by Stephen King
1,108 pages, Hodder
Review by Pat Black
Clowns! What are they like? Not funny, it seems.
While it would be silly to call him a children’s author, Stephen King’s work was – and perhaps still is - a great favourite of young readers. Before JK Rowling blurred the lines between the adult literature and children’s, King’s books offered a gateway drug to bigger, meatier novels which youngsters may not otherwise have tried.
It is a great case in point. One of his most famous books, it’s appropriate that It concerns children, looking closely at their fears, both real and imaginary, and the way they carry these through into adulthood.
And it is a beast, tipping the scales at well over 1,000 pages. Once you’ve read It as a child, there are few novels you’ll feel daunted by, at least in terms of size.
Which isn’t everything.
It should be King’s magnum opus, his defining work. I get the impression he intended it to be as much. It isn’t, though; as fun, as ambitious and as scary as it is, It has the feeling of a man trying to cram too much in at one time – the kitchen sink included, which actually provides a scary scene in this novel.
It resembles an all-star episode of the old Batman TV show, featuring all the baddies gathered in one location in order to have a kapow-tastic boxing match with the Caped Crusader and Robin. While it sounds like a great idea, you can lose some of the finer details.
King indulges himself with a similar monster mash featuring everything that presumably frightened him as a child. Universal Studios’ classic monsters the Creature From The Black Lagoon, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman all make ersatz appearances as manifestations of, well, It - a shape-shifting demon which haunts the Maine town of Derry, once every 27 years or so.
The book takes two narrative strands – one looking at a bunch of kids being menaced by the demon in 1958 at the age of 12, and one examining the adults they become 27 years later, when the cycle begins again.
Pennywise the Clown is It’s PR department, its white and red-painted face a recurring sight as It murders and mutilates the children of Derry. This book, over and above the efforts of Heath Ledger or Krusty, has done an awful lot of work in the cause of coulrophobia across the world. But when I was a kid, you’d have been delighted to see a clown - unless it turned out to be John Wayne Gacy.
Post-Pennywise, it seems that clowns are more readily connected to the idea of evil than fun and laughter; the meme has become the norm. I would lay much of the blame for this at Stephen King’s door. Dammit, Steve, there goes career Plan B!
We first meet Pennywise when he does something very nasty during a thunderstorm to Georgie, young brother of our main protagonist, Stuttering Bill Denborough. From here, we are introduced to the rest of the Losers, Bill’s gang of fellow misfits and bullying victims from school during their summer holidays. They remind me of the Raggy Dolls in their reject bin, a customised collection of bullying targets.
Apart from Stuttering Bill, whose dialogue must have worn out the short dash key on King’s typewriter, there’s the daffy Richie Tozier, sickly Eddie Kaspbrak, chunky lad Ben Hanscom, the poor girl, Bev Marsh, Stan Uris, who is Jewish, and Mike Hanlon, who is black. Their minority status is ruthlessly exploited by town bully Henry Bowers and his gang of thugs, including the psychopathic Little League serial killer, Patrick Hockstetter.
These little buggers are nasty enough before It appears, totally changing the game. In true B-movie style, once local children start disappearing, only the Losers understand the truth, being able to see the demon in ways that adults can’t; as a result, only they can stop It.
Although the monsters and even the school bullying aspect of the storyline could sit easily in a book for children, the story pays close attention to its protagonists’ sexual awakening. Indeed, 20-odd years after reading the book, these scenes are more vivid in my mind than any particular monster attack. There’s Beverley’s interrogation by her alcoholic father over what she was doing with “those boys”, and his chilling warning: “There are ways you can check for that stuff! I’ll find out!” Then there’s a scene involving the gang of bullies out at a junkyard which begins with good clean fart-lighting and ends with an introduction to mutual masturbation.
Most notoriously, there’s what I’ll call a moment of union between the Losers as they try to negotiate their way out of the sewers that It calls home. This incident is given the tacky gloss of being somehow expedient to the plot – “If we do this, maybe we’ll make our way out!” – and even worse, is made to seem like an act of tenderness. God knows that losing one’s virginity is usually not the fanfares-and-fireworks romantic encounter we all wish it was, but that’s taking the biscuit, never mind popping the cherry. This episode still stands tall as one of King’s most crass moments.
Although the demon in It can be read as childhood anxieties and superstitions incarnate – literally, the monster in the cupboard - I wondered if there was a more subtle reading to be gained through this treatment of sexuality. There’s another manifestation of this in the “present day” scenes, where police investigate what appears to be a gay-bashing murder which of course has been carried out by Pennywise. Perhaps it isn’t quite so much sexuality per se, as its misinterpretation by unpleasant people which gets Pennywise’s rocks off. Contrast this idea with King’s puppy-love treatment of Ben Hanscom’s infatuation with Bev, the pretty little red-headed girl in his class, love haikus and all. Could it be that a growing awareness of sexuality and the complicated and occasionally ugly taint this can give adult life is what is really feared, here? An idea of true innocence being taken away forever?
King cranks things up during the second section when, summoned by Mike Hanlon, the Loser who stayed in Derry to watch over the town as its librarian, the old gang returns to do battle with the creature one last time. Climax follows climax as enemies old and new are encountered, culminating in a final showdown in Derry’s sewers with…
Well. Some people are disappointed with the form It takes during the final battle, but it’s certainly a more convincing depiction of phobia writ large than clowns. I know what my missus would be more frightened of if a spider and an evil shrieking clown climbed through the window at the same time… Wait, I’ll have to rethink that.
The dominant theme of these adult scenes is the power of memory, and how we can distort our recollection of some things while completely forgetting others. Anyone who moves away from Derry finds it difficult to recall exactly what went on, owing to the corrosive effect proximity to the town, or the creature, has on the memories of those who escaped Its clutches. But we could just as easily be talking about ordinary adults’ ability to forget what life was like when they were children – and not just the horrible things like fear of the dark, or the traumas that create monsters in the mind; but also the simple joys, like freewheeling your bike down a hill, playing outdoors on a summer’s day, seeing a shelf full of new books at the library, or the first wonderful moment you realise you might actually love that pretty girl in class.
Although King’s evocation of childhood fear is second to none, and there are many scenes of blood-letting and hideous death, It is not his best book. It’s far too bloody long, for a start. Part of me wonders if King wanted to see if he could do a 1,000-pager. Maybe he even had a bet on with someone if he could do it – Peter Straub, I imagine. It’s a big man, as Michael Caine once said, but It’s out of shape. Mike Hanlon’s research into Its previous predations could have been taken care of in a couple of lines, rather than full-on retellings running to scores of pages. The storm was a convenient narrative cover for the final battle in the sewers, but there was just way too much going in the story at this point. And some scenes, including the aforementioned game of sex tag and It’s surreal origin story, simply stretch your suspension of disbelief a little too far.
That said, I’d struggle to pick out a book he’s written in the past 20 years which is better, and anyone even mildly curious about the novel would be satisfied once it’s done – no need for the dessert menu. But the finest meals can repeat on you later, all the same.
It has a firm conclusion, but it’s worth noting that we’re almost 27 years away from Pennywise’s last appearance in the fine state of Maine. Will King be tempted to bring back his surviving Losers for one more round with It now that Pennywise’s time has come again?
Given that there’s a quasi-sequel to The Shining coming out soon (Doctor Sleep), I shouldn’t be surprised if we all float one more time.