Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Re-reading Stephen King’s <i>It</i> and confronting my own personal Derry

Re-reading Stephen King’s It and confronting my own personal Derry

Graphic: Libby McGuire

Warning: This article reveals major plot points from Stephen King’s novel It—and by extension, from the new movies adapted from the book.

Two years nearly to the day after bringing his big-top routine to the big screen, Pennywise The Clown is floating back into multiplexes. Like its predecessor, now the highest-grossing horror film of all time, It Chapter Two is a reasonably entertaining (if inelegantly paced) funhouse ride of a blockbuster. But it’s not, at least in the eyes of this fan, a particularly satisfying adaptation of Stephen King’s hefty 1986 bestseller. “The book is better” is not an expression I find myself writing or uttering very often—not because it’s never true (it often is), only because I generally believe that a movie’s value shouldn’t rest on how well it reproduces its source material. Sometimes, though, you’re just too close to a book to cut the film(s) they make out of it any kind of slack. And for me, It is one of those books. It’s haunted my imagination, slithering deep into its crawlspaces, for most of my life.

I was maybe 11, the same age as the heroes of It, when I first read the novel, a page-turner with enough pages to make carrying the heavy tome a two-handed task. There were passages so scary I had to put the book down (though I couldn’t put it down for long): Mike Hanlon looking into the empty water tower and locking eyes with the giant bird nesting within; crazy Patrick Hockstetter beset upon by flying leeches; and—in a scene that’s grown on my subconscious like a hostile fungus—Eddie Kaspbrak facing the self-fulfilling prophecy of the leper under the old house, a terror that was “so sudden, so startling (and yet at the same time so expected),” like the face that haunts Patrick Fischler’s dreams in Mulholland Drive. But I wasn’t just shaken by It’s nonstop scares. I was totally wrapped up, completely emotionally invested, in its portrait of camaraderie among outcasts. I remember sobbing when I got to the end, as these childhood companions gradually forget each other again, their memories of Derry fading away as they put their hometown in the rearview mirror.

Something else about It resonated with me, something the movie versionsincluding the TV miniseries from 1990—only sporadically convey but which King communicates with a chilling clarity. What the book understood is that childhood can be a nightmare even if you’re not being stalked by an immortal fear monster. It’s a time of total vulnerability and helplessness, when you have no control over your life and when your wellbeing is entirely in the hands of adults you can only hope will protect you. I knew that truth because I lived it in a household not so different from the one in which the lone girl of the Losers Club, the young Beverly Marsh, grew up. There’s a scene in the book where Beverly’s father is terrorizing her, and his face changes, twisting into a grimace of animalistic rage. I knew that face well. It belonged to the two men who lived in our house, one after the other: the alcoholic boyfriends who abused my mother, howled with anger at my sister and me, and turned the floors of our home into a minefield of eggshells, to be tiptoed across day and night.

It took reading It again as an adult to fully grasp how much the book is really about childhood trauma and how it reverberates into adulthood, shaping who we become in ways big and small. I picked it up again a couple years ago, around the time that first superb trailer for Chapter One was making the internet rounds and smashing records. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, also around the time I started to become comfortable even referring to my childhood as “traumatic.” That was not a word I used before then—I preferred euphemisms like “tumultuous” or “dysfunctional.” Trauma was something that happened to other people, to kids who had it way worse than I did. Most of the abuse I experienced was verbal and emotional, I rationalized. I was but an observer of the violence, which these two men directed almost entirely at my mother, give or take a hurled plate. And hell, I got out in one piece, right? Just like Bill, and Eddie, and the rest of the Losers. Even today, I have to grant myself permission to use the term; it still sounds overly dramatic coming out of my mouth.

