Saturday, June 29, 2013

Memory Lane: "It" by Stephen King

I often feel downright guilty about going back to re-read a book when there are so many others out there that I haven’t read. It’s especially bad when that book is nearly 1,500 pages, and I know with my limited reading time, that it’s going to take me a couple of weeks to get through. That’s why I’ve had Stephen King’s “It” ($9.99, Signet)on my reader for a couple of years, but put off diving back into it.

Well, at least that’s part of the reason. Another part is that “It” has stood, for many years, as my favorite modern horror novel. I last read it as a teenager, though, and there’s always that niggling doubt about how my 40-year-old self would perceive the tale. Indeed, I did come away with a different take, but I’ll save that for a little later.

A plot summary is probably not necessary for this book, but I’ll give one anyway. “It” is set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, where a lot of bad things tend to happen. In cycles of 25 years or so, really bad things – and a lot of them – happen. King introduces us to seven kids who are brought together by a strange bond. They’ve seen terrible things, and they begin to understand what lies at the root of the evil in the town and plan to destroy it. Years later, most of them are successful adults in various fields and have mostly forgotten their childhoods, but when the cycle begins again, they’re all drawn back to Derry for one more showdown with their old enemy.

Now, back to those perceptions. They are quite changed, but “It” still holds up if for slightly different reasons.

When I read the book as a teenager, it both sparked nostalgia and creeped me out. I’ve often said that I woke several times at night while reading it with Pennywise standing in a dark corner of my room, and I did. There was also the freedom of being a kid, going out and building clubhouses and forts in the woods near my house. Spending days sailing along the trails through those same woods on my bike. It was a lifestyle that I had, necessarily, left behind, but I was still close to it, and it was one that I would have very much liked to embrace again. It made me want to go out behind the house and build another clubhouse, whether there was an evil clown hanging around back there or not.

It was also the first book that possibly made me aware of my own mortality. These were kids, younger than myself at the time, making life and death decisions and showing bravery that I only wished I possessed – even to this day. There were kids dying horribly. There was Bill losing his younger brother to the monster. I had a younger brother myself, and it made me think about how I would cope with something like that. Certainly not as well as Bill did. Of course, it’s fiction, but it hit me close to home, which explains much of the impact the book had on me.

Not surprisingly, nostalgia was still a factor 20-something years later. I still miss those carefree days. Who doesn’t? And it led me to lament the fact that my own son likely won’t ever get to really experience that in the way I did.  It’s a different world now. For one thing, there aren’t any woods near where we live that he can play with his friends – or many friends in the neighborhood for that matter. Where there are places like that, including where I played as a kid, there are likely No Trespassing signs stuck up everywhere. He and I spend a lot of time in the woods, but it’s really not the same experience. So there was some sadness.

While I had a little more trouble connecting with the kid versions of the characters this time around, I often found some uncomfortable common ground with the screwed-up adult versions. The connections were so vivid at times that it made the going a little difficult for me. None of us really turn out the way that we hoped or dreamed we would. That’s true probably for very successful people as well as losers, and you can, in fact, be both, as most of these characters prove. There’s a lot of thought-provoking material about coping with your own failures, demons and lost dreams in their stories.

I can’t say that “It” scared me or that I received a single visit from Pennywise during this reading of the tale. But that’s not just a problem of “It,” it’s an issue with most horror I pick up these days. I guess I’ve lost most of that sense of child-like belief that I had the first time I read it. I’m jaded and have seen too many real-life horrors to worry much about a monster in a book. I’ve been on a quest to find that horror novel that really creeps me out or even scares me for years without much success. Ironically, the closest that I’ve gotten to it came from Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, with his debut novel “Heart-Shaped Box.”

But though the chills and scare factor weren’t there this time, I still found “It” to be a powerful and moving book on many levels. Sure, King does lay it on heavy at times, taking side trips that aren’t really necessary and providing detail that the reader doesn’t really need. Much like the first time through, though, I was never distracted by it and never felt it hurt the story. Though I didn’t necessarily need that information, I thought all of it helped to build the atmosphere and helped me get to know these characters better, feel more empathy with them and really feel that I was part of this small circle.

That, in the end, is the beauty of “It.” Both as a 40-year-old and as a teenager, I felt part of the Losers Club. I felt that I was in the clubhouse with them, facing the horrors and struggles, both real and imagined, that they faced. It’s a story that shows no matter how big a loser you are, there is still the potential for you to do great – or terrible – things. As I read it, I felt a strange sense of triumph, one that I remembered from  my first reading as well. No matter the horrors contained in the book – and many are quite gruesome – I came away from the tale feeling somehow empowered and a little bit better. Hard to explain, but true.

I needn’t have worried when I started my read. Though the reasons are slightly different now, I can safely say that “It” remains my favorite modern horror novel.

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