Monday, July 12, 2010

IT: A review

You don’t have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever, love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.

—Stephen King,

What quality separates an adult from a child? Is it responsibility in the former and unbridled freedom in the latter? Do adults possess a higher order of thinking? Or, to take a cynical view, are adults merely physically larger (perhaps they/we never really do grow up)?

I happen to think there is a difference, though it’s hard to say precisely what. You could describe adulthood as a phase through which we all must pass, else we remain stunted and undeveloped, looking backward instead of forward, unable to transform into the mature beings that the hard world requires. Indefinable and amorphous, you may as well call this period of transition it. Stephen King did, and in 1985 he wrote a massive book by the same name about this very subject.

As is King’s forte, IT is also a horror story, and a terrifying one at that. The villain of IT is a creature that lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine, one that takes the shape of our worst fears. IT’s favorite shape is a painted clown known as Pennywise, friendly at first glance but whose greasepaint smile reveals a double-row of Gillette razor teeth. Pennywise can also take the form of a werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and more. Whatever a particular child finds most terrifying, Pennywise can take its shape.

Pennywise has preyed on the children of Derry for untold generations, emerging from a deep slumber in the sewers every 27 years to feed. After a year of gruesome killings (written up in the press as mysterious child disappearances, or frequently blamed on other sources), the cycles end with a culminating event, typically an awful orgy of destruction, after which the creature resumes its hibernation.

But Pennywise—aka., IT—always comes back. Derry is perennially under its pall and seems to accept the darkness as “just the way things are” and the horrors continue in cyclical fashion. But then comes the summer of 1958. A group of 10 and 11-year-old children called the Loser’s Club, led by a stuttering, charismatic child known as Bill Denbrough, unite to battle Pennywise. All have had close brushes with the monster. Scarred by their experiences but united in purpose (Bill’s six year old brother Georgie is dragged into the sewer and killed in a gruesome scene at the beginning of the novel, and Bill vows revenge), they travel into Derry’s byzantine sewer systems to put an end to the monster. Following an epic confrontation in the creature’s den the children vow to return to Derry should Pennywise/IT ever return.

One of the club, Mike Hanlon, remains behind in the ensuring decades to watch and wait. When Pennywise does re-emerge 27 years later the children of the Loser’s Club are now adults in their late 30s. Some higher power has mercifully allowed them to forget the terrible events of their childhood and move on with their lives. But now they have to fight the terrible evil once more and growing up has diminished them in some way. This time around they find themselves less equipped to fight.

IT is a great story full of memorable events, places, and characters. King imbues Derry with its own personality, and the town feels like a member of the cast. King skillfully weaves in events from Derry’s awful past, including past murder sprees and the culminating bloodbaths that sent IT back into the sewers, including a horrific nightclub fire (The Black Spot) and the explosion of the Kitchener Ironworks.

But in the end, what I like most about IT, and what separates the book from much of the rest of King’s oeuvre, is its thoughtful exploration of that amorphous crossing of the bar from youth to maturity. To get where you want to go in life you have to grow up, King says, but it’s not a simple process. The transition from childhood to adulthood is complex and bittersweet, its benefits equivocal. Adulthood brings with it at least some measure of financial, parental, and geographic freedom. We can leave those hometowns that are so frequently a source of shame and failure and hidden darkness. But in so doing we lose a lot, too—our dreams, our innocence, our closest friends, and sometimes even our faith in a higher power. And the only way to defeat Pennywise—that monstrous, childhood IT—is through faith.