But I do use it now. And in some way, jumping back into King’s magnum opus after all these years helped change that conversation in my head. (Unlike our own Zack Handlen, who wrote about revisiting It a few years ago, I hadn’t cracked its spine again since middle school.) It’s always remarkable to revisit some major artwork you first encountered at maybe too young an age; at all times, your nostalgia is battling with the understanding only life experience can bring, the echo of memory suddenly harmonizing with new information, new wisdom. In the case of It, that process is actually baked right into the plot, centering as it does on a group of old friends who return to their hometown 27 years after they first faced an ageless force of evil. And by some kind of happy accident, here I was, returning with them to Derry, not quite 27 years later but close. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this is how the book was always meant to be read: first as a child, then later as a thirtysomething. This assumes, of course, that every 11-year-old has the reading privileges I had—the general freedom from content restrictions that was my divorced dad’s laissez faire approach to parenthood, in that alternate-universe household my sister and I occupied on Wednesdays and weekends.

It should surprise no one that I identified (and still identify) with the grade-school-age incarnations of the Losers. My clearest analogue back then was Richie, a scrawny geek with a big mouth, always talking himself into trouble. But I saw shades of myself in Ben, in his sensitivity and longing for friendship, and in Eddie, inheriting his mother’s worrywart anxiety. On my best days, maybe I possessed an iota of stuttering Bill’s bravery. And there was, of course, some Bev in me too—in her dread about returning home, and maybe in her perseverance, too. Naturally, this time around I find myself relating to the Losers as adults, looking back on lives they thought they’d left far behind. King finds some obvious ways to show how childhood shapes adulthood: by having Eddie marry a woman nearly as obese and controlling as his mother; by having Beverly get involved with a man as abusive as her father; and by having Richie and Ben pursue careers based around skills that earned them validation as kids. Why else, I wonder, did I convince myself I wanted—nay needed—to be a writer, other than the fact that a supportive teacher told me I was good at it?

King also gets at the way triggers can send you careening right back into an adolescent headspace. This, I realize with a shudder of recognition, is the real threat Pennywise poses to the adult Losers. His reemergence is scary not just because they have to fight him again, but because he reduces them, psychologically, to who they used to be—no matter how far you run, he all but cackles, you’ll always be those scared kids. I can relate to this, too. I’ve started to accept the glaringly obvious explanation as to why confrontations make me feel small and helpless, my body coursing with adrenaline whenever someone raises their voice at me. Why I have this irrational fear of making people angry, even walking back fair criticisms I muster the strength to voice. And why, like Richie insisting the Losers not tell each other about their respective encounters with the clown, that I treat vulnerability as the ultimate menace, to be avoided at all costs, no matter the damage to my relationships.

Something strange happens while I’m making way back through this sprawling, seemingly endless book. Like the Losers, I’m remembering things again. No supernatural amnesia has plucked these experiences from my mind; it’s not that I’ve forgotten them so much as I’ve relegated them to the attic of my childhood, packing them away like a box of old toys you don’t quite have the heart to give away. I’m remembering, but I’m also re-contextualizing—throwing a new lens over ancient events, in the same way that re-reading It has been this layered exercise, pitting the book that’s lived in my head for decades against the one I only now have the tools to actually comprehend.

I remember the night my sister, a year younger than me and hence maybe 7 at the time, called the police on one of these men, a tall hippie goofball with Bob Ross hair who usually transformed, demon-clown-style, into a cruel bully when under the influence. He had struck my mother again, and though the cops are there to take him in, they end up arresting her, too, after she drunkenly curses them out—and I understand, remembering this, how my mother was a victim but also sometimes a participant in the alcoholic chaos that consumed our house on Climax Street. (Now there’s a detail Richie Tozier would have a field day with.) I remember, a few years later (I surely was knee-deep in It at this point), our mother packing us up and moving us to a small town in Michigan to live with our grandparents, a way to get us out of the sphere of the second mean drunk with whom she had become involved. But only now do I recognize the similarities between my late grandfather, a bellowing crank even after his debilitating stroke, and the men who my mom gravitated toward. And I remember, with a flush of fresh emotion, the night I stood up to that second boyfriend—a short and ornery Cuban-American man with a hairpiece and crippling insecurity—after he flung some kitchenware at my sister. I remember how my mother had laughed and correctly identified my red-faced yelling as a bad performance. What I didn’t see, through my humiliation, was that she was trying to protect me, diminishing me to defuse him.

