What Stephen King’s It Taught Me About the Shape of Stories

I remember reading IT over a weekend.

Can this possibly be true?

Have I tangled IT up with some of my other fevered reading experiences?

I remember sitting on my middle school bus with my knees pressed into the seatback in front of me, balancing IT on my denim skirt. That’s where I was when I read about Pennywise (“There was a clown in the stormdrain.”) and where I read about a group of kids attacking a couple for being gay and open about it, and I can feel my knees digging into the drab green faux leather, and I can see the lightwash denim on either side of the book, and I can feel hairs prickling up off of my knees cause I hadn’t started shaving yet, despite the skirts (and yes, that did cause me problems) and I remember trying to harden myself as I read—trying to accept the vicious death of a 6-year-old, and the horrific murder of a gay man, because this was a Real Adult Book and this was training for life in the adult world.

And I remember doing The Thing, pretending to read my textbook while I had a secret copy of it hidden in my lap. But can this possibly have happened? IT is like four inches thick. how did I, a spindly 11-year-old, conceal it in my lap? How could that even happen?

And how can I have read it over a weekend when people have spent weeks reading this book? The paperback I have on my desk right now is 1,153 pages long. If I started the book on a Friday on the way home from school, as I think I did, did I burn through it over Saturday and Sunday? Surely I had to stop to eat? Surely my parents demanded at least some of my time? And if I read it over a weekend how did I also read it secretly during class?

Naturally this blurriness is a perfect response to this book, because memory is the true subject of IT, and memory’s loss is the aspect that horrified me the most, clowns be damned. King’s ingenious structure introduces us to the losers as ludicrously successful adults. I gobbled these glimpses of idealized adult life up like the first fresh water found on a desert island where all other liquid was brackish. Bill Denbrough, the Hollywood writer with the beautiful wife living a glamorous life in England! Eddie in glittering Manhattan! Richie with his view of the Pacific, his gleaming desk, his Eames chair! (But best of all Richie with his ability to make people laugh, to conduct their laughter like his own private orchestra, stealing their free will – or suspending it – as he makes them laugh until they hurt.)

But when we get their flashbacks we start to realize that they’ve lost whole swathes of their minds. How can a person live with no memory of their past? How can you build a life with no foundation?

Which gets to the heart of what IT taught me.

IT gets knocked all the time for being an undisciplined book. Reviewers use words like “baggy” and “overstuffed” (and sometimes “cocaine addiction”) but for me at least, IT provided a great lesson in how to create a narrative. First, the book’s structure taught me that books had structure, that an author orchestrated a story. They didn’t just pop out fully formed, like narratives were Athena and all writers were Zeus.

Thanks to King’s habit of writing garrulous introductions to his books, he gave his readers the sense that these books had been written by a person, with a life that was unfolding at the same time as his readers’. And since he was my First Adult Author, he wasn’t a Long Dead Edwardian like L.M. Montgomery, or a Long Dead Victorian like Louisa May Alcott, or a Long Dead, uhhh, Pioneer Person(?) like Laura Ingalls Wilder. He was alive now, he sat at a desk in Maine and wrote this book I was holding. He wrote introductions to his books where he explained his inspirations, and later he wore nonfiction books about writing and horror as a genre. This was his job, and he did it with thought and care. Which is why, I think, that I noticed the book’s structure itself, the way the sections bounce between the Losers Club of 1985, their younger selves in 1958, horrible interludes that show us Pennywise’s murders, terrifying side plots with Henry Bowers and Bev’s disgusting husband Tom, all weaving together to the final confrontation with IT. And this created a particular reading experience that has stuck with me ever since.

I remember (I think) that I didn’t much like Stan Uris. I loved his wife, because I spent time with her dealing with anti-Semitism in Atlanta, and I resented Stan for killing himself and leaving her alone. But then King made me live through part of Stan’s childhood back in Derry. He made me see Stan as one of the Losers—just as funny, in a dry, deadpan way, as Richie and Eddie with their louder, crasser banter—and I found myself crying at the end of one of his sections because I knew he was doomed. Even as I cried, I realized that this was a thing that King was choosing to do to me, his reader. This an authorial choice. Just as Richie made people laugh uncontrollably, King was making me mourn a character I didn’t even like.

And it worked the other way, too: Richie the slick and successful used to be such a titanic dork. I was a titanic dork. Could slickness and success await me? (ummmmm, slightly? I do not have a view of the Pacific.) The way the book bounced between time compressed the experience in a way, allowed for mirroring and foreshadowing. It allowed us to see the terrified children trapped inside the adult Losers, and it allowed King an easy shorthand for trauma, in that the adults have entire selves and beliefs and powerful friendships tucked away in their minds, but have no idea that they’re missing those things.

IT begins with a promise: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

On the third page of the book we learn that six-year-old Georgie Denbrough is going to die in 1957—“Water sprayed out from beneath his galoshes in muddy sheets. Their buckles made a jolly jingling as George Denbrough ran toward his strange death”—and then the poor boy gets his first, and last, glimpse of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. We turn the page and we’re in 1984, where we find the story of Adrian Mellon’s murder—he’s gay-bashed by a group of homophobic metalheads, then murdered by Pennywise. The story is brutal and intense, and while the readers know that this is the same clown operating on a 27-year cycle, the cops on the case seem to have no idea. The only one who hints that there’s anything larger at works is Adrian’ boyfriend, who insists Derry itself killed Adrian. Following Mellon’s murder, we turn the page again to 1985, where we meet the adult Losers: Stanley Uris, successful accountant, Rich Tozier, famous comedian/DJ, Ben Hanscom, renowned architect, Eddie Kaspbrack, chauffeur-to-the-stars, Beverly Rogan, acclaimed fashion designer, and Bill Denbrough, bestselling author. We don’t know they’re Losers yet. One by one they’re called by their last club member, Mike Hanlon, exhausted librarian, and we see the fissure in their adult lives.

