I was a couple of years older than the kids in IT when I picked it up the first time. The novel is filled with sexual content, gory violence, and profanity—very little of which was carried over to the Hollywood blockbuster out this month. IT is a creepy novel, and I know there is a long history of it leaving readers scarred. IT presses against the walls of fantastic worlds as we know them, daring to throw the reader headlong into a mythic realm from which they may never return. This novel is mature content on every possible measure.
Yet it wasn’t for any of those reasons that I set the book down. My capacity for difficult material as a kid was pretty large. My upbringing was far more R-rated than any Stephen King novel—and in some ways more dysfunctional than most of the families in Derry. Horror, thriller, and fantasy gore just don’t scare me, and it isn’t for violence that I’m attracted to the genre. Some have complained that King stretches the credibility of the reader, demonstrating violence far past what we can believe. Honestly, though, I wasn’t put off by any gap in King’s skill or the sheer ridiculousness of the fantasy concept.
No, I wasn’t thrown by IT because it was too fantastic.
Honestly, as a teen I couldn’t finish IT because it was too real.
Perhaps some context will help explain what must seem a fantastic claim, that I found Stephen King’s realism simply too much to bear.
When I was 14, I had carried this lunky paperback of IT around with me for a month before I finally laid down on my grandparents’ chesterfield to dig in. The house was quiet that day, and would be quiet for many days after. That winter, my grandparents had buried their youngest son and youngest grandson. My father was dead, and my baby brother, just two years old. Their hearts fell when they saw me, sad for me and desperately sad for the echo of my father they saw in my face—and perhaps the ghost of a face my brother would never become. And it was that living room, that chesterfield, where I sat in the hours of that cold winter morning of their deaths, waiting to find out if all I knew was gone.
Though my mind could not believe it at the time, they had died before my eyes. Fire ripped through our home that night. I experienced the choking smoke, explosions of blue flame, and the creeping panic of fear that trembles toward terror. I never knew how loud fire was, how it roared and screamed so that when our kitchen windows exploded from heat, I could not hear the glass hit the frosty ground beneath our feet. I saw all that we knew as home turn brown along the edges and crumple up into fire.
Then I saw courage falter, my own courage, with the result that two of the people I loved the most in the world were lost in smoke and flame.
And as my mind reeled in that season, just a few months later I found myself in front of fire once more. It was a campfire this time, and the story had turned. Instead of weakness and hopelessness in the face of mortality, at this fire I learned about a limitless horizon of hope. Near the heat of these flames, I saw that the sacrifice my father made was an incarnational echo of the sacrifice of Christ, where self-giving love of the cross is the hingepoint of history. I found myth embedded in my whole reality, so that immortality and eternity turned out to be just seconds away from all this flesh and dirt.
All these experiences of that season—all these things I learned anew—was what I brought to my reading of IT. All my understanding of reality on both ends of eternity had radically transformed in two moments of firelight. Almost as soon as I picked up IT, I knew that it would be too much.
I know that many turn to Stephen King because he is the master of monsters. He certainly can throw his horrors on the screen of the mind, with few zippers showing on the monster’s back. But if you look at his greatest works, the horror falls into two camps. It is either bound up with the terrible mortality of the human heart—as in Carrie, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Dark Half, and the best of the novellas—or a great mythic evil, demonic in scope and amorphous in shape, as in The Stand, The Dark Tower series, and The Eyes of the Dragon. And while IT certainly fits in the latter category—anyone who knows the story knows it isn’t a monster tale—I think IT does what the best of Stephen King’s fiction does: showing with frightening clarity that terrible mortality of the faltering human heart, that darkness that rests in the souls of the broken, and transposing it upon the world in such a way that it transfigures into a great mythic evil foe. It is this feature, I believe, that is the thread that connects all the best of King’s work.
This is why I suggest, then, that realism is the taproot of Stephen King’s fantasy. The fantastic elements are not the true machinery of his speculative cosmos. King’s work is certainly fantasy. But the true monsters of our greatest living horror writer are simply a projection of the human heart on the wall of the world around us.
