Post-Mortem: How I Stopped Being (as) Afraid of Stephen King's It

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When the made-for-TV version of Stephen King's It came out in 1990, I was almost eleven. Filled to the brim with horror movie bravado, there was no way I was missing a movie about kids battling a killer clown.

I loved It, and watched It on video until the VHS tape wore out. Something about the way the children faced and overcame the creepiest bad guy in history inspired me. Something about Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown made my knees weak. The quotes etched themselves into my brain. They all float down here, and when you're down here, you'll float too!

A tattered copy of It—the paperback—sat on my parents’ bookshelf. For almost three years It's spine would catch my eye, taunting me, challenging me to read It. I wanted to read It. I wanted to be brave enough to answer It's siren call. For the next two years, I’d sneak to the shelf, pick It up, panic, and then slide It back into the gaping wound left by It's absence.

Then, suddenly, I was 13. Seventh grade loomed, terrifying, over me. I picked up the book, sure It couldn’t be as scary as another year in middle school, and this time I started to read. It was September—always an ominous month in New Jersey, with slate-gray skies and chilly breezes. Exactly like Derry, Maine, It's home and hiding place.

This time I was afraid that fucker Pennywise was going to hop out the book and disembowel my five-year-old daughter.

Having seen the movie, it was easy to visualize the scenes in the book, and I found myself near tears with concern over Seth Green as Richie Tozier, and Jonathan Brandeis as Bill Denbrough. This was a book in which kids—kids like me—died, and died horribly. Often, too. They were my age. My peers. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible. Not even the seventh grade.

I read It at arms' length, holding the book as far from my face as possible, so Pennywise the Dancing Clown couldn't reach through the pages of the novel like he reached through the pages of George Denbrough's photo album.

I read It bit by bit. A chapter here, a chapter there. Sometimes I put the book away, hiding It deep in the recesses of the cavernous space beneath my bed. Weeks would pass until I gained the courage to go searching for It, and then the cycle would begin again.

Read, hide. Read, hide. I've never had a book affect me so, before or since. It took me nine months to read It - the full school year - and from then on, I held It up in my mind as the standard for a great horror novel. My white whale of terror, so to speak.

****

A few years ago my dogs stood in the back of my yard, barking at a gap between the ground and the fence. There’s a storm drain there, situated to collect rainwater runoff. I walked over to see what the fuss was about, and climbed up to take a peek.

A bright yellow balloon sat atop the storm drain, dancing hypnotically in the gentle breeze.

I ran far and I ran fast. My hands shook for the next two hours.

****

Nowadays, I write horror stories myself. I've read dozens of books in the genre since the seventh grade, but nothing has ever come close to It.

When a recent scene in a book I've been writing started to plague me—I couldn't get it quite as scary or suspenseful as I wanted—I decided to return to It, to Stephen King, to take a master class from the Master himself. I needed to figure out why It scared me so much, to untangle the fears that haunted me for 21 long years. I needed to see what made It tick.

Almost as soon as I began reading, I forgot why I was doing it. I got wrapped up in the story just like the first time. This time, though, I was shocked by how different It felt.

The kids who once felt like my friends, my contemporaries, suddenly felt like...kids.  Babies. Eleven-year-olds. That they were forced to fight evil suddenly felt unfair, and “unfair” seemed like the understatement of the century. It brought out something real in me, something visceral, because this time, I wasn’t afraid for myself. This time I was afraid that fucker Pennywise was going to hop out the book and disembowel my five-year-old daughter.

This time I identified with the parents who lost their kids. I imagined losing my child, and I cried. I couldn’t handle the thought, and spent evenings sneaking into her room in the dark, watching her sleep and breathe.

****

But how's my story, right? Isn’t that what I was supposed to figure out?

The truth is I didn't. King has always had, and always will have, that certain something writers spend lifetimes trying to achieve. He uses literary-quality writing to tell genre stories, instilling sights, smells, and sounds so vivid it's easy to lose yourself inside it.

