For my second Audible.com audiobook, I decided to go with Stephen King's classic It (1986; Viking). I realize that King is probably the most widely read American author, and that his novels are often the recipients of much praise, but for some odd quirk of fate and personal choice, I've only ever read his The Eyes of the Dragon (1987) (and this while I was in elementary school). Since I've found it difficult to read fiction for the past several years, I figured that an audiobook would be a great way to see what I was missing.
*'SPOILAR' WARNING* I'm not going to reveal the end of the book, but I would like to discuss some late-chapter details. So if you, like me, haven't got around to reading this book in the past 26 years, you've been warned. I think that the statute of limitations is up.
It's plot revolves around 7 kids - and later adults - (6 boys and a girl) who are all, for various reasons, social outcasts in the small, fictional town of Derry, Maine. Derry has a history of cyclical horrors, where every 27 years or so, a number of people, mostly children, are brutally killed - each cycle ending with a particularly grievous event. During one such cycle in 1958, the 'Loser's Club', as the kids call themselves, each discover through their own means, that the murders are being perpetrated by an apparently shape-shifting clown who calls himself Pennywise (the origin of the band's moniker, by the way). In parallel to describing their meeting and confrontation with Pennywise as children, the book also tells a parallel story of the same characters in 1985 who, now as adults, learn that the killer clown has returned to Derry and that they must honor a pledge to return and fight the evil once again.
King does a pretty amazing job of weaving the parallel narratives together by using narrative devices that avoid simplistic exposition. I honestly wish that more writers of various mediums could read something like It and see how background information can be conveyed in such a way that doesn't involve long segments of rote, flow-annihilating description. Everything about the book is very 'raw' and the main characters' actions both as children and adults are believable and feel natural (with one notable exception below).
In fact, I found the entire first half of the book (which, unabridged is a 48 hour narration) to be quite gripping. The author is well known for his ability to write suspenseful horror and if It is representative, then I understand why. The book isn't particularly 'scary', per se. But rather the character of Pennywise is plain creepy. He draws out his confrontations, appearing to his prey in forms that are guaranteed to provide the utmost terror, which King puts to good use. I also have to commend the book's narrator, Steven Weber, who does an amazing job of playing each of the different characters, imbuing them with their own personality - most especially the killer clown.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book slides quite a bit. First off, it's revealed what 'It' actually is (kind of). Apparently, the clown is an eternal being representing a sort-of physical manifestation of death and destruction (interestingly, we're led to believe that there are 3 such beings that have existed since the creation of the universe and form a triumvirate that's eerily similar to the Hindu Trimurti). This being, who feeds on life and finds terror to be especially 'delicious', preys on children foremost because they most of all truly believe in their fears.
All of this was pretty cool until I began thinking about it: we learn that the being was attracted to Earth some millions of years ago because it sensed the deliciousness of human imagination. Whereupon it landed in... Maine. Humans arrived in Maine when, maybe 12,000 years ago? I've got nothing against Maine - I grew up right next door and visited many times - but I guess this being was sleeping there just outside of Bangor, excited about how in 106 years or so these humans would come out of the other side of the world that they were living in so that they could feed him?
The book also devolves into some real classic B horror movie stuff as secondary characters start to do some very deus ex machina stuff in the service of setting up utterly anticlimactic encounters. It's not show-stopper material, but it's nevertheless disappointing given the book's earlier high quality.
However, there is one scene in the final act that disturbed the heck out of me - and not in the good 'horror disturbed' kind of way. As the 12 year-olds escape It's clutches for the first time, they come to the realization that their power to withstand the beast comes from their bond of friendship. However, this very bond is apparently also tied to their fear of the beast and, having defeated It, it's now weakening. Because they have one last challenge to overcome before reaching safety, Beverly, the only female member of the group, decides that the only way to keep their bond alive in these final moments is for her to sleep with all six of her friends, one after the other. This is then described in somewhat lurid detail.
Now, I'm no prude and while I don't think that I'd enjoy reading about a ménage à sept among pre-teens under any circumstances, I could envision some sort of plot circumstance where such a thing could be 'justified'. This is not the case in It. I can sort of glimpse at how King tried to set it up, but it just didn't work for me. Unfortunately, throwing something like this into a book without justification is pretty disturbing on all kinds of levels and dampened my feelings on the subsequent coda.
All told, It sets up a strong beginning that perhaps it could never really live up to (although if some of the hackneyed garbage at the end had been simply removed, it would've been better). Such seems to be the case with a lot of horror: An unexplained terror is much more disturbing than something understood. And yet we rebel against this idea: lack of explanation is unsatisfying. Perhaps there's some key to genre in that thought, but I'm not familiar enough to piece it together1.
1That being said, I remarked on a previous blog about how some genres, notably Fantasy and Science-Fiction often suffer from a desire to over-explain everything. Unweaving the rainbow doesn't make it less marvelous, but that physics lecture in the middle of my daydreaming sure can be boring-as-hell.