Each of them has forgotten their entire childhood before Mike Hanlon, The One Who Stayed, calls them up. They can recite the facts of their lives, but they can’t really remember anything that happened while they lived in Derry, Maine. The chapters click along like beads with each Loser repeating phrases like “You bet your fur,” getting snatches of ‘50s songs stuck in their heads, and remembering flashes of each other—Stan remembers Bill Denbrough enough that he bought one of his horror novels, so we already know Bill’s a writer before the book introduces him. Ben mentions Bev saving his life, and then we meet Bev as she leaves her abusive husband, who was also reading one of Bill’s books. Bill mentions Ben to his wife, and it’s his wife who realizes that he’s that Ben Hanscom, the famous architect. King builds the world of the adults, and shows us their terror as they gradually realize just how much of their lives are utter blanks. And only after each of them reckon with that do they remember IT.

This section of the novel works in an almost meditative way. By the third Loser, Ben Hanscom, we know the shape of theses stories, and the tension lies in wondering whether each Loser will make it out, be stopped by a partner or boss, or, as in Stan’s case, decide that suicide is a better option than going back to Derry. And once they’re all on the way home, we check in with Mike and then flash back for a lonnnggggg stay in 1958—the section that makes up the bulk of the recent film adaptation, IT: Chapter I. Then King drops us in 1985 as the Losers reconnect, with memories from the ’50s shuffling into the present like cards in a deck. There are a few subplots, all firmly set in 1985, except that suddenly we’ve turned the page and we’re in 1958 again, and for the final third of the book each page clicks past with memory and present action so thick and jostled that you don’t know what year you’re in until IT has been defeated.

Which of course is IT’s other, harsher lesson, the basic fact that you never get over trauma. Yes, you can move through it, you can compartmentalize, you can repress, you can talk about it with your therapist, you can rebuild yourself, you can anesthetize with liquor or drugs illegal or prescribed. You can share your pain with others, go to Meetings, go to Confession, fast, go on vacation, treat yourself. But the trauma’s still there, in your brain, or soul, or whatever—as a wise person once said, it’s indelible in the hippocampus. You’re not the person you were before it. Before IT.

I’ve written before about how King in general and this book in particular gave me a language for trauma, but it also taught me, I think for the first time, that what I was going through would be with me forever. That I needed to reckon with my pain, and learn to live with it, ’cause it wasn’t going anywhere. This lesson is encoded in the book’s basic structure. It’s a coil in the story’s DNA.

At the end of IT I cried again, a lot, because the Losers’ reward for defeating IT is that they forget Derry again. How else can they go back to normal life? But this also means that they lose each other, and not just to death, though a few characters die—their memories of childhood fade out again. The diary entries that Mike kept, charting their decades-long battle with IT, literally erase themselves from the page. Bill remains married to a woman who looks suspiciously like Beverly, his first love, who he has no memory of. Richie goes back to being a coke-addled LA celebrity, with no clue that his jokes have literally saved his life. Beverly and Ben end up together at last, and a reader can imagine that they tell people vaguely that they met as children and reconnected years later, a sweet story of serendipity and True Love. Forgetting is a gift in a way. But when Mike writes “I loved you guys, you know. I loved you so much”, and then watches those words grow fainter and fainter as the ink disappears, it feels like the most harrowing loss in the story.

I loved most of IT: Chapter I. I thought the decision to move the flashback sequences into the ‘80s was brilliant, because it removed much of the distance between the audience and the horror. Most of the people who saw it in the theater have at least dim child-memories of the 1980s, or are currently living through the endless waves of Reagan Era nostalgia. Leaving it in the 1950s would have turned the film into too much of a period piece. Instead we have hypochondriac Eddie being terrified of AIDs instead of polio, and Ben loving New Kids on the Block rather than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. But here’s the thing that’s tempering my excitement for the second half: by streamlining the narrative, the film has lost the sense of compressed time. I can’t imagine that the sense of living, inescapable trauma will be preserved by the film, even with a few flashbacks to the Young Losers scattered across the Adult Losers’ story. And while I’m quivering with anticipation of the movie (Bill Hader playing Richie Tozier is a personal gift to me, specifically, from the fucking Universe and no one’s gonna convince me otherwise) I am already mourning the fact that the movie won’t hold the same emotional wallop.

For one thing I’m not a scared 11-year-old anymore. But more than that, the sense of loss I felt closing the book the first time was created by King through an intricate and daring structure. He was throwing a lot of book at readers, trusting that at least some of them would be willing to stick it out (there was also probably some cocaine involved). But most of all he was playing with time in a way that exposed the raw terror under all the nostalgic mid-’80s Baby Boomer stories—that wave of pop culture from The Big Chill and Field of Dreams to John Updike and Don Henley, that reimagined the 1950s and ’60s as glory days full of noble moral choices and free love. King dug beneath that glossy nostalgia to take a hard look at a society shot through with fear—whether it was fear of the Bomb, polio, Black people with actual rights, or women with actual autonomy—and filtered it all through a terrifying clown/spider so we could look at it with him. You can’t go back (you can never go back) but you also can’t completely ditch that scared 11-year-old. And in writing a book that collapses past and present into constant now, in all its wonder and horror, Stephen King didn’t just give me an incredible story, he also taught me about the power and responsibility of being a storyteller.

Is it weird that Leah Schnelbach can’t wait to head back to Derry? Come float with her in the sewers of Twitter!

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