Rambling, hoary and florid, IT is a dense jungle of a book that could use a round of editing, but nevertheless leaves a searing imprint of unease on the psyche.
IT is the quintessential Stephen King classic, the manifestation of what it means to be American horror. The town with a dark secret, a cast of sympathetic misfits, the cosmic horror beyond space and time – you can draw a straight and unbroken line from here to Stranger Things. It’s a funny thing indeed when I watch Stranger Things and it all feels so familiar – and then when I read IT, it all becomes clear from where that feeling stems. IT‘s tropes that have wormed their way into our collective cultural subconscious.
It’s a long and wandering book, repository of multiple storylines, recountings, historical anecdotes, and small character studies, flitting from viewpoint to viewpoint, jumping space and time, a veritable forest of prose. It draws the reader in with its dark complexity, painting, in multifaceted, intricate shades, a picture of Derry – a town steeped in its own twisted history, its citizens pawns in an unending cycle of violence stretching back to the earliest ages of man.
At the centre of it all is the horror that goes by many names: Pennywise, Bob Gray, It – an entity much more than the sum of its depictions in derivative media – a grotesque icon that ignites our most primal fears. A clown, his face covered in paint, holding a red balloon – is an entity profoundly out of place with it surroundings, out of sync with the natural order, a rictus of evil behind a merry, painted facade. Pennywise is an inspired creation of a writer who knows intimately the things that humans fear, down to our lizard brains.
But It is more than just a horror fest – it is also about the humanity that shines out against evil, of both the cosmic and mundane variety, of the tight bonds formed between friends, of the power of innocence and the imagination. In its own way, It is also a celebration of youth, of its wildness and creative power, and the ability of play to serve as a bulwark against the darkness of sober adulthood.
That said, however, It does have its fair share of flaws, some of which are more than a little disturbing. For one, the ending of the book feels somewhat like it’s straining for a neat resolution. Having cast It into a cosmic horror, King seems to have no good way for the villain to be defeated in any satisfying way, so the last few chapters of the book fall into a kind of contrived mysticism that uses a whole lot of arcane plot hijinks to MacGuyver its way towards a conclusion.
Also, It‘s treatment of Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the circle of protagonists, is a bit…problematic. Beverly Marsh is the one character who doesn’t seem to have an independent existence – she is always characterised in respect to some male figure in her life. There is an air of tokenism in terms of her inclusion into the Loser’s club – almost as if she is there to spark the boys’ adolescent development. Throughout, the narrative voice takes an abiding interest in Bev’s adolescent physical traits, and describes her central character tension as a simultaneous love-hate relationship with her loving but violent father, and although part of that is meant to generate unease, it feels like some editorial control might have helped in getting King to rein in some of his more…troubling authorial impulses, such as the infamous scene near the end of the book featuring an utterly out-of-place depiction of adolescent sexuality that makes very little sense in context and seems to have been added there just because.
It is a testament It’s hoary and multifarious power, however, that these problems, while very real, are strands in a tapestry of narrative threads that collectively form a masterpiece of the genre, seething with formless dread, grandiose in its evocation of evil, but strangely comforting in its exaltation of childhood, friendship, and innocence.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 inhalers