Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
It by Stephen King
I consider It to be a masterpiece. Not just King’s greatest book – but a great American novel, period. I’ve only read it once – it was such a workout that I feel I need to be ready to face it again. It was that powerful. The characters are emblazoned in my mind – and they live on – like all great fictional characters. You cannot tell me that Anne Shirley does not live, on some alternate plane. Or Jay Gatsby. Or Captain Ahab. These people have a life beyond the pages. They are larger than the authors who created them. I’m not putting It on the level of Moby Dick, but I am saying that those main characters – Beverly, Stanley, Richie, Bill, the others … BREATHE. They do not feel like “creations”. Many big important authors have beautiful writing – but cannot create people who LIVE. (To my mind, Don DeLillo is in this category. I think you would be hard pressed to find contemporary writing that is better than that in Underworld – excerpt here – but I can’t remember one character from that book. I mean, I sort of can – but not in the same way as – the cousins in Kavalier and Clay, or the entire family in Geek Love. The specificity of personality – and the impression that these people are ALIVE – is very very difficult. And Stephen King, at his best, is better than almost anyone.)
The book is sweeping in its scope. Terrifying in its particulars. I actually read the main showdown in the sewer canals with a hand over my eyes, trying to block the pictures King was putting in my head. And I still can’t block it. We all know the form that the monster takes, and frankly I do not want to discuss it any more. Not if I want to sleep tonight. It would test the strongest person to face something like that … and the fact that it is these 6 misfit kids – and then later, these 6 misfit adults – who are “called” to conquer “It” … it’s a perfect scenario, a classic one from literature: the quest, the hero who is not “ready” – not prepared – and yet who must fight. King is not re-inventing the wheel here. He inhabits those ancient genres with a freshness and delight that makes them seem new. I love him for it. He’s a hugely well-read man – at the end of his wonderful book On Writing, he lists books he thinks are essential – not just to writers, but to anyone. And the list runs the gamut. Sci-fi, classics, modern literature, noir-stuff … It’s a broad and beautiful look at the landscape of literature, its peaks and valleys, its many different forms. His understanding of what makes a good book is top-notch. In It he pulls out all the stops.
Why I love this book so much is that it works on every level it needs to work. There is no skimping. The horror is horrifying. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. (Although I think “The Mist” is his scariest story of all). Pennywise the clown stalks my dreams. That kind of gleeful anarchist cruelty is what makes up totalitarian societies everywhere. There is not just a smile-less insistence on cruelty. There is a JOY in crushing your enemies. Pennywise, with his terrible puns, and his crooning focus on the children of Derry, is the worst possible enemy. Because he is inhuman. He does not “feel”. There is no reasoning with such a monster. King gives “It” an eternal life. We see the land of the town, Derry – from a prehistoric standpoint – with pterodactyls flying, and ferns and bushes overrunning everything – and suddenly something plummets to the earth – from the atmosphere. It is “It”. “It” has been there that long. Waiting, biding its time, gaining in strength … and so King makes the case that the horrors of the world, the everyday horrors -murder, child abductions, racist persecution – come from “outside” us. “It” is behind it all.
But the book also works on the most personal human level. I wrote before in my post on “The Body” that King is a master at writing about childhood, and what it is LIKE, from that perspective. It is the ultimate in childhood-friendship novels. I mean, think of the last sentence of the book. Or – if you don’t know it by heart, like I do – then go pick up your copy and look it up. I can barely think of it without getting a lump in my throat. It’s a great great book – because of the friendships it describes, and how it (he) captures what it is like, to be 11 years old … in the 1950s, hanging out with your friends … and then, as so often happens … losing touch … not just with your friends, but losing touch with who you used to be – the best part of yourself … What happens to us when our childhood friends disappear? Those friends we chose before we knew who we were. They’re the ones who have the keys. They are the ones who really KNOW you. Your husband, wife, children … know the adult you. They know you once life has gotten to you, beaten you down a bit, shaved off the rough edges, made you a bit more small. But those who knew you when you were 11 actually know YOU. This is the realm King is in here. And it’s explicit. The horror these 6 faced when they were 11 has since subsided. They have moved on. They are all now adults. Many of them have blocked out completely what they experienced back then. They are married, some are famous, some are deeply unhappy … the demons that haunted them as children (familial, and actual) have manifested itself in adult terms: addiction, spousal abuse, etc. And then one day. Mike – the only one who stayed behind in Derry – realizes that it’s “starting up again”. And so he starts to make some calls. To his old childhood friends. They must return, for the final battle. It is only THEY who can do it.
God, King is good here. Because he really captures what it is like to be unconscious – to be in a state of total forgetting – and then, in one fell swoop, to have all of the armor of oblivion ripped away … leaving you standing cold and exposed, with no protective barrier between you and the past. Answering Mike’s call will rock their worlds – affect their marriages, their careers … they have no idea how long it will take. But they all (except one) answer the call.
It’s a fucking great book.
And I agonized a bit over what to excerpt – there’s so much that’s good here. And decided, what the hell. Let’s excerpt the beginning. Because I challenge anyone to read the following excerpt and NOT want to read on.
