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In Stephen King’s It, home is where the clown lives

Tim Curry as Pennywise in the TV adaptation of It
Tim Curry as Pennywise in the TV adaptation of It

I’m 12 years old and it’s summer, and I’m in my bedroom reading Stephen King’s It. It’s hot, and my bedroom is on the second floor, so I’ve got a fan stuck in the window by my bed, cranked up to high. The best place in the room to sit is with my desk chair wedged between the bed and the wall, my legs propped up on the mattress, fan blowing directly at my chest and face. It’s comfortable, but I’m acutely aware of two things: My back is to my bedroom door, and there’s also the space under the bed I can’t see. I am more terrified than I have ever been in my entire life, maybe more terrified than I ever will be. Any second now, I expect to see fish-white arms reach up from below me, or feel claws sink into my neck. I could close the book and go downstairs and everything would be fine. Instead, I read another page. And I wait.

Jump ahead 25 years—three jobs, a college degree, several apartments, roommates, girlfriends, cars, getting thick around the middle, finding things and losing them and finding them again only different than they used to be—and I’m going for a walk, and rereading Stephen King’s It. There’s a place near where I live in Portland that offers a three-and-a-half mile loop with a view on the water, and it’s dusk now; just light enough to make out the words on the page. I can see a few people off in the distance, and I wonder, suddenly, what it would be like if I saw a clown up ahead on the trail, doing cartwheels. What it would be like if the clown waved at me. I feel a little chill, and also something that’s almost like hope. It is getting dark, after all.

I was in junior high when I first got into Stephen King novels, and when I say they changed my life, I mean just that: For years, King’s work dominated the landscape of my imagination, helping me realize I wanted to be a writer before I even knew what that meant. I’d loved reading ever since I could recognize a sentence, but something in King’s work clicked me with stronger and deeper than any other writer before or since. And I can think of no better novel to explain that connection than It, the 1,000-plus page epic of a shape-shifting evil from beyond time, and the children, then adults, who band together to stop it.

It is a long novel. One of King’s longest—I think only The Stand tops it, and that’s a book about the end of the world. It is set largely in a single small town in Maine, and while it spans decades, the main action is takes place in two distinct time periods: 1958, which tells the story of the Losers Club’s first confrontation with Pennywise The Clown; and 1985, when the grown-up losers come back to finish the job they started as children. There’s a lot of incident, but surprisingly little plot, especially in the “present day” sections. Mostly it’s just a series of escalating confrontations punctuated by discussions of the town history and character bonding. There are a few twists, but the narrative doesn’t try to dazzle you with sudden swerves. In a way, this is King’s organic approach to storytelling at its most pure—a straight line of rising action, decorated with world-building texture.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. These are adult descriptions of the novel; these are things I’ve come to realize after rereading it a dozen times or more. When I was 12, all I really knew was that It was the scariest thing I’d ever put myself through. Scarier then any of the other King novels I’d read, scarier even than that time my best friend Lucas summarized the plot of Nightmare On Elm Street for me. My paperback copy was a tie-in edition with the TV miniseries, and it had Tim Curry on the cover in full clown make-up. Every night when I went to bed, I had to make sure the book was face down and the spine was turned away from me, so I knew he wouldn’t be watching me while I slept.

Why was it so scary? Part of it was that I was an imaginative, tightly wound kid; I could barely stand to watch horror movie trailers, let alone the movies themselves. But It is also arguably King’s most consistently terrifying piece of writing, a pervasive and nightmarish vision of a town that’s sold its soul to a monster that puts on masks and eats children. Those masks provide King with a chance to dig into just about every archetypal boogeyman imaginable: werewolves and mummies and vampires and even the occasional giant bird.

Then there’s Pennywise The Dancing Clown, the grinning master of ceremonies who ties all the disparate creatures together with his chaotic, malevolent wit. While King’s villains are often frightening, there’s something about Pennywise that sets him apart: a level of agency and absurdity that approaches camp without ever becoming actually funny. There’s an imaginative brutality to all of the book’s best set pieces, the way gore and nightmare fuel combine with mean-spirited humor to create an impression of some sadistic, cosmic bully, something that takes as much pleasure in mocking your pain as it does in ripping you to shreds. The novel’s unseen narrator (King briefly uses the first person in the opening chapter, and never again) has empathy for nearly all the characters featured within, good and bad, but Pennywise’s contempt is comprehensive and unnerving.

A great villain is only part of what makes the novel so frightening, especially when you’re 12 years old and still aren’t completely sure it’s safe to sleep without a nightlight. While several adults die over the course of It’s many pages, the majority of the thing’s victims are children. Kids have a special vitality that It craves, and that vitality ties into one of the novel’s main themes. But when I was a kid, I wasn’t really interested in themes. The idea that belief had power, and that power could be as dangerous as it was liberating, was something that seemed so obvious to me that it wasn’t worth writing down. I spent my life believing in everything, and because of that, I was half out of my mind with terror most days. The world had teeth, and when the sun went down, it smiled—and if you weren’t careful, it bit.

