at telling an out-of-order tale in a way that very rarely feels like flashback for the sake of flashback. The pacing made it hard for me to take my time, even though the book is over a thousand pages long.


This was my first King book. I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this emotional rollercoaster. It has philosophical asides about power and fear, childhood and the strength of friendship, budding sexuality and bonds based on shared experience. Most importantly, I think, is the pain of feeling you’re alone as you grow, and the absolute joy of discovering you are not.

One of my best friends and her sister both LOVE this book. They read it every year, and I can finally understand why. The members of the Losers Club became like my own best friends as I read, and the longer I spent time with them the more I wanted It to last forever.

Beep Beep, Richie 

I’m really interested to see how bumping the story up 30 years will change it, if at all. I’m hoping it will at least take out some of the overt and unnecessary prejudice. Derry, even in the ‘80s, is grossly homophobic and racist. The citizens are certainly under the effects of It, but that somehow feels worse. King is giving the citizens a get out of jail free card by saying their monstrous behavior is, at least on some level, out of their control. Humans don’t need a demon living in their sewers to commit hate crimes.

What's even more unnecessary is Richie's racist impressions. He returns to Derry as an adult and is still making jokes based on antebellum-era stereotypes which, even for the late 1950s, is outdated and crass. There's "trashmouth" and then there's "trash human", and Richie jumps over that line when sticking to the humor of his childhood. 

Overall, It has become one of my favorite books and I can’t wait to see how it was translated to screen. I’m also excited that it’s getting multiple films this time around. If any book deserves to be split into more than one movie, it’s King’s massive tome. It’s only February, but It is the surprise hit of 2018.

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