Tue
Oct 25 2011 4:00pm

Grownups Are the Enemy: Stephen King’s It

Note: Those of you who’ve been paying attention may have noticed I generally write spoiler-free reviews. This is an exception.

Six year old Georgie Denbrough is a bored little kid who takes a paper boat outside for a sail in the gutters, and who becomes, shortly thereafter, the first victim in a series of grisly murders in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1957. The thing that kills him appears to be a magical clown named Pennywise, a cheery Ronald McDonald-alike who lurks in the town’s sewers, luring, killing, and sometimes even devouring kids.

So begins Stephen King’s It, which is the story of Georgie’s older brother, Stuttering Bill Denbrough, and the band of friends he assembles as he attemptsto hunt down and execute the monster who took his brother from him.

Bill’s friends are all around ten years old and are all, in one way or another, outcasts: Stan is Jewish, Ben’s overweight, and Eddie is a wimpy kid with asthma. There’s Beverly, who suffers from an unfortunate case of being female, a loud-mouthed, bespectacled group clown named Richie, and finally there’s Mike, who is one of the few local black kids. The seven of them bond by fending off the town bullies, naming themselves the Losers Club and building a fort. In the summer of 1958, they go looking for Pennywise.

After that confrontation, things stay quiet in Derry until 1985.

Just as Stuttering Bill and his friends are pushing forty, the murders begin again. They open with a fatal gay-bashing every bit as gory as little George’s homicide. Mike, the only one of the Losers who remained in Derry — and the only one who remembers what happened to them that summer — phones the gang to call them back to town. They’d taken a blood oath if Pennywise started killing again, you see; they promised to come back and finish him off.

With a huge ensemble cast and overlapping 1958/1985 storyline, It is very nearly seven full novels in one. King’s 1986 bestseller is just about 1400 pages long... and more than once I was almost sorry I hadn’t done the expedient thing and read Christine instead. The themes of the two books are similar: they’re both about adulthood and growing into an acceptance of mortality. In Christine it’s put thusly: “If being a kid is about learning how to live, then being an adult is about learning how to die.”

But in It, King attempts to make aMöbius stripof the progression from childhood to maturity. He’s trying to show what’s both good and bad about both states, and show too the blur between our definitions. Kids can be oddly grown-up, It reminds us, and adults can be criminally immature.

The young heroes of 1957 use their purity and imagination as weapons against Pennywise. Meanwhile, the clown uses adults and the grown-up world against them: like all kids, they are alternately ignored, controlled, and put at hazard by adult actions, and come to see them as the enemy. The question, for the nearly middle-aged Losers who return to Derry is whether they’ve become too grown-up. Are they pure anymore? Can they make-believe the way they once did? If not, they cannot win.

The debts King owes to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are more obvious to me now than they were when I read this book as a teenager. The Loser’s Club is very much a fellowship on a quest, and the twin confrontations with Pennywise’s true self take place in a setting straight out of Middle Earth. The corruption emanated by the One Ring is more banal in King... it’s a loss of innocence caused by the mere passage of time. As in Lord of the Rings, the price of banishing evil magic is the sacrifice of many wondrous and enchanted things. The mean kids even make decent stand-ins for orcs.

If this sounds dismissive, it’s not meant to be — It is an ambitious book. It’s also, mostly, a really good one. It does what horror novels are supposed to: it gets under your skin, it creeps you out, and it gives you a little of that scared-of-the-dark sensation, a thrill of possible belief in monsters and scary things and magic both good and wicked. I very much enjoyed rereading it.

But the novel raises in me this enormous feeling of ambivalence, in exactly the same place it did twenty-ish years ago. It stumbles. It stumbles on Beverly, and the thorny question of where sex fits into the whole childhood versus adulthood loop.

Beverly’s story arc is pretty grim. In 1957 she gets beaten by her daddy; in 1985, she’s found a husband who’s happy to do the same. This is balanced out in some ways. She gets some great fightback scenes, and is the Loser who has the best eye — she gets the uber-cool role of shooter when they take after Pennywise. And Bev’s certainly not the only one of the gang who never really gets past her childhood, who makes of her life a reasonable facsimile of her personal youthful hell.

