Book Review: IT (Stephen King, 1985)

DSC_0498Year: 1985
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: New English Library (version reviewed)
Format: Paperback (version reviewed)
Pages: 1116 (version reviewed)
ISBN: 0450411435

“To the children, the town was their whole world. To the adults, knowing better, Derry, Maine was just their home town: familiar, well-ordered for the most part. A good place to live.

It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing…

The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.

Time passed and the children grew up, moved away. The horror of IT was deep-buried, wrapped in forgetfulness. Until they were called back, once more to confront IT as it stirred and coiled in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.”

Stephen King’s IT is one of those books that has long since transcended into pop-culture. Even those who have never picked up a book have possibly watched the original 1990 mini-series or the recent big screen two-parter (released in 2017 and 2019). Tim Curry’s 1990 version of Pennywise the clown is also widely held responsible for so many adults’ irrational fear of clowns. Indeed, IT is probably the most successful of all adaptations based on King’s books.

I first read IT a long time ago (and only the once) but the book instantly became a firm favourite of mine. This year I have been digging out quite a few of my favourite books and revisiting them. At last, I have gotten around to IT – actually a decent commitment to make given the size of the book! This paperback version I have is just over 1100 pages so it’s definitely one of the most voluminous Stephen King books.

And it isn’t difficult to see why IT is such a whopper of a tome. This is Stephen King at his unrestrained best. I’m sure that stuff was cut or re-worked but even so, I didn’t get the sense that the author was forced to hold back or be overly concise. The detail and world-building is indulgent; the main characters and the supporting cast incredibly well fleshed-out. Best of all, IT is a real page-turner and not a single page felt like unnecessary, excessive filler.

The voice broke up in a series of choking hiccups and suddenly a bright red bubble backed up the drain and popped, spraying beads of blood on the distained porcelain.
The choking voice spoke rapidly now, and as it spoke it changed: now it was the young voice of the child that she had first heard, now it was a teenaged girl’s voice, now – horribly – it became the voice of a girl Beverly had known…Veronica Grogan. But Veronica was dead, she had been found dead in a sewer drain –
“I’m Matthew…I’m Betty…I’m Veronica…we’re down here…down here with the clown…and the creature…and the mummy…and the werewolf…and you, Beverly, we’re down here with you, and we float, and we change…”
A gout of blood suddenly belched from the drain, splattering the sink and the mirror and the wallpaper with its frogs-and-lily-pads pattern. Beverly screamed, suddenly and piercingly. She backed away from the sink, struck the door, rebounded, clawed it open, and ran for the living room, where her father was just getting to his feet.

The most captivating part of this book is the characters because they are all just so likable and you – the reader – really feel as if you are a part of their group. Even the antagonists – the bully Henry Bowers and his friends, Pennywise/IT and other random unsavouries – are endearing in their own way. This is because Stephen King really knows how to write characters and make them living, breathing and believable. He also knows how to make them relatable. In this respect, IT is a tour-de-force of King’s talent.

The story jumps back and forth between the events of 1958 and 1985, providing two versions of the main characters to get acquainted with. Obviously, their adult versions from ’85 are easier to relate to but it’s their eleven/twelve year-old selves that are much more interesting. This is because IT does such a good job of reminding you what it was like to be a child, how we viewed the world through naive/uninformed eyes and what sorts of irrational fears we hid from. There’s definitely a coming-of-age element to IT as Bill, Ben, Beverly, Mike, Stan, Richie and Eddie have to deal with the strange world of adults as well as confront the evil lurking beneath Derry, guided by seemingly immovable forces that they don’t understand.

As with every other Stephen King book that I have read, however, I can’t say that the horror aspect of IT scared or disturbed me, but that’s just me. It’s certainly a grisly book though, with some graphic deaths. There are also a fair few explicit bits involving minors, such as the moment between Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter at the town dump and, of course, the infamous sex scene in the sewers where Beverly loses her virginity to all of the boys, one after the other, as a form of ritual to keep them – as a group – close and the magic, that protects them, alive. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if King (and authors in general) would actively avoid such content these days because of how “sensitive” everybody is. This is a shame because these parts of IT aren’t presented in a needlessly-gratuitous or glorified fashion; they are just what they are.

There is also this very cool cameo from Christine, King’s famous killer car. Christine is one of my absolute favourite books so I really enjoyed this.

A sound impinged on his consciousness and began to grow. It was a car engine. It drew closer. Henry’s eyes widened in the dark. He held the knife more tightly, waiting for the car to pass by.
It didn’t. It drew up at the curb beyond the seminary hedge and simply stopped there, engine idling. Grimacing (his belly was stiffening now; it had gone board-hard, and the blood seeping sluggishly between his fingers had the consistency of sap just before you took the taps out of the maples in late March or early April), he got on his knees and pushed aside the stiff hedge-branches. He could see headlights and the shape of a car. Cops? His hand squeezed the knife and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed.
I sent you a ride Henry, the voice whispered. Sort of a taxi, if you can dig that. After all, we have to get you over to the Town House pretty soon. The night’s getting old.
The voice uttered one thin bonelike chuckle and fell silent. Now the only sounds were the crickets and the steady rumble of the idling car. Sounds like cherry-bomb mufflers, Henry thought distractedly.

