Reading Stephen King’s It is an exhausting way to spend a summer – The Verge

Technically, Stephen Kings 1986 novel It is a book. But as a physical object, it shares a number of characteristics with a cinder block. Carrying 1,200 pages of It between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day isnt just a chore, its a workout. Its easy to feel like It is meant to be this way a stupid-large object you have to live with for weeks on end, depending on your reading speed and the musculature of your forearms. Maybe thats because the books themes are fear, and how hard it is to shake it; violence, and how long it can affect you; first crushes, and how they never really go away, etc. Stuff you carry around with you. Heavy stuff. Get it? I would speculate that King refused any meaningful edits to this book because he wanted reading It to actually hurt.

Its key monster battles (the first in 1958, then a reprise in 1985 with the same cast of characters) take place in the summertime, so with Andrs Muschietti’s film adaptation of the first half of the book hitting theaters on September 8th, it seemed appropriate to make it a summer read. The books length gave me the semi-poetic option of purposely draping its creeping dread of heatstroke, rejection, and murder over my own July and August. I thought, What better way to enjoy a fall horror movie than by making it the delicious reward for being scared all summer long? Also, I thought I should keep a diary.

(Spoilers for the 30-year-old book version of It below, obviously.)

I ordered a paperback copy of It from Amazon.com, and told my editor Tasha Robinson in Slack, I wanna read It before the movie comes out, because I have never read any Stephen King. And I wanna be like the mom in Donnie Darko. She said, Ohhhhhh man, It is not the best place to start Stephen King, citing a child orgy and the books bonkers length. Whatever, Tasha.

I said, Perfect!!! The perfect summer task. At this stage of summer, its easy to think that a challenge will feel good, ros will never taste bad, feet are impervious to splinters, and death will never come. The book arrived in the mail a few days later, and it weighed approximately 45 pounds.

I read the first 221 pages of It in an empty Starbucks on a Saturday night in Brooklyn. My plan was to read it on a bench, but it was raining.

The mom in Donnie Darko, an intellectual misplaced in Midwestern suburbia and played with daunting coolness by Mary McDonnell, reads It in the background of just one scene, and she reads it at a double remove. Shes lounging in a lush garden in an elegant red housecoat, holding the book about three feet from her face, corners of her mouth turned all the way down. Shes also reading It more than two years after its release. (The events of Donnie Darko take place in October 1988, though the film came out in 2001, unfortunately missing the boat on 80s science fiction nostalgia by about 15 years.)

Mary McDonnell is my inspiration and starting point for this task, because I too would like to hold any horrors at arms length, and I too am reading this book long after its big moment as a best-seller. Unfortunately, It is challenging to hold at arms length. There is, as I mentioned, the issue of physical weight. And then theres the cruelty of a novel explaining on the fifth page that a six-year-old boy is about to die, then backtracking to fill in his personality and relationship with his older brother for 10 pages before it actually happens. His arm gets ripped off, and he dies either from blood loss or literally from fear.

The first 221 pages of It are an introduction to its setting a small town in Maine called Derry and to its central cast of seven preteen outcasts, self-dubbed the Losers Club. The kid who gets his arm ripped off is the little brother of Bill, the Losers Club ringleader. Theyre the crew who realize their town is plagued by a magical clown who kills scores of children. We meet them first in 1985 for the most part, as successful adults who sport the unmistakable marks of trauma. One of them drinks excessively. They all have amnesia. The lone woman, Beverly, puts up with an abusive husband. Bill is somehow turning all his nightmares into best-selling novels.

The crew is called back to Derry by Mike, the sole Losers Club member who stayed there, driven to serve as librarian and town historian. Hes the most knowledgable about the clown curse, and hes lonely in this knowledge. I am lonely in the Starbucks on Eastern Parkway. Like me, Mike keeps a diary. Much of the book, I assume from this build-up, will be flashbacks to the Losers time fighting the clown back in the summer of 1958. I should mention that one of the Losers, Stan, is so afraid of the clown that he kills himself rather than returning to Derry to fight it.

