We’re told that members of Losers’ Club used the phrase “you bet your fur” frequently as kids, though we see little evidence of that. I guess it left an impression on a lot of readers, because it’s even included in the 1990 miniseries adaptation. It’s the scene where John Ritter tells Ben’s story about going out for track to spite his cruel gym teacher. Except I’m pretty sure (and a lot of other people feel the same way according to my Googlings), that John Ritter says “you bet your fern.” And why shouldn’t he? Neither phrase makes any more sense than the other.
If I had to pick, though, I kind of like “fur” better.
That’s a weird way to start my discussion of Stephen King’s It. Specifically, it’s going to be about how much I enjoyed being introduced to the hidden world of Derry. While I had seen the movie enough to have some of the dialogue memorized, I was thrilled to find that there are elements of the book that could never be translated to film. Fans call it King’s magnum opus. They compare it to The Stand and The Dark Tower series for its epic scale. Of the seven or eight Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one was easily the most epic, most ambitious and scariest, so I can see why it’s so highly regarded. In fact, It ended up being on the bestseller list longer than any other novel in 1986.
I find the title alone ambitious, not to mention the sprawling, surreal plot which includes the inventive concept of a monster that takes the shape of whatever scares you most. It’s been described as the author’s comprehensive thesis on fear. There are parts of the book that feel more like a philosophical and psychological exploration than a novel, and they add a lot to the story. It’s not just fear he invites us to examine, though: it’s childhood, friendship, maturity, time, and even good and evil.
With this incredible story, King proves that magic exists. Mike Hanlon reports to the reader as if in testament to some vital knowledge. The stories of the local history, as well as families and friends, have enough depth to become real, and enough detail to be vivid. Some of them go back a hundred years. In the beginning, the characters in the book are as skeptical as the reader (all except for Mike). We’re introduced to the more fantastic elements gradually: we encounter a clown seeming to stand on top of the water, before we encounter a blinding ball of light hurtling toward the boundary of the universe. That’s one of King’s best tricks, I’ve found. He makes you feel like it took as much convincing for the main character to think something funny was going on as it did you.
Peppering in tragic incidents from Derry’s past, King paints a picture of an ancient curse of some kind. These short excursions into the past show us that Derry’s form of evil can disguise itself in natural conflict and tragedy. Being a horror novel, you get pretty far into the book thinking it’s just coincidence that every corner in town has a dark story behind it, before it’s revealed that the thing haunting Derry affects more than just the people It attacks. Here is a monster that haunts an entire area, not just when the lights go out and the car won’t start, but all the time, vaguely reminiscent of the latent evil described in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”
To add to the terror, the monster can literally shapeshift into any form that scares you. The number of phobias addressed over the course of the story is staggering. Off the top of my head: being lost in the dark, being eaten by animals, being eaten by monsters, drowning, zombies, lepers, spiders, leeches, rats, earthquake, flood, fire, lynching, and good ol’ axe murderers, not to mention clowns hiding in the sewer. So yeah, it’s got the fears and phobias covered. Dealing with any one of those would be bad enough, but as it becomes clear that all of them exist within the monster at any time, the reader sees that the threat is much more profound. Not just existing in one place or time, the monster of this story is interdimensional.
The historical accounts are so vivid and important in establishing the unspoken horror of Derry that I think you can only experience them by reading the book. Along the same lines is one of the book’s most inventive and exciting scenes: the Smoke Hole. Rather than resort to the very predictable treehouse, so common for children in any small town, the seven friends who make up the Losers’ Club have a future architect among them, and so have the insight to make a hidden underground clubhouse. As are so many of the events that lead to the book’s dramatic conclusion, the Smoke House scene is fated. At times of hesitation or indecision, one of the Losers often has a premonition that guides the group to the next step. In this case, one of them just happens to have been reading about this Native American ritual where the elders sat around a fire in a small hut, with just a small opening for smoke to escape. As people were forced to leave from inhaling too much smoke, the chosen ones would be determined. Those so blessed (or cursed) would then experience a profound vision, advising them on how to approach some importance decision. When the kids argue over who will be in the smoke-hole and who will stay outside in case of an emergency, the mysterious force surrounding them makes the decision clear.
Not only does the underground clubhouse keep the kids safe from the marauding bullies who are after them, it also becomes an essential tool in their quest. As advertised, the smoke-hole works, and two of the kids experience an intense, shared vision. They’re transported, not to another place, but through time, to an ancient forest. They see the place Derry will eventually be, but before anyone had ever set foot on that land, and possibly even before any people existed. What do they discover? That It really does come from Outer Space, sort of. It crashes and buries Itself deep in the earth, waiting for fertile minds on which It can feed. The kids actually experience a nascent form of earth that no history book will ever describe. They also feel the presence of a cosmic force. The one that chose them to see the vision, they realize, is the same one that decided who would be present.
Tropes and conventions that would seem hackneyed in another context are avoided through the overarching concept of fate and interconnected events. The worst of the bullies is Henry Bowers, who serves not only as a living threat (“You can get them if they believe, half-believe, or don’t believe at all”) to the Losers, but also as a sort of conduit for evil, influencing the others in his gang to be complicit in the attacks.