He reached the intersection of the seminary path and the sidewalk and peered at the car, trying to make sense of the hulk behind the wheel. But it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew (hadn’t his father told him often enough?) that the engine rumbling under the hood was a V-8 327. Horsepower of 255, able to hit seventy from the git-go in just about nine seconds, gobbling hi-test through its four-barrel carb.

I suppose the revealing of IT’s true form deserves a mention because I know that many were disappointed with the monster – after all the different ways it changed its shape to match an individual’s fears – turning out to be a giant spider. This has often been derided as a weak and uninspired finale but IT only appears in this form to the children because its actual form cannot be comprehended by human minds, and so it takes a physical shape that resembles one of the most common fears of humans. As for the conclusion itself, things do get a bit wacky, cosmic and spiritual and I can see why this spoiled the book for some, but I – personally – wasn’t left wanting.

IT just has so much going for it: the characters that you really connect with; the charismatic evil of Pennywise; the drip-fed lore of the town of Derry and how it has been tainted by mysterious, sinister events; the incredibly rich detail. I’ve said it several times before on this blog, but I really believe that Stephen King doesn’t do stories like IT anymore. The quality of his writing remains undisputed and, yes, he has written some large epics in recent years that describe the journey or evolution of a small town and its inhabitants (Under the Dome, for example) but for other, similar examples that centre around raw, supernatural horror, you have to go back to the likes of Salem’s Lot and Needful Things.

IT is simply one of the all-time Stephen King greats and absolutely warrants its status as a must-read. Additionally, if you’ve only ever watched the cinematic versions of IT, you have likely missed out on a lot of the detail and the inner thoughts of characters that only a book can provide.

In short, if you haven’t already, go and read IT. If you have, and it’s been a while? Read it again.

Book Talk: My Stephen King Top 5

I don’t particularly like doing Top Fives anymore because I genuinely believe that such countdowns are lazy and cheap ways of pumping out content. Sometimes however, you just want a greasy, fatty take-out meal over a proper dining experience. Or perhaps you find your eyes drawn to the woman in the tracksuit rather than the glammed-up lady in the stunning evening dress. Awful analogies aside, I am going to be cheap today and do a Top Five.

If you read my review on Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, you may be aware that am finally branching out into the works of authors other than Stephen King. With this in mind, I decided that I would share my five favourite King books since I have read almost every one by this point. I’m not done with Stephen King at all but it’s time for a break and time to broaden my horizons when it comes to fiction.

There’s no order to this list by the way; these are the five that I enjoyed the most and have read several times as a result.

1. Needful Things (1991)

need-1Needful Things was supposed to the “end” of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock and the book’s conclusion certainly supported that promise. However, the author has recently returned to the ‘Rock with Elevation and Gwendy’s Button Box (the latter set in the past to be fair) so who knows. Regardless, this book follows my favourite Stephen King formula: richly-detailed small town life from the perspectives of multiple characters. The reader gets to know the various characters (plus their deepest secrets) before all paths finally cross for a dramatic finale. Central to the story is the evil Leland Gaunt and his shop, the titular ‘Needful Things’. Gaunt exploits the desires and fears of the townspeople to turn everybody against one another and incite destruction and chaos. The way he masterfully manipulates the residents makes for excellent reading and the dark playfulness of his sinister antics is a joy to witness. For me, Gaunt is up there with Randall Flagg as one of the best villains in a Stephen King book. As for Needful Things as a whole, it represents the ‘old’ style of Stephen King where the pieces (in this case, the people) are carefully and lovingly crafted before a giant fist is slammed against the playing board, upsetting everything as the plot threads converge. It’s a real shame that this style of King storytelling isn’t as frequent anymore but 2017’s Sleeping Beauties (co-written with son, Owen King) was at least very reminiscent of these types of book.

2. Joyland (2013)

joy-1I haven’t reviewed Joyland here on Unfiltered Opinion but I did review it over on my other blog back when I thought it was a good idea to add variety to a videogame-focused blog by talking about books and B-Movies (spoilers: I quickly regretted the idea). You can find the complete review here but I will quote a portion of my own words here to summarise Joyland.

“The story is short but powerful and contains a small splash of the supernatural but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is there that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. There is a central plot strand running through Joyland that focuses on a series of unsolved, heartless murders – the last one occuring at Joyland – that Devin finds himself investigating but this isn’t really the main premise of the book.

Joyland is actually a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, thoughts and heartache. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but as we know from real life, the ideal isn’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road.”

I didn’t know what to expect from a Stephen King book with a pulp-style cover published under the Hard Case Crime label but it turned out to be one of the best ones I have read thus earning it a place on this list. Usually it’s the more monolithic epics that I can’t get enough of but Joyland proved that small can be beautiful when it’s perfectly formed.

