At times, I think it’s easy to take Stephen King and his talent for granted. Here is an astonishingly talented author, a man who writes some of the best horror ever written, and cranks them out consistently and constantly. And at times, it’s easy to take his contributions for granted. “Sure, he’s scary,” I’d say, and I’d point to some of his short stories, or to The Shining, or some of the classics. But you sometimes forget just how astonishing his talent is, how gripping his narratives can be, just how incredible his books can be.
And then you re-read It, and you leave it in awe, having forgotten just what a staggering feat it is – not just as a work of horror (and it certainly is that – maybe one of the scariest books of all time), but as a work of storytelling, and of authorial craft.
It’s not just that It is scary – but, oh, man, is it ever terrifying. It’s hard to think of another book that’s so primal in its terrors, so effective in its atmosphere. Much of that, of course, has to go with the idea that It is a creature that plays off of our imagination and our fears, but most of it has to go to King’s execution, which turns even simple scenes into something profoundly unsettling. Look at the book’s opening, which uses nothing more than a clown looking up through a sewer grate to create one of the most chilling openings ever written.
But what makes those scenes work is King’s ability to put himself in the mind of his protagonists – and more accurately, his ability to put himself in the mind of children. King has always written children better than most other authors, simply by virtue of seemingly actually remembering what it’s like to be that age, and he’s never done it better than he did in It, creating a cadre of rich characters who have their own lives, their own personalities, and more than that, their own fears. And by sliding back and forth between them, and diving deeply into their lives, It makes the fears all the more effective and resonant, turning them into something more primal and totemic than a simple cheap scare. And more importantly, it makes these characters matter to us – not just in terms of being heroes, but in terms of surviving, and staying healthy, and staying sane in the face of unimaginable terror.
It also features one of King’s most successfully epic scopes, something he enjoys – see Under the Dome, The Stand, and so many more. But rarely has he pulled of something like It, which doesn’t just tell the story of children facing an ancient evil. And it doesn’t just also tell the story of those children returning to face it again as adults. No, as if those two storylines aren’t enough, King turns his book into the story of Derry, the town whose symbiotic relationship with this evil becomes part of the story, and results in the nightmarish interludes that provide some of the book’s most disturbing scenes.
But let’s go back to those two plotlines, because the way King handles them is much of the book’s greatness. A lesser author would handle the book chronologically, giving us the 1958 story, completing it, and then giving us the adult version. Instead, King interweaves the two, sliding back and forth between them, letting the stories comment on each other and influence each other, and most incredibly, letting them hit their climaxes simultaneously, and cutting between the two. It’s an incredible act of authorial control, and gives the book a richness and structure that I’m not sure King has ever matched – and whose impact on the book’s tension can’t be understated.
And even with all of this, I haven’t even gotten into half of what I want to say. How King’s creation of Pennywise is one of his all-time great villains, and completely misunderstood by every attempt to film him, all of which misunderstand the disconnect King brings between innocence and evil. How King’s love of the “evil human surrogate” trope has rarely, if ever, been better than it is in Henry Bowers, a violent sociopath shaped by his environment and his own damaged mind. How King’s epilogue sticks the landing beautifully, doing something that King sometimes struggles with – ending on an emotional note that stands true. How the surreal and somewhat psychedelic finale worked for me in a way it didn’t when I was a kid. And even how that scene – and everyone who’s read it knows the one I mean: the one massive misstep of the book – can’t ruin the book’s greatness. (It helps that the idea behind the scene isn’t bad; it’s clear what King was trying to do with the scene. But man, is it a bad idea. Really, really bad. But it is shorter than I remember, which is something.)
All I can say is this: in a career of staggering, amazing horror, It has to rank among Stephen King’s greatest accomplishments: with an epic scope that stays grounded in its characters, a truly nightmarish and horrific evil, a world where every detail sings, an incredible display of pacing and structure, and a gripping plot that drives you along in both emotional and psychological ways, it’s a masterpiece, full stop.