As an aesthetic note, Stephen King describes fear in this book mostly in terms of what it smells like mainly rotting leaves and cellar smell. Mildew. He uses the word stench a lot.

What I underlined: If fiction and politics ever really do become interchangeable, Im going to kill myself, because I wont know what else to do. You see, politics always change. Stories never do.

This is a note to a college professor, written by Bill (the novelist), presumably in defense of Stephen King, the novelist.

Where I stopped: Immediately before a chapter called Bill Denbrough Beats the Devil. Hes about to do some dangerously fast bike-riding, and thats too much for me.

Mood: Startled (six-year-olds arm got ripped off!), embarrassed (alone in a Starbucks), excited, (I think the last true page-turner I read was My Little Phony in 2010.)

I read pages 221 to 317 of It while lying on Valentino Pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn. While there, I discovered that the pier would be hosting a free screening of Donnie Darko in August. Perfect! For anyone reading this, it is much too late.

Like summer, Stephen Kings It looks enormous and unending at the outset. And like summer, just as the timeline seems to be sagging into the shape of a chill, droopy hammock forever, it snaps back into place without warning, knocking my teeth together. This happens as Im lying on my back on a rock wall by the water, trying to suspend a 45-pound book above my face without pulling a muscle or breaking my nose.

Last week, I was thinking, Do I really need detailed descriptions of the outfits of six men with barely differentiable names? I am now thinking, Wait, how many murders so far? The answer: a lot. In this 90 pages of It, a child named Eddie Cocoran (not the Eddie from the Losers Club, and that is needlessly confusing. Sorry, Stephen) is murdered by his stepfather, who I think we are meant to believe was possessed by It. This is followed by several more graphic descriptions of child-murders. Also in this section, Mike has his first encounter with It, which for him takes the form of a bird with a 60-foot wingspan instead of the notorious clown. Eddie meets It as a leper who keeps asking him if he wants a blow job. Most of the Losers Club conspire to build a dam in the woods, which somehow gets them in trouble with a cop. Its revealed that Eddies asthma is psychosomatic, inflicted on him by his hysterical mother. We are moving along, and my teeth hurt.

Now that I am invested, Im looking for hints as to how a monster this weird (can be a bird; obsessed with blow jobs) could be defeated by a bunch of 11-year-olds. Heres one hint, I think: when Mike runs from the monster bird (which also has clown hair on it), he hides briefly in a bolthole in the ground and then jumps out and think-yells, Never mind! Never mind stuff like that! Im not a rabbit! And that scares the monster away somehow. Hmm. Well come back to it. This doesnt make sense to me.

My favorite scene in this portion of It is when all the quirky lil boys and Beverly are sitting by the creek working up the nerve to tell each other their It stories. Theres a well-written tension between each kid wanting to be heard and each kid also really not wanting their fears to be confirmed by listening to the others. (Whatever it is, I dont want to hear it, I dont want things to change, I dont want to be scared.) Sometimes the dread of a change in feeling is worse than the feeling itself.

Anyway, Im not scared. Im sitting on a pier, and I refuse to drop a book on my face.

What I underlined: He supposes he would have died for Bill back then, if that had been required; if Bill had asked him, Eddie would simply have responded: Sure, Big Bill you got a time in mind yet? My 9th grade English teacher still has dominion over my wrists, and Ill probably have to underline foreshadowing this brazen until I am dead.

Where I stopped: Immediately after Eddie convinces himself that his encounter with It was just a self-inflicted waking nightmare, concluding, He had scared himself! What an asshole!

Mood: Not scared. Im a tough guy.

I read pages 317 to 333 of It on a ledge near Greenwood Cemetery, and 333 to 453 in another Starbucks.

Something you dont need to know about me is that I live near Greenwood Cemetery, but have never been in it. I sometimes walk to the edge and sit on a little stretch of concrete across the street at nighttime when Im in a mood. The mood this time is 90 degrees at night, hands a little sticky, brain churning with majestic teen fantasies, everything is electric. Its a stupid affectation, but thematically appropriate, so give me a break.

