What a great labor of love it is to discuss Stephen King's most magnificent octopus (okay, technically, I guess that would be The Stand, but I didn't read it until a year ago, so it didn't make as significant a dent in my psyche) in our august online publication. Let's stick to the novel, but you are free to go bananas about the Tim Curry television movie in the comments. For the record, you'll never watch him as "Rooster" in Annie the same way again (thank the Turtle she wound up with Daddy Warbucks instead). I guess when you have a mouth that looks like a yawning maw of terror, you're gonna play a lot of roles that involve menacing children, no? YES.
IT is my favorite. I think King has better books, and he certainly has better novellas, but IT is really the ur-King. You've got the total-terror-fest factor, of course, the children-in-danger factor, the inappropriate-sexuality factor (hang on, hang on, we'll get there), the Neil Young lyrics ("Out of the blue and into the black"), the abusive-husband factor, the saying-weird-things-in-lower-case-italics-factor…
the deadlights… down here we all float
(Argh, even typing that freaked me out. I bought the book at a mall when I was ten-ish and read the whole thing sitting on the bench outside the store, because I knew I would not want to associate any part of my bedroom with the book on an ongoing basis, y'know?)
But, really, it's the creepy dark historicity that makes this Classic King. Derry isn't just evil, it has always been evil. The last two centuries have been evil. Evil is on a ROTATIONAL SCHEDULE in Derry. It's all "oh, okay, things are only awful here this year," and then "oh, no, literally thirty percent of the town's children will die in a variety of ways this year." The fire at the Black Spot, the tramp-chair, those horrible photographs that move, etc. We all (or not, you do you) enjoyed "this next book is about… an evil lamp!" on "Family Guy," but Stephen King is really about places of despair and cruelty that seep down and infect subsequent generations. I guess Maine is a real place, and people live there and probably have, like, cookouts and ball games and stuff, but how on EARTH do you live anywhere near the Kenduskeag Stream and not assume there are quiet, horrible forces seeking boymeat in your near vicinity?
Stephen King is so iconic to me for childhood depictions now that I automatically assume anyone older than me had a The Body/ITchildhood. "So, when you were a kid, you sat around reading dirty magazines and smoking in your tree fort and talking about dicks and calling each other a-holes and writing wistful poems for red-haired girls, right?" "No, I am an eighty-year-old woman, and this is not something you should ask strangers on a bus."
Speaking of children, I had one of those "oh, shit, I'm a mom" moments when I cracked this open for the re-read, got four sentences in, remembered that six-year-old George Denbrough was about to have his arm ripped off by Pennywise the Clown while playing innocently with his stupid newspaper boat, said NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE OCTOPUS GIF and skipped ahead. Let the fictional pre-teens and the middle-aged suffer and die, I ain't watching Georgie float. And yo, Bill, get off your freaking flu-y ass and go help your brother with the damn boat. And their parents! Who is letting their six year old play in a flooded gutter unattended? It would be bad enough in, like, Montclair, NJ, but this happens to be a town sitting on a wellspring of eternal evil.
The first wheel of terror takes place in the late 1950s, and there are so many great parenting/teaching/peer respect fails here (apart from the obvious "Bev's Abusive Dad" plot arc, which definitely blew my hair back as a ten year old with super-progressive hippie parents), that ideally, if we all sat down and read it together, our society would be rid forever of its weird 1950s nostalgia. Because people didn't know about suffocation hazards, you've got an OBVIOUSLY mentally disturbed child collecting dead animals in an abandoned refrigerator in the woods. Guys, seriously, you have to take the doors off those things when you throw them out. You have a little 80s-era gay-bashing to signal when the badness has returned (mad ups to King, though, for taking a hard line on a real-life gay-bashing). Then there's the asthmatic kid making it up for attention who should be denied his medication at will. (I know, I know, he WAS making it up,* but it's the general principle here.) Oh, and look, a stuttering child. It's not like they had The King's Speech back then, or anything. You just got taunted until you fought off a demonic force by THRUSTING YOUR FISTS AGAINST THE POSTS until you no longer cared about the cruelty of your fellow children, because you'd had sex with another child in order to… something?
Which brings us to the Inappropriate Sexuality factor. Why did our heroes all have to have sex with Bev? I never quite got it. I mean, I'm definitely happy that Stephen King decided to give the poor fat kid a huge penis. ("It's nice they get something, because they have a hell of a time."—Life of Brian, on the meek inheriting the earth.) I just am legit not clear why that large penis had to enter another child. I guess the idea was that it would help them "stay together," or "not get separated in the tunnel" or something, but if any of you went to a weird college and wrote a dissertation on the subject, please do share in the comments.
* Well, not "making it up." He had a psychosomatic illness brought about by his mother, who was running the Bates Motel at the time.
Lessons Learned From IT and Never Forgotten
• If you decide something has totemic significance to you, it will probably help you defeat malevolent paranormal forces, even if it is kind of dumb, like knowing the names of birds.
• Don't take balloons from strangers. Don't talk to strangers. Don't make eye contact with strangers. Stay in your own room or a well-lit mall, reading books and keeping your grades up and making plans to move to New York, where the ghosts are more like Ghostbusters-ghosts.
• Bad places to hang out: the woods surrounding your haunted town, water towers, gutters, empty refrigerators, Easter egg hunts in abandoned factories, libraries after closing.
• Don't date people who hit you.
• Don't begin relationships with people who remind you of your dad, who hit you.
• Don't try to hug it out with your childhood bully.
• Before getting married, ask your fiance(e) if they have any odd feeling of attachment to their hometown, and think they might have engaged in a child sex orgy in an attempt to fight off eternal extraterrestrial evil and might someday need to return to finish the job.
• If so, let them go, but do not follow them under any circumstances and take out a decent life insurance policy against their safe return.
• When you get your period, take the box of tampons out from under the sink and say: "YOU ARE MY CHILDREN, I FEED YOU WITH MY BLOOD." That probably works with the Diva Cup, too.
• Maine is fucking terrifying, and you should avoid it at all costs.
• Don't/you can't go home again.
• Did you read King's op-ed on gun violence? He talks about Rage, which came out in 1977 and which many of us read before it got yanked, and others found in used book stores. You should probably hang onto your copy, it'll be worth something some day.
• IS this the scariest Stephen King novel? What's your counter-proposal?
• What are your thoughts on Tim Curry? Be exact, do not be brief.
• Okay, what is the single scene/image/line that burned itself onto your brain?
• Sometimes the lyrics become ridiculous, though: "Born down in a dead man's town." – Bruce Springsteen. I do not think Bruce was really thinking about gouts of blood coming out of the sink, Stephen. It was more the loss of American manufacturing in the heartland, or something. I don't know, didn't David Remnick have a big piece about it?
• The problem with writing about IT is that "it" is also a really common word, so each time you have to decide if IT or "it" makes more sense. Why did King do that to me?
• Remember how Pennywise's eyes would change to a color that would be comforting to you, personally? What would Pennywise's eyes look like to you? To me, Pennywise would have empty, bleeding sockets, because it would mean I had gouged them out and run away to a public place.
Previously in Classic Trash: 'Twilight Series': Bite Me Four Times Shame On Me
Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.