Reviewing Stephen King's IT From Memory With Stock Art.
It seems like IT is pretty big news in the horror world right now, breaking the box office with a brand new movie we got to see its opening week, and I have to admit, I overall thought it was a better made and more entertaining horror film than the first...though it definitely came with some glaring flaws we'll talk about when I finally review it.
If, however, I am going to review 2017's IT, I feel like I need to lead up to it properly, and though I've virtually never talked about any iteration of IT before, there was a time that both the original miniseries and the original book were pretty big in my life.
...Just not big enough that I'm going to go back and suddenly read over 1,000 pages all over again. Instead, I'm going to attempt to recap those 1,000+ pages with no help from Google, Wikipedia, TVtropes or any human input. I haven't touched this book in over a decade, but I guess we'll see what I do and don't remember correctly, and because a book doesn't have images to screencap but my drawing abilities are currently booked solid, I'm also going to illustrate this article entirely with free preview versions of stock art.
So IT takes place in the town of Derry, Maine, which is featured in or mentioned in a staggering number of King novels. I probably don't need to tell you, then, that Derry suffers from an abnormally high rate of murders, disappearances, abuse incidents and all manner of atrocities its citizens seem unusually oblivious towards or even outright complicit with. The children of the town seem to suffer the worst of this, disappearing with such frequency that most of the town has just stopped caring. Naturally, it's also the children who are a little more on to there being something terribly wrong with this picture, but as children, they're all pretty much helpless to watch their friends vanish and adults look the other way...or are they?
That's basically your plot. Brought together by the various forms of bullying and abuse they suffer in a cesspit of death and suffering, one group of kids will become the heroes of the story, calling themselves "The Losers Club" and unraveling the truth of their town in by far the darkest Scooby Doo episode ever written.
Even having just watched the new movie, I'm not completely sure I can remember all of the kids. For the sake of an authentic "from memory" review, I'm not going to look them all up. Let's just see what I can recall:
Richie is the Funny One, the kid who always has some filthy joke or sarcastic retort to hide his constant terror. I cannot for the life of me remember any of his jokes from the book or from the first movie, but he had some pretty excellent quips in the remake.
Beverly is the only girl, but she's pretty important. She's beaten by her nasty ass dad, and almost all the other main kids have a crush on her, but it's pretty wholesome and innocent up until that scene, which we'll talk about later, trust me. She turns out to have the very best aim with a slingshot, I think, if the first movie didn't invent that. I don't think it did. I think that was in the book.
Mike is the only black kid, and in the book he's really, really important. He's a history buff who's researched the town and stumbled upon some pretty disturbing patterns. His family is the target of local racism and he has to put up with a lot of bad shit that has made him pretty tough, and he'll be even more important later in the story.
Then there's...there's...uh.........there's main boy. Damn it. I should remember main boy's name. He's the main boy. Jesus. The phantom of his dead little brother probably says his name a million times, too, because oh yeah, he's the one with the dead little brother. A little brother who got "swept" into the city sewers one stormy evening, as far as the adults are concerned, but whatever version of IT or its various internet memes you're familiar with, you know he got pulled into the sewers by a flesh-eating clown.
The remaining kids are a hypochondriac with an overprotective mom, a kid who gets bullied for being overweight and a kid who gets bullied for being Jewish. Basically, every kid is part of some demographic that suffers a lot of persecution for one reason or another, but none of them are more than one of those things at a time. They're still all pretty richly characterized, even when I can't remember most of their names right now, and it's not long into the book that they really start to feel like your childhood friends.
There are, however, also a gang of bad kids, the town's main bullies because all fictional towns have specific, designated main bullies, and they're basically every shitty thing you can think of. They're racist, they're antisemitic, they're sexist, they're animal abusers, you name it. The main one becomes kind of an unwitting minion of IT when he watches it kill two of the other ones, loses his mind, and later murders his abusive dad. Another of the bad kids is a "sociopath" stereotype who has no remorse and kils animals by locking them in a discarded refrigerator he's kind of in love with.
So, those are our major human characters as I recall them, and that leaves us with the real star, the titular IT.
Of all the monsters I can think of with names like "IT" or "Thing" or some other generalized noun, this particular IT is perhaps most worthy of such a title. IT is more than just a "monster;" IT is essentially monstrousness itself, a nebulous cosmic entity that hunts and torments and kills other things to sustain itself by manifesting their deepest, darkest fears and toying with their very reality, and it's been lurking under what became Derry, Maine for possibly millions of years.
IT can take absolutely any form, at any time, but its favorite form is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. This is where we run into some popular confusion that you might argue is more of a semantic issue than anything else; people tend to think of Pennywise as the monster itself and a character in his own right, but really, Pennywise is nothing more than a puppet. A thing made by and manipulated by the real horror just to screw with the minds of its prey...and screw with them it does.
