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Monsters and horror

4 October 2017

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just reading It for the second time. I gave it four stars the first time and still give it four stars now. I first read it over 20 years ago, so there were some bits I had forgotten.

After the second reading I felt rather sad — I was going to miss the characters in the story. And that is one of the strong points. The characters are real and memorable. I found it rather sad that in the story the adult characters remembered so little about their childhood friends, though of course that was part of the plot. And it brought back memories of my own childhood — going around with friends, building dams in streams, exploring storm drains, hiding from bullies and so on.

My reason for reading it a second time was that I had written a blog post for Stephen King’s birthday and mentioned that I had found It disappointing, because in the end “It” turned out to be an extra-terrestrial monster, and I thought Stephen King’s books that had extra-terrestrial monsters, like The Tommyknockers, were disappointing.

Brenton Dickieson wrote a comment, saying I had misinterpreted the ending of “It”. He pointed out that It is a demonic power, not an alien civilization. So I began re-reading it.

At first I thought I would just re-read the end, which I had found most disappointing, but then I thought it was long enough since my first reading that I would read the whole thing, carefully.

I discovered things that anyone would miss on a first reading — clues to the development of character, the foreshadowing of things that would happen later, when you know what happens later, things that the characters themselves were oblivious to because of their lapses of memory.

But I still found the ending disappointing, so I still give it four stars, not five. But to explain why will entail introducing spoilers, so if you have not read the book, and want to, you can give the rest of this post a miss.

Warning: spoilers ahead

As I’ve pointed out, I liked the characters in the story, and when I finished reading it I felt rather sad, I would miss them. At the weekend I’m hoping to see an old school friend whom I haven’t seen for thirty years, and I’m rather looking forward to that.

In It we first meet most of the characters as adults, when they are summoned back to their old home town to deal with a monster they had faced as children, but was now troubling the town again 27 years later. Only one of the seven of them still lives in the town, and it is he who calls them back. As they travel, their childhood memories begin to return, so we meet them as children too, they are all 11 years old, and have just finished Grade 5 at school. So the action in the story moves between 1958 and 1985.

When they gather again as adults Mike Hanlon, the one who has stayed behind in the (fictional) town of Derry, Maine (who also happens to be the only black member of the group) notes that they have all prospered in their careers, except for him — he has remained a small-town librarian, and had studied the history of the town and discovered that the monster went back a long way further than any of them had thought. He attributes their prosperity to the influence of the monster — an incentive to keep away and not trouble It again. He also notes that none of them have children.

There was something he did not mention, but which struck me: not only did they not have children when they grew up, but they had no siblings as children, which perhaps explained the closeness of their friendship, which helped them to defeat the monster. Another thing they had in common was that those who were married often married spouses who resembled their dysfunctional parents. Beverly Marsh, the girl, marries a man who resembles her abusive father.

Eddie Kaspbrak marries a woman who resembles his domineering hypochondriac mother. And he himself is a hypochondriac. At one point, when he is 11, the pharmacist takes him aside for a heart-to-heart talk, and explains to him that his asthma spray is a placebo, and that its effect is purely imaginary. He decides to keep believing it, however, and eventually believes that if it can defeat asthma by imagination, it can also by imagination defeat the monster that lurks in the drains and sewers of the town of Derry.

Their leader, Bill Denbrough, had had a younger brother, George, who was taken by the monster in the guise of a clown at the beginning of the story. So he too has no siblings. He also feels guilt for the death of his brother, because he had made him a toy boat which he was chasing down the street after the rain when the clown popped out of a drain and caught him.

The victims of the monster seem to be mainly children, hence the clown disguise, but when it wants to threaten or  frighten them, It takes on the form of their darkest fears — a dead brother or school fellow, a werewolf, a bird that had pecked at his face when he was a baby in a pram.