EXCERPT FROM It by Stephen King
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
The boat bobbed, listed, righted itself again, dived bravely through treacherous whirlpools, and continued on its way down Witcham Street toward the traffic light which marked the intersection of Witcham and Jackson. The three vertical lenses on all sides of the traffic light were dark this afternoon in the fall of 1957, and the houses were all dark, too. There had been steady rain for a week now, and two days ago the winds had come as well. Most sections of Derry had lost their power then, and it was not back on yet.
A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat. The rain had not stopped, but it was finally slackening. It tapped on the yellow hood of the boy’s slicker, sounding to his ears like rain on a shed roof … a comfortable, almost cozy sound. The boy in the yellow slicker was George Denbrough. He was six. His brother William, known to most of the kids at Derry Elementary School (and even to the teachers, who would never have used the nickname to his face) as Stuttering Bill, was at home, hacking out the last of a nasty case of influenza. In that autumn of 1957, eight months before the real horrors began, and twenty-eight years before the final showdown, Stuttering Bill was ten years old.
Bill had made the boat beside which George now ran. He had made it sitting up in bed, his back propped against a pile of pillows, while their mother played Fur Elise on the piano in the parlor and rain swept restlessly against his bedroom window.
About three-quarters of the way down the block as one headed toward the intersection and the dead traffic light, Witcham Street was blocked to motor traffic by smudgepots and four orange sawhorses. Stencilled across each of the horses was DERRY DEPT. OF PUBLIC WORKS. Beyond them, the rain had spilled out of gutters clogged with branches and rocks and big sticky piles of autumn leaves. The water had first pried fingerholds in the paving and then snatched whole greedy handfuls – all of this by the third day of the rains. By noon of the fourth day, big chunks of the street’s surface were boating through the intersection of Jackson and Witcham like miniature white-water rafts. By that time, many people in Derry had begun to make nervous jokes about arks. The Public Works Department had managed to keep Jackson Street open, but Witcham was impassable from the sawhorses all the way to the center of town.
But everyone agreed, the worst was over. The Kenduskeag Stream had crested just below its banks in the Barrens and bare inches below the concrete sides of the Canal which channelled it tightly as it passed through downtown. Right now a gang of men – Zack Denbrough, George’s and Bill’s father, among them – were removing the sandbags they had thrown up the day before with such panicky haste. Yesterday overflow and expensive flood damage had seemed almost inevitable. God knew it had happened before – the flooding in 1931 had been a disaster which had cost millions of dollars and almost two dozen lives. That was a long time ago, but there were still enough people around who remembered it to scare the rest. One of the flood victims had been found twenty-five miles east, in Bucksport. The fish had eaten this unfortunate gentleman’s eyes, three of his fingers, his penis, and most of his left foot. Clutched in what remained of his hands had been a Ford steering wheel.
Now, though, the river was receding, and when the new Bangor Hydro dam went in upstream, the river would cease to be a threat. Or so said Zack Denbrough, who worked for Bangor Hydroelectric. As for the rest – well, future floods could take care of themselves. The thing was to get through this one, to get the power back on, and then to forget it. In Derry such forgetting of tragedy and disaster was allmost an art, as Bill Denbrough would come to discover in the course of time.
George paused just beyond the sawhorses at the edge of a deep ravine that had been cut through the tar surface of Witcham Street. This ravine ran on an almost exact diagonal. It ended on the far side of the street, roughly forty feet farther down the hill from where he now stood, on the right. He laughed aloud – the sound of solitary, childish glee a bright runner in that gray afternoon – as a vagary of the flowing water took his paper boat into a scale-model rapids which had been formed by the break in the tar. The urgent water had cut a channel which ran along the diagonal, and so his boat travelled from one side of Witcham Street to the other, the current carrying it so fast that George had to sprint to keep up with it. Water sprayed out from beneath his galoshes in muddy sheets. Their buckles made a jolly jingling as George Denbrough ran toward his strange death. And the feeling which filled him at that moment was clear and simple love for his brother Bill … love and a touch of regret that Bill couldn’t be here to see this and be a part of it. Of course he would try to describe it to Bill when he got home, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to make him see it, the way Bill would have been able to make him see it if their positions had been reversed. Bill was good at reading and writing, but even at his age George was wise enough to know that wasn’t the only reason why Bill got all A’s on his report cards, or why his teachers liked his compositions so well. Telling was only part of it. Bill was good at seeing.
The boat nearly whistled along the diagonal channel, just a page torn from the Classified section of the Derry News, but now George imagined it as a PT boat in a war movie, like the ones he sometimes saw down at the Derry Theater with Bill at Saturday matinees. A war picture with John Wayne fighting the Japs. The prow of the newspaper boat threw sprays of water to either side as it rushed along, and then it reached the gutter on the left side of Witcham Street. A fresh streamlet rushed over the break in the tar at this point, creating a fairly large whirlpool, and it seemed to him that the boat must be swamped and capsize. It leaned alarmingly, and then George cheered as it righted itself, turned, and went racing on down toward the intersection. George sprinted to catch up. Over his head, a grim gust of October wind rattled the trees, now almost completely unburdened of their freight of colored leaves by the storm, which had been this year a reaper of the most ruthless sort.