I’ve been reading Stephen King’s It for over a month. Of course, I had to take breaks from reading to get married, buy a house, do a little remodeling, move in, and all the good stuff that comes with being a grown up. But still, after a solid month and a half (maybe even 2 months!) of reading the same book I am getting a little burned out. Don’t get me wrong, King’s It is by no means plodding. The characters are engaging, sympathetic, and carefully developed. The history of the town is deep and complicated. Only a novel of this girth could possibly cover all the ground necessary to make the story really impactful and truly terrifying. And yet, as we near the month of October I find myself getting restless. My pre-ordered copy of Cosmic Forces, Greg Lamberson’s third installment of The Jake Hellman Files (review by Colum here), has arrived. I started Cullen Bunn’s Crooked Hills and there are a number of books coming out in October that I have been looking forward to all year, John Everson’s The Pumpkin Man among them. So, I’m getting a bit distracted. I thought this would be a good opportunity to have an intermission and peruse the covers of It across the globe. Join me beyond the break for my favorite interpretations of Stephen King’s It in the art of the covers!
Stephen King famously likened his writing to the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” A Big Mac and fries leaves you feeling lethargic. Calm and content, but soon after mildly depressed and vaguely sick. I can’t imagine any reader feels lethargic, calm, and content after reading It. The book is definitely satisfying, but I’m usually left feeling more tense than calm. Now past the halfway mark in his epic tome It, I can see where King would draw the comparison, but perhaps not for reasons that are immediately obvious.
The obvious parallels would be accessibility and affordability. Whether you travel to Germany, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Spain, Russia, France, Israel, Serbia, The Netherlands, Brazil, or Finland you can find a McDonald’s. And there, too, you will find a copy of It. Both are (or even certainly more so in the late-80s) instantly recognizable American icons. Either can be found in the most convenient locations. But while one has become the ultimate metaphor for mass consumption and social complacency, the other is revealing of the dark and terrifying side of those social trappings. King’s Big Mac and fries is actually a Happy Meal and the prize is, well, your worst nightmare!
In Part 4 this week, King uses one of his most popular devices; de-romanticizing the American Dream. We go back to July of 1958, the summer the Losers Club became whole with the addition of their seventh member. The final piece to complete this puzzle is Mike Hanlon – our tour guide in Derry’s past, present, and future via the Derry Interlude chapters – in a flashback that exposes the biggest blemish on America’s white picket fence dream; racism. Mike is chased to the other six – Big Bill, Ben, Eddie, Richie, Stan, and Bev – by a group of older bullies whose ignorant leader Henry Bowers is the most feared of them all. This particular incident comes after a series of heinous crimes against the Hanlons, Derry’s only black family.
King loves to revel in the hypocrisy of the American dream and does so with reckless abandon in the opening of this book. He forces his reader to consider the underside of America’s great quilt of diversity and the real life monsters lurking there. He makes prejudice a personal story, first in the opening with a hate crime against a gay couple and again with Stan’s wife Patricia. King can be both subtle and overt in his commentary on the result of hate and ignorance. For this part which features more of Mike’s back story, he takes the power of ignorance to a terrifying level. We shift between the supernatural monster and the real life human predator. Both are equally terrifying, but unfortunately the latter is one that doesn’t vanish when you close the book.
Mike is in good hands with the Losers Club though. Each member is an outcast and they are all excluded from polite society for different reasons. Bill stutters, Stan is a Jew, Ben is fat, Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, Eddie is a weak mamma’s boy, and Bev is poor and socially awkward because of her overbearing father. Finally, there is Mike Hanlon, the only black kid in Derry. To their peers they are lame duck losers, but together they find that each member possesses an exceptional quality and by joining forces they just might be the saving grace of Derry for future generations.
When King refered to his writing as a Big Mac and fries I’m sure he was talking about the power of his brand, but you could draw a less obvious connection to the ubiquitous fast food chain. More people than not have a taste for Micky D’s and I think almost anyone will be able to relate to the tale King presents in It. Sure, there are plenty of people who would never eat at a fast food joint and certainly people who aren’t King fans. But more often than not the fast food chain is able to draw in crowds with a waft from their grease soaked kitchen. Likewise, King brings millions of readers, many of which aren’t typically fans of speculative fiction, who want to be scared and know they will connect to his story. It sounds dismissive to compare a master like King to an evil corporate empire like McDonald’s, but it’s really a compliment to the power and universality of his words. Of course, it’s important to note that his words won’t clog your arteries or give you an addiction to sweet tea!
Before I wrap up the first edition of Bit by Bloody Bit with the final chapter of It by Stephen King, I want to take a look at all the incarnations of his monster on book covers across the globe. So, come back next week and check it out!