But after the first battle with the monster, when the kids are in (unconvincing and comparatively minor) danger, ten-year-old Beverly takes it into her head to sustain their shared magic... by having sex with each and every one of the six boys.

As someone who writes and edits and critiques a lot of books, I see better now how these pieces of the story are meant to fit together. And I freely admit it would be hard to do without this scene. There’s no easy fix for this tricky, messy event. Sex is a bridge between the two stages of life King’s writing about — a hinge. Losing your virginity is a recognized dividing line, a rite of passage. It makes sense in a way, or seems to. But really, the plot logic’s shaky: the kids in this book don’t pass cleanly from sex to adulthood. They’re too young, so the carnal act is just a stand-in for the adolescence we don’t see them going through. They go on being kids — because they’re ten! — and they grow up offstage. And Bev’s motivation is to strengthen their magical bond, which comes of their being children. So what we’re left with, as readers, is the spectacle of six kids having a childishly innocent... well... orgy’s not the right word, quite. There is no word.

This scene is set up with exquisite care. King gives it a terrific feeling of inevitability, and empowers Beverly as much as an author possibly can. There’s a tidy little love triangle that comes to fruition over the course of the book, and of course the sex is part of it. It comes so awfully close to working.

But as woman and a feminist, I’m still left with an impression of this scene (and by extension, the whole book) that comes closer to ‘Ick, gang bang!’ than ‘Awww, the sweetness of first love!’

Looking back at It, the other thing that struck me was that it was written and set in a time when even little kids were allowed to play well out of sight of adults, even at the age of six. It existed before anyone had coined the term ‘helicopter parent.’ I’d love to know how true this depiction of seven all-but-feral kids would ring to a child of today.

It would be easy to say — between the incredible length of this book and my other complaints, above — that It isn’t worth reading. That life is, perhaps, too short. But this is a complex, interesting, amd genuinely scary monster novel. It’s one that does touch, at times, on real truths about the intensity of our childhood experiences, and the things we do and don’t let go of as we age. Have another look, see what you think, and let me know.


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

27 comments
Robert H. Bedford
1. RobB
IT is one of my favorite King novels and I think one of his best. I think your article is great and sums up what makes the story so terrific. I hadn't made the Tolkien connections as a younger reader, but yeah, a lot of what you say makes sense.

I'd also throw in that IT is very much a Lovecraftian influence novel, too. The nature of Pennywise's true form, age, and cosmic horror squarely fits in with much of what Lovecraft did, albeit Lovecraft was a bit more...spare in his stories with the words.
Kadere
2. Kadere
I think the concept of a group of heroes fighting a powerful evil force and losing their innocence as a reslut can be drawn back to a whole hell of a lot more then Lord of the Rings. Obviously LotR parallels exist in King work, look at The Stand, or The Dark Tower, but if the argument is King owes this story about young people growing up to Tolkien, I must disagree. He owes it to Tolkien less then he owes it to John Campbell. If the qualifications of owing Tolkien are so low that all you need is a group of characters fighting an antagonist to be accused of barrowing, it'll really blow your mind when you figure out Tolkien was ripping off every Western story under the sun.
Kadere
3. Adri_Maya
I recently re-read IT a couple years ago at age 23 (having first read it at 13-14). I've always thought of it as my favorite King novel and it held up well 10 years later. Even with the high page count, I find the majority of the novel to be a fast read...he writes the scary scenes so well, and the scenes with the kids together are full of great moments that make you root them on through anything they may encounter.

When I got to the scene you mention above with Beverly and the boys- that wasn't a scene that had stuck with me at all from my first reading, and I had to read through it a couple of times to really make sure what was going on- I didn't really know what to think or feel. I thought it was powerful for sure, but they're so young and it all felt kind of uncomfortable and a strange way to ultimately defeat the monster (or so they thought). I guess he was really trying to drive home that loss of innocence theme.

I still consider it one of my favorite books, and perhaps I'll give it a third read 10 years from now and see what has stuck with me over time.
Joe Vondracek
4. joev
And I freely admit it would be hard to do without this scene.

