Let Me Tell You What I Remember, No. 1: Stephen King’s IT

As a child, I was always interested in books. By this, I don’t just mean “I liked to read” (although I did); I mean I was very interested in books as objects — the design of the dust jackets, the typeface, the smell and texture of the pages. I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my parents’ dark wood bookcase, taking out books, leafing through them, putting them back. Again, not necessarily reading them — in some cases literally just looking at them. I remember my dad had a book called “Contemporary Business” or something that I used to scrutinize because it had one of those collages you find on the covers of old textbooks, and I still can vaguely recall the basic shapes and colors. Anyway, this bookcase was dominated by two subjects: my dad’s Beatles books and my mom’s Stephen King books.

It’s a little funny because my mom is not actually what you’d consider a horror fan or anything. But something about Stephen King has just always spoken to her, whether it’s the way he writes as though you and he are old friends, or the way he references places and people across books so that they become as familiar as any place you’ve actually been; King’s books, for all their blood and bad words, are very cozy stories when all is said and done. But whatever the reason, my mom has pretty much every Stephen King novel and short story collection published between 1974 and 1990 (and several from the past twenty years as well), and I had access to all of them at a very early age.

The dustjackets on those first-edition hardbacks were really something. Some modern horror writers, I think, don’t like this sort of thing. “Horror is legitimate literature; we deserve a classy jacket design.” I understand where that’s coming from, and if you believe that I certainly won’t fault you for it, but for me…I mean, obviously they work, because I was fascinated by them. My tastes lie in the lurid anyway, but, you know…horror on the printed page can’t rely on the immediacy that horror in movies or even campfire stories take for granted, so why shouldn’t we let that cover supply at least one visceral image and burn it into your brain?

Anyway. I’ve never read a word of Firestarter, but I remember the jacket. The same goes for The Bachman Books and Thinner, both of which I could just stare at all day as a child. There was a collected edition of The Shining, Salem’s Lot, Night Shift, and Carrie that had a split photo cover of Jack Nicholson smashing through the door and Shelly Duval’s face further elongated in a scream. I have this book in my own bookcase today, but sometime in the past decade, my mom seemed to decide she’d had it with the dustjackets getting all bunched up and falling off the books. She stripped the lot, so I now just have a nude red hardcover with STEPHEN KING in big gold letters on the spine.

The dustjacket that really captivated me was the one for It.

I mean, look at that. Tell me how a boy between the ages of eight and twelve could possibly be expected to resist it. The image of a lonely sailboat drifting toward some unspeakable terror signified only by its scaly cartoon-monster claw. The title is what really seals the deal, though; It isn’t so hot when you put it in an ordinary typeface, and it’s (or indeed, It’s) kind of awkward to refer to in conversation. But those faults are all forgiven when you see the title as it appears on the jacket — two enormous capital letters standing for the whole 1,100 pages of text, branded like an old, ragged rubber stamp dipped in blood.

Well, it made me pay attention, and there were more points of interest to be found within. There’s the sheer length of the book; to a kid used to “children’s novels” like the Cam Jansen books, the idea that any human could possibly write one story that took more than a thousand pages to tell was mind-expanding. There was the look of the text itself, set in a wonderfully cryptic Garamond No. 3. And simply flipping through that book, a child will find all kinds of words that demand attention — naughty words, sometimes in all-caps, which I could hardly believe could be printed in a book I could find in my house.

By the time I got to middle school, I figured I should actually read this book. I hope you’ll forgive me when I tell you there was some skimming going on here. The “interludes” in between sections seemed to totally break up the story I was in the middle of reading for no reason, although now I’m fascinated by the depth of worldbuilding King crams into them. The climactic Ritual of Chud, switching back and forth from 1958 and 1985, is still an effort to keep straight, not least of all because the one downside to Garamond is that its italicized forms can be hard to read, and that sequence has whole pages in italic Garamond. And the bit with Eddie and the leper was lost on me because I wasn’t totally sure what a leper was.

But I did finish it. One of my proudest achievements as a young reader. Shortly after, I had to write a short story for an English class, and you can probably predict that it was the story of a nebulous, unspeakable evil dwelling beneath the surface of a small town and the ordinary man who has to fight it. I was proud enough that I read it in front of the whole class. I didn’t get into the kind of trouble where it’s a call to the principal or anything, but after class the teacher was a little flustered and told me that I should bring more appropriate material to class in the future. Me, I thought I’d toned it down, but then again, I’d just read 1,100 pages of truly objectionable material.

I don’t have a copy of that story anymore. I don’t remember what it was called, or what any of the characters’ names were. Aside from the broad plot arc, the only other thing I remember about it is that at one point the monster says he’s going to consume the hero’s soul or something, and then the hero administers some sort of coup de grace on the monster and says, “Consume this, jerkweed.” It was very likely best line in the story, which it ought to have been, because I plagiarized it from an issue of Spider-Man 2099 (issue #7; check your longboxes and see if it isn’t so).

So yeah. Sorry you can’t read that story. But, um…if you’d like to stick around, maybe pop back over here every once and I while…I can share a few other things I’ve written with you.

More to come.

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(Postscript—I suppose you can’t really talk about It without talking about the ending. I mean, it’s the sort of thing you have to address. I can’t really describe what Bev does to keep the group together long enough to escape the sewers without attracting some undesirable Google traffic. If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember it, and if you’ve only seen the movie, you’ll have no clue what I am talking about, because filming that scene with live actors would be a criminal offense. Anyhoo, the best comment I’ve ever heard about it came from, of all places, a comment thread on The AV Club. To paraphrase it to the best of my memory, the commenter said that the scene actually is totally justified thematically in the context of the rest of the story…and yet, it is totally reprehensible and revolting, and not in the good way that one wants out of a horror story. I do not find anything to disagree with in that statement.)