Keeping the light on, or, why Stephen King’s IT might just be my favorite book of all time.
When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was obsessed with the miniseries version of Stephen King’s It. We had a videotape recording of it, presumably as a result of my mom being a big Stephen King fan, and it received just as much heavy rotation in the VCR as my video of The Little Mermaid.
I was a big fan of that miniseries for a great many years, constantly rewatching that old recorded VHS until it either got worn out or lost, I don’t remember which. I can’t explain what it was about that miniseries, why my young-child brain was so fixated on it, but it was. It didn’t give me nightmares, at least not that I recall; I don’t remember being inordinately frightened by it (though I do have one memory of a doll with bright red or orange hair getting caught between my bed and the wall, and all I could see was its hair, and I remember one heart-stopping moment of fear, imagining that it was Pennywise, before I was able to pluck up my courage and pull it out). I was just fascinated by it.
I didn’t start reading Stephen King until I was in high school, or maybe late middle school. I started small, with either Carrie or The Shining, but I was determined to make steady progress through my mom’s collection. I don’t remember when I first read It, but I think it was after I read The Stand in my junior year of high school (I remember this because my algebra II teacher was astounded at me reading such a huge book; it was the unabridged version, so it was a veritable concrete block of a book). I don’t know why I waited so long to read It, but maybe I was afraid that it would ruin the miniseries for me.
And it did.
I fell in love with the full novel version of It the first time I read it, the old, rather worn paperback copy of my mom’s (that eventually became so worn that the cover fell off, and I bought another used copy that had the exact same cover; it, too, is so worn that it’s been recently taped up).
This I can explain better than my childhood fascination with the miniseries.
For starters, I’ve always been a sucker for world-building in books; it’s part of what makes Harry Potter so magical, part of the reason I’m drawn back to series such as A Wrinkle in Time, and A Series of Unfortunate Events, and His Dark Materials. All of these series have these complex, immersive worlds in them, and though It is not a series, it holds that same, magical quality for me.
Though I have never been to Maine, if Derry were real, I would want to visit. Stephen King created such a deep, complex town in Derry, full of history and people and stories, like any other small New England town. (And I would wager there is a great amount of history and stories that didn’t make it into the novel, but that maybe reside somewhere in King’s head, or perhaps even written down in an old notebook somewhere.) We’re introduced to Greta Bowie and Sally Mueller early on, and we see those names, Bowie and Mueller, come up again and again in the history of the town. We get a glimpse of Bill Denbrough’s father Zack as a child during the telling of the shooting of the Bradley Gang. We get to know Mike’s father Will through his past, both in Derry and out of it.
Names and people are not forgotten, because they come up again and again, as names and people in small towns frequently do, and like any good author, King gently reminds us of who they are from time to time, in case we do forget.
But the real beauty of It is on a deeper, but also somehow smaller and more intimate level. The book opens with young George Denbrough sailing a paper boat made for him by his big brother Bill, following this little paper boat to his impending strange death. And we see through George’s eyes; we see his imagination, his fears, and this is where the book’s strength lies.
It is a creature that feeds on fear and imagination, and what better food source than children, with their monumental imaginations, children who will believe anything until someone or something comes along and extinguishes that particular flickering flame of thought. So we get a good half of a book told through the eyes of children, children who are both young and somehow old, children who understand both very little about the world, but also more than the adults in their lives might give them credit for.
And because the children believe, so do we believe, and we share their fear.
The house on Neibolt Street always stands out starkly in my mind, because that scene when Bill, Bev, Ben, Richie, Stand, Mike, and Eddie venture into the house to try to kill It is terrifying and powerful all at once, and it’s the first time we really see the power behind those children. We see that they are on their own, but not; that there is something else, some Other, guiding their thoughts and motivations. It uses the house to scare them, to get them to turn tail and run, but the children fight through their fear, screaming and crying, but carrying on. Bev loses one of the ball bearings, but that Other gives her clarity, helps her to see, and she takes her huge, endless breath and hits her target almost dead-on. And though she is out of ammo at this point, the others urge her to shoot again, to take It out, and in doing so, they use their imaginations against It, making It afraid and forcing It back into the sewers.
It as a novel makes us see the power of children, the power of their minds and their beliefs, and makes us see what most of us lose as we get older. The cynicism that we cultivate, the way our fears become complex and mundane, the knowledge that werewolves and the Creature from the Black Lagoon aren’t real.
Children have no precedence for these creatures they see in movies and read about in books, so of course there are werewolves, and mummies that come to life and creatures that rise up out of dark, quaggy lakes, because why not? Why not?
And It, we see eventually, is not of Earth, but something from Beyond. It is an alien, and again we see the power of imagination and belief. When Richie and Mike see It’s arrival, at first they can’t quantify what they’re seeing, because it is not something they have ever seen before, but when Richie thinks that’s it’s a spaceship, suddenly it is now a spaceship. But he acknowledges that it only looks that way because it’s the closest thing his mind could think of to rationalize what he was truly seeing.
This comes up again later, when they arrive in It’s lair, and see the huge spider creature, the acknowledgment that this is not It’s true form, but it’s the closest they can get to seeing It, because their minds simply can’t grasp what It truly is.