Apparently, fear is the seasoning that makes little kids most delicious of all, and IT has a grand old time scaring the shit out of its food. This naturally includes, at some point, almost every single classic Halloween monster archetype known to man, except possibly a ghost. I forget if IT ever took a form that would qualify as particularly ghost-like.
That's one of the cool things about IT, though; it works a lot like a "haunting," in that it can manifest just about any weird form or phenomenon it wants, but it's not a "spirit." All the weird stuff it does is made completely out of actual matter, which is a heckload scarier than just a bunch of freaky illusions can ever be.
Here's my best memory of the forms taken by IT throughout the book:
A giant bird. This is Mike's personal fear, but I can't remember why. Mike does, however, fight said bird himself, and I believe he's one of the only kids to actually attack his own manifested phobia.
A whole lot of blood. IT loves manifesting blood. Geysers of blood, balloons full of blood, blood everywhere. This also serves to illustrate what I previously mentioned about its forms all being "real;" even when nobody but the kids can see the blood, it's still definitely actually there. It stinks and it dries and it doesn't go away unless they clean it.
A Werewolf. This is a weird one, because while the werewolf attacks whichever kid is afraid of werewolves, it occurs to the kid that the werewolf's hair looks like his dad's pubes. Thanks, Stephen, that was definitely important to include.
The Crawling Eye. One of the children is positively terrified of the movie The Crawling Eye, and Pennywise at one point taunts him that "we've got the eye down here, the one that crawls! Oh me oh my, come see the eye!" Yes, I remember this line clearer than the names of half the cast. Why wouldn't I?
A "Leper." This is one of the most disturbing, and of course, it's the germophobic kid's monster, basically a hobo covered in oozing sores with a gaping hole for a nose. I think the leper was also trying to offer sex in exchange for money.
Flying Leeches. Finally something really inventive, these are the ultimate personal fear of refrigerator kid, who is terrified of nothing other than blood-sucking parasites, and of course, IT chooses to manifest the flying leeches from the kid's beloved refrigerator.
A severed head full of feathers. I don't remember why the feathers, but it's certainly extra gross.
A horrible old lady. She starts out as a normal old lady who invites an adult Beverly inside for tea, but the tea is thick and gloppy and gross, I think it's either blood or feces, and the old lady slurps it and slurs her words and basically just doesn't act like a normal old lady, then she says something about having been "shat from her father's asshole" and turns into the witch from Hansel and Gretel, complete with her whole house converting into candy.
Horrible Fortune Cookies. When the grown-up heroes all get fortune cookies at the end of their first meal together, every cookie has something different in it. An abnormally large fly, bloody human teeth, an eyeball, and of course a big burst of blood. The scene is, interestingly, a whole lot weirder and cooler in the film adaptation.
And...that's all I recall, actually. Except for the leeches and the cookies, IT's forms are surprisingly never all that imaginative in the novel. It's almost more interesting that, between forms, it sometimes resembles some sort of amoebic, orange sludge I always pictured like pumpkin guts.
It's also interesting how IT refers to its true form as its deadlights. Throughout the book it threatens to show its deadlights, or invites kids to come and join with its deadlights. I remember something or other about the deadlights being bright orange and "crawling" or "writhing," and anyone who sees them risks becoming a permanent part of them, adrift in some sort of limbo of insanity as part of the being's mind.
Right? I think? Anybody read it recently enough to know what I'm talking about?
Anyway, the kids do find out, kind of by accident that IT is mortal, or rather, the forms it manifests have to be flesh and blood in order to interact with our world, and it can in fact be physically harmed in such a state. They also realize that, because the monster's forms are based on their imaginations, their imaginations have a degree of power over the creature.
I do believe that, with their renewed confidence, this is basically the point at which a lot of the kids turn on their various bullies and abusers. Hypochondriac kid learns at some point that his mother uses fake diseases and placebo medicine to keep him in arm's reach and totally gets in her face about it, which is great. Beverly escapes her shitty dad and I think beats him over the head.
Now, eventually, the kids are down in the sewers again following this monster, right? And the hypochondriac kid EDDIE, HIS NAME IS EDDIE I REMEMBER THAT NOW, spraying Pennywise in the face with his asthma inhaler while loudly claiming the inhaler is filled with "battery acid." Specifically, he screams "THIS IS BATTERY ACID...YOU SLIME!" which is a positively dumb as hell thing to say, even by kid standards, but it actually works. IT acts like it got a faceful of acid and retreats.
The kids then chase IT deeper into the sewer and I think Beverly kills it, or seems to kill it, with a slingshot. I forgot again.
