“IT”- Book Review
Stephen King has become a legend. Whether you like his work or not, there’s no denying the significant mark the man has made in the world of entertainment. His creative mind has given birth to some of the most iconic figures of the horror genre, such as a rabies-infested St. Bernard, a bloody telepathic prom queen, resurrected pets, and the looming evil of a haunted hotel. And perhaps the most notorious of his creations is that of a child-eating demon who lurks within the pages of King’s award-winning novel, IT.
Published in 1986, IT centers around a group of kids who are being terrorized by an ancient evil disguised as a clown. The clown- usually known as Pennywise, sometimes as Mr. Grey, most times as simply It- takes great pleasure in shape-shifting into each child’s deepest fears, fattening them up for its own gory feast. Though It is not the only evil that exists in Derry. The self-proclaimed “Losers Club” must also dodge the wrath of ruthless bullies, abusive parents, over-bearing mothers, and a world that seems like it’s out to get them.
Admittedly, this is the first Stephen King book I’ve successfully read from cover to cover. I’d tried it once, several years ago, when I was in junior high, I think. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I remember I’d picked up a copy of The Shining from the local library, but never made it past the first three pages. Not that it was bad or anything. It just didn’t appeal to me at the time.
But I wanted to give King another shot. I chose IT because A) with the new movie coming out, it seemed like the perfect time to check it out, and B) I wanted to see if it was as scary as everyone was making it out to be. So I plowed through the 1,138 page novel in a month- which is a lot tougher than you’d think- and I am glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. A little underwhelmed, but still pleasantly surprised.
I knew where the story would go long before I even opened the book. I’d accidentally spoiled myself beforehand by watching the 1990 TV adaptation of the novel, thus I knew beat by beat where the characters would end up, who’d lived, who’d died, the origins of Pennywise, and how it all ended. Knowing could have ruined the experience. But it didn’t. I always had an urge to keep reading.
A lot of that is due to the way in which King tells this story. Despite some glaring issues- which I’ll get to in a minute- the book is thoroughly engaging and brimming with great detail. Alternating between the two timelines (from the characters’ childhoods in 1958 to their adult selves in the 1980s) is effective. It keeps things interesting by building up the mystery of what’s happening. I like how the town of Derry is painted as a three-dimensional character. Its heavy history, coupled with the idea of Pennywise’s existence casting a shadow of sinister energy over it, makes the setting just as big a threat to the characters as the monster.
Speaking of, the characters in IT are terrific. Every member of the Loser’s Club feels real, complex, and distinct in terms of personality. The kid versions of Bill, Ben, Mike, Eddie, Richie, Stan and Beverly are especially likable. You really sympathize with them, and hope that they’ll overcome whatever they’re going through, whether it’s a collective fear of Pennywise, the death of loved ones, bullying, loneliness or domestic abuse. It’s a shame because whenever it cuts to them as adults, the interest level dips. The real meat of the story is when they’re kids. I understand the adult portions are to signify how trauma from one’s childhood can follow you into adulthood, but something about the adult storylines isn’t nearly as strong.
In fact, most of the scary elements laid out in the book aren’t that strong. I’d say half of the scares are effective and half are just silly. Moments like when Georgie meets Pennywise in the sewer, Beverly hearing voices in the drain and the general idea of the adults turning back into how they were when they first confronted Pennywise are legitimately disturbing. But they’ll be spliced with goofy scenes like Bill and Richie putting their hands in a moving picture, an institutionalized Henry Bowers talking to Pennywise’s face in the moon, and IT transforming into old monsters like mummies and werewolves. I don’t know. It just didn’t affect me as much as I wanted it to. What makes it more disjointed are some scenes in between, when the characters, after having these horrifying experiences, would go through life as though everything’s normal.
My impression of Pennywise the clown is a little mixed. On the one hand, this is a really cool and interesting character. The idea of a demonic clown morphing into children’s deepest fears and using those fears as a means to capture and consume them is wildly imaginative. It’s a unique spin on a kind of boogeyman figure. At the same time, however, the truth about what Pennywise really is needlessly complicated. The mythology of the Turtle, the Macroverse, and the whole ethereal allure of IT doesn’t feel like it belongs within the same story. I give King credit for creativity, though it’s not how I imagined the character to be.
The last thing I’ll mention is the ending. Good. Lord. The ending is one of the most insane conclusions to a novel I’ve ever read. Up until then the book was going a good job of building suspense and keeping you questioning what the hell was going on. The payoff? A battle with a giant spider, an out-of-body astral projection experience, ripping out hearts, and an unnecessary child orgy scene. It’s a bad ending, plain and simple. Some parts of the novel were already goofy, but the ending took things on a whole other level.
Stephen King’s IT is an entertaining melting pot of ideas. There’s plenty more I could talk about, but I’m afraid I just don’t have the time. The best parts of the book are the characters, the villain, and about half of the scares. What prevents me from loving it is the fact that it’s bloated with filler, over-explained subplots and serious WTF moments. But the parts that are good are too good to overlook. IT may not have left me terrified, though it has made me want to check out more of Stephen King’s work.
Cosmic Grade: B-