Stephen King’s IT Parade, Week 8: Wait, Does This Book Have a Plot?

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 19-20

Boy, the action is ratcheting up now, isn’t it? The arrival to Derry of the two flesh-and-blood villains, Henry Bowers and Tom Rogan, really gets the synapses firing in a serial-killer-thriller sort of way we haven’t felt before in IT. It serves as a dagger stabbed into your paperback, a sudden reminder that we aren’t only dealing with a fantasy clown and his magical balloons. Henry and Tom reintroduce life-and-death stakes in a highly effective way. I love these chapters, so keep that in mind while I gripe about them a little.

If I’m not wrong, you can feel King begin to panic a little bit here. And who could blame him? Imagine laying down 1,300 pages of track before suddenly realizing you’re not sure where the next stop is, if you’ll blast right past it or run out of coal before you get there. It’s in these very fine pages that I suspect that you, too, as a reader, begin to get a queasy sensation that there’s no earthly way to satisfactorily end a book this sprawling.

King gets too much guff for deus ex machina climaxes, but it’s hard not to feel wary when, on page 1164, Mike senses “another force” out there alongside IT—possibly a good one. Suddenly, I’m thinking about low-budget movies from the 1950s featuring Harryhausen-style dinosaurs duking it out—there’s a battle coming, and I’m afraid our characters aren’t going to have that much of a role in it besides reaction shots.

This sinking sensation kicks into overdrive on page 1264, with Bill somehow knowing where to find the right entry portal for the Derry sewers. “Bill, you can’t know that!” Beverly cries. She’s right. It feels like cheating, and after so many pages of playing by established rules, it grates like a grain of sand in your teeth. No, you want to say, Don’t do this, Steve! “I know!” Bill responds, and there you have it: Steve is definitely doing this.

Perhaps because my hackles are suddenly up, now I’m thinking that even IT’s possessing of Henry and Tom is abrupt. Did we know IT could demon-possess people this way? I don’t think we did. Are new rules being introduced here for plot convenience? I think they are. It’s only because the Henry and Tom scenes are so damn good that I’m willing to overlook them.

Henry and Mike in the 1990 miniseries.

This is the alchemical magic of IT: just when I feel the twitch of my hands preparing to throw themselves upward and be done with the whole mess, something happens to remind me just how much of a rare bird this book is. (Even the character of Stan, that avid birder, would be impressed.) On page 1197, while Henry is attacking Mike in the library—a classic King scene of stakes-raising, the kind that has influenced me as a writer possibly more than anything else King does—Mike sees a giant jack-in-box spring up behind the circulation desk with Stan’s head on it. Let’s enjoy that passage again, shall we?

There was a loud, vibrating ka-spanggg! sound, and Stan Uris’s head popped up from behind the desk. A spring corkscrewed up and into his severed, dripping neck. His face was livid with greasepaint. There was a fever spot of rouge on each cheek. Great orange pompoms flowered where the eyes had been. This grotesque Stan-in-the-box head nodded back and forth at the end of its spring like one of the giant sunflowers beside the house on Neibolt Street. Its mouth opened and a squealing, laughing voice began to chant: “Kill him, Henry! Kill the nigger, kill the coon, kill him, kill him, KILL HIM!”

The pure fact that we have arrived at this spot, where supporting character Stan’s head can suddenly ka-spanggg upward and start spewing racial epithets and (unlike the infuriating knowing) not be narratively jarring in any way—well, that’s a rare and true accomplishment. I bet King was inspired here by the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” which was wall-to-wall bonkers, but made such good use of interior logic that it pulled off a similar jack-in-the-box effect that no one who’s ever seen it can forget.

IT is a perfect property for TV and film. This sounds strange, but for a book nearly 1,500 pages long, there’s not a ton of plot. There’s a ton of story, but there’s a shapelessness to most of it. If you were handed the daunting job of adapting IT to screenplay form, the novel you’d be referencing is mostly scenes, a whole shit-ton of fantastic scenes that you could then pick-and-choose from to impress a more rigid structure upon. To put it into a more thematic wording, IT is an entire sewer system of horror, and filmmakers need only ladle a few bowls of it to gather enough to poison the masses.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTERS 21-22 (aka “We Finally Get to the Kid-Orgy”)

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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.

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