By the time I picked up IT as a fourteen year old, I had already glimpsed the darkness of my heart, the frailty of my frame, the mortality of all of human life, and the great mythic depth of a universe that had always been just next door. I knew almost immediately that I would find my heart in the pages of IT.
So I ran away.
That is why I put IT down as a kid. Not because it was too incredible, but because it was too real.
And, honestly, I had about as much reality as I could handle at the time.
Now, it is 27 years later, a fitting time for IT to rise again. I am just a little older than the Loser’s Club as adults. And here, now, finally, with healing and distance and fatherhood within me, I can handle the realism of Stephen King’s strangest world.
At least, I’m pretty sure that I can.
Stunning post. Was busy doing a bunch of stuff, then opened it and just froze, unable to move, reading it. Thank you for sharing so transparently. It was deeply encouraging. My God bless you.
(Though I can’t handle Stephen King. Like you said, there are times when there’s more than enough of this world’s darkness over-running our hearts already, and King’s amplification of that black reality can be too much.)
Thanks for these nice words. I think that is a good way to read King–and a good reason to avoid King. For me, part of my work is to look into the dark heart of the world. I prefer reading King to watching CNN or Fox.
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Thanks for the great post, Brenton. I have heard the current POTUS referred to as IT. So you’ve provided another perspective on that capitalized pronoun and its dark side. The German word for “the id” is “das Es” — the capital letter turns the pronoun “it” into the noun “id”.
Trump might be ID (in the Freudian sense), but he isn’t IT–except in one particular. In the way IT grows and mutates, taking the shape of the fear of the town, so Trump is the shape of the division and intellectual space of America. Trump is a political glamour (in the Celtic sense).
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Heck of a story, and I see your point. I wonder if horror novels are actually intended for people who don’t have anything going wrong in their lives, and don’t want to jinx it.
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I wonder if that is true. The older I get the less I feel inclined to seek out recreational fear (Horror, Theme Park rides etc). Life seems to be able to provide enough of that experience without them.
I’ve been thinking about this little conversation. I don’t read horror much, but watch the films sometimes. They’re just fun to me. I’d like to make one some day.
I read King because of the characters and the story, and generally read his non-horror books. But it isn’t about fear, more than what I talked about here.
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I only read It as an adult, and found the ending disappointing. I think King’s best novels, as you say, are not about evil critters, though they populate many of his books, but about human responses to them. This is particularly so in Pet Sematery, which I regard as his best book.
But King’s novels are weakest (in my view), when he resorts to space aliens, as he does in It and The Tommyknockers. I suppose C.S. Lewis disabused me of the notion that space aliens are necessarily evil — evil travels from earth to outer space, rather than vice versa. King’s best writing is where ordinary people are confronted by extraordinary evil in this world. And that is where It falls down. His characters and their pubescent angst about sex and bullying and all the rest are realistic indeed, but the ending, where the evil turns out to be an incomprehensible creature from outer space, and salvation is found in a gang bang, made for a weak ending, for me.
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Wow. Brenton, just wow.
(Btw. Folks, have you read S King’s essay on the necessity of horror stories? Good–interesting anyway–thesis!)
I read IT as a teen. Totally freaked me out. And the 1980s miniseries freaked me out even more. No way could I watch the new movie. Eep.
However I do enjoy many of Stephen Kings novels. The Stand is one of my all time favourite novels. He is a really good writer, although a little too heavy on the profanity at times for me. But he can sure tell a tale. It’s true that the greatest horror is found in our own hearts, and I agree, King explores that theme with great skill.
I dropped out of his novels after awhile, he got to churning them out too much and I got tired of them. But I returned with Lacey’s Story (really enjoyed) and Duma Key (really enjoyed) and 11/22/63 (really enjoyed it but I think he need to have an editor that told him he needed to cut a bunch out and the ending was a bit weak I thought).
But I can’t go back to IT. I was scared of clowns before I read that….IT certainly didn’t help.
King’s adult fiction books really are rich in searing (in the dialogue). And he can tell a tale, the master of the slow build and quick burn.
I’m watching the IT miniseries now. I actually think the kids are pretty close to how I imagined them in the book (except the girl, Bev).
I think the ending of IT is weak too, but I think that’s partly because the construct is a little nebulous.
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