But it is the nature of the monster and the way of defeating it that strike me as the least convincing parts of the story. On the second reading, trying hard to think of It as not an ordinary extraterrestrial monster, I thought it could be a kind of metaphor or symbol for childhood fears, the kind of manifestation of evil forces and temptations that troubled the desert fathers. Those who succumbed to these temptations in the book, the bullies and abusive parents, came to resemble the monster more and more. In some cases, like the bullies, it took them over almost completely. But such monsters, real though they may be, do not rip people’s arms off. If it was the people who allowed themselves to be taken over had done that, it would be understandable. But it is the monster itself, and not the people it has taken over, that directly harms people physically.

In the end the monster resembles Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps that is a pointer to why I find it unsatisfactory — Stephen King is trying to combine every monster and demon of folklore and fiction and childhood fears into one, and the result is a pastiche, a hodgepodge, a mengelmoes of disparate elements, with an inexplicable turtle flowing in outer or inner space as a kind of counterfoil, perhaps escaped from Terry Pratchett. But the Morrigan is one thing, a bodach another. Sauron is one thin, an orc is another. The ending, with the destruction of the centre of the town, is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s That hideous strength, but the monster is too inconsistent for that to work either. It’s a macrobe, yes, but more than a macrobe, too much more.

And after all the detail of the earlier chapters, there are too many loose ends at the end. When Beverly ran from home with her father chasing her to give her a thrashing, where did she sleep that night after going to the sewers to chase the monster? Did its defeat exorcise him or not? Did Ben and Bev marry and live happily ever after? (Yes, at one level it’s a touching love story). Did any of them have children after that, or did it all end in the same cloud of amnesia with which it started? And can you really find salvation in a gang bang?

If I go on about this, it will sound as though I’m trying to tell Stephen King how he should have written his book, and that because I didn’t like the ending, he should have written it the way I might have written it, so perhaps it’s time to stop. But I still find it a somehow unsatisfactory monster. All the other characters are somehow true to life, but the monster isn’t. Well, you might say, monsters aren’t true to life, because they are fictional. But it was Mau Tse Tung, that communist materialist, who declared that “monsters of all kinds will be destroyed”. They will, of course, but not by him.

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 October 2017 5:40 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful review. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I found the whole last 1/4 disappointing too–and that last 1/4 is about as long as a brisk novel, so it matters. I think that King tried to move from monster to mythology and did not handle it as well as he did in The Stand and Dark Tower. (there aren’t any other books where he does this, is there?)
    I also thinks he has a completely unrealistic view of sex. He views sex as transactional and soul-neutral. I think he undervalues how powerfully he built up the energy of innocence, so the youth orgy could have been sealed with a kiss and been as powerful. He does show the complexity of adult sex, even if he forgets youth experience.

    • 10 October 2017 7:47 am

      Thanks very much for the comments.

      I think the thing that most bothers me about Stephen King is the nature of his monsters.

      In the first books of his I read — Needful Things and Pet Sematary the thing I initially didn’t like was that the monsters seemed nihilistic. The monsters were simply monstrous. But then I realised that it didn’t matter, because the battles between good and evil took place within the human heart. The human characters were not battling the monsters as such, but it was the temptations they placed in their way and how they dealt with them that mattered.

      So his best books are not those where he tries to explain evil or give an account of its source. It is just there, and it is how we respond to it that matters. And that is actually true to life. We do encounter evil in the world, and we can’t do much to stop it. The devil will continue to tempt us, no matter what we do. The first step in the battle against evil is in mastering ourselves and our own responses.

      But in It King does try to account for the nature of the monster, and the characters try to battle it directly. Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien handle that kind of thing much better, because they have the Christian theological framework for doing so. And that framework is what King lacks. People can still write good books about battling with evil without a Christian theological framework, which is why I think Albert Camus’s The Plague is better than King’s, The Stand. And though I think Charles Williams’s monsters are better than Stephen King’s, I don’t think he was much better in handling sex, for the same reasons that you point out.

      • 11 October 2017 4:34 pm

        Yes, I think you have this exactly right. The “universal” travel of the youth in their defeat of the monster should be a journey inward, not outward.
        But I do like that the evil of the heart takes on manifest form in the physical world. I don’t like that the evil precedes humans, as an ontological reality.

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