I arrive at the part of It in which Richie and Bill go into Bills dead brothers bedroom and flip through an old photo album that suddenly comes alive, biting Bills finger and drawing blood. The ghost of Bills brother then yells at him for sending him out in a rainstorm alone, extremely indirectly causing his death. I am not doing this justice, but this scene is both the scariest and the saddest of the book so far. Poor Bill. (And, I suppose, poor Stephen King. Bill, as a best-selling horror writer and troubled but stalwart hero, is a not-at-all-subtle stand-in for him.)

Okay, so the graveyard was a bad idea. Too spooky! As a solve, I read the next 120 pages of It in the blandest, least-threatening place on Earth: a Starbucks. Were rattling through the rest of the Losers first experiences with It now, with Richie, Ben, and Beverly telling mostly undistinguishable stories involving chase sequences and fountains of blood that are invisible to adults. Approximately 350 pages into the story, Richie says, Its a monster. Some kind of monster. Some kind of monster right here in Derry. And its killing kids. Great, thats settled.

More importantly, all of the crushes are revealed! Richie, Ben, and Beverly go on a strange three-person date to the Aladdin, a theater that plays double features of campy horror movies. Richies crush on Beverly is mild, but Bens crush on Beverly is supposed to be True Love. She has a True Love crush on Bill, so in addition to themes of murder, grief, violence, fear, memory, we will also be dealing with the theme of heartbreak.

Now is probably a good time to point out that Stephen King is out of control. There is no way an editor even glanced at this book before it was published. It took 350 pages for the seven main characters (too many!) to individually meet the central monster and then collectively acknowledge its existence, and we frequently took extended breaks to talk about architecture. There are divider pages denoting every jump between the 1958 and the 1985 timelines, and each has a melodramatic epigraph from William Carlos Williams, Virgil, a classic rock song, or the 1973 Scorsese film Mean Streets. They are deeply unnecessary, and a little embarrassing. At this point, Ive also been reading an old copy of Stephen Kings On Writing that I stole from a high school English class, and laughing out loud on almost every page. Here is a piece of advice Stephen King gave to others, in apparent seriousness: In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling. Hmm.

But Kaitlyn, Im reading 5,000 words of your diary right now. How can you even start in on this guy for lacking self-awareness? you might say. Well, I never wrote a New York Times best-selling advice book instructing you to not publish 5,000 words of your diary. So, not the same.

In any case, Kings writing is affecting and engrossing, even as its egregious and frustrating. I love the way he struggles to talk about too-big ideas, layering vague, contradictory platitudes about the nature of memory and fear over each other until theres somehow something rewarding in the latticework. It actually feels remarkably like a diary, or a personal essay. It drove me back to Jia Tolentinos recent New Yorker piece about those kinds of essays: I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say. Honestly, who among us would go back into a 1,200-page first draft and make meaningful cuts?

What I underlined: Some of the stuff in the Bible was even better than the stuff in the horror comics. People getting boiled in oil or hanging themselves like Judas Iscariot; the story about how wicked King Ahaz fell off the tower and all the dogs came and licked up his blood; the mass baby-murders that had accompanied the births of both Moses and Jesus Christ; guys who came out of their graves or flew into the air; soldiers who witched down walls; prophets who saw the future and fought monsters. All of that was in the Bible and every word of it was true.

I like how Stephen King treats religion as pop culture, and treats all pop culture as part of a fictional extended universe. Like Richie, I was raised Methodist, and like Richie, I found the Bible to be beyond nuts from a narrative standpoint.

Where I stopped: Just before Mikes father tells him the story of a deadly fire at The Black Spot in 1931. Theres been a big wind-up to this one, and I would prefer to save it for when I believe I can handle it. Leave me alone!

Mood: Everything in my eyeline is steeped in portent a boys sock, some ladys Levis, most cups of coffee, for sure all clowns. Should I not be walking over grates? At what point will my fantastic, dizzy summer pirouette into a horror show?

I read only a sliver of It page 453 to page 516 on my big week off from work. Sorry!

Sitting by a dirty, cold swimming pool in my parents backyard, Im scrolling through tweets about how our president is threatening a nuclear apocalypse. Im also succumbing to the impulse to distract myself from a perilous romantic situation by texting every person in my hometown who might still owe me an ounce of affection, and asking them to get drunk with me.