When we left off last week with King’s It “Part 1: The Shadow Before,” the author was just giving us a taste of what to expect from this macabre tragedy – psychological horror with just hints of grotesquery. Before we head into “Part 2: June of 1958,” King takes the reader on a little detour into Derry’s past in a piece called “Derry: The First Interlude.” Here King anchors Derry in a deeply afflicted, sordid history by way of Michael Hanlon, the only one of the seven Losers to stay behind in this town and our personal tour guide / historian. In what are represented as Hanlon’s own personal notes, perhaps meant for future publication, he asks, “Can an entire city be haunted?” Hanlon finds a few different interpretations of “haunting” in his research, but the one most perturbing is “A feeding place for animals,” which begs the question “What’s feeding on Derry?”
Perhaps the uninitiated would have you believe it’s a killer clown known as Pennywise feeding on Derry. But It is more than a dancing clown with a taste for children. It is not just a mirror for our worst fears. It permeates the town and manipulates its people.
King’s attention to detail pulls the reader in and adds a personal edge to the story, but the scrupulous effort to craft its history makes the subsequent horrors in this town bone-chilling. By establishing the origins of Derry – from the time it was settled by a group of about three-hundred English known as the Derry Company to present day – King will give his readers a scare that won’t be easy to shake. If this cancer feeding on Derry is the impetus of their troubles, couldn’t It be the source of our own? As a child, I was plagued by a fear of monsters under my bed and in my closet. As an adult, I am paralyzed by the fear that human monsters could invade my home and torture my family. Although It centers around the seven Losers each with their own fears, there is something to scare everyone in It. Just like our seven protagonists, It will terrorize you.
Part 2 focuses in on The Losers, tracing back from their lives now to the children they once were in lengthy flashback sequences. We’re taken back to the formidable years of bullies and monsters, both of which brought this group closer together. Each member faces nasty apparitions and even more complicated real life drama, but the friendship they share leaves me with an aching nostalgia for my own childhood. Like them, my past is riddled with human tragedy and emotional scars, but they came with the sweet memories of unbreakable bonds with friends. And like them, those memories tucked away not quite within reach, are just waiting to be triggered by a friend from my past. In the age of Facebook, it’s hard to imagine the flood gates that open upon hearing the voice of a childhood chum some 27 years later, but King expresses that feeling magnificently. Sometimes it’s a euphoric feeling or that sick vertiginous creep from memories that wound. In the case of the latter, Ben Hanscom puts it best when he laments, “My God, I am being digested by my own past.”
We see the impact of The Losers’ emotional trauma on their adult lives. This is further reinforced by King as he takes us back to the origins of their friendship and troubles. However, this time King focuses more on the strength of childhood friendship, memory, and fear. Part 2 has an equally disturbing psychological depth compared to Part 1, but this time he amps up the gore effects a bit more. That is not to say King aims to challenge the reader’s gag reflex for the sake pushing their own limits. His style is more subtle. Every rotten piece of flesh, every talon edging out of the darkness has a specific purpose and often times they tie back into the story later. One moment reflects back to another which in turn connects to this one which will reemerge in the future and so on, just like the complicated tapestry that makes up our own lives.
What is terribly dark and delectably horrible in It blossoms slowly. The events are terrifying, but the way King tells this tale is exquisitely beautiful. Part 1 was just an appetizer, now we are beginning the main course. King’s It buries itself further into my conscience. I can’t be completely sure if It is to blame, but ever since I started this book I am having terrible nightmares! So beware, dear readers, beware!
Come back next week – same time, same Bat channel – for “Part 3: Grownups.”
There are some books just too epic to cram all their content into one review. This was evident to me when I started, for the first time in my 30 years as a horror fan, to tackle Stephen King’s 1,090 page masterpiece It. As a child of the 80s and a dedicated horror fan I had seen the film adaptations of Stephen King’s most popular novels hundreds of times, so when I really got a taste for horror fiction I shied away from King’s work. After all, I already knew what was going to happen in almost all of his most popular books, right? How much fun could it be to read something when I already know what is going to happen? Of course, Stephen King fans and avid readers in general know how flawed that logic is. But it wasn’t until just a couple months ago when I sat down to crack open my long neglected copy of It that I finally came to that realization myself.
It is not just long, it is immensely deep. Every corner of Derry, Maine, the novel’s main setting, is explored in such detail it’s hard to believe the town is a fictional place. The complexity of each character and the careful consideration given to their back story, even that of secondary characters, brings a real intimacy to this book. The reader is transported into Derry, Maine to share this horrific epic right alongside Stuttering Bill, Eddie Kaspbrak, Ben “Haystack” Hanscom, Beverly Marsh, Stanley Uris, Mike Hanlon, and Rich “Trashmouth” Tozier, the seven of who make up The Losers Club. Each chapter is its own mini-masterpiece, captivating even in stand-alone form. In the first few chapters of this book I realized I couldn’t tackle the horror classic in one piece. Instead, I thought it would be a fun exercise to examine what many fans consider King’s greatest novel (in a new Dreadful Tales segment) Bit by Bloody Bit. And what better time to celebrate King’s immense tome than now as we edge into September, the month which marks the 25th anniversary of It’s publication. This week our journey begins with Part 1: The Shadow Before.