King has been accused by his critics of being shallow, all style and no substance (he did himself no favors by once calling himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries”). But I’ve found that his best material has more depth than meets than eye. IT is not just about battling monsters. Or rather it is about that, but the monsters are also the real, adult fears of loneliness, guilt, and dependency, of growing up, of confronting the monsters of one’s past and trying to move on. We are all incomplete until we face our past and determine who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to live our lives. This personal struggle, as much as visceral, horrific battles with Pennywise, is what brings me back to IT again and again. This time around I had the benefit of listening to it courtesy of Penguin Audio (my review will also appear on

I will say that IT is not without its problems, including a sequence that remains controversial among King’s readers. Without spoiling the story, it involves a coming of age ritual in the sewers that is a bit off-putting and jarring, even though I do understand its purposes. Some of the characters feel a bit one-trick and allegorical (representative of concepts rather than three-dimensional human beings). Other readers have complained that IT’s denouement—Pennywise’s final reveal—is a bit of a let-down after 1,000 pages of build up. King is unfortunately often guilty of writing unsatisfying endings to otherwise great novels, and IT arguably suffers from the same problem. I don’t necessarily agree, as I find the epilogue incredibly satisfying, but others have made this criticism.

But despite its flaws, IT is one of my favorite books by King. With a memorable monster, a nice cast of characters, and a compelling, decades-spanning storyline with an epic final showdown, IT is a horrific page turner with deeper literary ambitions that it mostly fulfills.

This review also appears on


Trey said...

I've never read It, though I agree, in general, with your assertion that there is often more going on in King's work than a lot of people given him credit for.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Yeah, that coming of age ritual is pretty crazy. I don't know how King thought he could get away with it, but I guess he has, so hat's off.

I dig this novel, a lot, and think it is one of his best, and it's great to know that there are better.

Mike in MN said...

Excellent review. I always like the back stories King comes up with to breathe more life into his locations. It made me look at my own hometown and wonder about its hidden history. One of my favorite parts of the novel (if memory serves) is how the kids were able to invoke their imagination to turn mundane items into weapons against the monster.

Falze said...

And of course it was made into an excellent miniseries!


Yeah, right.

Ben Grunzel said...

I read this book twice growing up, its a great coming of age story. I hope to reread it when I'm closer to the adult characters' age to see if it resonates as well.

And King is always better at the buildup than the reveal, but as he's mentioned: its the journey, not the destination.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Trey: You've got a fine read ahead of you should you ever pick up IT, in my opinion. But it's long, so you may need a couple weeks.

Ryan: IT is one of my favorite works by King, and I'd place it as among his best. I think I like The Stand better, along with Different Seasons, Night Shift, Pet Sematary, and possibly The Dead Zone.

Mike, yes, that was a nice touch. Pennywise liked to feed on children (primarily) because their imagination-fueled fear seasoned their flesh, if I recall correctly. But if their imagination/faith was sufficiently powerful, children could hurt him with weapons like silver slugs fired from slingshots and blasts from an asthma inhaler ("it's battery acid!")

Falze: Yes, pretty darned poor, though Pennywise (see embedded photo) was creepy.

Ben: I agree. King does deliver on some endings--I've always thought that Pet Sematary was particularly brilliant--but you're right, even when he falls short, the journey is typically worth it.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I agree that the miniseries was, let's say, less than great. However, the opening scene is a classic, with the child on the tricycle and Pennywise appearing in the blowing laundry. A lesson for makers of horror - you don't need gore to scare the heck out of people.

Anonymous said...

most of the fans conisder It King's magnum opus, but I completely disagree, is his most overrated novel, too long and some parts with the children are boring for me...
a friend of mine try to start reading King with It, I try to convince him to read Carrie or Pet sematary but he wanted It, he couldn't finished it, in great part for a classic problem with King in Spain, the translation...

my favourites... Pet sematary, the best, Carrie, Cujo, Skeleton crew, Christine, and with the pseudonym Richard Bachman The long walk is absolutely awesome...
by the way have you read Duma key? what about it? and The dome? is the kind of back to the roots some critics say?

Falze said...

I'm pretty sure most people consider The Stand King's "magnum opus", actually.

Brian Murphy said...

Eric: Completely agreed, see Jaws for another example (some gore, true, but the scariest parts are the unseen, and the brief flashes of the shark).

Francisco/Falze: Yes, I would say The Stand (or perhaps The Dark Tower series) is King's magnum opus.

I have not read Duma Key or Under the Dome--I've read all of King's early stuff, and some of his later works, but I haven't kept up like I used to. The Long Walk is pretty awesome, as is the rest of the Bachman Books (save Roadwork, IMO).