Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Kids, a clown, and carnage
I recently got around to Stephen King's mammoth 1987 horror thriller, It, which inexplicably this longtime King fan had never cracked open until now. Well, I shouldn't say inexplicably, because I'm sure it had something to do with that adjective mammoth combined with an adjective I often use to describe myself: lazy. Anyway, I finally got to the book and I liked it, often quite a bit.
I didn't love it, however, finding it to be the first King story I've read that didn't fully justify its generous length. It was also peppered with a few elements that sort of annoyed and/or frustrated me, again a new thing for me with King.
But first let me be a gentleman and list a few of the many things I liked about this tale of seven kids who take on an elemental evil hiding out in the sewers of a Maine town in 1958 and then come together as adults in the 1980's to take it on again. I liked the characterizations of the kids, who were sympathetic and interestingly complex, and the way King makes it clear that the ways children are raised inarguably have impacts on their personalities that will follow them for the rest of their lives. I liked the individual scenes of horror, which are effective, scary, and imaginative. I enjoyed comparing the personalities of the kids with the personalities of their grown-up counterparts.
I also cheered during the many scenes depicting heartless, cruel people in power finally getting their due from the people they regularly victimized and abused. Scenes involving an abusive husband in the modern-day scenes and a horrible bully in the 1950's part of the story immediately come to mind, and there are a couple of other satisying confrontations along those lines, too. And these have little or nothing to do with the horror story at hand; they're just an added bonus.
Now, what aspects of the book didn't wow me as much? The story is constructed so that we continually jump back and forth between the kids battling the creature known as "It" in the 1950's and their re-match with "It" in the 1980's. Because both stories happen simultaneously throughout the entire book and we cut back and forth between them, momentum and drama never really build up in each individual timeline, at least as much as they otherwise could. Also, King comes up with (I thought) contrived reasons for the 1980's versions of the characters to not talk to one another about, or even think about, their original 1950's battle, so as not to spoil things for the reader (for one thing, think "mysterious memory loss").
I also thought the exact nature of what was going on in both battles was ultimately murky, having something to do with a battle of wills on a higher plane of existence, but nothing I could better get my hands around. The weird, godlike turtle creature sitting on the sidelines didn't exactly help matters in that regard.
Finally, all of this- the first battle, the second battle, the individual lives of the characters as kids and as adults- was frequently interrupted by long history lessons about the town of Derry, Maine, the setting of both epic battles (the earthbound parts of them, anyway). The Derry history sections are actually kind of interesting, often detailing horrendous occurrences that the "It" entity instigated, emotionally fed on, or both. But in a story that was already of epic length, I wonder if the information in those sections couldn't have been communicated via briefer mechanisms.
In the end, Stephen King is too talented a writer to not realize exactly what he was doing when he delivered an 1,100-plus page book about a bunch of kids taking on a creepy clown (the monster's preferred form of corporeal existence). Perhaps after being burned by his publishers years before, who made him cut tens of thousands of words from his original draft of The Stand, Mr. King decided to use the clout he eventually earned to write another epic story and make it as long as he saw fit, emphasizing- without interference this time- the immersive experience over pacing and conciseness.
If the results are a little self-indulgent and well... long, so what? It's not like the author writes this way all the time. In my view, 95% of the time Stephen King's books are exactly as long as they need to be, so what's the harm if an otherwise fairly solid King novel, just this once, gives us a couple of hundred pages more carnage, characterization, and details than we actually need? Or, in his zeal to be truly "out there" in some of the cosmic confrontations, we mutter a "huh?" from time to time? Small sins, gentle reader, small sins.
In the end, for me at least, I guess that creepy clown with the sharp teeth pulled this sometimes flawed, sometimes lumbering epic over the finish line.
"It" is available on Kindle for $8.99.