Sunday, December 15, 2013

Monster Mash-Up


By Stephen King

3 out of 5 silver ball bearings

Only Stephen King could write an 1100 page book about the innocence and wonder of childhood, and then kick it off with a six-year-old boy getting his arm ripped off by a clown.

Derry, Maine, in 1958 is a bad place to be if you’re a kid.  Child disappearances and murders are occurring with astonishing regularity, and while the adults set curfews and hunt for maniacs, a group of 11-year-old outcast kids know the truth.  A supernatural entity has been terrorizing and killing the children of Derry.  These 7 kids eventually band together into a self-proclaimed Loser’s Club dedicated to destroy the evil they call It.

In 1985 the members of the Losers are called together again in order to fulfill a childhood promise to return to Derry if It ever returned.  However, now they’re adults who have only foggy memories of exactly what they did to stop It the first time.  Can they summon the same belief they had as kids to again face and stop It?

With the creation of It, King threw a kitchen sink full of monsters into this with the villain able to take the form of whatever will scare it’s latest victim the most.  So the kids alternately face everything from werewolves, mummies, lepers, crawling eyes, giant birds and Frankenstein’s monster with It using the form of a demonic clown called Pennywise as the baseline.  The concept that it’s the belief system of the kids that they use as their main weapon against It was a clever idea. So if it’s a werewolf and the kids believe it’s a werewolf, then they also believe that silver can be used against the creature, and It has to abide by those rules.

Another of the more successful aspects of this book is how King creates 7 likeable kid characters and then writes them as adults so that they really seem like the same people.  Another part of this that is particularly sharp is just how well he portrays the sheer terror that each character seems to feel at one time or another.  While he presents all as being brave and stepping up when it’s Big-Damn-Hero time, they all also have moments where they’re pushed almost to their limits or beyond.

However, I’ve never been as high on this one as a lot of King fans are.  I originally read it when I was 5 years older than the age of the Losers in their 1958 story so I had just left the age of childhood fantasy behind and wasn’t particularly enthralled with revisiting the concept.  On the flip side of that, this was adult King engaging in a bit of nostalgia porn, and I was far too young to understand the fleeting nature of youth.  Now I’m 5 years older than the Loser’s were in the 1985 portion of the story so it’s like I’m traveling back to the time I should be nostalgic about to listen to an older person’s nostalgia of yet an earlier time.  In short, I’m always out of sync with King’s rhythm when it comes to this one.

It’s some of King’s best work at tapping into the minds of kids as well as the bittersweet nature of looking back at that time as an adult, but it’s also one where he gave in to his worst impulses in letting the story bloat far beyond what was needed to tell the story

There’s a couple of other factors that keep this from being top shelf King for me, but they are filled with spoilers so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know.

Spoilers follow:

*  I hated this the first time I’ve read It, and my opinion didn’t improve this time through.  The idea of what poor Bev has to do to reestablish the connection between the Losers when they’re lost in the sewers after facing It the first time is completely unnecessary and puts a layer of ‘Ewww!‘ all over the childhood relationships.

* Poor Bev really gets the worst of it in a lot of ways in this book. She’s the only one of the Losers to have an absolutely terrible life with her abusive husband as an adult.  Granted, Eddie has a miserable marriage and Mike got stuck in Derry, but she’s the only one who gets used as a punching bag which seems odd considering that King indicates that they’re all under the spell/protection of the Turtle or whatever force of good made most of them rich but childless. ( Yeah, I know it relates back to her father, but it still seems grossly unfair when most of the others are at least content.)

* By the end, two of the Losers are dead, and the survivors won’t even get to remember each other or what they did.  (I always wondered how Ben and Bev going off together as a couple at the end would work.  Did they forget each other if one of them went to the store or something?)  But they managed to kill It once and for all, right?  That’s what we spent all that effort to find out, isn’t it?  That the Losers suffered and don’t even get to celebrate their victory for long, but at least It is dead so the whole thing had to be worth it.  Unless…….

You read Dreamcatcher which features a brief scene where a character goes to Derry and sees a memorial placed there by the Loser’s Club for all the kids who died, but which has the ominous graffiti message of ‘Pennywise Lives!’ on it.

First off, if the Losers can’t remember what happened or even each other, how did they put up a memorial?  Secondly, the idea that I read this mammoth story only to have King retroactively throw a shadow over the ending by putting a line into another book severely pisses me off.  After the unambiguous statement that It was dead at the end, an author shouldn’t play it cute and toss a line off for cheap thrills in something else that undermines the entire book.  That is complete and utter bullshit of the highest order.

Also posted at Goodreads

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