But if the danger was the price you paid, what it bought you was worth the cost. That’s the other part of what made It such a powerful experience for me growing up. Not just the scares, but the characters who lived (and sometimes died) through those scares, and the world they inhabited. I wasn’t alive in 1958; I have no nostalgia for penny candy, Broderick Crawford, or Buddy Holly songs. Yet King captures a certain feeling so accurately and enthusiastically that it doesn’t matter if the specifics weren’t something I could relate to.

Reading about children my own age—all of whom were outcasts for some reason or another, all of whom were isolated from the rest of their peers in a way I understood—playing games in the woods and planning monster hunts felt more real than my actual life. As broken and desperate as the book’s heroes often are, they were friends, and that friendship, and the faith in that friendship, mattered to me. Even when the individuals blended together (the more you read the book, the more you notice how often Mike Hanlon, the only person of color in the club, tends to disappear in group scenes, or how Beverly Marsh is too often just “the girl,” especially as a grown-up), the sense of them as a group was vital and alive.

That vitality brought on the monster, because you can’t have one without the other; you can’t have the joy without the risk. Growing up, I never questioned any of this. I didn’t think about the book, I experienced it. It tapped into a mainline of my subconscious and drilled down so deep that I’ve never been entirely rid of it. Phrases will pop into my mind from time to time (“We all float down here!”) and sometimes I recognize their source, and sometimes I don’t, but they’re there regardless. In a way, it was foolish of me to read a novel about the challenges of growing up at such a young age, because it meant that the adult half of the story always seemed, if not bad, then less important. Less there. But starting when I did meant I was allowed the luxury of finding my perspective on the story change as I changed. Because that’s what books do—they’re always the same when you reread them, but you’re always different. Even when you don’t want to be.

As I got older, I started picking up on the flaws. The novel takes forever to get going; after the two opening chapters establish the parallel timelines, there’s a seemingly endless section introducing each of the adult heroes, featuring full (and momentum sapping) backstories, often for characters we’ll never see again. The pace improves considerably from there, but it’s still a novel that could’ve used stricter editing. And not just for cuts: the final confrontation with It is a bit of an anti-climax in both eras, and the infamous teenage sex scene in the novel’s final quarter is a concept that should’ve been cut after the first draft. Its awkwardness only becomes more painfully obvious with time.

I kept rereading, though, and with time, the flaws became easier to overlook. I didn’t mind the opening so much because there’s a difference between a good King tangent and a bad one, and these aren’t bad. (For bad, see: The Tommyknockers.) The fact that the ultimate form of the beast haunting Derry isn’t all that frightening is arguably sort of the point—when you face the monster, it loses its power to astonish. (This isn’t a Lovecraft story.) Even the sex scene is almost defensible, at least in concept. It serves as a centerpiece to Beverly’s arc, as she turns her father’s loathing of her identity as a woman into something at once beautiful and meaningful. That’s not to say the scene works—it’s too over-the-top and cringe-inducing (not to mention physically implausible) to be thematically relevant, and reducing Beverly to a generalized symbol of female sexuality raises its own concerns. But at a certain point, you realize that the things you love are never going to be as perfect to you at 37 as they were at 12, and you either accept that, or you let them go.

And I can’t let this book go. Now a grown-up myself, I’ve come to realize that the loss of vitality between the kid chapters and the adult ones is not an incidental effect; it is, in fact, a core feature of the premise. As one of the Losers observes, growing up means the magic rubs off. It means everything that used to be bold and huge and underlined in capital letters turns out to not be such a big deal after all. Midway through the story, Bill Denbrough, a horror novelist and the closest the book has to a main protagonist, takes a taxi ride through Derry, a town he hasn’t seen since he was an adolescent, and he’s shocked at how strained the place looks to him: how things have changed, and how even the things that stayed the same seem blander somehow. Cheaper. Like knock-offs of something that used to matter.

I grew up in Maine, and I’ve lived here my whole life, but I haven’t been back home to the town where I grew up in years. I recently had cause to do so, and I figured I was prepared for what it would feel like. I’ve read and watched any number of novels, movies, and shows that dealt with the passage of time and the way maturity changes how the world looks. But it still hit me harder than I was expecting. I was having a Stephen King kind of feeling in a Stephen King kind of town, but it was also my feeling. The trees weren’t as tall as I thought they’d be. The house we lived in is a different color now. There’s a shopping center where there used to just be fields. It felt wrong, but at the same time, I knew that wrongness was entirely my own—that if there was anything out of place in this scene, it was me.

Rereading It was more fun than I was expecting, and I found myself appreciating the book’s melancholy and hope as much, if not more, than its scares. Because while King pulls no punches about the painful realities of getting older (while the “losers” all have successful careers, few, if any, of them entirely shed the hang-ups that hounded them in their youth), he suggests that there might still be some magic left over, if you’re willing to put yourself at hazard to find it. As a kid, all I could think of was that there was a monster, and that the monster had to be defeated. As an adult, I find myself savoring the few momentary flashes of fear the book still inspires me in and wishing the monster could stick around a little longer. Right now, I’m sitting in my room with my back to the door and my legs over the bed. I don’t think anything is going to grab me. But it might.