Really? Because while I enjoyed the book, that scene always struck me as odd and out of place. It struck a discordant note and made me think that there's something kinda pervy about Stephen King.

If the qualifications of owing Tolkien are so low that all you need is a group of characters fighting an antagonist to be accused of barrowing...

Heh. They didn't just fight amongst the barrows, although they did borrow the knives of the men of Westernesse.


Kadere
5. El Jefe
I believe that Beverly's status as an outcast isn't that she's a girl. The novel refers to other girls their age. Beverly is an outcast because she's poor and she's a tomgirl. She doesn't fit in with the other girls her age. That she is female is significant to what she is to the Loser's Club, but not why she is an outcast.

I also dislike the sex moment. I pretty much skip over and ignore that scene when I reread the book. The boys all love Bev. Not because she is a girl, but because she is Beverly. They will go beyond their limitations and fears for her because of that love. It isn't because she's weak or lesser. Each time one of the boys tries to keep her out of the fight, she puts them in their place. I think that love would have been enough and the sex moment was unecessary.

It is one of my favorite novels. I bring it out again every couple of years and reread it. I grew up in the 70's and early 80's and the way the kids hang out, play, joke with one another, etc just feels real for me. This novel captured the feel of childhood, the relationship we had with our parents and the friendships that we developed. There are friends I had as a child that I still love to this day, though I haven't seen them in 20 years or more.
Kadere
6. birdie23
It has always been my favorite of all of Stephen King's books from the time I was about 12 or 13 and I first discovered this book. I re-read this book every couple of years and I still love it.

I always loved his abilty to show how close these people were as children and the sort of uneasy familiarity they have as adults when they first start to remember what had happened to them so long ago. The intense bonds of friendship that people form in childhood rarely last past our teen years and I think a lot of us forget those friends that literally meant the entire world to us as children.

As for the Beverly sex scene, it's always made an odd sort of sense that a young girl who'd never really known real love would equate sex with love and see that as a way to secure the relationships between her and the rest of the Losers. Given her upbringing (most of their upbringings for that matter) she wouldn't know any other real way to express her love to these people who mean more to her than anyone else in the world. It was the only way she could see to strengthen their connection and physical contact goes a long way towards calming people down. That's my opinion at least.
Warren Ockrassa
7. warreno
I was a King fan pretty much from the start. I loved his short stories, got a real kick out of The Shining, and even found The Stand enjoyable. Pet Sematary was one of the few scary books I ever read that really had me creeped out in some places.

And then along came It.

The gang-bang with the girl in the sewers pretty much did it for me with King as a writer. It was said of him that he could publish his laundry list if he wanted to, and It was proof of that.

Terrible, godawful, stinking, logorrheic turd of a novel.
Jill Hayhurst
8. pericat
I had significant problems with encountering that coming-of-age sex ritual the first time I read It, and the second time last year was no better. It's a shame in some ways, as I think it a cracking good horror novel for all that it is longer than my arm.

My preference would have been for them to lose their innocence by maybe killing a fawn or something, rather. For one thing, I'd have found it more believable, for horror-story values of believability. I may pretend that is what is happening next time I read it. "This is the scene where Beverly kills the fawn or mole rat or mockingbird, and the boys help, and it's messy and stuff and everyone is Changed, but at least I can believe a 10-year-old girl can handle that without needing medical attention afterward."

I'm sorry, the whole scene makes me want to wince and maybe beat my head against a wall. Rest of the book? Good stuff.
Kadere
9. sofrina
though it has been 20 years, and i only read it once, this is still one of my favorite books. i thought the characters were 12 but your memory is more recent. i'd forgotten about the sex scene until reading your review. completely forgotten. unfortunately, the only alternate phrase i can think of is "pulled a train" which can be either (somewhat) voluntary or involuntary . but still, unsavory in light of the characters' ages. iirc, part of mr. rogan's tirade against bevvie was accusing her of fooling around with boys. maybe she slept with all the boys partially to put the pointlessness of defending herself behind her.

i may have to read this one again. the most off-putting part was the history of it and the turtle... could have done without that. as for it's reign of terror, that was wonderful stuff! i really loved jonathan brandis as young bill in the movie. he really was a charming lead.

