After reading The Dark Tower series I felt like I had given Stephen King a bit of a bad rap. I have lamented about such things earlier, but aside from my drunken late night decision to follow him on Twitter, I hadn’t actually taken any positive steps to actually read any other part of his not inconsiderable output. I decided to fix that, so I picked up a copy of It.
The book is 1100 pages long. This is not, in and of itself, a deal breaker, but when I see a book breaches the thousand page mark the only books that have ever been able to justify that page count are existential character studies.
King does not do existential character studies.
Still, the new film had come out and as I had not read the source material yet, I couldn’t complain about all the things it did wrong so I made my peace with my doubt and engaged in what I can only describe as the literary equivalent of watching meth head sort through the canned goods of a grocery store. A lot is happening, but very, very little is actually being accomplished.
We spend the book being tossed back and forth from 1958 to 1984 as a bunch of kids and their adult iterations confront an unnamable evil from beyond space and time that has, for whatever reason, decided that even though it could shape shift at will its favorite and primary disguise would be a clown armed with physics-defying balloons. This could, I suppose be scary on its own, but King being King, the real horror comes from the ease of violence and gore the creature is capable of unleashing with much the same effort I exert pouring myself a cup of coffee in the morning. Which would be fine on its own.
Honestly, giant mystery horror creature hunting, haunting, and killing people while shape shifting into zombies, spiders, and werewolves. A simple premise, but a classic horror trope. Great, sure, not going to blow anyone’s minds but goddammit who doesn’t love a good monster story?
Except it’s not just a monster story, oh no, we also get the life stories of the six main characters in excoriating detail because each and every one of them comes draped in some sort of tragedy. Neglect, abuse, hints of pedophilia, you name it Derry, Maine has it in spades. May no child leave this town, unpsychologically scared and crippled by their parents, so it is written! And, yes, the book justifies this in its way, but the Law of Diminishing Returns works in all things and you can only beat a child some many times before I’m less engaged in the words expressing it than the Freudian fixation on the act itself.
Nine-hundred-and-some-odd pages of this and some adult ‘My god, where did the time go and why was it murdered by a vulgar clown’ later we find our way to the ending, which can basically be summarized under ‘The Power of Believing”, which is as trite and unrewarding as it sounds. There is blood, some listless attempts at sadness, but it all boils back down to what is demanded of pop literature: a happy ending. Sure, one could argue that it can’t really be a happy ending if it is built on a pile of corpses, but in a book that defines itself by its visceral horror that is pretty much the only way to build anything.
It took Stephen King four years to write this book. I know this because he told me in the author’s note. This seems like a crushingly long time for someone with Stephen King’s reputation of near omnipresence on the New Release shelf. Apparently, however, there was a strange drug-fueled time between 1984 and It’s release in 1986 where this was, for all intents and purposes, what he was working on. It’s not a dumb book, there are some excellent ideas that are lost amongst all of the scenes meant for ‘character’ building. I wanted to quit this book, but I am not a quitter, were I, however, I would have saved nearly 24 hours of my life.
That might be the greatest horror in the time I spent with this book.
“I’m the Turtle, son. I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.” ― Stephen King, It