The High-Water Mark of Stephen King

Book Notes

With the recent release of a new cinematic version of Stephen King’s “It”, the novel is benefiting from a second wind and seeing revived sales across the country. Looking over the author’s oeuvre since the novel’s original publication, “It” seems to be the high water for his capacity for disturbing horror fiction.
“It” chronicles the friendship of seven adolescents over the course of one summer in 1958 as they combat an evil entity that has existed far longer than human history.
From the earliest pages of King’s work, the story makes clear that the creature thrives off the darkest, hidden parts of our emotions.
In 1957, a young Georgie Dearborn chases after a small paper boat made by his older brother, Bill, and encounters in a sewer grate an ominous figure that soon leads to his death.
In 1984, a pair of homosexuals are harassed by a gang of three bigots, leading to one of the homosexuals being thrown off a bridge and dragged into the sewer system by a silver clown.
Despite multiple people witnessing this, no one says anything about it during the subsequent investigation.
The creature, which most often identifies itself as Bob Gray or Pennywise the Dancing Clown, arrives in twenty-seven year cycles and for a single year inflicts havoc on the citizens of Derry, Maine. Each and every time, however, the public forgets and life continues as before.
Young Georgie’s brother did not forget, though, and with a group of fellow social outcasts, the Losers Club, he slowly discovers Pennywise’s true origins.
They must also avoid harassment by the local bully, Henry Bowers, who is slowly sliding into insanity as a pawn of Pennywise. Eventually, the group discovers “It” was born alongside Maturin the Turtle (a creature somewhat akin to a guardian for the world) by the Creator (arguably a stand-in for the author himself), with the two destined to be in continual conflict.
“It”’s true form is a series of hypnotic and glowing orange lights that would drive any normal person insane. When the Turtle vomits up our universe, “It” begins manifesting a physical appearance and decides to terrorize children because they are the people whose fears can be most easily manifested in physical form.
This, however, leaves “It” with a substantial weakness: believing something can harm the creature (e.g. silver slugs like those that kill Hollywood monsters) will allow it to actually occur. After temporarily defeating the creature in 1958, the Losers Club has to reunite as adults in 1985 to defeat the creature permanently.
In the years since the novel’s publication, Stephen King has spoken openly about his addiction to drugs throughout the decade “It” was written. As hinted in my description of the plot above, it shows throughout the novel. “It” and his other novels like Cujo, Pet Cematary, and Misery all prove the idea that personal turmoil can provide rich soil to harvest new material.
Despite the weaknesses of the novel’s more mystical points, it still manages to tap into many of the fears shared by Americans. I think we have all seen a clown at some point in our life with sharp curves at its mouth or piercing eyes and then felt a shudder go up our back.
The book has other weak points, however. Among the things that makes King’s writing so accessible to the public are his references to popular culture, but this carries the disadvantage that the novel’s dialogue appears somewhat dated now.
At times, the novel is in need of a good editor; depending on the edition, this book can clock in at over a thousand pages. This has always been a tendency of King.
Since achieving sobriety, his novels have grown even longer with Stephen King being perhaps the only man who ever ranted less while on cocaine. He also has a habit of displaying childhood sexuality with an explicitness and regularity that leaves me a tad uncomfortable, and “It” presents one of the clearest examples of this.
Much of the material in this book could never be filmed, either due to its violence or the challenge of transforming the conceptual into the visual. Nonetheless, the new film renders a largely faithful adaption of the book. I hope my readers will take the time to experience both.

Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]

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