It opens with the now iconic image of a young six year old George Denbrough, clad in his yellow slicker, chasing a newspaper boat through the rain-swollen streets of Derry, Maine. This simple boat holds significant meaning for George since it was made by his beloved older brother Bill. Georgie, as he is known to Bill, plays Captain of these flooded streets solo this tragic day in 1957 while his brother recovers from a rather serious bout of influenza. While this seems harmless enough, the atmosphere King conveys early on in this novel is deeply chilling and overwhelmingly tragic leaving no doubt that Georgie is in for a gruesome fate.
The opening is preceded by a damaging flood that has rendered many streets impassible and Derry without electricity. This is where King introduces his not so subtle, but delicate prose to describe the horrors elicited by the damaging floods. As an interlude to Georgie’s play, King elaborates on the circumstances leading up to the state of the rain-swollen streets and gives us a glimpse into the human tragedy suffered at the hands of Mother Nature with a little teaser of his macabre sensibility. “The fish had eaten this unfortunate gentleman’s eyes, three of his fingers, his penis, and most of his left foot.” Had King simply stated that fish ate the man’s fingers and toes it would still elicit disgust, but his penis!? That simple statement changes the scene quickly from a sleepy town on a rainy day to an exhausted town beat emotionally by Mother Nature’s wrath. He also takes this opportunity to alert the reader to the secretive, oppressive nature of Derry, a fault which hangs heavily over our tragic characters. He explains that the important task at hand now is cleaning up the mess the flood left behind and to move on because “In Derry such forgetting of tragedy and disaster was almost an art…” King manages to convey an important characteristic of Derry with one concise sentence, an attribute that is evident throughout the novel without being specifically addressed again.
Although the reader meets our titular monster in the opening chapter, from there King abandons the supernatural to address the real life monsters lurking in the world of It, monsters that are just as present today as they were 25 years ago – homophobia, anti-Semitism, domestic violence. It spans from ‘57 to present day ‘85 in Part 1 and while replacing the threat of Commies with Terrorists would make it more current in the flashback sequences, everything else remains timeless.
One of the most striking entries in It that really resonated with me was the back story for Stanley Uris’ wife Patricia. In “Six Phone Calls (1985),” Mike Hanlon contacts the other six Losers to call them back to Derry to honor their pact from years before in late 1950, a pact which King builds up to slowly as he reveals the background for each of them. It is mostly third-person omniscient view throughout, and Patricia shares with us an emotionally scarring incident when she and her date are refused entry to an after-prom party because they are Jewish. Despite her husband’s wealth and Patricia’s new social position, she continues to be haunted by that traumatic day. What is most poignant about the moment are the details she (King) shares to transport the reader into that time and place. “Part of her would always be walking back to the car with Michael Rosenblatt, listening to the crushed gravel under her pumps…” And again, later, when Patricia flashbacks to that horrible experience, “…then she would be somewhere – at the supermarket, maybe – and she would hear sudden tittering laughter from the next aisle and her back would prickle, her nipples would go hard and hurtful… and she would think: Someone just told someone else that I am Jewish.” And her own self-loathing would be enough to trigger “the phantom click and grate of stones,” those that crushed under her feet as they slinked back to her date’s car all those years ago.
I really connected with Patricia in this moment. I am not Jewish, but I understand that intense feeling of self-awareness and self-hatred, the type that comes back to haunt you long after the incident that caused it, an embarrassment and shame deep enough to make your face burn and nipples hard. Most everyone has probably had a moment where they wanted to fold into themselves and disappear from shame, but the physiological detail King includes elevates this scene from something in which the reader can find universal and relatable to truly intimate. I felt like I was Patricia and reading about her experience left me with a heavy heart.
King’s novel remains a timeless classic, one that should not be categorized as “horror” so simplistically, but perhaps psychological drama. Or more specifically, as King himself puts so aptly in the afterword for his upcoming Cemetery Dance 25th Anniversary Limited Edition, his “final exam on Famous Monsters.” King illustrates an innate understanding of the human psyche in an opening that examines emotional trauma and its residual implications on our lives. I also feel that the intimacies we share with these characters, like that of Patricia, are moments that cannot be duplicated in the film adaptation and they trouble me in ways that the movie never did. How wrong I was to neglect this book for so long, but fortunate to finally discover it!
Join me next week as I head into Part 2: June of 1958.
Cemetery Dance Publications honors Stephen King’s classic It by releasing a massive 25th Anniversary Special Limited Edition as well as Limited Edition Art Portfolio which collects all the art from the Anniversary Edition. Check their website for more details on this must-have for King fans and collectors!