Where “It” Was: Rereading Stephen King’s “It” on Its 30th Anniversary
By Adrian DaubSeptember 11, 2016
It by Stephen King
Perhaps the novel also gained a certain clarity in translation, for I first encountered It, as a child growing up in Germany, as Es. While the Freudian resonances were lost on seven-year-old me — Es was Freud’s plain German name for what English translators have far more pretentiously termed “the id” — some of the word’s primal grandeur was not: an “it,” after all, can be any critter or animal, while an es seems to reach deeper into our collective mental topography. “Wo es war, soll ich werden”: “where it was, I shall be,” Freud declared. For the longest time, wherever I was, It was not.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”
Most people, when asked the identity of the big bad in King’s book, will answer “Pennywise the Clown” or, if they’re a bit more initiated, they’ll say “the eldritch horror that takes many forms but is most easily designated It.” I would have answered the same. But rereading It, one realizes that the primary enemy in this story of seven middle-school outcasts confronting a malevolent, shape-shifting, child-murdering entity that haunts their town every 27 years is the American power of sublimation. In the first part of the novel, set in 1957, the kids who call themselves the “Losers Club” defeat It, but by the mid-1980s they have lost all memory of those events, and indeed of their entire childhoods. They reluctantly return to Derry to face It one last time. Anamnesis — remembering — is the central structuring device of It’s parallel plots: characters have to find out what they once did, and confront what on some level they already know.
Even when we flash back to 1957, the moment the Losers first meet Pennywise the Clown and It’s other avatars, we realize that they have encountered them all before. All discovery in this book is rediscovery, not of deep, dark secrets, but of things barely buried by lazy habit or the buzzing noise of childhood. True, It’s various guises recall H. P. Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep, who torments the world through various “masks,” but where Lovecraft’s protagonists burrow into their past and are shocked — shocked! — by what they find, King’s characters only confirm what they all along knew was there.
Returning to this massive, creased, and chewed-up tome after decades, the first thing that struck me was its narrative bagginess. I had come to expect the fleet, glib economy of contemporary mass-market paperbacks, and I found it a little mindboggling to realize that this circuitous, repetitious book, which runs to over 1,000 pages, had kept all my friends’ older brothers, who after all had cassette players and early video game consoles to offer readier distraction, in its thrall. It has the breathless screenplay-for-your-mind quality of novels by John Grisham, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy, but it has none of their concision. It takes its time.
Perhaps all the kids who devoured It in the ’80s sensed that King had made their pre-adolescent mode of experiencing the world — that unique combination of vivid clarity and forgetfulness — its formal principle. All the friends, events, images, and feelings that we ever-so-gently cover in sand as we stumble into adulthood can startle us when we come face to face with them again, and these are the true source of It’s terror. What else have we hidden back there, we wonder uneasily? I remember a conversation a few years ago with some friends from school in which, amid the usual pleasant onrush of “hey, do you remember” and “whatever happened to,” conversation turned to a certain outcast girl in our class, and it dawned on us as we recounted her hilarious eccentricities that we were describing classic symptoms of sexual abuse. Pragmatism, quietism, and callousness are never far apart when we forget the true horrors of our childhoods.
Perhaps mindful of this dynamic, King’s novel diligently refuses to distinguish between the monster’s machinations and the kinds of very quotidian evils — bullying, child abuse, racism — that also plague the town of Derry. Are they simply emanations of a shape-shifting monster’s malice? It doesn’t seem to think so. Nor is the novel about repression and denial: the citizens of Derry seem to sense that something is very wrong, but are powerless before that intuition. It’s easy to read It, like much of Stephen King’s oeuvre (and, indeed, most American horror fiction), as a queasy meditation on the crimes and cruelties that gave birth to this nation. But It isn’t Derry’s unconscious, It isn’t the wages of its crimes, It isn’t even its original sin.
Maybe the monster is the quilting point, the place where it becomes clear that the entire world is structured by fear. “Wasn’t it true that power, like It, was a shape changer?” Bill muses at one point. The only source of power in Derry, it appears, is the ability to inspire fear in others. A cosmic panic binds together the novels’ heroes and bullies and even its great antagonist. When an adult Beverly, the lone girl among the Losers, finally stands up to her abusive husband, his entire world is undermined by his inability to terrorize her as he’s used to: “It was almost as if she didn’t see the belt, didn’t see him, and Tom felt a trickle of unease. Was he here?” And as the adult Losers enter It’s lair, the monster registers their progress with the faint alarm escalating into panic of Kafka’s unidentified animal in “The Burrow”: where Kafka’s creature slowly becomes convinced that the noises encroaching upon it are signs of “another,” a “whistler,” turning his fortress into a trap, so It’s fear “danced mockingly out of reach, and It could only kill the fear by killing them.”
But King is too fond of his creations, too invested in their happiness, too convinced that they deserve it, to allow us to condense a thousand sprawling pages into something as trite as the idea that human cruelty is universal. Pennywise is neither identical to all that ails Derry, nor is he entirely external to it. What, then, is It, really? What is it that Derry’s denizens are always half-aware of, and are always on the precipice of discovering? Is King’s novel a social allegory for something? Bigotry? Sex? AIDS? Homophobia? Puritanism? Race? America?
The novel warns us away from this kind of decoding fairly explicitly. Stuttering Bill Denbrough, who grows up to become a novelist (and, thus, one of those classic crooked King-self-portraits), attends a creative writing program, where he wants to write about space invasions. His peers only seem to like his stories when they can understand them as thinly disguised allegories for social issues in the real world. Bill balks: “Why does a story have to be socio-anything?” he objects. “Politics … culture … history … aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well?”