Much is made about the scene where young Beverly invites the boys to have sex with her, when they realize their connection is fading after fighting It the first time, but it’s another exploration of one of the other themes of the book, which is power. It’s not, strictly speaking, the power over something, though this is explored as well, but the power of something. Bev uses sex to reignite their connection, because she’s already reached that age where her actions have begun to fall under scrutiny; the adults in her life, namely her parents, are beginning to grow suspicious of her interactions with boys. Beverly doesn’t see the Big Deal, but we see it in her mother asking, almost fearfully, if she’s on a date, and in several of her father’s comments and interactions, not to mention later during the first big climax, when It “possesses” her father and accuses her of sleeping around with those boys in the Barrens, and we get a horrifying glimpse of her father’s true desires.
Bev may not fully understand sex, but she understands the power that lies behind it, and she uses it, she harnesses it, to bring them back together. And the argument can certainly be made that there are other ways they could’ve rekindled their connection, but I see it as a comment, perhaps made subconsciously or unintentionally, on the way girls are introduced to sex at a young age, and to being seen as sexual objects. Bev is only 11, but she sees the way her mother looks at her, feels the changes happening in her body as she’s starting to go through puberty, hears the way her father worries about her A Lot, and she realizes that sex has power, just like belief in a thing has power. It’s a power that’s unique to her, as a girl approaching her teenage years and having her body and motivations already starting to be studied under a microscope, even if she herself doesn’t see it, or understand it, yet.
That moment with Bev and the boys in the sewers after fighting It the first time is not about sex, not entirely. It’s about Bev realizing that she has power, and that she is in control of her body, of her self, and wanting to share that power, and wanting to share the love she has for these six boys, to feel the love they have for her.
When they go down to fight It the first time, there is a storm that starts up out of nowhere. The significance of this is not evident until later, until they go down into the sewers to fight It again as adults.
It is from Beyond; It is from Outer Space, and the universe senses the wrongness of It. So there is atmospheric disturbance, and other disturbances too that we don’t see until that second interlude.
Derry is It. This is a theme throughout the story; Derry is the evil, and the wrongness. The town built up around It, over It, and perhaps It called the first settlers to Derry in some way. Perhaps It sensed the change, sensed a more satisfying food source, and so It called people to It’s land, and used them, and fed on them.
It lives in the center of Derry, It’s lair comprising Derry’s seedy black heart, and when the adult Losers kill It, Derry quite literally falls apart as the center of the town caves in, destroyed by the wind and the rain and the rising waters of the Kenduskeag that runs through it. There is destruction of some of the vital aspects of the town: the Kissing Bridge, the Standpipe, the horrible statue of Paul Bunyan, the glass tunnel running between the adult and children’s sections of the library that Ben Hanscom was so enamored with. (I always wondered what happened to that house on Neibolt Street; was it destroyed as well? Perhaps struck by lightning, or maybe just blown apart by some Force?)
In 1958, it took 7 children, 7 Losers, to fight It, and though they didn’t kill It, they wounded It, gave It reason to fear, gave It a run for It’s money. And though they are 7 whittled down to 5 by the time of the second fight in 1985, they are still powerful. They still believe, and they still love, and there is still monstrous power in that.
But then comes the forgetting, and this, to me, is the saddest part. They forgot before, those that left, and Mike was left to keep the lights on. But after the second fight, after they kill It, the forgetting begins again, even with Mike; he calls Richie back in LA, and Richie has already begun to forget, but so too has Mike. Neither of them remembers Stan’s last name until Mike looks it up in his book. And even Mike’s book begins to fade, the names and numbers of these people who he once loved so fiercely, and who loved him back. He forgets, and his book forgets, and it makes me want to cry, even now.
It is a story about power. The power of love, the power of imagination, the power of belief, the power of memory. The power of good, and of evil. The power of children.
It is a story of these 7 children, these 7 Losers who were all outsiders in their own way. Bill, who lost his little brother and lived with the shame and guilt of it, who just wanted to be seen and loved by his parents, who stuttered and had to fight to be understood. Ben, who had no friends before, who was fat and sought comfort in his books, and who was privately in love with a pretty young girl named Beverly. Bev, who lived in the poor part of town with her abusive father, who only hit her because he loved her, but even then, some part of her knew that wasn’t right. Stan, the neat, quiet Jewish boy, who was an outsider because of this Jewishness. Eddie, the sickest boy in Derry, or so his mother might have you believe. Richie, the loud, hyperactive class clown who couldn’t keep his mouth shut no matter how hard he tried. Mike, the only black kid in Derry, only 11 but already forced to see the ugly side of racism, primarily perpetuated by crazy Henry Bowers and his crazy father.
These 7 children came together for one summer to fight the terrible monster terrorizing Derry, and in that summer, experienced a powerful friendship full of love and laughter, terror and bravery, only to forget once it was all over.
They come back 27 years later on the strength of a promise, all except Stan, who was scared back then, and is too scared to face it the second time around, but he’s still there, somewhere. They forgot each other before, but remember now, remember that summer, remember their love, remember everything they forgot.
They fight It again, and they win this time, but the victory is bittersweet as they once again forget each other, forget the love they shared, forget the bond that connected them all.
But perhaps that is part of the power as well. Perhaps the forgetting is protection, giving them the ability to move on with their lives without the memory of the terrible, wonderful things they did together. It makes me wonder how Ben and Bev get on after they leave Derry. They’re together, but what do they remember? I believe their love for each other is strong enough to keep them together, but what do they say when people ask how they met? I suppose they give the answer of being childhood friends reunited, but do they get a flicker in their eyes? A shared look under creased brows as they think about the blank spots in their memories?
The Losers forget, and move on with their lives, and so too must we once we read the last page and close the book on this wonderful, engrossing story. We move on, but we don’t forget, and though the Losers may not remember their beautiful friendship, and the awesome power of what they achieved, we do. We remember for them.
We keep the lights on.