Maybe that is what makes It tick. The quality of his writing is something I can envy, not copy. At least not yet. His prose flows like poetry, at times as good as Hemingway or Updike or Morrison.

He changes voices as easily as most of us change socks, slipping seamlessly from one point-of-view character to the next. Reading a chapter from the perspective of Eddie Kasbrack—the sweetest and gentlest of the children—is soothing even when a leper emerges from beneath a haunted house to devour him. His voice is soothing. But to read a chapter told by Tom Rogan, the abusive husband of Beverly Marsh, is to read and feel rage. King’s word choices change, his cadence becomes more staccato. I don't know another writer who transitions quite so smoothly.

King...gives us a master class in horror, in weaving together plots more intricate than a patchwork quilt sewn by an old Derry housewife.

There are some issues with It, though. Issues I missed when I was only 13. For one, among the group of friends is just a single girl, Beverly. For the most part, she's a total bad-ass. But in almost any given situation, Bev is the first to cry, the first to break. I love her, but I wish King had given her the benefit of the doubt a little more. I think she was tougher than her face full of tears implied.

It’s also long—too long, I think, taking me close to a full month to read even now—and the bits at the end about the Turtle and It and the Other Thing were weird and almost hokey. He lost me at the ritual of Chud, as well as with the densely written pages devoted to the destruction of Derry upon It's death. I skimmed quite a bit at the end, ready to move on.

But the story? Overall? It’s still really, really good.

The thing is—and this is a very big thing—I actually enjoyed reading It this time around, which was a bit of a shocker. I read It into the darkest hours of the night, forgoing sleep to read just a few more pages.

I carried It everywhere with me. If I was upstairs, so was It. If I sat on the porch, so did It. It was a complete turnaround from when I was 13, and the book's presence in a room haunted me. Back then, I couldn't enjoy King's rich, sensory writing. I couldn't enjoy the humor infused in so many pages. I couldn't enjoy his portrayal of the children and their Loser's Club. All I could do was pray I'd never be part of the Loser's Club myself.

And as a writer, I was surprised to discover the genesis for much of my own writerly voice. It was subconscious, I'm sure, but it exists. There's a specific way King takes his characters from tears to laughter, from laughter to overwhelming fear, with which I love playing in my own stories. I didn't remember it was there, in It, but now I feel like a thief.

 

****

The fact is, in It, King definitely gives us a master class in horror, in weaving together plots more intricate than a patchwork quilt sewn by an old Derry housewife. His talent’s at its best in those moments when the different voices, different ages, different characters, come together to form one brilliant, cohesive story.

That said, It didn’t make me want to puke from fear this time around. Why? I've tried to figure that out, too.

Maybe it’s because I write scary stories now. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned how scary the real world actually is. Or maybe it’s just that I'm a grown-up, and, just like in It, grown-ups see things differently.

But that’s okay. If being a grown-up means I get to enjoy books that beat me up as a kid, I'm fine with that. I don’t miss the nightmares about killer clowns down in the sewers.

But then…on a recent rainy day my daughter and I went for a walk in between downpours. She saw a storm drain carved into the side of the road, water flowing into down. "Mommy, what's down there?" she called as she ran to it, excited to learn something new.

I shuddered.  "Back away," I said. "If there's one thing we don't do, it's look into storm drains."

So maybe Pennywise hasn't relinquished his grip on me...at least not yet.

Image of It
Author: Stephen King
Price:
Publisher: Berkley (1987)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 1104 pages
Image of Stephen King's It (Double Sided Disc)
Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Tim Curry, Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Olivia Hussey, Richard Masur
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Comments

Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt August 13, 2013 - 9:13am

Great column, Leah! IT is by far my favorite King novel and I enjoyed getting your perspective on it. :)

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books August 13, 2013 - 10:35am

I don't think any of us look at storm drains the same after that book made it into our lives. Even when it's not a genuine feeling of fear, it's a thought in the back of your mind.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 13, 2013 - 11:24am

Thanks, Matt!! And Renee - GAH!! I know it!! It never does go away, does it??

