Stephen King’s IT Parade, Week 5: Is the Real Monster Old Age?

Stephen 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.

CHAPTERS 10-12 & THE THIRD INTERLUDE

So now we shift to the adults. Like nearly everything else in IT, King serves us up an irresistible scenario: a class reunion of sorts. Is anything (beside maybe an audition montage) more reliably enjoyable than a reunion scene? The six surviving members of the Losers’ Club (R.I.P. Stan) gather at a Chinese restaurant in Derry to discuss with Mike the developing brutal-murder situation, while also absorbing the shock of seeing their old friends, well, old.

After 600 pages of getting to know the gang as kids, it’s great fun—even Richie, the book’s nails-on-a-chalkboard, is easier to take. One of King’s worst habits is imbuing characters, usually a child, with unexplained, unconvincing powers of magically knowing things, and here it’s Mike who’s saddled with that pseudo-mystical role. His “intuition” is to send the gang out to wander around the town for a day. It makes no sense, but fine: it gives King a chance to dish out a whole new course of shocks to the characters, each of which plays out like one of King’s terrifyingly absurd short stories from his Night Shift or Skeleton Crew era.

The first shock comes before they even leave the restaurant, and it’s one of the book’s best: each of their fortune cookies reveals something terrible. I’m not talking about a bummer fortune here. Bev’s cookie pours blood; Eddie’s births a monster bug; Richie’s cookie reveals an eyeball; Ben’s is full of teeth; and so on. It’s primo horror that continues as they individually tour the town. A couple of examples: Ben encounters Pennywise at a library and the clown’s teeth become razor blades that slice off his own lips, and Bev indulges having tea with an old woman only to have the woman slowly turn into a witch (the detail of the coffee table becoming chocolate is somehow the most disturbing).

You have to hand it to King: he came up with a narratively legit way to offer us one nightmare scene after another without having to work excessively hard connecting said nightmares to the overall plot. And he’s clearly having a ball. What comes out in these chapters is how King depends on two techniques when describing horror. The first is, for lack of a better term, wetness. Things are often moist, sticky, damp. This simple sentence pretty much sums it up:

Its eyes rolled wetly in its sockets.

The second technique is the exact opposite. It’s the kind of horror writing I respect most of all, as it takes guts to shift from icky there’s-something-in-my-fortune-cookie caginess to bringing the monster out into the full light of day and having it charge right at you—in Jaws terminology, showing you the shark. This was the exclusive purview of the E. C. horror comics that King grew up reading, and he borrows their tactics, which were, in short, capital letters and italics.

We’ll play some bop, Richie! We’ll play AAALLLL THE HITS!

While the adults are chased around town by a clown (fairly accurate synopsis) King parcels out a few more gnashable morsels when it comes to the meaning of the word “It.” Bill ruminates:

And he felt suddenly that It was the seventh; that It and time were somehow interchangeable, that It wore all their faces as well as the thousand others with which It had terrified and killed… and the idea that It might be them was somehow the most frightening idea of all.

Marketing for the upcoming film.

If “It” is truly the worst thing in the world, then It must be aging, right? What’s the basest fear of getting old? It’s the fear of becoming weak again, becoming vulnerable again. In other words, becoming childlike again. The overall anxiety of IT is the possibility that the fears you conquered as a child might come back, and you’ll be back cowering in your bed, helpless, the only difference being that it’s a hospital bed instead of a bunk-bed. Here’s something Pennywise says to Richie (page 764):

How about if I point at your pecker and give you prostate cancer? Or I could point at your head and give you a good old brain tumor—although I’m sure some people would say that would only be adding to what was already there. . . I can do it, Richie. Want to see?

This is why adults take Xanax, folks. King seems to posit that one defense adults have against these fears is creativity; it’s no coincidence that the thing that saves the characters again and again is their creative endeavors, as when Stan staves off Pennywise by shouting all of the names from his bird-watching book. Isn’t it our hobbies and enthusiasm (even kinks!), after all, that make us childishly vulnerable in the eyes of others? Although novelist Bill Denbrough is obviously the Stephen King stand-in character, it’s Richie Tozier who gives us the clearest glimpse into King’s ideas on creativity, which does not include Xanax-ing yourself into oblivion. It has, rather, to do with harnessing your inner “crazy guy”:

You found the crazy guy who was running around inside of you, fucking up your life. You chased him into a corner and grabbed him, but you didn’t kill him. Oh no, killing was too good for the likes of that little bastard. You put a harness over his head and then started plowing. The crazy guy worked like a demon once you had him in the traces.

Richie goes on to intuit that creativity is a weapon best wielded by the likes of the Losers’ Club: “There was power in that music, a power which seemed to most rightfully belong to all the skinny kids, fat kids, ugly kids, shy kids—the world’s losers, in short.” You have to wonder if King felt the writing of IT, if not writing period, was (and is) his own attempt to slay the “It” of old age. After all, writing fiction is, at its core, an illogical, almost childlike act requiring a stubborn belief in the illogical and fantastical.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTERS 13-16

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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.

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