Stephen King’s “It” and the Persistence of Memory (Part I)
(Warning: this article is a spoliery rabbit-trail of nostalgia.)
That old saying, “what goes around, comes around” only really makes sense once you’ve logged enough birthdays to gain some wisdom on the Human Condition (and at 36, I don’t profess to have anywhere near “all the answers” to life’s sadistic riddles).
That old adage applies to Stephen King’s 1986 novel It in a very important thematic way: this brick of a book, divided into five parts (with corresponding “interludes”), deals with a series of unfortunate events that befall a group of seven kids over the summer of 1958 in the fictional city of Derry, Maine. The kids – nicknamed the Losers Club – unite to battle a seemingly unstoppable, child-killing force that takes the familiar form of Pennywise the Clown, but can transmogrify into any subjective nightmare creature at will.
When the Losers leave Derry and become grownups, they leave their memories – of the city; of each other – behind, as well. In 1985, when a rash of child murders ramps up, librarian – and Club member – Mike Hanlon is forced to call his friends and help them remember the events of 1958, when they confronted Pennywise before.
It is my favorite book, and I’ve read it at least four times now – my first exposure was around 1991 or 1992 (the year ABC re-aired the 1990 miniseries), when I was still in elementary school. At that time, King was a gateway drug – more all-powerful entity than man, as strange as it sounds – and his novels contained taboo content that my young mind could only partially process. If I could quantify it, I’d say that 30 – 40% of It went over my head, especially the more complicated metaphysical aspects that comprise the final third (or Part 5, “The Ritual of Chüd”). The elements of abuse, violence, and sexuality (of both adults and children) took on an almost surreal sheen, existing somewhere outside of my concept of “literature” up that point, and opening doors into uncharted territory.
I think that, no matter how old I get, a dive back into Derry will never not carry this particular nostalgia. When it comes to losing one’s virginity (whether sexually or otherwise), I guess it’s true what They say: “you never forget your first time.” Reading this novel always rekindles a connection with my own childhood naïveté (something I haven’t necessarily shaken).
For what it’s worth, I still don’t understand the significance of all those William Carlos Williams quotes.
Published one week before his 39th birthday, it always seemed inconceivable to me that even a writer as voraciously wordy as King could keep such an epic tale (the length of my current paperback edition is 1477 pages) coherent, ordered, and engaging. He seemed as superhuman and relentless as Pennywise in that regard. From a stylistic perspective, King does some clever things with execution, including chapters (especially those set in 1958) that interweave smaller subplots – take, for instance, “One of the Missing: A Tale from the Summer of ’58,” which details one of It’s casualties via newspaper excerpts, and is seemingly straightforward, until young Mike Hanlon is introduced (rather inexplicably at first). King winds back the narrative to familiarize the reader with Mike, his home life, and his thoughts. Then, after he’s grounded us properly – and perhaps tested our patience somewhat – he ties Mike in with the missing kid that serves as the chapter’s initial catalyst.
Something that’s always impressed me about It, is how much investment King has in these characters, and making each distinctive. While the villains of the piece (Tom Rogan; Henry Bowers and his bully crew) are possessed of a sick sadism, misogyny, and racism, their motives underline the divide between what scares kids (the werewolf on the movie screen) and adults (the fear of losing control, being controlled, and unwelcome elements infiltrating the stability of life), and the manner in which the ancient evil that keeps the citizenry of Derry apathetic toward its wholesale horrors is using these human characters as vessels for its implacable bloodlust.
I’ve gone from being scared of the Mummy (Christopher Lee, natch) and Freddy Krueger to being scared of the blank-eyed folks who genuinely believe God is communicating through some cult leader…or millionaire celebrity evangelist. In the grand scheme of things, is there any difference between that and what King depicts when characters stare into It’s deadlights?
To be continued…