This year I set myself a nice little challenge of reading 50 books for pleasure. That’s a little under one book a week. I wanted to do this because I think it’s important to continue to read for enjoyment during my PhD. When I say read for enjoyment, I mean not having to overanalyse every single word, just let the prose wash over me like waves on a beach…. Not that I don’t enjoy overanalysing, of course, I mean I’m a Virgo after all!
Anyway, my first pleasure read was Stephen King’s It (1986). I’ve never read any Stephen King up till this point, but I tweeted for recommendations (even somewhat ambitiously tagged the Maine man himself, in case he wanted to instruct a complete novice directly). It was the one that I felt that I wanted to read most, because it was my generation’s video nasty. I knew of so many people who’d watched the (showing my age now) video cassette of the mini series starring the legendary Tim Curry when they were children and developed a fear of clowns as a consequence. So, I started the year with that. At least 2018 couldn’t get any scarier than that! Although I survived the great cull of 2016, so I’m doing pretty well.
Before this book, the longest book I’d ever read was Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which comes in at a (now measly) 940 pages. I keep saying to my supervisors that this is the book I’m loth to cut from my thesis, simply because I had to take the time to read the damn thing. That said, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience – Dickens is a fantastic social commentator. Not to the same extent as Jane Austen, perhaps, but his characters are truly one of a kind. Anyway, add an extra 200 or so pages, and you’ve got It.
King is a born narrator. His style is pure comfort. It’s like you’re a child sitting at the feet of a grandpa who’s losing the plot a little bit, because why else would he be recounting tales as twisted as these to one so young? “And then what?” whispers a rapt inner-child-reader. “And then what?”
The words just flow. The man has the words. Even down to the syntax, and the way an incomplete sentence in one chapter…
… flows into the next.
It’s truly difficult to write as an adult writing as a child, I think. Roald Dahl had the knack of it. And so did Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2010). King does so but not in a way that makes the work seem contrived or patronising to the reader. But the insight into a child’s consciousness is pivotal to understanding what makes ‘It’ so powerful. The whole premise of the novel is that there is a monster that lives beneath the city of Derry, Maine and It feeds on the pure fears of children. If you can’t remember what it was like to have fears as a child, particularly fears that are unique to childhood, it isn’t possible to truly appreciate this work. When I was a child I used to have a recurring dream about a skull that could talk (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) and it lived on top of my wardrobe. But what made it powerful was the fact that it was so scary and a child’s fear cannot be rationalised away! But everyone’s childhood fear is different, and a great deal of them for my generation were born of Pennywise, which is pretty funny, now that I consider it. It’s Art reflecting Life reflecting Art back at itself.
In having a monster that takes a unique form according to those who see it, we have a shapeshifter that is nothing yet everything at the same time, almost like the unspeakable. I find the unspeakable fascinating, because it is a classic Death of the Author moment. This is the stuff of the Wilde trials! The reader projects whatever meaning they wish on to the words on the page, and everyone’s unspeakable will be different, much like everyone’s It. The unspeakable features prominently in Victorian Gothic/proto-horror fiction, and my copy of Machen’s The Great God Pan features a snippet of a review by Stephen King to try and attract a new and modern readership, funnily enough.
In short: 5 Stars – this will be the first of many King novels that I look forward to reading in the future.