I'm re reading IT right now (slowly, as adult life is getting in the way) and was wondering what other bad storytelling choices you thought king made besides the. Uh. Sewer scene? Its been years since ive read it and nothing else really stood out to me as poor storytelling that i can remember. I'll read it for myself eventually but was curious of your thoughts. Love your blog!
Thanks! Stephen King often veers into caricature with his supporting characters, and It is no exception. The way he describes Eddie’s mom and wife physically goes well beyond the narratively useful purpose of establishing how their weight disorders have intertwined with Eddie’s hypochondria and into “ugh fat people are gross” territory. I don’t think King has conscious malignance in this area, because he finds a proper balance with Ben: the latter describes in realistic detail how he lost weight over time, his mom is upset that he’s eating less but is presented humanely (as someone who associates her son eating a lot with her doing well as a single mother), and King manages to avoid shaming Ben for his weight while also acknowledging that Ben personally feels a lot better about himself after having shed it–or rather, because of the confidence he gained in himself by taking charge of the situation. The idea here is not “Ben needs to lose weight because gross” but rather “Ben needs to be in control of his body.”
The good doesn’t wipe out the bad, nor vice versa; gotta consider them both in context. Main characters are naturally going to get more nuance than supporting characters, but necessary shorthand can easily turn into harmful caricature. And of course, a storytelling choice that seems solid in isolation can become a problem within the work as a whole. Beverly is sexualized throughout It in a way that’s often very unpleasant to read, associated throughout with violence and misogyny. Sometimes this works, as a way of peeling back the layers of petty ego driving a man’s man like her husband Tom; he explodes at her in their introductory scene because her paying attention to Mike’s call instead of him makes him feel like he’s literally not there. Other times it doesn’t, like when King lingers on the “smell” that Bev and her father “make together” now that she’s reaching puberty. We don’t need that to get the point that Bev’s father has inappropriate feelings for her–we got that from Bev’s mom asking if he ever touches her. When you put both sides of the coin together with the infamous sex scene in the sewers and the amount of time spent on whether Bev will choose Ben or Bill, it starts to look less like King was taking a stand against objectification by showing its omnipresence than that he simply didn’t know what to do with Bev as a character without constantly making reference to sex, rape, assault, and molestation. While she does get some right to response on these matters, I don’t think it’s nearly enough. It pushes back against a mindset that casually treats women like objects, but fails to establish a counter-narrative rooted in the female characters as individuals, fleshed out beyond their relationships to the men around them. It’s less a question of Does Stephen King Hate Women than one of imagination and empathy.
Of course, some flaws are lessened by context, rather than enhanced by it. Take, for example, our protagonist William Denbrough, a blatant author insert. Bill is a popular horror author (check) whose books are increasingly being adapted for TV and film (check) and who has a rather tense relationship with critics and academics (double check). The latter is spelled out in an extended flashback to Bill’s college days, in which he takes a stand that ought to be very familiar to anyone steeped in modern media discourse:
Here is a poor boy from the state of Maine who goes to the University on a scholarship. All his life he has wanted to be a writer, but when he enrolls in the writing courses he finds himself lost without a compass in a strange and frightening land. There’s one guy who wants to be Updike. There’s another one who wants to be a New England version of Faulkner-only he wants to write novels about the grim lives of the poor in blank verse. There’s a girl who admires Joyce Carol Gates but feels that because Oates was nurtured in a sexist society she is “radioactive in a literary sense.” Oates is unable to be clean, this girl says. She will be cleaner. There’s the short fat grad student who can’t or won’t speak above a mutter. This guy has written a play in which there are nine characters. Each of them says only a single word. Little by little the playgoers realize that when you put the single words together you come out with “War is the tool of the sexist death merchants.” This fellow’s play receives an A from the man who teaches Eh-141 (Creative Writing Honors Seminar). This instructor has published four books of poetry and his master’s thesis, all with the University Press. He smokes pot and wears a peace medallion. The fat mutterer’s play is produced by a guerrilla theater group during the strike to end the war which shuts down the campus in May of 1970. The instructor plays one of the characters.
