Reading Stephen King’s ‘It’: Still unsettling, all these years later

My eighth-grade English teacher had a no-Stephen-King rule — which was rich considering that she made us read Ayn Rand‘s “Anthem” — but King’s new novel about an evil clown menacing the small town of Derry, Maine, was the size of a Buick, so she allowed me to do my book report on “It.”

I’ve written in these pages before about discovering a disintegrating copy of “The Shining” in a rural Colorado restaurant-bar when I was 8 or 9. For years afterward, I read every book by Stephen King I could get my hands on. “The Stand,” “Cujo,” “Christine,” “‘Salem’s Lot,” “Pet Sematary,” “Night Shift,” “Different Seasons,” “Carrie,” “The Dead Zone,” the Richard Bachman novels, even “The Eyes of the Dragon,” which my dad had to hunt down in hardcover as soon as it came out.

King’s stories never terrified me in a classic keep-the-lights-on, check-the-closets sense. (No fiction ever did when I was a kid, except for Jay Anson’s silly “Amityville Horror” — that red-eyed pig looking down from the window is seared into my mind.) They unsettled me more profoundly than that.

Take “The Jaunt,” a short story from “Skeleton Crew,” for instance. It’s about teleportation via an interdimensional portal (or something). Travelers are sedated before being teleported, because people who made the journey while conscious were either driven insane or died instantly. A man whose family is about to teleport to Mars explains to his children that the process, although physically instantaneous, seems to a conscious mind to last forever. One of the guy’s curious kids manages to circumvent the sedation, and he comes out the other side a second later shrieking, “It’s longer than you think, Dad!” before clawing out his own eyes.

And though the movie, despite being set in a small mill town in the ’80s, has no political consciousness to speak of, King’s story, for all its problematic facets, is alive to its times (it alternates between the ’50s and ’80s). The father of one of the Losers is given to reminiscence: “In Lewiston they were worried about tramps and hobos and that something called ‘the bonus army’ would join up with something they called ‘the Communist riff-raff army,’ by which they meant any man who was out of work. The Legion of Decency used to send these fellows out of town just as fast as they came in.” This must have been my first encounter with Marx’s concept of “surplus population.”

Freud’s concept of “das Es,” “the It” — borrowed from Georg Groddeck and improperly translated as “the Id” by James Strachey — refers to the “unknown and uncontrollable forces” that govern our psychic lives. It would be easy to assimilate “It” to a reading along these lines, especially as all too knowable forces are loose in Derry — racism, domestic abuse, poverty, unemployment, McCarthyism and Reaganism. Perhaps the monster the Losers call It is a proxy for these or for the unconscious; the standard accounts of why we turn to the uncanny suggest that I escaped into horror novels, with their imaginary hence harmless terrors, to escape the misery of my adolescent schooldays.

These explanations make a tidy intuitive sense, which is why I distrust them. People like to come up with theories for why we enjoy watching hockey-masked crazies carve up campers. “Can’t you guys just let a story be a story?” asks the adult Bill, who has become a novelist. But that’s no good either. I don’t know why I like to read Peter Straub or watch “Halloween.” But rereading “It” reminded me we should let eighth-graders do both.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music.”

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