To begin, we state the obvious: Stephen King has written many books.
He has written better books than It—in a career full of flawed masterpieces, only Different Seasons and Misery are perfect books. He has written more influential books than It—his first horror trilogy, Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, did more than any other literary work save The Exorcist to define the Horror Boom, and their impact is still felt to this day. He has written, unfathomable as it may seem, longer books than It—the two-volume mass-market paperback edition of Under the Dome comes in at just about a combined 1,300 pages compared to It‘s mere 1,090. But nothing in his vast oeuvre sums up King as an author nearly as well as his 1986 epic. The course of his entire career is laid out in its pages: his strengths, his weaknesses, his themes and obsessions and crutches.
Indeed, looking at It in context, it almost seems as if King wanted to make such a statement with the novel. Whether because he intended things to happen that way or because its publication coincided with the harrowing climax of his cocaine addiction, It reads as the culmination of the first stage of King’s career. Following it was a thirteen-year mixed bag that produced some of its author’s best work (Misery, The Dark Tower books II-IV, The Green Mile) and some of his absolute worst (Needful Things, Desperation, The Dark Half), before his infamous 1999 encounter with a van started the whole process over again.
If there is any single Stephen King book that is best suited to analyzing him as an author, then, it is this one. It also just happens to be my favorite of his books, which, well.
To begin with: the question of genre
It’s rather baffling that Stephen King, at this stage in his career, is labeled a “horror writer”. Not that he hasn’t written copious amounts of horror fiction—nearly all his early short tales fall under that banner, as do each of his first three novels. But if all of King’s work is taken into account, the percentages are decidedly skewed. Only about a dozen or so of his fifty-four novels definitively fall under what I would consider to be supernatural horror. (As the question of what horror is has come up in every one of my [admittedly scant] blog posts thus far, I really do have to write a full entry expounding on the subject. For now, take it as read that when I refer to supernatural horror, I mean a work of fiction in which an impossible being invades an otherwise thoroughly materialistic world; in this regard [and not many others] I tend to agree with S. T. Joshi.) Several others, including Cujo, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, fall under the genre of terror, in which suspense and dark happenings are certainly present but the crucial supernatural element is not. The Dark Tower and The Stand are murky SF/F hybrids, while The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Under the Dome are straight science fiction. And then there’s the magical realism of The Green Mile, the Gothic throwback of Bag of Bones, and the just plain mainstream “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body”.
Point being, King has been rather unfairly pigeonholed due to the uniform nature of his first three novels and to the fact that the boundaries of the horror genre are rather murky amongst the general reading populace. As a consequence, whether or not what he’s writing is in fact horrific, it tends to be marketed as horror. Which means that, before we can discuss It as a horror novel, we need to ask ourselves the question: is It even a work of literary horror?
The question is a harder one that it initially appears, and my short answer isn’t at all definitive. That short answer: due to the way that King chooses to write his books, It exists in a quantum zone of both supernatural horror and horrific fantasy. We’ll be getting into the distinction between the two, and the reasons for why It is both of them rather than one or the other, in the course of this series, and I don’t want to frontload this introduction with a lecture on genre conventions. However, I also don’t want to end this entry without having said anything particularly substantial, so I’ll briefly touch on King’s writing process here.
King is in/famous for not outlining his work before he begins it. He believes that plot and story should unfold organically from the actions of his characters, and while this is certainly a guard against his books’ inhabitants turning into so many meat-puppets for their author to manipulate, it does mean that there is generally a word limit beyond which, if passed, a King book will begin to unravel. Besides It, the best example of this in his bibliography is the sudden left turn that The Stand takes about two thirds of the way through. In King’s own words (taken from On Writing):
I had run out too many plotlines, and they were in danger of becoming snarled. I circled the problem again and again, beat my fists on it, knocked my head against it . . . and then one day when I was thinking of nothing much at all, the answer came to me.
[. . .] What I saw was that the America in which The Stand took place might have been depopulated by the plague, but the world of my story had become dangerously overcrowded—a veritable Calcutta. The solution to where I was stuck, I saw, could be pretty much the same as the situation that got me going—an explosion instead of a plague, but still one quick, hard slash of the Gordian knot. I would send the survivors west from Boulder to Las Vegas on a redemptive quest—they would go at once, with no supplies and no plan, like Biblical characters seeking a vision or to know the will of God. In Vegas they would meet Randall Flagg, and good guys and bad guys alike would be forced to make their stand.
This abrupt shift doesn’t necessarily wreck The Stand—as evidenced by the fact that many still consider it King’s finest novel—but it most certainly is a shift. Up to the point of King’s improvised solution, the novel is by and large a postapocalyptic science-fiction epic with dashes of mysticism. Post-knotcutting, it becomes a pure religious fantasy, and while its Old Testament showdown (complete with deus ex machina) can’t be called unfitting, it still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. It also makes The Stand an excellent comparison point for the turn that It takes at its own two-thirds mark.
When King began writing It, he almost certainly thought he was penning a horror novel. A grander one than he had ever attempted, to be sure—instead of one monster for his characters to face, they’re given a manitou that is capable of becoming every conceivable nightmare—but still rooted firmly in the genre of supernatural horror. However, the nature of that monster undergoes a huge transformation at a crucial point, moving from storybook demon to cosmic demiurge. This alters the tone of the novel significantly, but doesn’t necessarily blow it out of the horror genre. But then, incredibly late in the game, it’s revealed that Pennywise’s devil is mirrored by a God, and the whole thing goes up in smoke. Whether or not you believe that the final confrontation of It is a satisfying climax, it can’t be denied that it’s not a horrific climax but a fantastic one, with a lone supernatural threat transforming into one aspect of an entire cosmic mythology.
Thus, as if the First and Second Isaiahs were transmuted to a Horror Boom text, we are left with two fundamentally different works stitched together. A thematic unity prevails—unlike Isaiah, It was written by a single author—but it does so in spite of a massive genre shift. And while this doesn’t render It a crippled novel, it’s a hell of a lot more convoluted for it.
(to be continued)