@2 - agreed. the 'heroic complement' is a standard of ancient tales. the seven kids in this story are a team. they hear a click when their group is complete and recognize the cosmic convergence of their coming together. but bill beseeches the group to help him stop pennywise. the fellowship of the ring, on the other hand, is more an international delegation dispatched by a multinational confederacy. they become friends through their journey together.

i really enjoy the movie as it is, but if they decided to remake it, that would be okay. as a longer movie.
Eric Scharf
10. EricScharf
I remember the sex scene as a character-breaking moment as well, primarily because the boys all went along with it. If one of my friends had said to me, "Let's all take turns having sex with our only female friend," I'd have let the clown eat him.
Marcus W
11. toryx
I had the good fortune to be 11 when I read It for the first time in 1986. This allowed me to fully emphasize with the kids (as an outcast myself who had already learned that adults could not be trusted) and to get a glimpse for the first time of what adulthood is really like. I also think it helped me to keep a little bit of my childhood alive in me. Much as I hate to think about that time, my ability to believe (but not uncritically) remains largely untarnished.

The best part about this is that I'm now the age that the adults were and It would be about to start a new cycle. I re-read the book a few months ago and it was great to be able to look at it from the other side.

Anyway, the book remains my second favorite King novel. The sex scene didn't bother me quite so much, reading it for the first time as a still pre-pubescent boy. I actually knew kids who were already having sex at that age and it always bothered me that they didn't attach any meaning to what they were doing.

Awkward that scene may have been and certainly uncomfortable but at least there was meaning behind what they were doing. I think I learned the importance of having some sense of significance before having sex more from this scene than from any of the lies other children, adults or church told me at the time.

There were certainly some missteps with the novel itself and some areas (particularly the end) that were not as smoothly polished as the rest but I think there was a lot of truth in what King was saying. I also love the friendship and bond that those characters developed between them, even if the latter proved temporary.
Alyx Dellamonica
12. AMDellamonica
Kadere--yes. Of course Tolkien had influences too, and King was drawing from many other places. On the other hand, I found specific nods to LoTR in my second reading of IT, including the phrase "the fellowship was breaking." I think he wanted to acknowledge a major influence.

Sofrina, I agree that your interpretation of Beverly's motivations is valid, and perhaps the kindest construction you can put on that difficult scene.
Kadere
13. Zach G
The word you are looking for is "train." The ten year old boys run a train on the ten year old girl. "Disgusting" also comes to mind.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
I didn't know that particular term, Zach--thank you. (I think.)
Delos Rifenburgh
15. KaijuGamer
Paradoxically, this is one of my favorite and least favorite of King's books. Ever since the age of three, when I saw my first monster movie on TV (it was 'Fiend without a Face'), I have been in love with creature features, in all media. That, combined with my intense dislike of clowns, drew me to this book like a moth to a flame. I rapidly devoured every word on the page... that is, until I got to the sex scene. to put it bluntly, I was totally squicked out. So much so, that I put the book down and could not pick it again for days. When my disgust eased, I did pick it up and finish it - and enjoyed the rest of the book - but that scene has stuck in my craw ever since. Normally, when I find a book I enjoy, I re-read it endlessly (I can finish a book of that size in a couple of days), but I've only ever re-read that one once. the second time around it was easier, as I just glossed over that part. Trying my best to get what King meant with the symbolism, I still don't see that as being crucial to the Club for binding them together. Almost anything else would or could have worked. Heck, even a blood brother (or sister) oath would be more believable. Anyway, sorry for the rant.

What I like best about the story was the Loser's Club, and how they formed and bonded over that summer while dealing with the increasing antagonizm of Pennywise (and the buillies). They were believeable and very easy to identify with. Seeing them together again as adults, and having them realize that they still had that bond, though altered but not broken by maturation, was a very positive message in an otherwise very dark story.