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On August 13, 2013 - 11:51am

Great column, Leah! I especially love that out point out how King uses near-literary prose in genre stories. He was my earliest gateway author. Wish I could say that IT was my top King (The honor(s) goes to The Stand, The Dead Zone, Misery, and Different Seasons), but clowns never scared me. I always found them sad and rather pathetic. 

Vinny Prochelo's picture
Vinny Prochelo August 13, 2013 - 11:56am

It is a great book, but I prefer Salem's Lot if I had to choose a favorite King novel. Personal opinion tho. The film version of it really didn't age well, tho Curry was fantastic. I remember hearing of a reboot but don't know whatever happened to that. 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 13, 2013 - 12:02pm

Ok, Dino, now we can't be friends. :) (Kidding...The Stand is another of my favorites...plus The Shining!!)

And Vinny - I heard the same thing, but I think it died. Could anyone ever top Curry's performance? I haven't seen the movie in ages (I KILLED that VHS tape back in middle school), but I think I'd still love it for the sheer nostalgia factor. 

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce August 13, 2013 - 12:44pm

Yep, I still walk hesitantly past drains, too!

AssholeAmerican's picture
AssholeAmerican from America (CO, NE, NC, AK, NY, WA) is reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Portable Atheist by Hitchens, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill August 13, 2013 - 8:20pm

I have IT on DvD and watched it within the past year (after having read it again) and the made for tv movie is still creepier than most of the crap that's pumped out these days with millions of dollars put behind it.

Goes to show how much more influential story is than effects.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King August 14, 2013 - 9:51am

I didn't read It til I was 17, so I'm kinda jealous that you got to read it at 13 and then again as an adult. That's got to be the best way to go through it. I'm also jealous that it was able to scare you that much. I've never had a book that actually scared me physically. The closest was probably the Johnny Walker scene with the cats from Kafka on the Shore. I've had a couple books that hit me hard, Moby-Dick/House of Leaves, where after reading them I realized I wasn't the same person I was before because of it and had to take a few weeks to figure out why, but I've always kind of wanted that feeling from a book that I get when I wake up from a really good nightmare. What I'm trying to say by talking about myself as much as I can is, good article.

Tony McMillen's picture
Tony McMillen from Mostly glorious Tucson Arizona but now I live near Boston. is reading Not, I'm writing August 14, 2013 - 10:07am

Really liked this article. Think I'll check out the other entries in your column now.

 

anniepg's picture
anniepg from Grew up in CT is reading Graphic novelization of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? August 14, 2013 - 11:55am

I agree with so much you say in your article. I was afraid of clowns before IT but far more after. I still have a very visceral reaction when I see that book cover (I read the book before the film) and hear the voice of Curry's Pennywise, and I still avoid storm drains too. Though it is a bit dated, I think the film is still fun to watch. Like you said about the book, it does get a bit long but I find that I don't mind.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 14, 2013 - 1:36pm

Wow, so fun to read all these comments and to see it's not just me!! :D Thanks, everyone, for all the kindness!! And seriously...watch out for those storm drains!  (It's pouring out where I live right now...sort of a creepy background to my creepy IT thoughts!!)

Rayanna Azar's picture
Rayanna Azar August 14, 2013 - 5:32pm

Great column! Horror is my favorite genre and I also started reading King in middle school with Cujo. I never knew a dog could be that scary!!! I don't know how he wraps his head around so many different characters and environments, but he's amazing! I don't think I'll ever stop reading him! Although I do agree with you on the iffy ending (a commonality in some of his novels) It is one of my favorites from Mr. King!

Santiago Belandres's picture
Santiago Belandres August 14, 2013 - 5:52pm

"It" was scary because it touched all those parts about being a kid and what you fear, but most of all the feeling that grown ups just don't believe you or listen to you about your fears.

