Stephen King’s It: the horror novel that sparked a love affair

The pleasure and terror of reading Stephen King

Photo: Simon and Schuster

This time last year, everyone was talking about It. Cashing in on a wave of Stranger Things-led 80s fever, the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel took cinemas by storm. So like any good, pretentious English student, I went to read the book first. Drowning in renaissance plays, I was hoping for nothing more than a quick break. I haven’t been able to put King down since.

The compelling, lucid and effortless prose had me devouring It. There’s no stylistic snobbery; no qualms about what shouldn’t be explored, even in fiction; no chance to catch your breath as you’re plunged through tale after uniquely-unsettling tale. This is a book that embraces its monsters – both the fantastical, and the depressingly mundane.

It’s also a monster of a book – lets admit that, first. Pushing 1300 pages, this isn’t one for the commute. King has a story to tell, and he’s more than happy to handcuff you to the desk until he’s done. But his mastery makes it manageable. It is divided into sections-within sections, a turbulent journey with mid-sentence time jumps of thirty years. If you’ve seen the film, this will be the main difference; while the 2017 adaptation will have a sequel to show the gang’s adult exploits, King shows the two stories concurrently.

This may sound overwhelming. In most books with multiple perspectives, there are sections that feel like a slog, a sentence that must be served before you can get to the really good bit. King doesn’t give you the chance to feel this way.

Not every section contains blood-curdling screams or cosmic confrontations, but they are no less chilling for this absence. The hard-hitting villain in It isn’t the multi-faceted creature hiding under a sleepy town in Maine. What stays with you is King’s unflinching look at the darker side of human nature. In one of the first encounters with Pennywise, homophobia is as much the enemy as the eerie clown. The harrowing history of racial persecution in Derry is more upsetting than any incongruous balloon. And for much of this book – where the main characters must return to their childhood to have any hope defeating their demons, and kids are distorted and damaged by the adults who should be protecting them – there is a real sense in which grown-ups are the true threat.

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But in the spirit of Hallowe’en, let’s talk about the literal monsters. King provides a kaleidoscope of them. The joy of having a creature that shifts to fit its victim’s fears is a potentially endless cast of gruesome opponents, including characters from recent horror films. ‘The Teenage Werewolf’ appears, ‘Its muzzle wrinkled back and yellowish-white foam seep[ing] through Its teeth’. King doesn’t shrink from excruciating descriptions of his subjects, unconcerned with creating intellectual detachment or psychological trickery. He truly embraces his genre of all-out horror, and in doing so, creates a novel infinitely more enjoyable than much of the canonical drudgery I’ve put up with for my degree.

This is one thing that makes King such a compelling author. There’s a sense throughout the book that he writes exactly what he wants. For some people, this might seem indulgent; if lore isn’t your thing, there may be sections you’d mark for the cutting room floor. But to me, it’s a rewarding sign of a writer in love with his craft.

You wouldn’t come to King looking for Nobel-winning literature, and he makes no pretensions as such. In his introduction to Salem’s Lot, he remembers his editor mentioning a concern with its publication: “You’ll be typed as a horror writer,’ he said. I was so relieved that I laughed. ‘I don’t care what they call me as long as the checks don’t bounce.” This captures the essence of It: a bloody, good read.

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