IT (a book review)

Stephen King's IT
That’s a great book cover.

Stephen King’s IT is 30 years old and has been reviewed by more than enough people. But, what the heck, let’s go for it

First, I liked this novel. I liked it a lot. It’s the kind of epic you don’t see much of these days, what with modern novels spoon-feeding our short attentions with tiny chapters that aren’t really chapters. (How many 350-page novels have you read that have 40+ chapters? Way too many.) IT has as much in common with a sweeping drama as it does with a horror story. It’s a week-long television mini-series instead of a one-night episode (I know, it really did end up being a mini-series). Those aesthetics aside, this novel, at its core, is an ode to childhood and to memory, to the places we come from and how they shape us into the adults we become. But the story isn’t a straightforward narrative and I think that throws a lot of people off.

Even though the novel is told through the characters, like any good fiction, it often plays like a true-life account of the fictional town of Derry – a kind of historical detective story, meticulously researched by the sometimes-narrator (one of the seven main characters, Mike Hanlon), complete with interviews of longtime residents. There is a story here, of course, but the author could have called it “A Dark History of Derry, Maine” and gotten away with it.

Derry may be fictional, but Mr. King gives his readers a hundred years of history. In this story, the flashbacks have flashbacks, taking events back to before the turn of the 20th century. There are shocking incidents of racism, mass killings, even youth bullying that goes out of control. Each event stacks on top of the other as time passes to show the pattern of violence and evil that has haunted the people and places on which Derry was built. By the time you get to the end, you may have trouble remembering that Derry isn’t real. It’s absorbing and imaginative.

That’s the strength of IT, that ability to suck you in. Younger readers (not too young, this is R-rated material) may not find as much to reel them in beyond the story of a murderous clown that preys mostly on children, but older readers will surely find themselves lost in the recollections of childhood and the connections to their own youth and those last, tenuous threads of innocence. Of course, the evil clown stuff is cool, too. Stephen King does not short-change you on that thing. Sometimes the evil in a King book is little more than a McGuffin (you can’t hide, Under the Dome). But Pennywise is the real deal, fully fleshed-out and crazy.

Of course, there is balance in the universe, meaning there is some bad to go with the good. The biggest flaw breaks the surface when the narrative of IT grinds to a halt in several places. The story jumps between the present (1985 in the book) and the past, balancing two interconnected storylines. That’s fine, but in his desire to fully realize Derry, the author stomps on moving the story forward to take readers into long segues even further into the past, or into first-person interludes meant to break up main sections of the story. Along the way, I would expect readers to come across several time-consuming tangents that they would have cut if they were an editor. Some of these detours add to the world-building, but they still feel superfluous.

I’m pretty sure the author was trying to create suspense, but the thing is, IT isn’t a scary story much of the time. When the story is creepy, it works really well, but with its length, some of the initial frights become repetitive and others are told in hindsight, and in such a way that you are not concerned about the outcome. That’s when you start to feel like skimming (though I never did). Eventually, it gets to the point where everything is moving forward at the same time and then you’ll find yourself blazing through 200 pages, but the story structure does try your patience once or twice.

At the end, though, when I closed the book, I found myself dwelling on it. There’s a lot to meditate on between the covers of this book, from the mysteries of the cosmos to the nature of evil to remembering to stop and observe the world as if through the eyes of a child once in a while.

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