Stephen King’s IT Parade, Week 3: Does This Book Even Need Pennywise?

StephenKingsITparadeStephen King’s IT Parade is author/editor Daniel Kraus’s 10-week journal of re-reading King’s classic. Join him on this long (very long) journey, if you dare.

UK ITCHAPTERS 4-7 & THE FIRST INTERLUDE

Nothing speaks to the way King just can’t stop with IT than the book’s four “interludes”—in total, about 120 pages of history lessons about Derry that probably could have been incorporated into the main text, if not eliminated altogether. I don’t have a lot to say about the First Interlude (aside from being miffed that King mentions Library Journal on p. 191 instead of Booklist!), except that this is where IT starts to feel something like Les Misérables, where, if my hazy memory serves, Victor Hugo felt obliged to provide 50 pages of backstory to anyone who even said “hi” to Jean Valjean. I also want to give you this quote, to remind you that King can really write:

I discovered news of old horrors in old books; read intelligence of old atrocities in old periodicals; always in the back of my mind, every day a bit louder, I heard the seashell drone of some growing, coalescing force; I seemed to smell the bitter ozone aroma of lightings-to-come.

I mention this because IT, largely a thick-paragraphed, plot-and-description tome so far, changes with Chapter 4 as we begin our long dive into the June 1958 childhood of our seven protagonists. What this means is dialogue, a lot of it, and this, as ever, is where King is shakiest. There’s always been something a bit off about King’s dialogue: its over-reliance on colloquialisms; its wearying, folksy twang; its tendency to imbue young characters with either too much wisecracking brattiness or wise gravitas. It’s on display here, and it’s the book’s real first stumble.

But only a stumble. If readers remember anything from their original reads of IT, it’s these childhood scenes, which, you can tell, are beaming out from the Stephen-Kingiest place in Stephen King. Like Bradbury before him, you can tell that King is a guy who can still feel the heat of endless summer days and those offhand, languid moments when friendships are sealed. We get to feel it, too. To wit:

He liked the way his laughter sounded with theirs. It was a sound he had never heard before: not mingled laughter—he had heard that lots of times—but mingled laughter of which his own was a part.

Bullies from the 1990 miniseries.

Bullies from the 1990 miniseries.

What King excels at (newsflash) are the instances of disorientation and horror inevitably encountered in any kid’s summer alone-time. I don’t mean the grotesque bullying scenes (they’re over-the-top in IT, but haven’t we all witnessed over-the-top bullying?). It’s the smaller things. The plummeting terror Ben feels when violent Henry Bowers asks to cheat on his test—there’s no way it can end in anything but disaster. How the delirious joy of being gifted a new watch makes Ben also feel a trembling dread—he just knows someone will break it. The way Bill, too old to feel scared of a closet filled with old clothes, still can’t help it. The lurching homeless man whose sudden presence is an erupted sore on a formerly bright, careless day.

(I’ll eat my hat if IT has any scene scarier than when Eddie is chased by “the leper,” as he calls him. GOOD GOD.)

sad pennywise

Sad Pennywise.

Here’s the funny thing I began wondering in these chapters: Does this book even need Pennywise? One-third of the way through, the book is firing on all cylinders, and the dancing clown is barely involved. We don’t really need him to excuse the kids’ periodic nightmare visions, the impossible, gruesome things they see (or think they see). These visions, by the way, shouldn’t pass the smell test; they ought to drag down the plot as surely as dream interludes almost always sink a scene. I mean, how many I-thought-I-saw-a-monster sequences can an author get away with?

Answer: a lot. I don’t know what to say except that it works. It keeps stirring the hot panic that makes you feel like you’re one of these kids, dizzy on the edge of sunstroke, in danger of losing your big-kid cool. What King seems to be saying is that big-kid cool won’t save you. IT is infested with evil, abusive, duplicitous adults. And the segments that take place in 1985 suggest that some of these kids—some of us, by extension—have become those adults. The only way out of the nightmare of adulthood is back through the nightmare of youth.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTERS 8-9 & THE SECOND INTERLUDE

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

5 Comments on "Stephen King’s IT Parade, Week 3: Does This Book Even Need Pennywise?"

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  1. Noticed this in Chapter 7, beginning of section 3:

    “It was one of those perfect summer days which, in a world where everything was on track and on the beam, you would never forget.”

    Seems like a very obvious Dark Tower reference now — track and beam — but would have seemed entirely unremarkable to readers in 1986, when the second Dark Tower book was still a year away.

    I think this shows that even then, King was weaving his novels together into one great continuous tapestry.

    • Daniel Kraus says:

      Boy, that’s a good observation.

    • rain_77@lycos.com' Rex Lindsey says:

      William

      This is my first time reading IT. Prior to this, I had only read The Stand and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I read this passage this morning, and instantly recognized the reference to the Dark Tower. I immediately stopped reading, googled this text, and landed here to find your comment. I also found it interesting that Stephen King wrote this prior to finishing the second book of the Dark Tower series. Also, there are several references to The Turtle, Maturin, in IT, which is a central theme in the Dark Tower series.

  2. librarianescobar@gmail.com' Maya Escobar says:

    I am having such a blast with this — haven’t read IT since I was maybe 13? What is really standing out for me, even though King places Derry as neighboring to Bangor, is that Derry absolutely IS Bangor. The standpipe, the Kenduskeag (which has an amazing canoe & kayak race every spring), the hilly terrain, the giant Paul Bunyan statue, the canal running through downtown — you can go to Bangor and see it all. It’s a city I love to visit, but it also has a bit of a Last Stop feel; last stop before Maine really gets to be a wilderness.

    So I’m wondering: does Bangor haunt King in some way? He’s a snowbird now, but he’s never really left the place.

    I’m a little behind in my reading, but I’ll second the horrors of leper/tramp scene. Part of what makes it so scary is that something like that — an adult creeping on you — has happened to a lot of kids. Holy balls, is Eddie not ready to contemplate blowjobs, from a hellclown or anyone else! I remembered the weirdass finale, but forgot (how could I forget? this IS Stephen King) about how much sex plays into fears and freakouts.

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