Sarah Brush's picture
Sarah Brush August 14, 2013 - 6:09pm

I did not expect this book to scare me nearly as much as it did when I first read it. Some of his books exhaust me (I will never again read The Tommyknockers), but It has an amazing pace and so many splash-of-cold-water moments, so many things that I honestly dread when I know I'm coming up to them (Ben's mummy with the split forehead walking up the frozen canal, or Mike finding the marks in the grass the morning after Eddie Corcoran disappeared) even though I know how it's going to turn out...his writing grabs me in such a way that I still doubt it, still think it could change this time. Silly, right? :) Man writes a damn good story.

PS - I love the turtle, but I'm a Dark Tower junkie, so those references always delight the hell out of me.

thealchemistmom's picture
thealchemistmom from Texas is reading Just Kids by Patti Smith August 14, 2013 - 10:23pm

For two months I couldn't sleep in my own bed. Thank you Pennywise for making me an emotional mess for the next 20 or so years.

The only difference between now and then is that I would have the courage to punch him right in that stupid red nose.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 18, 2013 - 11:25am

I haven't read any King since I was a teen. Like you, I didn't have an appreciation for the descriptive prose back then, it was just about the dialogue and action that propelled a story forward. It'd be interesting to revisit some of that as an adult and see where my empathies now lie, as well as to judge the writing quality. Someday. I have recently flipped through some of my old genre books, though, and was suprised to find that the writing was more colorful than I would've expected.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 18, 2013 - 2:12pm

Give it a shot, Gordon. Let me know what you find. :D It was a really bizarre experience, I have to say. Trying to decide if I want to revisit anything else...

And....@Sarah, was the Turtle in the Dark Tower? Gah! I DID read them, I swear, but it was a LONG time ago now. That does make it a little more fun. I love all his references to his other stories in each work. The fella from The Shining gets a mention in IT....the guy who helps Danny. His name is escaping me right now.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 21, 2013 - 7:22pm

i've read everything King has ever written, and yet, IT still holds a special place in my heart. it's a frightening book, and i love how you map the terror, and how it traveled over the years. i think i feel the same way. it's why i used to love Law and Order: SVU, but can't watch it now. it's always kids being raped and murdered. i don't worry about myself, but my kids...it would be my undoing.

wasn't IT the book wherethe girl sleeps with each of the boys to create a blood bond? or am i confusing King books?

the reason i mention having read every King book is that for many of them, i've only read them ONCE, and that was 10-20 years ago. i SO need to go back and re-read so many of them. Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, It (or course), Pet Sematary, The Stand, all of them.

the turtle WAS in the Dark Tower. MANY of the books follow the "beam" and have linking plots, objects, people, settings, etc.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 22, 2013 - 3:59am

Hey Richard, thanks! Yep, this is the one where Bev sleeps with the boys. I toyed with it in drafts of this essay, but....in the end, I didn't want to talk about it. It felt sacred, in a weird little way. Like a secret. But they do the bond in two ways....the sex, and then a more traditional the-all-cut-their-hands-and-then-share-blood-sort-of-way.

If you start re-reading them, let me know - you're the second or third person who mentioned it. We could do a little online-book-club, dedicated to King re-reads. :D

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 22, 2013 - 6:48am

we should totally do a King re-read club. and yeah, i always thought that scene at the end WAS kind of sacred, touching if a bit sad. some people thought it was ugly and deviant, but that's not what i took away from it. 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 22, 2013 - 11:24am

It's Bev's way of helping them grow up, I think. Herself included. It's also her way of gaining a bit of power over her own body. I was too young when it came out to really remember...was there any sort of outcry? I feel like if someone released a scene like that in today's world, it would be labeled as child porn and the book burnings would be imminent. 

Hmm....how to start a King re-read club...how to start a King re-read club...

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 22, 2013 - 1:24pm

there has been a bit of criticism of IT for as long as i can remember, becuase of that ending, but i don't think it was ever too intense. 

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman September 11, 2013 - 8:51pm

I still think IT is one of his best books. I was not a huge fan of how he turned Pennywise to some giant alien creature, but everything up until that point was solid. Also I have never like clowns and watching IT as a child and then reading the book just made it worse, and there is no way I can ever watch anything with Tim Curry in it now.