A Second Horror Confession: “It” (1986)

It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time, but I finally finished It, a massive tome about kids fighting a monster, and a second, grafted-on book about ancient cosmic forces and how underage sex apparently has something to do with them in an obscure and extremely uncomfortable way. No, okay, so they’re actually just the one book. But the thing is what the holy hell happened here Stephen King?

As with each King book I read, I found a lot to commend this: mostly sympathetic characters, an interesting setting, and stakes that mattered (a monster killing children definitely ticks that box). That premise alone is pretty great, and it’s part of what carried the recent film version to such great heights: they stuck to the bare-bones version of the plot without any of the icky sex garbage. King is also adept at creating characters I feel like I know, which I suspect is because he’s of approximately the same generation as my parents, and uses some of the same idioms, and has a similar sense of humor. (More on that last bit in a moment.)

You know the plot by now, though it’s worth pointing out how different the novel is from the 2017 film. First, while the new film is set entirely in the “past” part of the narrative, the novel flips continually back and forth between the past and present. This affects the pacing considerably: where the movie moves at a brisk pace, the book plods on, with each character getting multiple vignettes to him- or herself in both times.

More “factual” elements of the plot differ, too. Poor Georgie doesn’t disappear into the sewers, for instance: he just dies there on the pavement. Stan Uris isn’t haunted by a creepy ghost lady from a painting: instead he gets trapped inside a giant reservoir and is nearly killed by the reanimated corpses of Its victims. Mike Hanscom doesn’t see Pennywise in the butcher’s shop: he gets attacked by a giant bird. The bullies feature in far more scenes in the novel, including an awful and abortive sex scene between Henry, the bullies’ leader, and Patrick, a sadistic serial-killer-in-training. (Admittedly Patrick’s death, by swarm-of-flying-leeches, is pretty cool.)

The monster content is mostly good, but the sheer volume of text is off-putting. You can tell that King cared deeply about this novel, its setting and its characters, and thanks to his craftsmanship Derry feels very much like a real place. The downside of this attention to detail is that the story gets, to put it bluntly, boring. King is building a history of Derry here, and at times the book reads almost like a vanity-press-published work by a local historian. In a shorter work this technique would almost certainly be effective; at this scale it’s just not sustainable. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading transcriptions of town council meeting minutes, you might appreciate the hundreds and hundreds of pages about Derry’s past. Unfortunately, if you aren’t, you probably won’t.

But maybe that’s not entirely fair. I generally do enjoy fictional histories and lengthy descriptions of place, and I did enjoy much of It. I could have easily forgiven the book its ponderous length, if not for the bizarrely strung-together feeling of its closing act. What was a small-scale, local kind of monster story switches abruptly to an interdimensional Lovecraftian struggle against an ancient godlike being whose abode in the Derry sewers belies its Shub Niggurath-like proportions.

Was that sentence a bit too much? Let me try again: Pennywise is basically an evil god capable of destroying worlds (or so he claims), but for some reason he chooses to hang out in Derry’s goddamn sewers and kill children. No convincing explanation is offered, just something rather banal about liking the taste of fear. I liked the story when it was about a shape-shifter who ate kids. The iconic image of the claw reaching up through the sewer grate scared the hell out of me when I was a child and saw my father’s copy of the book lying around the house. The obvious Lovecraft nod that comes in in the last portion of the story feels beyond extraneous, disconnected from the original premise, and so the final battle against Pennywise in his–actually her–true form seems inconsequential. Suddenly Derry no longer matters: in the climactic final confrontations (in both timelines), characters are spiritually or psychically ripped from their bodies and flung across the universe on a weird astral trip in which they learn the about the origins of all creation. Were all this incorporated more fully into the story prior to the ending moments, I might feel differently about it. But it wasn’t. To put it in Lovecraftian terms, the narrative switched suddenly from The Color Out of Space to At the Mountains of Madness, two massively different kinds of stories with correspondingly different stakes (the former local and immediate, the latter cosmic and epoch-spanning). In It, the story I was interested in had already ended by the time the Losers started fighting the spider demon thing. (Right, It’s actually a spider demon thing. Thirty-year-old post hoc spoiler alert.)

It also features, in the person of Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier, perhaps the most annoying character in horror literature. In both timelines Richie prattles on endlessly in idiotic voices, fictional personae he’s invented that eventually land him a lucrative gig as a DJ in California. I’m not sure if readers in the ’80s would have found these characters funny; I categorically do not. The other characters explicitly acknowledge how annoying Richie is, and constantly have to shut him up by saying, “Beep beep, Richie.” Which is itself super annoying. Just more reason, I suppose, to heap praise on the 2017 film, whose version of Richie is my (and probably most viewers’) favorite character.

But the worst sin of the book, by a wide, wide margin, is a gratuitous, utterly pointless, completely unjustified sex scene in which all of the Losers participate. In the past timeline. When they’re in fifth grade. All of them. Six boys and one girl, taking turns, the idea apparently being that the boys are so traumatized by their fight with the spider demon that only sex will save them.

Even in the fantastical context of a horror novel, this shit is particularly bananas. I don’t care how you try to dress it up in terms of psychic energies or primal forces or whatever. The characters are in fifth grade. At least one of them cries because of course he does. And while I wouldn’t call the scene’s description graphic, it does get fairly goddamn descriptive. It proves no point, achieves nothing that couldn’t have as easily been achieved by the group singing Kumbaya or even just hugging it out. It isn’t at all organic to the plot: they’re still in the goddamn sewer when it happens, and poor Bev just gets it in her head that this is the way to save everybody, so she convinces them all to do it right there. No matter how you slice it, King’s saying that these children were in a situation that required them to have sex, and he’s telling you about how it went down. I can’t really get past that, or separate the good story undergirding It from this bizarre meditation on a cosmic version of pre-adolescent sexuality.

(If you want a more nuanced take on these issues, see this excellent review by Adrian Daub.)

There really is a lot of good in this novel. The incorporation of supernatural evil into the daily life and topography of Derry is handled with King’s usual combination of simple power and slightly paradoxical warmth: Derry is bad, bad ground, but you kind of sort almost feel you want to live there. I feel convinced that King had something very specific and probably profound in mind when he made these choices and penned these scenes, a cosmic picture he was painting in which these bizarre moments had symbolic resonance far beyond the mechanical elements of the plot. In many cases he managed to capture those bits of transcendence. In a few very notable ones, he did not.

 

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4 thoughts on “A Second Horror Confession: “It” (1986)

  1. I read the book 30 years ago in 8th grade and while I’ve forgotten most of it, I still remembered the stuff about Patrick and wondered how they would handle it in the movie. I also found the movie much scarier than the book, probably because I was 13 and shrugged it off, but again I’d probably find the book more disturbing if I read it for the first time now.

    • I might have found the book scary when I was younger, back before I got into horror. But I agree, the movie was far scarier. I like the various omissions and stylistic changes to the film, too–not only the weird sex stuff.

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