Everyone knows Stephen King is the master of horror literature. This is a fact; whether or not you agree or disagree is irrelevant. And everyone also knows that his 1986 novel It features an incredible antagonist. But there is so much more to the book than just a scary clown. Reading It has the emotional impact of a freight train coming straight at you, and not just in the form of terror alone.
No, it’s much more than that. At its core, It has enough power to make a grown man break down and weep. It’s a story of innocence – both the possession and loss of it – and the longing of childhood magic, which, whether you remember or not, is real. In case you’ve forgotten, King is here to remind you. Yes, children are capable of magic. They practice it every minute of their young lives.
To children, a stick in the woods may take on the appearance of a greatsword. And by wielding said stick, which to an adult is just a plain old stick, they are able to commit acts of heroism that are just as real as the sun or the moon. They are able to perceive reality in ways that those who have been through puberty won’t accept – or simply can’t remember.
This is the core of It. In the fictional town of Derry, Maine, seven kids led by Bill Denbrough must face off against an evil as old as time itself. This evil, sometimes referred to as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, sometimes Robert Gray, but most commonly simply as “It”, feeds on the fear of children. It is able to take on the form of anything it pleases; it’s a shapeshifter but spends a very good amount of its time as Pennywise. After all, clowns have a tendency to bring the creeps.
But Denbrough and company are special. They believe in magic. They possess imaginations that many adults could only dream of. After Pennywise takes Bill’s brother away from them, Bill decides to face It with the rest of his friends, known as The Losers Club.
Throughout this 1,150 page monolith of a novel, we join the Losers as they face off with this strange, violent being, on a journey that takes them through the innocence of childhood all the way to the rigors of adulthood. And yes, the novel is scary, and yes, the novel is extremely violent. Yet there is an exploration of the heart contained within that I have never read in another work of horror fiction, and I would be surprised if I were able to find a work as thick with nostalgia and revelations as this again.
Childhood goes by so fast. I can remember playing with my brothers in the woods when I was eleven – just the three of us in a plain old patch of woods behind our apartment complex. It was a small complex; there wasn’t much to it besides an average sized pool and a decent community tennis court. An adult passing through may complain about the lack of amenities. No gym? No community house to rent out for parties? But for this, it was more than good enough.
Because a small area of brush is more than just foliage to an eleven-year-old. It’s a jungle. Or maybe its the actually a portion of the Redwoods. Maybe, if you look hard enough, it’s a place that Frodo may be hiding from the Ringwraiths. And if you listen hard enough, you may be able to even hear the beating hoofs of their black steeds.
Then we begin to notice the opposite sex, and that becomes slightly more important that braving the wilds of the Jurassic in your own backyard. Snow storms are no longer a free trip to Hoth, and instead, they become a reason to be grumpy about having to go to work. Things get real – sex may become more than just something you overhear older kids talking about and bills become something more than just meaningless papers you can’t figure out why your parents hate so much. In gaining our maturities, we lose something; we lose the power of childhood magic. Many of us are never able to get it back.
I believe King has found a way. He has proven it time and time again through his novels. It’s never more prevalent than in It, and though I cannot say that it is relatable in the context of facing violent beings from outside of time (I’ve never done enough drugs to face one of those situations), it really does force the reader to look at themselves and reflect on their own lives. It is a story rich with fantasy and realism. Few stories have been able to look at the ugly side of childhood as well as the beauty of it as this one. Reading it is a test of emotional might; there are times that you may find yourself taking a break out of pure disgust or trying to hold back tears from sadness. There are other times when you may find yourself laughing out loud, recalling the exact scene that King had just described – even though you were never a part of the Losers Club or have never lived in Maine.
The best pieces of art are those that look you in the eye and force you to talk back to it. I can think of no better example than King’s 1985 masterwork. And yes, it’s scary enough to give you nightmares. There’s no doubt about that at all.