There was a time when I was younger when I was reading horror fiction but felt that none of it could scare me. I still enjoyed it, but I also wished I could find something really scary, too. Stephen King’s It was what people recommended to me when I asked what could be that something. Now, much later, I finally got around to reading it. And I was scared, sometimes.
I will start with a more general description of the book and then continue with a closer evaluation of some of its aspects.
What It’s all about
It is the story of a child-devouring monster, only referred to as “It”, haunting the town of Derry, and the children who confront it and the adults who they become who confront it again. The protagonists are a group of less-popular kids, referred to as the Losers, who go on to become successful adults. They have mysteriously forgotten what happened when they were children, but start to remember it as history starts to repeat itself as the monster awakens again. The earlier and the later parts of the story are told in turns throughout, almost to the very end.
The beginning of the childhood part is characterised by a pattern of children being preyed upon by a nebulous monster that kills them after terrifying them in every way available to something that is clearly not bound by the rules of physics or reason. It also has plenty about the everyday life of the young kids, and some violent bullies are almost an equally prominent threat. In retrospect, they are also a sign of how wrong Derry is somehow. They are a real danger and could have killed someone, but the adults do almost nothing.
There are also plenty of other anecdotes reinforcing Derry’s own brand of weirdness. In fact, one of the characters has been collecting them. Overall, the novel spans decades and even more in flashbacks and has a huge number of point of view characters, including many one-shots (many of whom end up dead). The way it’s tied to the history of Derry gives it a certain epic feel, though the same thing also limits this feel somewhat, since all of it is tied to this one town. Nevertheless, it certainly makes clear the wrongness of Derry itself. It’s not merely a nice town where a monster happens to reside. This point may actually be driven home by a couple of anecdotes too many.
The part of the story where the characters are adults has them starting to remember what happened and return to Derry — long before they remember how it actually ended last time or know what they should do this time. This way, the ending of the first story is withheld right until the end.
Naming your monster “It” raises some pretty big expectations. It’s saying that this monster is the unnameable, that elusive thing H. P. Lovecraft was always trying to invoke; something that is just so beyond everything we know and can accept that we can barely refer to it. The ultimate horror, somehow worse than any particular fear of this world. Well, credit where it’s due: King’s It really is the ultimate monster in many ways. The depiction falters at places, but nevertheless, this is the best way to describe it. It is every horror of your (not necessarily the reader’s, but the characters’) childhood on the surface, fear itself taking shape, and underneath, something cosmic and Lovecraftian.
(Ironically, It also became a symbol of pure fear for me while I was reading for reasons largely unrelated to the actual contents of the book, save perhaps that general idea of the unnameable ultimate fear. For as long as I remember, I have had occasional nightmares featuring some such thing, an ultimate horror I must not even look at, though they have become less intense and can even feel slightly ridiculous rather than scary nowadays, as if only part of me is playing along. Now, I had several nightmares supposedly referencing the novel, where It usually manifested as something bizarre and almost trivial that was still pretending to be that ultimate terror. Again, this was presumably because of my expectations of the book more than anything.)
However, one of my problems with the novel has to do with just this, how It is supposedly the ultimate monster. For being that, It isn’t quite dangerous enough. Admittedly, there is a story behind this, how It has made Itself vulnerable. Still, the heroes prevail against It a little too easily and often. It’s hardly a picnic for them, but it raises the question of whether, if we take It seriously, they should have had a fighting chance at all. And this ties to my main complaint about the story.
King has a bit of thing about using destiny or predestination to build his plots. Off the top of my head, I can think of The Stand and The Dark Tower as other examples. It is perhaps the biggest instance of this I’ve seen yet. The characters are moved by some vague higher force — apparently the enigmatic and, uh, kind of silly Turtle — that leads them together and guides them throughout.
The group of friends forms because they’re supposed to. Sure, they probably have a working natural dynamic, but beyond anything else they have an obvious ka-tet (summoned together by destiny) thing going on. They’re together and form a cohesive group because they’re supposed to.
But the bigger problem is with what this does for the plot. It’s guided from the outside; the characters fall into a groove that carries them forward along a path they don’t themselves know. It’s an essential part of everything that they’re being nudged around. Sometimes they even do unwise things like risk smoke inhalation because intuition just tells them it’s what they’re supposed to do. This is fantasy, I know. Things don’t happen as in real life. (I hope King knows this too. He’s struck me as a bit of a fuzzy thinker before, and as not having much scientific literacy, so who knows what he thinks intuition can do.) But the result for the plot is that the protagonists’ victories and the overall arc of the story are not due to their own skills or effort, but instead the invisible groove set before them from the start. This is not to say that they don’t struggle, or they always succeed, or that they don’t have to pay a price. I meant it when I said it’s no picnic for them. But it does mean the plot doesn’t flow from them. In fact, the plot flows mainly from itself via destiny. It’s an epic, impressive arc with a good structure in many ways on the one hand. But on the other hand, you don’t want to look too closely or you’ll see the sticky tape holding it together.
(I can’t help but be reminded of another book that does completely the opposite that I reviewed some time ago, Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night where the plot is built organically around the characters and their growth instead of the other way around.)
So: Scary? Yes. Epic? Yes. Flawed? Yes. Typical King, although one of his better ones.