It, despite its incredible length, is a story told well, and it doesn’t have to be an allegory for “socio-anything,” because the politics and society of the Reagan-era and Eisenhower-era United States furnish the “natural ingredients” of the tale. They bubble up in the novel the way they might in a court transcript, in psychoanalysis, or in the newspaper clippings the novel turns to again and again. AIDS, for example, and homosexuality, which haunt the imaginations of the denizens of this dying New England mill town more persistently than any monster. The novel’s second chapter is set in 1984, opening with a scene in which a gay man is beaten by three teenagers, who leave him for dead under a bridge; It emerges, in the form of Pennywise the Clown, to finish him off. Throughout the sequence, and the novel that follows, narrator and protagonists persistently feel the need to wish away the specter of homosexuality: not just the murderous bullies, but the cops who investigate them and wish AIDS and anal rape on them; not just the 1950s schoolchildren, but the parents eying their incipient adolescence. And what does it mean for a novel that focuses so much on blood — bathtubs full of it, bleeding photographs, blood gushing from severed limbs and running through the sewer pipes — to start out with an uncontainable torrent of AIDS-talk?
Then there’s the question of child abuse, and child sexuality. The novel’s most startling scene occurs toward the end of the 1950s narrative, when Beverly decides to bring the traumatized group together by having sex with all of them in turn. The scene has, to put it mildly, not aged well (although I don’t imagine it worked very well in 1986 either). It is a moment so discordant that, in its own weird way, it makes sense: the children are reenacting a ritual — the ritual of sex — that they don’t yet understand. Where Netflix’s Stranger Things earlier this year used the mystery girl Eleven to disrupt a homosocial nerd-clique and guide the boys (more chastely) into adolescence, It knows that this is far too orderly and gentle a transition. This doesn’t make the episode any easier to stomach, but at least it gives one a reason for stomaching it.
Gender in the novel is a problem, clearly. In interviews, King has expressed some regret over the way It demonizes women, and specifically mothers. There is Eddie’s mother, whose Munchausen by proxy keeps her son sick, afraid, and tied to her; there are absent mothers and uncaring mothers the different Losers try to emancipate themselves from; and there is, of course, the cruelest mother of them all: It herself. “OH DEAR JESUS IT IS FEMALE,” one character exclaims upon seeing It’s eggs. The novel treats this fact about It as a big reveal (fair enough, I suppose, given the ambiguous grammar of its title), and the characters seem to go insane at the very idea of It’s femaleness, the terrifying claim on the future the creature seems to stake through its motherhood.
There is something extremely powerful in these moments when the book is, for lack of a better word, icky, and when that ickiness is no longer in the service to some economy of thrills. Why is gay blood icky? Why did a sex scene among 11-year-olds seem like a good idea? Why is It being a mother terrifying? The book seems to offer up these repellent motifs knowing full well that they won’t fall on sympathetic ears, that we may well find them even more startling and bizarre when we return to them 30 years later.
Racism is another of the everyday evils that pervades the world of It, and yet it clearly functions differently than the others. In King’s novel, the n-word is dispensed freely, and it’s often an indicator that the monster is speaking through whoever utters it. In one scene, Mike Hanlon, the Losers Club’s only African American member, calls the hospital, only to have Pennywise answer the call and unleash an endless compendium of racist abuse on him, down to bits from Amos ’n’ Andy. Mike simply talks over it: “If you’re there, I can’t hear you. I’m not being allowed to hear you. If you’re there, please hurry.” Racism is white noise in Derry: you speak through it and hope you can still be heard.
King’s damning treatment of the theme of racism represents a significant deviation from, and indictment of, H. P. Lovecraft. Obviously It owes a lot to Lovecraft: Derry, the mill town by the roaring river, is a clear throwback to Lovecraft’s haunted New England, and It’s various avatars are clear nods to the cosmic horrors, the colors out of space and the Elder Gods, that threaten Innsmouth and Dunwich. But these borrowings only serve to distinguish King’s brand of horror, and its politics, more starkly from Lovecraft’s. Fans and scholars have long debated whether a certain racism animates the standard motifs of Lovecraftian horror. It is an absurd debate: racism is the beating heart of Lovecraft’s world; every single one of his obsessions stems from his fear of other races, his panic over immigration, his fear of degeneration. King, who in his 2000 book On Writing calls Lovecraft a “galloping racist,” and whose distaste for racism is all over It, seems to have understood that only too well. His strategy for assimilating Lovecraft is to refuse to sublimate his phobias, either by formal processes or through some kind of “mythos.” Where Lovecraft’s social obsessions creep in on the margins, King vomits his out onto the page. The child sex scenes, the preoccupations with homosexuality, with bad mothers, with dismemberment, with racism: these are things designed first to shock us and then to produce a kind of queasy self-recognition. It doesn’t always work, it doesn’t work for everyone — how could it? — but each phobia, each obsession is a tentative gesture of reaching out: You too?
Which is to say that King is a communal writer, in a way that Lovecraft never was. It is a novel about the power of collective fantasy: when the Losers enter the sewers beneath Derry, they encounter together nightmares they’ve previously only encountered themselves. They’re Losers, but not Loners, and the difference makes a difference. “Loners such as Lovecraft often write […] badly,” King writes, in On Writing. King does not write badly because he does not write, or dream, alone. His obsessions are ours, and he is willing to expose himself in presenting them back to us, hoping for that nod of recognition: Yes, of course, we hadn’t known it like that, but we’d known it. Where It was, we shall be.
Adrian Daub is professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) of The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism. He tweets @adriandaub and can also be found at adriandaub.com.
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