Thursday, January 6, 2011

Stephen King's IT: A Pleasant Surprise

Watch your fingers! That boat will hit them!
     I just realized that my blog isn't just about movies, as the posts so far do not suggest, so I'm going to broaden the river here a little bit and talk about (GASP) a novel. Not just any novel, but a novel that contains strong parallels to Moby-Dick and includes not one, not two, but three hundred speaking characters. Of course I'm talking about Stephen King's IT. Yes, the very novel that inspired the mini-series that inspired millions of eight year olds to declare that "clowns are scary".
     Well, as it turns out, sometimes clowns are scary. However, King presents his audience with a story here that is far more interesting as an intense, 1100+ page character study than a horror novel. Sure, there are some frightening moments. One scene in particular, one that did not involve the monster at all actually, literally made me stop reading for the night. It involves an abusive, woman-hating man breaking into this lady's house and almost beating her to death. This scene is really the only truly frightening part in the novel. That's not to say there's nothing else to be scared of in the book, but what happened in that particular scene is far more believable than a giant eye attacking me in a sewer pipe. Just sayin'.
     I read this novel before, somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years old, and I'm pretty sure I either didn't finish it or I got lost in the prose, because the second half of the book came as a total surprise to me. The novel, which begins as a pretty standard King affair (Maine, Writer Protagonist, Mysterious Monster, Bullies, etc) ends up being surprisingly tender story about relationships that feels closer to his story "The Body" (later adapted as Stand By Me) than something like The Stand or Cujo.
     What surprises me most is that the characters feel totally three dimensional, not because I think King is a bad writer, but because I have never found his characters to be particularly real. I have found his stories compelling, and I have always had enough interest in how the story ends to continue, but very rarely does a King novel contain characters that I believe could exist in a world where cats don't come back alive and a hotels don't haunt your psyche.
    Although I'm impressed by the epic quality of the novel and its compelling characterization, I am not saying that the novel is without flaw. There are four interludes throughout the novel, three of them are fine enough, but one of them is over 100 pages long and could have literally been one sentence and had the same impact. It felt a lot like King was tired of his novel and just wrote a novella in the middle that has very little to do with anything. Arguments can be made, but I dare anybody to tell me why Mike Hanlon's father's deathbed story just had to be in here for me to understand the novel more fully. Also, I'm not sure why he finds it necessary to include scene after scene of Beverly (in flashback) discovering sexuality when the boys in the novel never once speak of sex. There is a point in the novel where the audience has no choice but to close the book and say, "Steve, please, don't ever make me read something like that again. I feel like I've just committed statutory rape." If you don't feel like closing book and saying this, there's a cell somewhere waiting for you.
    Despite those things and a couple of other strange literary choices (A mummy? Frankenstein's Monster? Balloons?) the novel holds up fairly well given its age. As a novel that relies heavily on its 1980's setting, it really has aged gracefully. The thing that surprises me the most in IT is King's insistence on experimentation with prose. He includes interjections, point-of-view changes, ambiguous timelines, stream-of-consciousness, and sometimes completely unreliable narrators. There are even passages told from the point-of-view of the monster. I was consistently surprised, pleasantly, by King's strong prose and his ability to take risks with his style. The novel was hugely successful upon its release, and it established King (if he wasn't already with his previous efforts) as a writer who can write hugely successful, and just plain huge, novels with commercial and artistic appeal.
     I must say, though, after reading this novel I'm going to take a long break from Mr. King. Hopefully, when I return to his work and read his Dark Tower series I'll feel the same as I do about IT, which is that that novel is hugely successful in what it does, and that it is now forever tainted by a pretty standard mini-series with subpar everything.


  1. Okay. So you've kind of convinced me to read this book. But there's still some persuading to be done.

  2. what an entertaining review! maybe i'll pick up this book if i'm homesick in india! nothing like stephen king to feel american again...