I first read Stephen King's It back in October 2009. It took me by surprise back then because I thought it was a horror story about a clown who goes around and kills people. And while there is a clown that goes around and kill people, I learned that the story was about the clown or the killing so much as it was about the kids who grew up in the shadow of the killings and the adults they eventually grew into. I really liked the book on that first read. I thought it one of the better Stephen King books I'd read and on Amazon and Goodreads, I think I gave it a 4-star rating.
Last month, I re-read It. I picked up the 25th Anniversary edition but out by Cemetary Dance Press (shown above) and slowly made by way back through the book. It was a fascinating experience. I kept better notes this time, and while I had a vague sense of what was coming, I discovered I didn't remember nearly as much of the story as I supposed I had. When I finished reading the book; when I finally set it aside, I came to surprising realization: It was a better book than I originally thought. It deserved 5-stars–a rating I reserve for only the finest books–and it cemented itself in my mind as the best Stephen King story I've read.
What changed? I think I read the book more closely the second time. From the beginning, the book is filled with references that, while subtle, have significant relevance later. In the very beginning, for instance, when George is heading down into the basement, he notices the bottle of Turtle Wax:
For some reason, this can struck him and he spent nearly thirty seconds look at the turtle on the lid with a kind of hypnotic wonder.
Those who have read the book will understand this early reference.
Then, too, It–and Derry in particular–is reference by so much of King's later work that having read a lot more King, I noticed them along the way, and each one was like finding a little gem where you least expected it. For instance, the fact that Ben Hanscomb is, as an adult, living in Hemingford Home. This town played a role in Stephen King's novella, “1922,” which was included in the collection Full Dark, No Stars.
Buried within the details backgrounds of the characters, you can find King's commentary on all kinds of things. The one I found most amusing and striking was his scathing look at college creative writing programs:
Here is a poor boy from the state of Maine who goes to the University on a scholarship. All his life he has wanted to be a writer, but when he enrolls in the writing courses, he finds himself lost without a compass in a strange and frightening land. There's one guy who wants to be Updike. There's another one who wants to be a New England version of Faulkner–only he wants to write novels about the grim lives of the poor in blank verse. There's a girl who admires Joyce Carol Oates but feels that because Oates was nurtured in a sexist society she is “radioactive in a literary sense.” Oates is unable to be clean, the girl says. She will be cleaner. There's the short, fat grad student who can't or won't speak above a mutter. This guys has written a play in which there are nine characters. Each of them says only a single word. Little by little the playgoers realize that when you put the single words together, you come out with “War is the tool of the sexist death merchants.” This fellow's play receives an A from the man who teaches Eh-141 (Creative Writing Honors Seminar). The instructor has published four books of poetry, and his Master's thesis, all with the University Press. He smokes pot and wears a police medallion. The fat mutterer's play is produced by a guerrilla theater group during a strike to end the war which shuts down the campus in May of 1970. The instructor plays one of the characters.
It would almost seem a non-sequitor but the character we see this through is a successful writer who was kicked out of that program–or quit it because it seemed so ludicrous.
Everything in the novel ties together, but not in the neat little bow you'd expect, and everything seemed so much more vivid and alive this time around. I know that people complain that sometimes King goes too deep into background and backstory, but in It, at least, I found those deep dives fascinating and relevant to the story at hand. At the same time, I marveled for the first time, at King's ability to bring a scene to life by focusing on a small detail and then circling out into greater generalities, as when he descibes Bev's bathroom:
The wallpaper in here was a hideous pattern of frogs on lily pads. It bulged and swayed over the lumpy plaster beneath. It was watermarked in some places, actually peeling away in others. The tub was rustmarked, the toiletseat cracked. One naked 40-watt bulb jutted from a porcelain socket over the basin. Beverly could remember–vaguely–that there had once been a light fixture, but it had been broken some years ago and never replaced. The floor was covered with linoleum from which the pattern had faded, except for a small patch under the sink.
The structure of the novel itself is another marvel that works in its favor. It is told in two different times: the late 1950s and the mid 1980s and yet both are intermingled with one another as if time were somewhat irrelevant. The entire thread is tied together by a series of Interludes in which Mike, the only one of the original Losers to stay behind in Derry, invents through a series of notes he's keeping on the events that have taken place in Derry over the years. He acts as a kind of external commentator on events, while being very much a part of them in 1958 and 1985.
Perhaps more than anything else, It is a unique coming-of-age novel, one in which two precious things work against each other. The kids grow up too quickly, and lose the magic of childhood–a magic that allows them to see terrible things, but also provides them the opportunity to stop them. And at the same time, as adults, they are trying to reclaim that same magic, to in essence give up their adulthood and revert to children in order to defeat It once and for all.
Most of all, my second reading of It was even more satisfying and enjoyable than my first and that is something that I find to be extremely rare. I've only read two or three books where a subsequent reading has proven better and more satisfying than the original. Stephen King's It is now one of them.