3. Christine (1983)

chris-1Being a fan of cars and classic steel in particular, I was always going to be drawn to a book that revolved around a car. The fact that Christine is an evil, sentient killer car was the icing on the cake. The basic plot of a car coming to life and murdering people sounds dumb and comical, almost like something you’d have read in a Goosebumps book as a kid but Christine is so much more than that. While it’s true that the book IS about the car, the bulk of the storytelling revolves around the nerdy, unpopular Arnie Cunningham who buys Christine – a derelict ’58 Plymouth Fury – and gradually falls under the car’s evil spell. Arnie’s personality slowly morphs into that of the car’s previous owner, the unsavoury Roland LeBay, and he transforms from an awkward highschool loser into an angry, bitter and unpleasant young man in a symbiotic relationship with his car. Everybody around Arnie is inevitably drawn into the swirling vortex of evil radiating from Arnie, Christine and their pooled “unending fury”. The book is just so well-written and you can’t help but love the characters – both the good and bad – and there is a nostalgic throwback to teenage life in the 70’s. Christine is one of Stephen King’s oldest works but remains a solid favourite of mine.

[side note: the John Carpenter movie adaptation is well worth checking out. It cuts a lot of the detail from the book (as you’d expect) and changes a few scenes but overall, it is an authentic representation of the characters and the tone of the book]

4. IT

it-1Where do you do begin with this enormous book? IT is probably more well known for its two big-screen adaptations and Tim Curry’s famous performance as the evil clown, Pennywise. The original book however is the best as far as I am concerned. It focuses on a group of friends from the recurring town of Derry and flicks between their childhood years and the present where they, as adults, return to Derry to finish the battle with the evil that they fought once before as children. The genius of IT (as I saw it anyway) was that you got the superlative, almost gratuitous descriptive writing of King, supernatural horror and the perspectives of children and their concept of fear – all in one tale. Viewing the world through the eyes of the characters as children brings back a lot of memories of how we probably saw the world and our fears as minors – hence Pennywise the clown. Some have criticised the book’s finale for losing the plot completely and it’s easy to see why that might be. The evil infecting Derry takes the form of a giant spider in the sewers beneath the town and defeating it the first time involved the children all having sex with the only female member of their gang (really). For me though, IT is one of the best of Stephen King’s sprawling epics, up there with The Stand and Under The Dome. As a bonus, there is a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implied cameo from Christine.

5. The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)

DSC_0180I reviewed this book here on Unfiltered Opinion not too long ago after reading it for the second time. I recalled being pleasantly surprised with The Eyes of the Dragon the first time around purely because it was further below the radar than most big-hitting Stephen King books and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I expected a cooler response to it the second time around but found myself surprised again. It turned out that I liked it even more despite all of the excellent Stephen King books I had read since my first journey to Delain and the sinister mechanations of the evil sorcerer, Randall Flagg. This is one of the few examples of Stephen King doing fantasy in a classic medievil-style setting but perhaps he should have ventured there more often because Eyes is simply fantastic. Most of the book’s appeal stems from the villainous Flagg and how King writes him. To quote my own review of the book…

“King’s infamous villain is central to this book’s plot and – outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower – is his most major role which makes The Eyes of the Dragon‘s “lesser” status in Stephen King’s back catalogue even more of a shame. Here, Flagg is a sorcerer and advisor to the King of Delain, plotting chaos, anarchy and destruction through intelligent manipulation and deception. He poisons the King and successfully convinces everybody that his son, Peter, is the culprit. Flagg is afraid of Peter’s good-hearted nature, strong will and keen perception – traits that would make it impossible for Flagg to maintain his toxic influence over the throne and to put his plans for Delain into action. With Peter safely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, his younger brother Thomas inherits the throne. Thomas is a bitter boy with far less wits about him who relies on Flagg completely to make decisions and be a King. Thus it is Flagg who rules Delain through Thomas, finally having his opportunity to begin unleashing darkness on the people.

Flagg should be an utterly one-dimensional villain. He is, after all, pure evil without a shred of goodness within, flying in the face of the concept of balance which says that nobody can ever be one-hundred percent good or evil. Flagg is disease and plague personified; a malevolent demon in human form who lives to destroy, ignite apocalyptic anarchy and incite mass bloodshed – all for his own entertainment. As rotten as Flagg is however, King writes him in such a playful manner that you can’t help but like him.”

I feel that this is the wildcard of my Top Five; a book that shouldn’t be here ahead of certain other big names from King’s back catalogue but it is impossible for me to deny my adoration for Eyes of the Dragon so here it is.

Honourable Mentions…

Ten other books from Stephen King that came very close to making my Top Five.

  • Salem’s Lot
  • The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition
  • The Dark Half
  • Desperation
  • 11.22.63
  • Under The Dome
  • Mr Mercedes
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Bag of Bones
  • From a Buick 8