The buildup seems interminable, but the resolution is commensurate. When the ultimate confrontation is finally forced on the children, the town of Derry is consumed in a storm that causes most of it to actually sink into the ground, as if the evil that lived below was gobbling up everything in a spasm of rage. The gang of murderous bullies and the clown converge on the kids in the sewers, and the reader sees present and past narratives in alternating chapters, culminating in Bill’s last use of the magic that bound the Lucky Seven together.
I could write a essay on the sewers alone as a symbol and narrative device. What could be more terrifying than a labyrinth of sewer tunnels of supernatural complexity with monsters and murders waiting around the corner? Bill discusses how scary they are with his father in one of the only exchanges between them that indicates any intimacy. His father tells him that there are big rats and it’s dirty, but worst part is that people get lost. Maintenance workers go down there to fix pumps and end up wandering in the dark until they die. That would be enough, but with the added dangers the kids face, it’s the ultimate setting for an encounter with evil.
A couple of things that disappointed me were in the sewers, though. Actually, almost everything that disappointed me happened during that sequence. While King references the deaths of Belch and his other friend in passing, when the sewer scene finally comes we don’t get to see what happened. There’s no explanation of how Henry made his way out or when he encountered Frankenstein’s monster. That would have been a cool scene. Also, it could have been that I was too eager for the big finale that I was reading too fast, but I thought going back and forth between the kids and adults was pretty confusing. I saw the artistic value in the parallels and the continuations of character’s memories that lead into each chapter, but I thought it muddied some of the most crucial plot points. Honestly, I also thought the House of Usher routine was distracting. I guess it comes down to pacing. For 85% of the book you’re spending time contemplating little vignettes and then piecing them together with other plot points, then all of the sudden you’re blazing through action-packed scenes and alternating between two different times, 30 years apart, AND the town is being destroyed. It’s a little much.
I thought it was contradictory for the kids to read that the ritual of Chüd involved biting the tongue of the evil spirit and telling riddles–the loser being the one who laughed first–if Bill and Richie could laugh all they wanted in their inter-dimensional showdown with the Pennywise. I know it was just imagery, but he insisted on carrying through the biting-the-tongue metaphor, so why not leave out the parts where they laugh out loud? Maybe King hadn’t had any good chucks lately. That was such a cool idea, I was disappointed to see it blemished.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the orgy in my list of sewer criticisms. I really wanted to like it. I wanted to see the value in it and think that it was atmospheric or symbolic or something. It wasn’t, really. It does make sense that the kids would get lost on the way out, and it was important to demonstrate the potential for the magic to fade, and I even think an act of love of some kind makes sense as resolution, but “you have to put your thing in me,” isn’t necessary. On the sewer floor in the dark? A description of each one and Bev’s thoughts about the process itself? I didn’t need to know about that. I also kind of thought it made the blood bond at the end seem anticlimactic. Hey–the big orgy gave us magic power and all…but let’s hold hands in a circle and make a promise! Anyway, that’s all I need to say about it. Unfortunate inclusion, I think.
The sudden dispersal of all the adult characters at the end was probably unavoidable, but did they all have to completely forget each other? It’s a powerful element of the story, and it clears up the conflict with Bev and Bill and Audra, but what about Bev and Ben? Doesn’t make that much sense to run away with someone you have no memory of. Whatever inconsistencies the logic of the story suffers at the end are redeemed by Bill’s revival of audra. What a cool idea, that it’s his belief in the magic of Silver–just like it was when they were kids–that defeats the evil power of It. The reader gets the feeling of completing a puzzle in these final moments, knowing that Mike buys the tire repair kit and Bill finds the bicycle seemingly by coincidence. Even more powerful is the feeling of a mystical inevitability about all the events described, as if there were some underlying truth of existence which the story reflects as a mere shadow. Not so much the orgy, but everything else.
It’s almost universal when describing this novel to focus on themes of coming-of-age, friendship, and childhood, which are undeniable strengths. I think, though, that King’s representation of magic might be the highlight. The stories we experience as readers, the characters we meet–all of it so real and surreal at the same time–create a unique quality that I’ve never read or heard of anywhere else. It’s form of power or myth or spirituality, almost like a religion, that is probably best described as magic. I think that’s what makes It less like a book, and more like a door to a world. I can think of no other horror story so ambitious, and the pay-off is profound. It’s not so uncommon for a book to make you feel like you know the main characters, but it’s less often that a book makes you reevaluate your own friendships, and makes you feel like the story you read is some alternate-universe version of your own life. It exemplifies the value of creativity in horror, chilling readers both with tangible, real-life threats and more abstract, conceptual terrors. The reader is blanketed in the minutae of daily life in Derry, and yet each description feels essential to the narrative, another helping in a feast of story. King is known as one of the great, if not the greatest, “master” of horror, and the story of the Losers’ club and Pennywise is a masterpiece. King’s foreword probably says it best: “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.”