I feel like I am going crazy, and It does not help. Mike Hanlons father tells the story of The Black Spot, a DIY jazz club he set up with his military friends in a field outside Derry. It was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan with 300 people inside, and the descriptions of the deaths are hideous. King, who I am not feeling generous toward today, takes his time particularly when describing how pantyhose or silk slips melt into womens bodies.

Mikes father says he has always been confused by the cycle of violence in Derry, which is a violent place to live in an ordinary year, and sees an eruption of mass death and child murders every 27 years without it ever becoming national news. Its because of that soil, he hypothesizes. It seems that bad things, hurtful things, do right well in the soil of this town. Ive thought so again and again over the years. Shortly after this revelation, It kills a two-year-old boy by smashing his skull on the edge of a toilet and then drowning him. I am fucking sick of this book.

What I underlined: Bill felt the familiar weight of dread settle around his heart again was it something you could get used to so quickly, then?

I feel you, Bill.

Where I stopped: Its surprising to me that I didnt stop after reading about a two-year-old being drowned in a toilet. However, I made it three more pages, to the point where the adult Losers look at a police photograph of a cement retaining wall near the site of a recent murder and notice that someone (It, obviously!) wrote Come Home Come Home Come Home on it in blood (blood!). I stopped to get a Bud Light Lime out of the fridge (killer clowns and nuclear war cant kill my summer vibe) and regroup, but instead fell asleep in the corner of my parents basement, in a bathing suit. The book was tangled in my wet towel and suffered light water damage.

Mood: Crinkly, resentful.

I read page 516 to page 601 of It in my bed, in the middle of the night, after being dumped by what could generously be termed a summer fling.

Back in the 1985 timeline, the adult Losers are eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the new downtown of Derry (which has a large mall). Mike fills them in on all the recent murders in lurid detail, and they have to decide whether theyre going to stay and fight It again or leave quickly before It picks them off one by one.

Theres a lot of discussion of group will and collective sacrifice in these pages, and the friends say I love you to each other dozens of times. My knee-jerk reaction is to call this cheesy, but ultimately, if this book is just about the magic and mystery of lifelong friendships I guess thats okay with me. Friendship is way more interesting than romance, and both are more interesting than murder. Theres not a lot of time to feel warm and fuzzy about it, though, as the crews post-lunch fortune cookies squirt out blood and beetles and eyeballs and pus. Can you imagine for a second what it is like to read about a fortune cookie full of pus in the middle of the night, in a bedroom with no working light bulbs, while attempting to eat a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie? This book is twisted.

After lunch, the crew makes the strange choice to split up for the day and wander around Derry. None of them can remember the 1958 battle with It at all, so the idea is that this will jog their memories and that fate will steer them into the preconditions for magic. They each encounter It in a different form on these solo wanderings, and they each sense that It is scared of them.

As a side note, the Pennywise incarnation of It has gotten much weirder since the Losers saw him in 1958, and he really doesnt go for subtlety anymore. Hes dropping off balloons with notes on them that are not cryptic in the slightest, such as one that reads I killed Barbara Starrett! Pennywise the Clown. (Barbara was the librarian before Mike.) He also reveals that his name is Bob Gray?

When It hunts down Beverly, It transforms into the witch from Hansel and Gretel, and tricks her into drinking a teacup full of raw sewage. When he runs into Richie, he takes over the body of a giant plastic statue of Paul Bunyan. The 1958 and 1985 timelines are now stacked in such a way that were going to do rapid cuts back and forth between the first showdown and the second, as they unfold at the same time. Im way too tired to face a shapeshifting monster twice in one night, but that doesnt mean Im not wired thinking about it.

What I underlined: Richie talking to It: Fun for me, too The most fun of all when we come to take your fucking head off, baby.

I love some stand-up-and-cheer dialogue!

Where I stopped: Quit while youre ahead. Richie is the best character, and whenever his chapters end, thats a good time to set the book down for a while. I stopped at the end of his verbal spar with It, which was inspiring and made me feel a lot better than I had an hour before.

