I am not a fan of horror. I would not shut the shower door for ten years because Kolchak: The Night Stalker scared the daylights out of me. My father’s description of the movie Killdozer made me terrified of construction equipment – as if I wasn’t already, from a preschool nightmare involving dump trucks. I watched the original 1931 Dracula and got a bloody nose in sympathy. I won’t sleep in a room with a vacuum cleaner thanks to Zenna Henderson. I like sleeping at night, and I don’t need any more anxiety in my life. I have kids for that.
It was my mother who got me reading Stephen King. I was about twelve, sick in bed, and Night Shift, his book of short stories, came out. Wouldn’t you know it, the light from the bathroom at night struck every knob on the dresser at just the right angle so each one looked like an eye staring at me, just like the cover story. I only dared read half of them, and never enjoyed going to the dry cleaners again. But I read The Shining (I will NOT go into a hotel bathroom without a light on), read The Stand (his best, I think), Cujo, The Dead Zone (more my style), Firestarter (I needed a book for the train back from Canada) and Christine (Like I didn’t suspect that already). One thing you can say about King without ever reading his books: he doesn’t write short volumes.
But by Christine, I was Kinged out. The books were were getting to be too similar, and I moved on. That was how I missed reading It, the book everyone seems afraid of. I avoided it for the longest time, but it popped up in a series of references this year, and I decided the time had come to tackle it. I’d re-read The Stand, and The Shining, but nothing new of King’s in 30 years.
“It” tells the story of an evil presence that takes over the town of Derry, Maine, until a ragtag band of seven misfit children decide to take it on. Although the entity takes the shape of what scares a person most (werewolves, mummies, giant birds, etc), it often lures children to their deaths by taking the shape of a clown, Pennywise. I’ve never been afraid of clowns, though I understand the psychology behind it (like Daleks, you can’t read a clown’s frozen face, and it makes some people uneasy). I’m still not afraid of clowns; but I’m now nervous about balloons. Calling the evil “It” is a brilliant stroke of semantics – think of all the times you use the pronoun It: It was calling me. I tripped over It. It snuck up on me. I’m scared of it. You can’t help it; you can’t escape it. You talk about it all the time. Because you know it’s there. “It” can be anything, and you know it to be true.
But for everything anyone told me about the book, I think this is his worst that I’ve read. He’s written 55 novels, 200 short stories, comic books, films, has awards oozing out his ears – he knows what he’s doing. I don’t mind the back and forth nature of the story, bouncing between 1958 and 1985. The characters and style are classic King, but it is soooo long (1100+ pages), it really, really could have had sections of character description cut. It drags in places. It’s not the length: Game of Thrones is 1200 pages, but I read it with more gusto. King’s name-dropping of characters from his other works grated on me. One is cool, but not several. Don’t stick Dick Hallorann in your book, a man with a strong sense of Shining (or, if you’re a Simpsons fan, Shinnin’), and have a catastrophe or a presence about that he doesn’t get ESP on. You laid Hallorann out in detail in The Shining; you let him drift in It. Sometimes the action is too cartoonish: having a victim’s head pop out of a box on a spring and go boing ruins my tension. I understand it might be appropriate to scare a child, but I’m not a child. Dolores Claiborne smashing my ankles with a sledgehammer makes me lie awake in a sweat all night. Cartoon boings don’t. I won’t tell the ending, but after fighting tooth and nail to wade through 1100 pages, I wanted more of a bang for my effort. The original Stand was 800 pages or so, and that ended with a nuclear explosion.
Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t criticize King because he’s one of the most successful novelists of our time, and I don’t disagree with his talent. But perhaps he set his own bar too high. No one – not even Shakespeare – hits the nail of perfection every time. From the man who brought you Stand By Me, The Green Mile, Under the Dome, and so many, many wonderful tales, I just don’t think it’s his best.
What do you think is King’s best work – book or film?