And of course, I have say that I loved eldritch horror that was the main antagonist of the story. It was very creepy, scary, and terrifying. Definitely a satisfying monster. And, I can't help but love a story where a clown is made into such a horrifying monster. I'll probably read the story again at some point, glossing over the sam section, and will enjoy it just as much as I did the first time round. This is a case where selective amnesia can be a good thing.
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
Well put, Kaiju--I agree completely! It would be one of my favorite books, too, except for that one bit.
Roland of Gilead
17. pKp
Just reread It for the umpteenth time, and I have to agree with everyone : the sex scene kinda squicks me out. The thing is, King's not very good at describing sex, in my opinion, which adds to the gross-out factor.
Moving on, one of the things I really like about It is that it explains the essential wrongness of this little Maine town that's at the heart of so many of his novels, while also being loosely tied to what I call the Dark Tower Mythos (the Turtle, a couple allusions in the text). That's one of the aspects of King's world I like the most, this inter-connectedness (sorry) of nearly every one of his novels.
Kadere
19. Jonathan Andrew Sheen
It's perhaps a bit unfair, as I haven't read It since it came out, so I'm working from 25-year-old memories, but as I recall, I thought the extreme youth of the characters for that scene was what made it work. To me, it made the act into something nonsexual, even though it was a girl having intercourse with six boys in an orderly row. It felt to me like it operated on an emotional level that had to do with ultimate love and acceptance between those characters which had little to do with actual sex.

If they were post-pubescent, it couldn't carry that same power, at least for me. But it felt to me like the supernatural environment combined with the pre-sexuality of the characters to make that act of sex into more of a magical invocation of something much deeper and more permanent than any act of the flesh.

I still thought it was kind of weird, and said aloud, as I read the scene, "Oh, this isn't going to make the cut when they make the movie," but it never pressed that "gang-bang" button, either.

I'm not sure I've successfully explained that.
Alyx Dellamonica
20. AMDellamonica
I think I see what you mean, Johnathan--I rather wish I could have had that take on it, then and now.
Kadere
21. Michael E. Stamm
I just (rather belatedly) read this essay, and was impressed at your thoughtfulness. As someone else said, IT is one of my favorite Kings--the kids are all roughly King's age, and I'm only a few years younger, so that era of America is close to my heart. But there's quite a bit wrong with it. (It could have been line-edited down by at least a quarter without losing anything of real consequence, for one thing.) And the sex scene you mention has always bothered me, too. Their ages are the big stumbling block, for me; I got the symbolism King intended, and he did as well with the scene as anyone could, but part of me just didn't buy the notion of sex-as-ritual for a group of pre-teens in the late '50s. The notions of "gang-bang" or "train" (ugh) never once crossed my mind, however; they require conscious intent as well as action. The former simply was not present and the latter was as close as a kind of sacrament as possible--exactly as King intended.
Kadere
22. Ilis
I have a few corrections here:
1) They wern't 10, they were 11.
2) The events took place in the summer of 1958 and 1985. Georgie's death was in 1957, almost a year earlier.
3) Bev wasn't an outcast because she was a girl but because extremely poor and was always bruised because of her abusing dad.

Now, about the sex scene, when I first read this book I was 11 years myself so I didn't find it disturbing at all. For me it made perfect sense: after finishing with IT, the Turtle left them without any powers or "magic" as they called it. The connection between them broke and Eddie couldn't find the right tunnel because he have lost his ability in directions... So Bev thought that if she made love with all of them they would be together as one again and find the way home.

Now, re-reading it for the first time after 20 years, I still think the same. I see that scene as a ritual and not as a kiddie "gangbang" as many here seems to.

Also many here seems to be took by surprise in that scene. That's surprising considering Stephen King spended a lot of scenes giving us hints about the kids sexual awakening, especially Bev's and Ben's and later Bill.

There's a few scenes that made that clear:
1) The day school ended, Ben saw Bev's ankle bracelet and felt a funny sensation around his body that reminded him when he had his first erection a year earlier (when he was 10) when he was watching another girl's panties, peeping under the library's stairs.
2) When Bev was spying on Henry and Patrick while they were masturbating. She felt hot in her core and a sudden urge to pee while thinking "Bill have one too". The narrator also tell us that wasn't the first time she saw a penis, the first time it was at school watching a magazine (a porn one I guess) with another girl.
3) When they were at Neibolt St house trying to kill IT by a silver bullet. She lost all of her blouse buttons and saw Bill watching her chest and the her and she liked it.

