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.