Mood: Static electricity in my fingers and toes.

I read page 601 to page 774 of It in the backyard of a Brooklyn bar with a single glass of ros and the lightly sad 2012 Waxahatchee song Be Good on repeat.

Picking up during the same afternoon we left off in, Bill is having the most pleasant day of anyone. A mysterious child directs him to a secondhand store where his old bicycle (named Silver) is sitting in the front window. He buys it! Mike makes him dinner, which is hamburgers with sauted mushrooms and onions and spinach salad a dinner I would like, and which I think maybe Ill make as a little celebration when I finally get to the end of this heinously long book. Im glad I get to read this part (the bicycles and hamburgers part) while sitting outside on a temperate final day of summer, drinking ros, which, as I suspected, never tastes bad. Maybe it will all be pleasant from here on out.

Well, just wait. None of the Losers are aware that Bills wife Audra or Beverlys psychotic husband Tom are following them to Derry, or that It has driven Henry Bowers, their elementary schools biggest bully, insane and convinced him to murder them all. To figure out where Beverly is, Tom beats up her best friend Kay in a scene that goes on for eight pages. This comes after several earlier, absurdly long passages in which Beverly is beaten by her husband or her father, and in that context, it feels more than a little bit gross. While Kay (who is barely in the book otherwise) is being thrown around a room, she thinks things like it felt to her for a moment that her nose had exploded and more pain, so strong it was sickening.

She gives in and tells Tom where Beverly went because he threatens to cut her face off. During the minutes I spend reading this scene, I arrive at the part of summer where ros takes on a repulsive, metallic odor and starts to taste like the combination of every filmy hangover tongue and dry-swallowed Ibuprofen tablet of the last two months. I feel a little like Im going to barf.

In the 1958 timeline, the Losers spend several days in the public library, researching how to defeat It by reading books about various mythological monsters. Bill reads off one strategy: If you were a Himalayan holy-man, you tracked the taelus. The taelus stuck his tongue out. You stuck yours out. You and it overlapped tongues and then you both bit in all the way so you were sort of stapled together, eye to eye. When the tongues are stapled together, youre supposed to tell jokes until the monster laughs, which will kill it. Even to the Losers, this sounds nuts. So they decide to sit in a hole and burn green twigs until they start hallucinating from the smoke. Mike and Richie are the only ones who can stand it, and they end up teleported thousands of years into the past, where they witness It descending to Derry in some kind of spaceship that is not quite a spaceship. Then they both barf.

What I underlined: Koontz is the worst.

In the book, Koontz is the last name of a police officer, but it made me laugh to imagine that Stephen King was also throwing an unsubtle little jab at paperback-thriller kingpin and possible nemesis Dean Koontz.

Where I stopped: Can we beat It? Eddie said in a silence. A thing like that? No one answered.

In the real world, as I read the end of this grotesque chapter, some advertising boy I met on an app walked up to my table and said, Kaitlyn? and I said, Thank God! and closed the book. Thank God.

Mood: This book is sick. Im sick. Were all sick. Stop reading. Stop writing. End words.

I panic and realize that I have 379 pages of It left to read by the middle of the week. This is how summer ends not with a bang, but with a slow spiral into dread and regret, and a sense of time contracting.

Now I am reading It at work, on the train, in the locker room at my gym, and for many hours at night in the living room with a cup of hot chocolate I am angry about purchasing while it is supposedly still summer. Why is it so cold in New York? This is a nightmare.

The denouement of It is also a nightmare, beginning with a sharp detour into the story of a child psychopath named Patrick, who suffocates his baby brother, starves animals to death in an abandoned refrigerator, and molests his classmates. The details of his life take up 20 pages or so, all so Beverly can say that she watched It spray him with massive leeches and kill him back in 1958. This is supposed to be an exercise in further jogging everyones memories, and it leads into another extensive anecdote about how Henry Bowers and his friends once broke Eddies arm. In the hospital, back in 1958, he has a showdown with his mother and reveals that he knows she made up all his illnesses. At this, she has a full-tilt breakdown, admitting in her interior monologue that every tear she cried his entire life was a deliberate, icy manipulation, and then frantically trying to justify this as an act of love.

