Stephen King’s IT Parade, Week 9: Are We Really Going to Talk about the Kid-Orgy?

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 21-22

Way, way back in Ye Olde Week One, I promised we’d get here. You had your doubts. You’d begun to think I’d imagined the whole thing. Then it happened and you had to deal with it, didn’t you? Page 1,397: the scene in which all seven of our 11- and 12-year-old protagonists have sex together in the sewers beneath Derry.

French paperback covers.

If this is your first time reading the book, you’re probably still feeling a little grimy. Take solace in this: though I never entirely forgot the scene from my initial reading of the book in middle school, it did pretty quickly take on the air of an unlikely dream. It’s indicative of the book’s overall impact that when you mention Stephen King’s IT, what jumps to people’s mind isn’t this improbable, baffling, wildly risky sex scene. It’s a clown.

We’re going to skip past most of the action in these two chapters, except to say that they are satisfying and breathless, and King gets to indulge in one of his most enjoyable pastimes: destroying an entire town. My past gripes still stand (Bill’s cry of “Send him our power!” to help out the bedridden Mike feels an awful lot like a Care Bear Stare), but it’s hard to be disappointed. King digs deep here, looking for God and the anti-God, a good instinct and at the very least ambitious—anything else after so much build-up would have been a let-down.

What King arrives at—a giant Spider—is famously underwhelming. (Though I think slyly foreshadowed; see Beverly on page 515 referring to “a big fat black spider. It [a significant pause here!] . . . it crawled out of the drain.”) What I’m going to suggest is that the Spider isn’t really the climax. Bill’s face-off with his brother, Georgie, who died in the book’s opening scene, might be—it’s certainly more satisfying than the Spider. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to go down this path: the climax of IT is literally the climaxes of the characters as they have sex. Yeah, I know. I warned you nine weeks ago this was going to get weird.

From the 1990 miniseries.

How in the hell did we get here? Let’s start with the scene itself and work outward. The Losers’ Club has just banished IT. They’re lost in the sewer tunnels. “The bond that had held them all this long summer was dissolving,” King writes, and then, to invoke Tolkien, “The fellowship was ending.” The key bit, though, is how defeating IT had made them “something more than children. But they were becoming children again.” Sex, something not normally in the wheelhouse of 11-year-olds, is the mechanism through which King makes these seven kids more than children, just for a while longer. Just as the adult characters have to flash back to childhood to finally defeat IT, the children need to flash forward to adulthood to sample this matured power.

There’s nothing especially salacious about the scene (aside from the fact that it exists). There’s shuddering and tears, and no one enjoys themselves. How it plays out is that Beverly starts undressing and says that she knows “something that will bring us together forever.” She says she knows this “because my father told me.” We’ve seen enough of her father to suspect him as a man battling a sexual desire for his own daughter. If her father did, in fact, say this (I don’t recall it, but maybe I missed it), it still feels like Beverly has grossly misread his meaning.

Beverly with her father, from the 1990 miniseries.

I’m willing to go with it: perhaps she senses a way to take sex (which her father has turned into something scary—see page 740, if you dare) and reassign it to something positive, a childlike act of sharing with her friends. Another adult treats sex as scary on page 1105: “But surely it was still too soon to worry about sex rearing its ugly head.” If adults fear sex, then, to a kid, sex must be an adult weapon.

Still, it sits uneasily how Beverly calmly says “Who’s first? and the boys basically line up. As discussed in Week 4, Bev has always been a fraught character, expected to represent things to the boys (the possibility of a happy, adult future?), a burden the boys aren’t, in turn, obligated to carry for her. There’s a saintliness to her offering her body that I don’t like, even more so because Bev has only the sketchiest ideas of what sex entails (page 1063). The orgy glorifies female sacrifice in a way that feels all wrong.

What might have been fantastic—and a powerful bookend to the gay hate crime that kicks off Pennywise’s 1985 return—is if the orgy hadn’t been an assembly line of heterosexual intercourse, but instead an impulsive tangle of desire between all kids equally, regardless of gender. Desire is King’s intended takeaway here. Even in the final sentences of the book (sue me, I flipped ahead) he’s still talking about it: “the mystery of childhood . . . its beliefs and desires.” Flip back to the book’s dedication: King dedicates it to his three children, whom he lists by current age (14, 12, and 7, all eligible for Losers’ Club status), noting “my children taught me how to be free.” In other words, how to keep desiring.

Qualms noted, the orgy scene is provocative and compelling. There’s no way to dismiss it as you might, say, a giant spider. The reason, I think, is that King has laid extensive groundwork preparing us for it. There is one scene that explicitly, beat by beat, prepares us for the orgy: page 965, where Bev offers a match to each boy to see who will guard the clubhouse, with each boy dutifully responding, “I love you, Bev.”

From the 1990 miniseries.

Storywise, the sex scene is wrapped up in “the Ritual of Chüd,” an obscure sort of dance the kids have to do with IT in order to defeat it. Chüd doesn’t show up until late, though; thematically, we start getting clues as early as page 14. “It’s your boat, really,” says little Georgie. “She,” Stuttering Bill responds. “You call boats sh-she.” This is a portent to when IT is revealed to be female, hatching little ITs, cleverly setting up the idea of IT vs. She. This is the best excuse I can find for how Beverly is employed in the sex scene. She and IT, being female, are two sides of the same coin, meaning that only Bev has the real power to defeat IT.

A step farther: IT’s spider babies are stomped dead by Ben, revenge for the fact that none of the Losers’ Club (not in spite of their orgy but because of it) have been able to have children (see page 667). Is it any wonder that the safe place in which the kids spend all their time is called the Barrens?

Adult Beverly from the 1990 miniseries.

Let’s stick with Bev here; she’s the box cutter if we’re going to open this package. On page 157, there’s a disturbing passage regarding adult Bev’s relationship with her husband, Tom, who beats her. “And what hurt worse was knowing that part of her craved the hurt. Craved the humiliation.” Some of the adults’ lives have rotted since childhood, and in hindsight you can read Bev’s craving to be hurt as the psychological residue of the once-inspirational orgy, all that was magical about it decayed to its repellent surface essence: sex in a sewer.

In the book’s single scariest scene—the leper chasing Eddie (page 408)—the leper’s threatening chant is one word, “blowjob,” a word Eddie barely understands and, as he is chased, he compares it to being chased in dreams: “Didn’t you always hear of feel something, some It, gaining on you?” The connection here is fairly explicit: “It” is adulthood, which is symbolized in the book by sex, the nightmare side of which is encapsulated in IT. The lowercase “It” in Eddie’s thought reads as the commonplace usage of “It” as a word for sex. I thought this was my own sharp insight until King himself makes the connection on page 1408 (can you believe it’s on page 1408??), where the young Bev thinks this about older girls:

Now she realizes that for many of them sex must be some unrealized undefined monster; they refer to the act as It. Would you do It, do your sister and her boyfriend do It, do your mom and dad still do It, and how they never intend to do It.

IT‘s kid-orgy may be Stephen King’s single most troubling scene (though his short story “Dedication” comes awful close). This, in itself, is a kind of victory for a book that hoped, and largely succeeded, in being the most important work of American horror fiction in the twentieth century. Say what you will about the Spider; say what you will about the King characters who just know things. What happens at the end of IT, those kids taking off their clothes in the rankest of places, is horror in every sense of the word: disorienting, objectionable, revelatory, damning.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER 23-EPILOGUE

Comments

comments

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.

Post a Comment