JM Williams

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Stephen King’s IT — I Just Can’t

Feb
01

it-book-cover

Failure sucks. When you set a goal for yourself, it can be disheartening to not reach it, no matter the circumstances. I have mentioned on this blog for several months now, I think, that I was working my way through Stephen King’s IT, one of the favorite stories of my childhood. But I just can’t do it. I can’t go on.

Fourty hours in and I’ve still got three hours left in the audiobook, but I can’t. I know what you’re saying. Only three hours! Just get it done! That’s what I thought two weeks ago when there was only four hours left, and see how that went. Part of me wonders what the hell can be in those last three hours, as the lead characters have already confronted the monster in its lair. What is there that is left to say? Tangents, tangents and more tangents–the most recent one a potty-humor digression about exploding toilets that was as humorous as it was relevant. Meaning not at all. Which is why I am giving up.

IT was my favorite King story since I saw the old TV miniseries starring Tim Curry. I loved the idea of outcast kids banding together to fight a powerful monster, and returning as adults–returning to their childhood in a way–to kill it for good. After being very impressed by King’s writing manual and memoir, On Writing, I decided to dive in. Little could I have know that IT was written well before King learned how to write.

There are too many problems with the text to go into detail here. I was planning to do a thorough review, but I no longer have the patience or desire. Here are just a few of the issues:

  1. In On Writing, King tells us to avoid adverbs as much as possible, particularly in conjunction with dialogue tags. In IT, I would guess a good quarter of all the dialogue tags have adverbs.
  2. The POV and narrative voice is horrible. This book clearly wants to be in limited third-person POV, but King throws in a lot of unnecessary omniscient bits for no clear reason. He also makes some horrible choices of which character’s POV to be in, such as the long-winded section in the beginning from Stan’s wife’s POV, describing this irrelevant woman’s life background when the only important bit of the section is Stan’s suicide. King shows in places a competency to do POV well, using narrative voice to color his villains. However, he is not consistent, and the voice for the protagonists is bland by comparison. Then there is the section from It’s POV which is complete nonsense, since there is no way to relay the point-of-view of an omnipotent evil.
  3. The narration is problematic in many other ways, such as tense. The story has two different threads, one in past tense and one in present. Until suddenly, and without reason, the present tense thread starts being told in past tense. Not only is this incredibly confusing as the narrative begins to jump quickly between past and present, it is also totally illogical, since present time events at the end of the book told in past tense actually occur after earlier events told in present tense. You can’t have past tense events come after present tense events in time, that’s just absurd.
  4. Another, equally problematic issue with the narration is the tendency to go off on tangents that have no real bearing on the immediate story. There are entire chapters that can be removed, without affecting the story at all. The whole second chapter, that deals with characters entirely unrelated to the protagonists, and which comes before we even meet the protagonists, is one example. Another is the entire Patrick Hogsteadder chapter, which only slows down the narrative as it is reaching it’s crisis.
  5. The villains are boring. The places in the narrative where we either get the monster’s POV, or have the monster speak to us, do not help make the creature more interesting. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we know about It, the less terrifying it is. There is something about an unknowable horror that is compelling. On the flip side, the secondary villain, Henry, is boring because he is given no depth. By simply making him crazy, the character falls flat. Much more interesting would be a Henry who feels justified in tormenting the kids, and hunting the adults for payback, due to what he learned from his father as a child. Psychopathy is not necessary, and is rather a hindrance.
  6. The book is blatantly sexist. The treatment of the only female lead in the book is horrible. Despite attempting to show a liberalness to things like racism and sexism, the work falls flat on the latter end. Everything about Beverly is presented, in some way, as related to men, whether it be her father or her husband or her friends. She is given no real agency of her own. Also she is the only character who is sexualized in the book, whether by appearance or description or the situations she finds her self in (such as watching the bully boys masturbate–part of that completely unnecessary Patrick chapter). Another example of the overt sexualization of Beverly is when the adults are in It’s lair, holding hands to send their power to Mike who is under threat in the hospital, it is Beverly who is described as “rolling her head in ecstasy.” This is followed by a comment about orgasms. She is also routinely seen with her shirt open, with numerous comments made about her breasts. When describing her as an eleven or twelve year old. No other character’s sex life is described, but Bev’s is scrutinized. It all becomes clear during the “love scene” between Bill and Bev. Here you realize that she is just a sexual object for King’s own fantasies, acted out through his stand-in Bill, the successful horror writer who critics hate. The comparison could not be more obvious.

Much more could be said, but I just want to be done with it. Maybe someday in the future, I will finish those last hours, so that I can say that I did it, I battled through, but not now.

This whole experience has only gone to show just how much better at storytelling the filmmakers of both versions of IT on video were than King himself. They understood the need to cut all the needless fat (which in the case of the book, I would say is around a third of it), to stick to the main plot, to have a coherent POV and timeline, to not over explain the monster, to not make Henry just a crazy guy, and to respect the female cast, among other things.

Stephen King routinely rants about the criticism he received early in his career, but I see now that it was well deserved. He was not a great writer, not even very good. But he managed to rope an agent or editor in with his first novel Carrie, and from that point on, he was in the club. Merit was no longer required.

This feels horribly unfair, as modern writers will usually only get an agent contract for a single book, and will have to submit again and be subject to the same scrutiny as the first time. And modern writers have to know how to write well, from the very beginning. We have to study and practice. We have to know all that stuff in On Writing, and be able to implement it, before our first noteworthy publication. King didn’t. That sucks.

At it’s core, IT is a great story about childhood, and the power of having an open, inquisitive, childish mind. But the execution fails. For anyone looking for the best version of the story, the 1990 miniseries is the way to go. It is more true to the original concept than the new films, but without all the troubles of the original text.

Well, that’s it. I’ve said my peace and now it’s time to move on. I think I need to jump back into the Discworld for a little while, to recover my sanity.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

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