Reading certain books in public invites commentary from strangers. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon is one such book. Stephen King’s It is another.
I have been wanting to revisit It since my mom sent me a copy of 11/22/63—Stephen King’s novel about a man who goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination--for my birthday last year. Thiswas the first Stephen King book I’d read in at least a decade and I enjoyed it immensely. I had been looking for It in bookstores for a few months. I found it last weekend in a book pile (the kind you leave in front of your house hoping people will take them) in front of a house on Lothrop Street while I was walking my dog. It wasn’t a first edition, but it was a hardcover with the original cover—a picture of a drain with a claw coming out of it.
In 1989 or 1992 this was not a book that made people feel they had to talk to you on the subway. Apparently it is in 2014. The lady on the commuter rail train said it gave her nightmares. The guy in the convenience store said the clown scared him to death. The guy eating breakfast next to me at the Ugly Mug in Salem said they’re making another movie about it. All of them loved it. But no one had anything interesting to say (with the possible exception of the convenience store guy. He read it in the 3rd grade--what parent lets their kid read It in the 3rd grade?)
When I was in high school I ate everything Steven King had written. It I remember the transition from reading Lois Duncan and other YA supernatural authors to Stephen King. I remember being in 7th grade or so and asking a bookish boy if he read Stephen King’s books. He said that he loved them and he recommended IT—specifically because of Pennywise the clown. Someone had finally written a book about how creepy clowns are and he recommended I read it.
I tried to read Firestarter in 8th grade but couldn’t get through it. Not because of the length—for a Stephen King book it’s pretty short—less than an inch thick. I was bothered by the, for lack of a better phrase “adult content.” I don’t even remember if there’s any sex in the book, but it made me uncomfortable. While I was a bright kid with a big vocabulary, I was a late-bloomer and I was not very well socialized—so I found the book uncomfortable.
A year or so later, I found the Eyes of The Dragon in the Stuyvesant High School Library. Even though I hadn’t cared for the first Stephen King book I read, I decided to try this one. I loved it. I proceeded to read every other Stephen King book in the school library. The copy of the Shining I borrowed was missing 50 pages in the middle of it. I didn’t discover this until I got home for the night—I was incredibly frustrated. I ran to the library the first thing the next morning and got another copy—verifying that all it’s pages were there before checking it out.
Eventually I’d read all of the Stephen King in the library and I had to start buying my own books—by saving my allowance or using baby-sitting money. Salem’s Lot was my favorite for a long time because it was about vampires. I remember when I brought to Tommyknockers home my Dad joked that I only read “cubic books” these days. My parents were paying my younger sister for every book she read. I asked why they wouldn’t pay me for every book I read. My mom, eyeing the green and black cover of the Tommyknockers said they were considering charging me for every book I read.
It’s not like I didn’t read other books—my dad went through an Ivan Doig phase, so I went through an Ivan Doig phase. When we read Beowulf in school, my parents suggested I read Grendel—so I went through a John Gardner phase.* My love of Stephen King’s prose continued into my 20s. My parents and friends, while not understanding my interest, acknowledged it by getting me Stephen King books as presents. When the Wizard and Glass came out I was working at the Strand. I begged the new fiction guy, who went to the main store once a week, to pull me a copy of it—maybe an ARC copy. He succeeded. I read it, sent it to my boyfriend at the time and demanded he send it back when done so that my sister could read it too.
I tried other adult writers of the horror genre—none were as good. All their monsters always came down to the government or space aliens. That’s boring. I didn’t allow myself to discover SciFi and Fantasy until I was in college, but the horror genre appealed to me not just because it was scary, but because it suggested that there “are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
But there is more appeal to Stephen King than his ability to scare you shitless, or his prolific imagination. He has a very good voice, in my opinion. He also does a good job of portraying kids. In my opinion, he may be the Charles Dickens of the 20th century—a popular writer, dismissed for being popular who actually writes well enough that people want to read him after he’s no longer around. I’ll never know—I don’t expect to live to 120 but I’ve read a lot of books and I still think he’s a good story teller
I gave Stephen King up in my 20s. I don’t remember if this is before or after I actually met the man. I gave him up because of Dreamcatcher. I bought the book dutifully, but the story seemed recycled—bits of It mixed up with the Tommyknockers. I thought he’d finally run out of ideas, so I stopped buying his books.
Now, I’m revisiting them. I picked up Dr. Sleep (sequel to the Shining) and found it interesting. I re-read the Shining and found it as compelling as ever. But not so much It. The book I re-read about 12 times as a teenager seems flat to me now. There are still good parts to it, but it no longer seems like The Best Book Ever.
*This, incidentally was how I discovered I don’t like short stories. My dad gave me a book of John Gardner short stories and I read the whole book in a day. At the end of it, I discovered I could only remember the first one and the last one—which seemed unfair as I’d liked them all. It was like I’d gotten a Whitman’s sampler and eaten the whole box in one sitting.