And speaking of forgetting, the defeat of the monster causes the kid's memories to start fading away, so Beverly gets an idea I'd like to forget, and maybe Stephen King would like to forget, reaching some bizarre and nonsensical epiphany that if she has sex with all her friends, right then and there, in the sewer, they can't possibly forget each other.
The man has actually gone on record saying he was on a shitload of drugs the entire time he wrote the book, to the point that he can't really remember any of that period or what he was thinking, and I'd usually take that as a convenient excuse...but it's really not that hard for me to believe. I'm the last person in the world who ever wants to say "haha, somebody was like, totally on something when they made this!" But if you actually read this book, you will understand how fair a wager that really is.
CURIOUSLY, the child sewer orgy has been omitted by both screen adaptations. Can't imagine why.
So the kids all swear by blood oath that they'll come back and finish the job if IT turns out to not really be dead, which will be in about twenty some years according to its previous cycle of feeding.
It's Mike who ends up staying behind in Derry, repeatedly compared to a "lighthouse keeper" watching over the town, scanning for the signs of IT's activity and ultimately summoning the losers back together for another battle... now in their forties.
That's basically the other "side" of the book; we get the story of their childhoods and the story of their adulthoods. We find out that every kid went on to be incredibly successful in life, but with insecurities and fears still lingering from their messed-up childhood experiences. It's all executed pretty damn well, in my memory at least. We got to know the characters pretty deeply as kids, and then we get to see what became of those kids, how they deal with revisiting the town and opening their old wounds, and how ultimately, all the shit they've put up with has just made them stronger than ever. Strong enough to, indeed, defeat IT once and for all.
It's during the final battle that IT takes on what is said to be the closest of all to its true form: a humongous spider. More literally-minded reviewers tend to find this disappointing and corny, but the spider form isn't literal. The whole idea is that it's just the closest the human mind can process the being; it's LIKE a spider, in a very alien way on a far grander scale, the way a nuclear submarine is kind of like a tadpole or a volcano is kind of like a pimple, and the town of Derry itself is what this "spider" can consider its "web." The narration even tells us almost exactly what "IT" is supposed to be: the ultimate, original, primal embodiment of "predation" itself.
This is when we also find out that IT....is a mom.
There's a point earlier on when we follow one of its victims all the way into the deadlights, and "OH MY GOD, IT'S FEMALE!!!!" is their last coherent, human thought before they're reduced to a floating shell. As with the "spider," the concept of something "female" may only be what the human mind approximates about the entity, but for all intents and purposes, at least in our perception, IT is a lady and she is also a mommy. She has hundreds and hundreds of gelatinous eggs in her subterranean nest, which is a pretty terrifying and awesome reveal after all we've learned about this seemingly all-powerful force of terror. Like, holy crap, there's going to be MORE of them.
The eggs, incidentally, are transparent enough for the embryos to be fully visible, and they're not like spiders. They're black, rubbery, "stingray-like" things, if I'm recalling that right again.
So, the grown-up Loser's club fights IT, and kills it...somehow. I forgot. I do know that, at some point, it involves another cosmic entity they sort of pull out of nowhere, the turtle, though it is kind of alluded to here and there throughout the story. Apparently, and this is all still sort of loosely metaphorical human-mind-approximation again, mind you, the turtle is a benevolent thing that created the universe when it got very sick and threw up, then it hid in its shell and IT ran amok. According to IT, the turtle is also "just something old and stupid," but it does lend the losers some sort of special strength, or something, I guess you could say turtle power.
IT dies for good, and sadly, the losers begin to lose all memory of one another as well as the events of the entire book. This felt like an utter gut-punch my first reading, and you may have realized it also renders the sewer orgy even more pointless. The last note of the book is basically that, every now and then, the losers wake up from their dreams with the sense of some sort of happy memory already fading away...a sense that they almost remember somebody they really cared about, and it just leaves them with a nice, warm little moment of contentment, every now and then, until they finally grow old and die.
In the end, my biggest takeaways from IT were the overall concept of the creature, the town, and their relationship to humanity. That initial helplessness of Derry's children is a situation relatable to pretty much everybody, isn't it? Anybody who pays any attention to the world and cares about, well, anything I guess. Horror, tragedy and cruelty are all around us, but no matter how many of us there are, we all kind of feel individually helpless to do much of anything about it in a world that feels comprised of about 50% indifference and 50% malice.
But even in the face of all that indifference and malice, the protagonists of IT find something happy to cling to. Instead of giving up all hope in a terrible, awful world, they allow their friendship to be their world, and let themselves enjoy whatever good they can find even if they never know how long it might last.
I'll admit: the first time I finished this book, way back in what was either my late teens or early twenties because yes my memory is actually that poor, I'm pretty sure I cried a little.