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Reading Stephen King's 'It': Still unsettling, all these years later

Chicago Tribune

My eighth-grade English teacher had a no-Stephen-King rule — which was rich considering that she made us read Ayn Rand's "Anthem" — but King's new novel about an evil clown menacing the small town of Derry, Maine, was the size of a Buick, so she allowed me to do my book report on "It."

I've written in these pages before about discovering a disintegrating copy of "The Shining" in a rural Colorado restaurant-bar when I was 8 or 9. For years afterward, I read every book by Stephen King I could get my hands on. "The Stand," "Cujo," "Christine," "'Salem's Lot," "Pet Sematary," "Night Shift," "Different Seasons," "Carrie," "The Dead Zone," the Richard Bachman novels, even "The Eyes of the Dragon," which my dad had to hunt down in hardcover as soon as it came out.

King's stories never terrified me in a classic keep-the-lights-on, check-the-closets sense. (No fiction ever did when I was a kid, except for Jay Anson's silly "Amityville Horror" — that red-eyed pig looking down from the window is seared into my mind.) They unsettled me more profoundly than that.

Take "The Jaunt," a short story from "Skeleton Crew," for instance. It's about teleportation via an interdimensional portal (or something). Travelers are sedated before being teleported, because people who made the journey while conscious were either driven insane or died instantly. A man whose family is about to teleport to Mars explains to his children that the process, although physically instantaneous, seems to a conscious mind to last forever. One of the guy's curious kids manages to circumvent the sedation, and he comes out the other side a second later shrieking, "It's longer than you think, Dad!" before clawing out his own eyes.

How long? I mean, imagine being suspended in whiteness with only your thoughts for a year, much less 10 or 20 years. Then imagine a hundred, a thousand, a billion years. You can't imagine it, but I couldn't stop trying.

Yeah, Stephen King freaked me out a lot. So I was psyched for "It." The plot is straightforward: The demonic clown Pennywise, aka It, murders children in Derry every 27 years; six boys and a girl, Beverly, form the Losers' Club and battle Pennywise. I don't remember what I wrote in my book report, but I remember being flummoxed by the ending. I don't think anyone has ever read the novel without being flummoxed by the ending, in which — spoilers for the novel and the new film follow — the turtle who created the universe tells Bill, the Losers' leader, how to stop Pennywise, which he does. Yes, I said the turtle who created the universe, but that's not the flummoxing part. After getting rid of It, the kids are lost in the sewers beneath Derry, and the only way for them to escape is to — well, as Wikipedia puts it, "Beverly has sex with all the boys to bring unity back to the group." That's right: The six 11-year-old boys take turns having sex with the 11-year-old Beverly. (I remember saying "What?" out loud several times when I first read this scene, as did my girlfriend when she read it the other day.)

How would you film this? You wouldn't. The new film version of "It" nixes the novel's ending — as did the 1990 miniseries — but the filmmakers have replaced it with a conclusion that is almost as humanly and politically regressive. In the novel and the movie up to their respective conclusions, Beverly is a fierce, independent girl, about as damsel-in-distressed as Ripley in "Alien." In the novel, she becomes a passive vessel to receive the boys' burgeoning masculinity; in the new film, she ends up as just another of Pennywise's victims, hanging in midair in the clown's lair like a pinata until the boys rescue her, reviving her with a kiss like Sleeping Beauty. Sigh.

There are a lot of bad Stephen King movies ("Maximum Overdrive," "Silver Bullet"), some good ones ("Stand by Me," "The Mist"), one very good one (David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone," with Christopher Walken doing an excellent Christopher Walken impression), and two great ones (Brian De Palma's "Carrie" and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"). "It" is OK. The CGI is better than the animatronic spider from the miniseries, but the parts that are meant to be scary sometimes look like a community-theater production of "The Walking Dead." Pennywise is genuinely creepy, though. Bill Skarsgard plays the clown like a manic-depressive imp, swinging from gleeful to sinister in the time it takes a balloon to pop. And Sophia Lillis is terrific as Beverly.

Sometimes I look up old Superman comics online. The issues I had in the late 1970s and early '80s serve as proverbial madeleines, transporting me back to afternoons in my room at my grandmother's house in Kansas. And don't get me started on "Goodnight Moon," which basically acts as a hallucinogenic on my memories.

Rereading "It" today is to reread my eighth-grade self, retreating into books to avoid bullies. I read "Crime and Punishment" that same year, in the Constance Garnett translation, not for a class but because I spent so much time in the school library browsing the shelves. I was much taken by the sentence "He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase" — an elegant telescope of psychological insight.

I'd forgotten how weird "It" is. The movie doesn't even try to capture the surreal metaphysical stuff like Turtle the Creator or how the Losers see a vision of It smashing to Earth like an asteroid millions of years ago. And King's prose is often better than I'd assumed I'd find it: The opening sentence is tersely rhythmic: "The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain."

And though the movie, despite being set in a small mill town in the '80s, has no political consciousness to speak of, King's story, for all its problematic facets, is alive to its times (it alternates between the '50s and '80s). The father of one of the Losers is given to reminiscence: "In Lewiston they were worried about tramps and hobos and that something called 'the bonus army' would join up with something they called 'the Communist riff-raff army,' by which they meant any man who was out of work. The Legion of Decency used to send these fellows out of town just as fast as they came in." This must have been my first encounter with Marx's concept of "surplus population."

Freud's concept of "das Es," "the It" — borrowed from Georg Groddeck and improperly translated as "the Id" by James Strachey — refers to the "unknown and uncontrollable forces" that govern our psychic lives. It would be easy to assimilate "It" to a reading along these lines, especially as all too knowable forces are loose in Derry — racism, domestic abuse, poverty, unemployment, McCarthyism and Reaganism. Perhaps the monster the Losers call It is a proxy for these or for the unconscious; the standard accounts of why we turn to the uncanny suggest that I escaped into horror novels, with their imaginary hence harmless terrors, to escape the misery of my adolescent schooldays.

These explanations make a tidy intuitive sense, which is why I distrust them. People like to come up with theories for why we enjoy watching hockey-masked crazies carve up campers. "Can't you guys just let a story be a story?" asks the adult Bill, who has become a novelist. But that's no good either. I don't know why I like to read Peter Straub or watch "Halloween." But rereading "It" reminded me we should let eighth-graders do both.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of "Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music."

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