In quick succession in the 1985 timeline: Mike is attacked by the It-possessed Henry Bowers and nearly bleeds to death, a ghost picks up Bowers in a car and drives him to the hotel, where he attacks Eddie and puts his arm out of commission (just like in 1958), and Bill and Beverly have sex in his hotel room. This story is off the rails! Beverly has two orgasms, which is, we find out, a poetic little repeat of the past. [smash cut] After the first battle with It, the Losers are unable to get out of the thoroughly confusing sewage system underneath Derry. They need to summon their collective power by proving their love for each other, so Beverly takes off her pants and tells Eddie You have to put your thing in me. All six of the boys have whatever kind of sex is possible between 11-year-olds with Beverly. For special added Love Triangle weirdness, Ben and Bill go last. Those final two encounters are described from Beverlys point of view, euphorically, as she whispers Show me how to fly, bites down on her hand, and yells Yes! Yes! Yes! Excuse me? The child orgy scene is fun to joke about, given its absurdity and the impossibility of its inclusion in any adaptation, but it is also so, so much more nauseating than I could have imagined.

The scene ends with Beverly deciding not to look down at her legs, because she doesnt want to know if the substance theyre covered in is semen or her own blood.

In the 1985 timeline, during the final confrontation with It in its true form an enormous spider in a lair full of bones (and Bills unconscious wife and Beverlys dead husband) all the Losers are shocked to discover that It is female and pregnant. The revelation occurs in all caps, implying that Its gender is supposed to be the most jarring event in a book where several eyeballs deflate, a toddlers head is smashed on a toilet seat, and preteen sex activates a magical GPS. It has dozens of eggs, which Ben spends the finale stomping on one by one. Bill and Richie punch Its heart out with their bare hands while Beverly cries on the ground. Okay. It has been disgusting, and a lot of it was bad. (How many times does Stephen King say small breasts in this book? Can someone with a Kindle let me know?) I do not think It does anything intentional or useful with its attempts to poke at racism, homophobia, or sadism, nor do I think its aware of its DNA-level misogyny. I dont think a coherent thesis about fear, memory, bravery, or trauma ever takes shape.

The concluding pages of It are a floral, ridiculous, over-the-top, delirious elegy for the core friendship. The one-two punch Richie and Bill use to kill It is described as the force of memory and desire the force of love and unforgotten childhood like one big wheel. As soon as the fight is over, Mikes diary starts magically erasing itself, and the Losers (minus Eddie, who died when the spider bit his arm off, which I forgot to mention) start forgetting each others names. Mikes last entry is I loved you guys, you know. I loved you so much. Reading this ending on a cold night in New York, feeling inexplicable sincere tears roll down my stupid face after hours of angrily bucking against the gross, absurd trash-rag It, I was confused. The ending is not well-written. The resolution is many, many pages longer than any reasonable editor would allow, and in the epilogue, while Bill is careening down a hill on his bike Silver with his catatonic wife, hoping a bike ride will revive her (it does), he the novelist, supposedly the one who is prudent with words thinks Be true, be brave, stand. All the rest is darkness. Geez. Why the hell am I crying?

Maybe because this is the kind of sloppy, saccharine ending that works when it comes as the moment of exhale at the bottom of a roller coaster youve been riding for 1,200 pages and two months. The sewage system of Derry explodes when It dies. Dozens of people are killed on their toilets, reading magazines. Friendship is magic.

What I underlined: We are leaving Derry, and if this was a story it would be the last half-dozen pages or so; get ready to put this one up on a shelf and forget it.

Wink Stephen King.

Where I stopped: The end, baby.

Mood: Sleepy and stuffed up. I need to sneeze, but cant; the sneeze would be a full-body sob if it would just come out. I am cold and summers over. And I am twisted, because I know I will see this movie the day it comes out.

Go here to read the rest:
Reading Stephen King’s It is an exhausting way to spend a summer – The Verge

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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
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