Why are we afraid of the dark? What horrors lie beneath the shadows, making us throw back our hand terror when something tickles the back of our palm as we send it to turn on the light switch that might make the fear go away? If you ask Stephen King, you don’t want to know what’s out there, because whatever you believe is lurking in the dark is genuinely there, just waiting for the right moment to show you its hideous face.
Fear of the dark (Nyctophobia) is one of the most common phobias among children. But while other phobias focus on a specific horror provoking object – as irrational as it might be (fear of spiders, fear of thunderstorms, fear of the monster that is hiding under the bed, and of course – fear of clowns), the darkness is unique because it is not the frightening object. The child is not afraid of the dark, because it can’t harm him. The things that hide within it, on the other hand, as I said. You really don’t want to know.
This fear from the unknowns that lurks in the shadows is the foundation of the horror that awaits between the pages of It, and there is a good reason that Stephen King dedicates a scene to it at the first pages of the book. Little Georgie goes down to the basement to get a paraffin pack to his brother so he could finish making the paper boat he promised him. The light switch is not working, and Georgie, who is afraid of the dark has to go into the dark room and look for the pack because he doesn’t want his older brother, his hero, to make fun of him and call him a cry-baby. Georgie swallows the fear and tries to finish his task as fast as he can, but the shadows and his imagination bring terror that might be there and might not, but it doesn’t really matter because for him they are as real as they get, and so does for the readers. This way, in one simple scene, that doesn’t include too many horrors, Stephen King proves that he is the best horror author in the world. One that can speed up his reader’s heartbeat without spilling one drop of blood.
So, with no further ado (he wrote after busting your head off in the last three paragraphs), welcome to Derry, the place you do not want to live in. A small pastoral town in Maine in the far northeast of the USA, where the percentage of violence and murder rates is extremely high relative to the size of the population, and every 27 years (give or take) the murderess entity that made its home in the area wake up from its hibernation and satisfies its thirst for children’s blood. During each cycle, the monster comes out of its den, and the small town finds itself in the middle of a spree of kids’ murders and disappearances that some way or another connected to a mysterious clown. And of all that is not enough, the fact that this creature appears in front of its victims as the incarnation of their biggest and darkest fear is more than enough to unsettle the reader’s last bits of serenity.
The developed and creative imagination of children turns them into perfect victims to the monster that draws its power from their fear, especially when their fears are so basic. Because it is much easier for the monster to manifest in front of its victims as a bloodthirsty troll or rotting zombie that chases them in dark alleys. Just imagine how hard it might have been for the monster if it tried to reincarnate in the form of grown-ups’ fears, such as fear of failure, a phone call from the bank, commitment, or spam email folders. Stephen King himself would have find it difficult to turn this horror into a sufficient and concrete terror that would trickle down the reader’s spine (Georgie looked down the drain, where he saw Janie – which he once took out for a dinner and a movie – handing him a red balloon while saying “I love you, Georgie, I want to live with you forever.” Noooooo! He screamed and tried to run for his life as she grabbed his hand and slipped a wedding ring on his finger).
If you have ever read a horror book where a murderous monster attacks the heroes, you might think you know what to expect and is one more horror book that leans on the classic foundations of the genre. All I can do is wish you good luck. Yes, some of the most suspenseful parts of the book include a monster that tries to catch the heroes, but those parts are not even close to being the scariest. Oh no. You’d wish it all to end with some monsters chasing their victims. The real horror is always in the air. In the town’s background stories that are revealed slowly throughout the book, in the children’s clashes with It, in the children’s personal lives and their encounters with the grown-ups world, or in one red balloon that appears in the last place you want to see it.
It is one of the scariest books I have ever read, but if you dig deep into it, you will find an adolescence story. Not by chance, some parts of it resembles The Body, the novella by King that was later adapted to the film Stand by Me. The years are the same late 1950’s, the area is the same in Maine, the kids are (almost) the same kids, and the process they go through is the same process, only with bloodthirsty monsters that lurk in the shadows and threaten their lives and sanity. And true enough, the book is a meeting point of the heroes with the kids they used to be and the grown men and women they grew up into, when the hairline retreats backwards, and the belt grow larger, and despite the nostalgic feeling that manages to accompany the terror, the realization that they will never be children again seeps in and unleash the adult in them.
It doesn’t mean that It lack of problems, and anyone who ever read the book can agree that it has one of the most fucked up “what have I just read” moment ever written (a scene that King himself admitted that he might have written differently today), but it doesn’t change the fact that this is one of King’s better books, if not the best.
To summarize in __ words – a timeless masterpiece that holds up beyond the boundaries of the genre.
It / Stephen King / Viking Press
I didn’t even start to mention the brilliant way this book is split to past and present and the reasons for this division, but there is a limit to how much one can write in one review.
Book publishers have a dirty habit of redesigning the cover of books when they are adapted to films. I usually object to this obscenity, because usually, the original covers look better, and also because I would rather avoid the portraits of the lead actors that might affect my imagination as I read the book. This is not the case this time, because the new cover manages to stay dark and enigmatic and terrifying enough.