It is simultaneously the most famous and most infamous of Stephen King’s formidable bibliography. Until the unexpurgated version of The Stand was released a few years later, it was the lengthiest of King’s novels. When you read it, you get the sense this is the work of a man who saw all the criticism stacking up against his work – it’s too populist, too divorced from good taste, too influenced by schlock culture, too lengthy, etc. – and decided to double down. It’s also the book with “that scene” (more on that momentarily). If you’re doing a survey of his work, this is a book you must read. Whatever you think afterwards, you’ll have to acknowledge that few mainstream authors are willing to let it rip the way King does here.
It offers the reader dual timelines. In 1958, a group of misfit kids in the small town of Derry, Maine are trying to get through another summer. There’s Bill, the stuttering but charismatic natural leader of the group haunted by the sudden, violent death of his younger brother. There’s also the heavyset Ben, hypochondriac Eddie, big mouthed jokester Richie, token girl and abuse victim Beverly and farm kid (and African-American) Mike. They form friendships as they dodge a gang of bullies led by the psychopathic Henry Bowers.
However, there’s a bigger evil to be dealt with: an undefinable evil that has haunted the town for generations. It usually takes the form of Pennywise the clown but can take on any shape its opponent fears, popping up every 27 years for feeding cycles that usually target children. Before the summer is over, the kids – who dub themselves the Losers’ Club – will have to do battle with the monster.
They also make a promise to each other that they will reunite to fight the beast again if it is necessary. In the second timeline of 1985, the reader sees that reunion unfold as the now-adult protagonists regain their memories of what happened during a childhood summer that was both dreadful and magical. As they prepare for another battle, one that must be won permanently or else, they come to terms with who they were, who they’ve become, all they’ve left behind and the complexities of childhood and memory. Surrounding these dual timelines are additional sections on the town’s tormented, evil-studded history from the adult Mike, now a history-minded librarian.
If all of that sounds like a lot to chew on, rest assured It delivers on all the monolithic potential that the synopsis suggests. Over a sprawl of 1153 pages, King delivers an narrative that is indefatigably epic in its portrayal of supernatural evil yet also oddly intimate in tone.
On the horror tip, one gets the feeling that King threw in every beast and horrific setting that tickled his macabre fancies during the four years it took him to write the book: the titular beast from I Was A Teenage Werewolf appears in these pages as well as a giant eyeball, a haunted house, flying leeches, a monolithic sewer system, a leprosy-addled hobo, the witch from “Hansel & Gretel,” teenage hoodlum zombies, you name it. Alongside the fictional horrors, King intersperses a number of real-life horrors: gay bashing, serial murder, child abuse (both physical and psychological), bullying and more.
The intimate tone comes into play with how King delivers deep, detailed portraits of his protagonists as children and adults. You spend a lot of time with them, often individually, in their kid guises and King uses this time to build empathy and attachment in the reader. Some say he portrays the kids as too perfect/noble but that makes sense as the book draws to a close, in which King goes off on a “child is father to the man” tangent and reflects on how the human sense of potential and imagination are at their respective peaks during that time.
However, the expanse of material requires an investment of time and this is often the sticking point with It for a key segment of readers. Simply put, if your gripe about King’s work has anything to do with page-length or self-indulgence, you might as well pass this one by. It is positively deep-dish on both the length and self-indulgence fronts, with King going off on wild tangents in plotting, verbiage, portrayal of psychological and visceral terrors, etc. The result is maddening at times but you have to plunge headlong into the novel’s depths to unearth its rewards. The two are indivisible.
It has another big sticking point for readers, particularly the modern kind, in a moment best referred to as “that scene.” Without getting too heavily into spoilers, there’s a scene near the end of the book where the heroes are in a moment of peril and Beverly decides to make an unusual and unexpected sacrifice to bond them all together. This moment has been accused of perversion, sexism and more over the years – and yet, in the context of the book and what it has to say about childhood, it oddly makes sense. Every reader will have to make their own decision on this – those interested in pondering it are best directed to an excellent essay on It by Grady Hendrix that tackles the complexities of this controversial scene in detail.
If you are willing to hang in there until the end of the book, King brings his epic sprawl of a novel home with a coda that is unexpectedly moving. Whatever his excesses, he is ultimately a humanist and that shines through in the last twenty pages on the book as he finds an elegant way to deal with the passage from childhood to adulthood, why it is necessary to leave the former for the latter and how it is not the death of innocence/magic that some perceive it as but a way to grow and access new forms of happiness.
In short, It gives you the full Stephen King experience between one set of covers. This novel’s pages offers the reader transgression and humanity in equal measure, dishing out its storyline with breathless ambition and all manner of oddball digressions as it searches for that balance between topping itself and staying true to its vision of good and evil. It’s the alpha and the omega of King’s career, doing the monster mash all the way across your mind’s eye as it sings “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.”