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.



A Horror Confession: “It” (2017)

I’ve been pretty upfront about my Stephen King newb-ness. So I’ll just get it out now: I never read It, and as of this writing I’ve only seen little pieces of the 1990 miniseries. The first Stephen King anything I think I ever saw all the way through was Pet Sematary, followed by The Shining. I’ve since read both of those novels, along with the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. In the intervening years I’ve seen bits and pieces of other films, like The Night Flier, Cujo, and probably some others. But that’s about it.

I remember the 1990 TV version happening, vaguely. I remember adults talking about it, though that may have been after the fact; and I remember somebody (my father?) having a copy of the novel, which was enough to frighten me. (I was eight at the time.) I knew that Pennywise was the villain, and that he was actually some kind of spider-demon thing, and I think I knew that he ate kids. That’s where my knowledge ended.

So now, in 2017, I didn’t have a ton of prior knowledge or expectations going into this. That said, I’ll just get this other thing out of the way right now: I really liked this movie.

Something about the vague knowledge of It as a source of fear from my youth (even, again, without having read/seen it myself), coupled with the powerful imagery of a child-eating monster, really got me. It’s just so awful. The opening scene has poor Georgie–and really, poor Georgie!–getting his arm bitten off by this awful Lovecraftian clown-monster in the sewer. Today I watched that scene in the original Tim Curry version, and it lacks the awfulness of the new one. I was frankly stunned that they showed a six-year-old kid getting mangled by a sewer demon.. I don’t know if I should praise the film for that, but it was definitely an affecting scene.

A brief summary for fellow newbies: It tells the story of a demonic being that stalks the children of Derry, Maine, preying on their fear (but also literally eating them). When poor Georgie disappears (in the film version–the novel’s different), his brother Bill launches a year-long campaign to discover what happened to him. Bill’s quest ultimately ropes in his friends, a bunch of unpopular kids who have all been terrorized by the monster, and they learn that “it” only appears every twenty-seven years, wreaking havoc and causing lots of grisly deaths for a year at a time before disappearing again. The creature is a shapeshifter, appearing to its intended victims as the things they fear most; but its preferred form is a clown called Pennywise. (I don’t happen to suffer from so-called caulrophobia, but if you do, this all must just be awful for you.)

Everything about this film was memorable. The central group of young actors were great, with every single one of the Losers’ Club giving stand-up performances. And Bill Skarsgård’s evil clown Pennywise is equally great, suitably creepy and weird and frightening, not so much to me, but to the children who are his prey. Little me would have absolutely died of fright.

It felt a tiny bit abrupt, and the monster talks too much–though that’s probably something to lay at King’s feet more than the film makers’. A few of the jittery running-at-the-screen scares were standard contemporary horror schlock, but they were used sparingly and integrated more organically into the plot than other recent examples. (Looking at you, every James Wan film.)

I don’t think I can do this adequate credit in a brief review, so I’ll just reiterate that I thought it was very good. The scares were genuine, the writing and acting were on point, the music was effective, and nothing felt forced or Wan-ish. I’m thrilled that Andy Muschietti, the director of the just horribly blah Mama, was able to pull this off. It’s inspired me to buy the novel, which I’ll undoubtedly review on here one of these days. You should see it.