Monday, 27 May 2013

The Bookcase Of Fear #1: Stephen King's It

By Stephen King

I have too many books, and way too many in particular that I haven't read.  This is a lifelong thing: I've always enjoyed just having books, particularly nice crisp new ones, nearly as much as reading them.  And it needs to stop.  Some day soon, my bookcase will no longer be a terrifying monolith of Why Haven't You Got Around To It Yet.  I'll be able to point to everything on it and say, probably, "Don't bother with that one, it's rubbish."  It's my During The Year Resolution.

It's fitting that I start with Stephen King, as I currently own thirteen of his books, have got rid of two that I couldn't finish (Christine and Cujo), and have read from-cover-to-cover a grand total of... three.  The Shining, which I adored.  One of those books that grabs you with the first sentence; after it ended I felt like it was a disservice to label it "Horror", it being so all-round satisfying.  Then Carrie, which didn't grab me much at any point.  (It spends a lot of time signposting its conclusion, which is fine as a pretend-it's-based-on-real-events gimmick, but ultimately builds hype that isn't met.  You spend 90% of the book marking time.)  And now, because I was up for a challenge, It.  1116 pages of monstery horror.  I've seen the infamous Tim Curry TV adaptation a few times, so I knew my way around.  Still, though.  A thousand pages?

Part of the reason for this  and the way King keeps it from simply feeling long is that it's really two books.  We have the story of the Losers, a group of kids battling a supernatural horror in their hometown of Derry, in the summer of 1958.  Then the sequel, twenty-seven years later, finds the kids grown up, returning to finish what they started.  King runs the stories next to each other, as the adults slowly recover their fractured, traumatised memories, using the past to help them in the present.  It's an ingenious method of keeping the tension up over such a massive pagecount.  There are also diversions, as the one member of the group to stay in Derry over the years fills us in on the history of the town.  These "Interludes" are yarns in themselves; tales of horror and misfortune that happen, in the end, to include the book's supernatural monster.  Cut out Pennywise the Clown, or the giant bird, or any of Its other chameleonic horrors and this could be a very loose short story collection.  I wonder if It was intended as a sort of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blow out for King; a cross-section of every idea in his head.

This is literally true of the titular creature, which can look like anything, meaning King must dredge up virtually every monster he can imagine.  It engenders a constant blur of creativity, which keeps things exciting and varied but does, ultimately, lead to some repetition, and a bit of fatigue.  There are seven main characters (Bill, Eddie, Ben, Beverly, Richie, Stan, Mike) each with their own nightmares and individual interpretations of It, and there simply came a point where I thought: must we hear about all of them?  Repetition is surely inevitable in a tome like this, and it crops up elsewhere: the Losers' particular brand of banter goes round in circles, from good-natured laughter to reassuring Bill, the leader, over and over again that they'll really go through with this.  Yeah, I get it, now get down into those damn sewers!

My mind occasionally wandered towards the TV miniseries, and some of the changes it made.  Many were for the better, I feel.  The eventual battle with It or rather, battles, in '58 and '85 is largely metaphorical, involving a great spiritual Turtle that supposedly created the universe.  Can't say I missed any of that on-screen; somehow, despite the book's great length, there doesn't seem to be time to explain what the hell that's all about.  (The miniseries' more traditional battle involving slingshots and silver, much more affordable on a 1990 budget, also made a bit more sense.)  Also gone and not missed, an impossibly bizarre moment when, having defeated It for the first time, Beverly suddenly decides to have sex with each of the other Losers in order to re-affirm their... friendship?  Or something?  It's one of the two creepiest moments in the book, and unlike the other a chapter on Patrick Hockstetter, a terrifying teenage psychopath who's perhaps even more nightmarish than It it's probably not intended that way.  Capping off the story of poor, abused-by-her-father Bev, "wrong" doesn't begin to cover it.  Particularly, unavoidably, as it's a man writing the story.

Apart from that one bewildering misstep, It does a good job of measuring out its seven heroes, each with their younger and older selves.  The reader invests so much time in each one that, numerous as they are, they feel alive and well-defined.  Besides the satisfying monster plot, there's a genuinely moving story about childhood and maturity, learning from your past, letting go of traumas and conquering them.  Stephen King's soft side peeks through occasionally.  By the book's end, It has been thoroughly defrocked and defanged, so that not only the characters, but also the reader feels thoroughly free of the monster's hold.  Reading the book, soaking up the terrors of the past and facing them, ultimately shedding them, feels like growing up.

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