We have this thoughts when we are 11, you know? And knowing Bev's background as an abused girl it is not surprising at all she thinks of sex as a way to be connected with someone...
Alyx Dellamonica
23. AMDellamonica
I don't disagree that King tried to sell it, @Ilis, and I saw all of those lead-up moments as attempts to make the scene work. I just don't think it quite comes off. You do, and that's great--it's likely that far more readers agree with you than me.

My remark about Beverly being outcast because she's female was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do take your point.
Kadere
24. M.B.
IT still scares the shit out of me years later, which is a statement about how powerful King's work is (to me). Both the book and the movie are terrifying.

I agree with some of the comments here. To me, the issue isn't so much about Bev having sex with the boys, it's the fact that they are all so young. But we need to remember that this is Stephen King...he pushes boundaries in his work. Beverly is a victim of physical and sexual abuse, in both childhood and adulthood. She grows up to marry a man just like her father. Although she is a tomboy, she is the only girl in the Losers Club, and a pretty girl at that. They are all at that point in time where they are between childhood and adulthood...a time of transition and uncertainty.

To me, Bev is an interesting character because she grows up in a time where female sexuality is viewed as sinful (and in some ways, it still is). Her father secretly lusts after her but punishes her for playing with boys and having womanly curves at 11. Derry, Maine isn't comfortable with people like Mike Hanlon (the only Black boy in town) or Stan Uris (Jewish) or even Beverly Marsh, who is a white female but stigmatized by her working-class background.

At one point, one of the boys even likens Bev to Marilyn Monroe, who was a sex symbol during that time. And in a way, that is an apt comparison because Bev has both beauty and a sensuality beyond her years.

If they ever decide to remake the movie, I would love to see Amy Adams play the grown-up Beverly...she is gorgeous, talented, and has the long red hair Bev is described as having.
Kadere
25. chance22
I don't think the true form of Pennywise at the end was as someone else stated from lovecraft. When I first read it, I thought of Richard Matheson who King has said was his greatest influence.
As for the sex scene, not a fan but as I've gotten older, I understand what it is suppose to represent. Could have done with out it but never the less, it is still my favorite book by king. Whenever i read it, it reminds me of my youth as a child. The carefree you have and how everything is scary and dangerous but not in the same way an adult sees it.
It reminds me of the friends I once had and the adventures we use to go on. That is what a good story is suppose to do.
Kadere
26. Xaveria
It more or less stopped me reading King, as well. I was pretty irritated before the sex scene, but that was the final straw.

The problem isn't only the ick factor -- though I admit that's strong. The problem is Beverly. The forces of Good in the Universe choose a band of child heros to battle against Evil. The Universe chooses six boys and one girl. Eh, that's ok. I'm not so strident a feminist that I would let a little Smurfette Principle ruin a good book.

Initially, I was just a little annoyed that she seemed like such a flat character. She seemed completely defined by the men in her life -- by her abusive father, by her abusive husband, and by her childhood crushes. But eh, no worries -- characters develop. It was clear that each one of the champions has a special ability. One had leadership, one had imagination, one had an unerring sense of direction, one had an infallible memory, etc, etc. I remember waiting eagerly to see what Beverly's power would be -- her contribution to the mission.

Her special power was to be loved. That's all. To be the object of the other's affection and their gateway to adulthood through sex. It wasn't the usual thoughtless lack of agency given to a female character by a well-meaning male writer. This was a deliberate statement: Beverly's only purpose was to restore the boys' magic by f**ing them all in a sewer, thus binding them all together. It made me spit with rage and swear off King forever.
Alyx Dellamonica
27. AMDellamonica
It made me spit with rage and swear off King forever.

I think that's a reasonable reaction. Not the only reaction but utterly fair.

One of the other TOR bloggers is doing a Stephen King reread and has just reached IT. You might want to check out that essay too.

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