IT by Stephen King | sometimes a problematic horror classic is something that can be so personal,

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IT by Stephen King

September 15, 1986
Adult epic horror
Goodreads | Amazon

Welcome to Derry, Maine …

It’s a small city, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown. Only in Derry the haunting is real …

They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But none of them can withstand the force that has drawn them back to Derry to face the nightmare without an end, and the evil without a name.

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3 stars

Where do I even begin with this book? To say I have very mixed feelings is understating it. There’s a lot of things I love about this book and would give a full five stars, and a lot of things I hate about this book that would earn any other book one star. I’ve compromised for three stars, but that really doesn’t cover my feelings on this book. It is a horror epic that somehow manages to illuminate friendship and childhood while also exploring the hateful parts of humanity. Does it work? I’m honestly not sure.

A caveat: my perspective on IT is absolutely colored by spending time in queer fandom spaces, reading fanfiction, and movie canon. I don’t think that perspective can be discarded in this review. For some reason, a ton of queer people (me included) connect with this book that is by today’s standards, homophobic. There are queer implications in the movie, but it comes out of the queer subtext in the book that I am 80% sure Stephen King never even realized. I ended up drafting an entire post about this topic after it overflowed this already hefty review, so, um, stay tuned?

One thing I can say with conviction is that love every single character in the Loser’s Club. They really worm their way into your heart. I am, unabashedly, an Eddie Kaspbrak lo(s)ver first and foremost, but all of the characters have their own charm to them. And they’re all, to Derry, losers. There’s the leader, Bill Denbrough, a stutterer who lost his brother; Stanley Uris, a Jewish boy with an ambiguous disorder; Eddie Kaspbrak, an asthmatic boy with an overprotective mother; Richie Tozier, affectionately called Trashmouth because he can’t keep his mouth shut; Mike Hanlon, a black boy who lives on the outskirts of Derry; Ben Hanscom, an overweight boy who loves books; and Beverly Marsh, the only girl of the group. In adulthood, they are a famous author, a successful accountant, a limo company owner, a famous DJ, a librarian, a successful architect, and a fashion designer–the Losers, in other words, aren’t losing.

All of the characters are so real. One of Stephen King’s writing strengths is that he spends so long developing the characters that you really get to know them inside and out. He literally spends one hundred pages at the beginning of the book, where Mike calls each of the Losers in turn to bring them back to Derry, exploring their lives as adults and laying out the trauma and ghosts that have haunted them since childhood and setting them up for the lengthy section of the Losers as children that come after. Later, there’s a flashback section of each of them recounting their memories from that summer. The Losers are, without question, the biggest strength of the book, both individually and together. 

The group is absolutely delightful both as children and as adults. They love each other so much and it just brings me so much joy. There’s great banter between them; they tease each other a lot but it’s clear that all of them actually care so much about each other because they’re all they have. (Cue me absolutely Losing It whenever one of the group says they’d die for another.) There are so many great dynamics between the whole group as well as various members of the Loser’s Club: some of my favourites are Richie and Eddie (“cute cute cute!”), Beverly and Richie (he teaches her how to sleep a yo-yo), Bill and Eddie (I don’t have the space in this review to dismantle this one), and Mike and Bill (this one too). I definitely would not have had the patience for this book if I wasn’t absolutely head over heels in love with the characters. And I think Stephen King tried to make the group an ode to the Losers of the world. For 1986, I think it’s successful in doing so.

Childhood and innocence is such a intense, hard-hitting theme in this book, drawing on nostalgia and the conventions of a bildungsroman novel. I’ve said that the IT films somehow manage to be one of the most surprisingly heartrending coming-of-age films, and it’s because the book is. So much of the book mixes up childhood and adulthood and the liminal space between, and it captures the joy and innocence of childhood so well and the profound sense of loss that comes with Growing Up, and sometimes, learning how to be a kid again.

The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself — that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller … And maybe, Richie thought, that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once … The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.

Stephen King’s writing is so vivid and descriptive that it’s too vivid and descriptive at times. This book is just too damn long. I skimmed most of the Derry interludes. The essential one to understanding the characters is the second one, where Mike’s father was involved with it; the rest are It’s attacks that adds lore to Derry but not much else. The Losers don’t meet up as adults until five hundred pages into the book. If a character is having thoughts, you will get a long string of thoughts, and sometimes in response another character’s long string of thoughts. Stephen King will describe everything in too much detail. He’ll describe water running over balls and nipples hardening in emotion, which drove me absolutely nuts every time without fail.

I did like Stephen King’s constant cutting-in of parentheses, though. He does have a very stream-of-consciousness writing style, with very close third person that I generally tend to enjoy. This is my first King book, so I don’t know if it’s common in his writing or not.

By today’s standards, this book is … immensely problematic, and that’s not even counting That One Infamous Scene at the end of the book. I’d wager there is, on average, at least one homophobic or racist slur per page, if not more, as well as casual racism and homophobia from the main characters. There are two extremely violent hate crimes, one against a gay couple, and one against the Black community in Derry; both written to shock readers. It’s portrayed as It poisoning the minds of those in Derry and indirectly causing these horrific hate crimes, but it takes from very real events and is definitely far more disturbing than the more supernatural horror in the book. There’s also other hate crimes throughout the entire book. Also, Stephen King absolutely can’t write women and Beverly, as an eleven-year-old girl and as an adult, is constantly sexualized in the narrative and it honestly made me sick. In a lot of ways, it’s a product of its time; some of the content is meant to horrify readers, some is due to the historical background of the 1950s and 1980s, and some is just Stephen King being iffy.

And this may be a possible spoiler, but It Chapter Two was right. The ending sucked. It had me sobbing uncontrollably on public transit, but it sucked. I literally went straight from closing the book to opening AO3 to look for fix-it fic. On a deeper note, it felt unfulfilling and painful, like there was no payoff for reading a book centered around the friendship of these seven losers. It’s a solid, if drawn-out plot, but the ending was a punch to the gut and not really in a good way. It may be blasphemy to say this, but I genuinely think that the films did a lot better in concluding the stories of both the child and the adult Losers.

So: is It a good book? There’s a lot of good in it. There’s also a lot of bad. For superfans of the film, I definitely think the book is worth reading for the lore and characters; in addition, those who read a lot of adult fiction or horror will probably be better equipped to deal with the content of this book. I’ve heard It is essential Stephen King as well. But if you find yourself far more interested in the coming-of-age and character relationships than the horror and gory details, it might be better to stick with the movie (and fanfiction, I will hook y’all up with some faves). The one thing I can say for certain: It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

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content warnings | homophobia (slurs, graphic & violent hate crimes), racism (slurs, graphic & violent hate crimes), domestic abuse, child abuse, implied CSA, graphic group sex between underage characters, suicide, violence, character death, casual misogyny, Stephen King Not Kowing How To Write Women

representation | poorly written gay and black characters

have you read it?? or any of stephen king’s other books?? if you’ve seen the film, how do you think the book compares to the film??

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3 thoughts on “IT by Stephen King | sometimes a problematic horror classic is something that can be so personal,

  1. What a great review!! I have never read It and have no desire to (clowns already freak me out as it is) but it was so interesting to read your thoughts on this. Love the sound of the characters and their dynamics, but definitely don’t love the problematic elements. And I definitely understand the feeling of going straight to AO3 after a sucky ending lol. Thanks for this wonderful review!!

    1. Thank you! Clowns really hit differently after this book, so if you have a fear of clowns then probably not the best idea to read It! And yeah, this book would have been 5 stars if the problematic stuff didn’t annoy me so much :/

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