I get to the scene with the leper. It’s as terrifying as I remembered: as vivid an expression of nightmare logic, of irrational fears being realized, as any I’ve encountered. And it gets me thinking, as if suddenly cued by the power of Derry, of my mother calling me when I was in college, a couple years after I finally fled my own hometown for Chicago. The first boyfriend, that eccentric hippie tyrant, had finally died of liver failure after years of 24-hour intoxication. He had looked inhuman in the hospital, she told me: his skin yellow, his limbs even thinner than mine were during the years when he was terrorizing us. I felt… nothing on the phone. But that night, I dreamt I was in the hospital room with him, looking down at his shriveled form, and laughing and crying at once. Then he started to move, not unlike Eddie’s leper, flopping off the bed and crawling toward me. I wake up drenched in sweat and burning with shame: that I could feel happy he was dead, yes, but also that I could feel sad, knowing that a part of me had loved the brutish man that had loomed over my childhood. And I hated that I still feared him, even in pathetic and ignoble death.

Plenty got lost in translation from page to screen, but the most damaging deviation in Andy Muschietti’s movies is also the most understandable: the decision to cleave King’s plus-sized narrative into two distinct chapters, one devoted to the Losers’ childhood and the other to their adulthood. King told his story in nonlinear fashion, jumping back and forth in time, to the point where the line between past and present becomes porous. That structural decision was crucial. It was King using the very form of his novel to say: You may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you—and in a way, what’s the difference between them? However logical and profitable it was to retell It in mostly chronological order (Chapter Two does restore some of the crosscutting), I can’t accept the approach; it betrays the very spirit of the work.

The other thing that bugs me about the movies is that they’re too… fun. Don’t get me wrong, the book is a great read: engrossing even at its length, with moments of comedy and excitement and triumph. But its horror runs deep, straight into the wellspring of real childhood horror, the kind with which I’m all too familiar. On Letterboxd, an old friend and video-store coworker—a fellow cinephile who helped shape my nascent understanding of the medium, right before I moved away—mentions that he’s not sure how the second film is really going to make emotional sense of Stan Uris’ suicide. In the book, we slowly come to understand why someone might find it impossible to face his memories of Derry, to literally and figuratively step back into that traumatic space. But the first movie transforms that formative experience into something closer to an R-rated Goonies, a vaguely Spielbergian adventure. The movies don’t replicate the bone-deep terror of the book, which in turn cheapens King’s metaphor.

Of course, no adaptation of It could hope to compete with my memories of the book, any more than it could hope to fit in all the texture some 1,100 pages can provide. I know I’m being too tough on these films—that their real crime is just that they’re not the book I fell in love with so many years ago, that meant so much to me as a scared kid and which means something else to me today as an adult still grappling with that fear. Anyway, however much the movies sugarcoat King’s work, there is an element of wish fulfillment, of reassuring fantasy, even in his original text. Pennywise may be plainly representative, a stand-in for the less tangible terrors of growing up, but he’s still an overtly physical threat: a monster that can be defeated. The ending of It is empowering, suggesting that by confronting your past—hopefully with loved ones by your side—maybe you can really put it behind you. It’s a nice idea I’m working hard on believing, all while secretly wishing that the demons of childhood really could be banished with a ritual, and that the subterranean depths of memory—Pennywise’s sewers—were a non-abstract place you could visit.

I finally finish the book again, two years after I restarted it and a couple decades after I first read it. And what do you know, the ending makes me cry all over again. This time, though, the tears are more bittersweet. Yes, it’s sad that the Losers won’t remember each other. But there’s something generous and beautiful and impossibly attractive about the cleansing fog of amnesia that rolls over their minds. What a thing it might be, to actually forget the past: to let go of those memories and be reborn in their absence.