Bill Denbrough, meanwhile, has written one locked-room mystery tale, three science-fiction stories, and several horror tales which owe a great deal to Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Richard Matheson-in later years he will say those stories resembled a mid-1800s funeral hack equipped with a supercharger and painted Day-Glo red.
One of the sf tales earns him a B.
“This is better,” the instructor writes on the title page. “In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence; I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.”
All the others do no better than a C.
Finally he stands up in class one day, after the discussion of a sallow young woman’s vignette about a cow’s examination of a discarded engine block in a deserted field (this may or may not be after a nuclear war) has gone on for seventy minutes or so. The sallow girl, who smokes one Winston after another and picks occasionally at the pimples which nestle in the hollows of her temples, insists that the vignette is a socio-political statement in the manner of the early Orwell. Most of the class-and the instructor-agree, but still the discussion drones on.
When Bill stands up, the class looks at him. He is tail, and has a certain presence.
Speaking carefully, not stuttering (he has not stuttered in better than five years), he says: “I don’t understand this at all. I don’t understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics… culture… history… aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? I mean… ” He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realizes dimly that they see this as some sort of attack. Maybe it even is. They are thinking, he realizes, that maybe there is a sexist death merchant in their midst. “I mean… can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”
No one replies. Silence spins out. He stands there looking from one cool set of eyes to the next. The sallow girl chuffs out smoke and snubs her cigarette in an ashtray she has brought along in her backpack.
Finally the instructor says softly, as if to a child having an inexplicable tantrum, “do you believe William Faulkner was ‘just telling stories’? Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in making a buck? Come now, Bill. Tell us what you think.”
“I think that’s pretty close to the truth,” Bill says after a long moment in which he honestly considers the question, and in their eyes he reads a kind of damnation.
“I suggest,” the instructor says, toying with his pen and smiling at Bill with half-lidded eyes, “that you have a great deal to learn.”
The applause starts somewhere in the back of the room.
Bill leaves… but returns the next week, determined to stick with it. In the time between he has written a story called “The Dark,” a tale about a small boy who discovers a monster in the cellar of his house. The little boy faces it, battles it, finally kills it. He feels a land of holy exaltation as he goes about the business of writing this story; he even feels that he is not so much telling the story as he is allowing the story to flow through him. At one point he puts his pen down and takes his hot and aching hand out into ten-degree December cold where it nearly smokes from the temperature change. He walks around, green cut-off boots squeaking in the snow like tiny shutter-hinges which need oil, and his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete. “Going to knock the shit out of it,” he confides to the blowing winter dark, and laughs a little-a shaky laugh. He is aware that he has finally discovered how to do just that-after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It has started up. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.
He rushes inside and finishes “The Dark” at white heat, writing until four o'clock in the morning and finally falling asleep over his ring-binder. If someone had suggested to him that he was really writing about his brother, George, he would have been surprised. He has not thought about George in years-or so he honestly believes.
The story comes back from the instructor with an F slashed into the tide page. Two words are scrawled beneath, in capital letters. PULP, screams one. CRAP, screams the other.
Bill takes the fifteen-page sheaf of manuscript over to the wood-stove and opens the door. He is within a bare inch of tossing it in when the absurdity of what he is doing strikes him. He sits down in his rocking chair, looks at a Grateful Dead poster, and starts to laugh. Pulp? Fine! Let it be pulp! The woods were full of it!
“Let them fucking trees fall!” Bill exclaims, and laughs until tears spurt from his eyes and roll down his face.
He retypes the title page, the one with the instructor’s judgment on it, and sends it off to a men’s magazine named White Tie (although from what Bill can see, it really should be titled Naked Girls Who Look Like Drug Users). Yet his battered Writer’s Market says they buy horror stories, and the two issues he has bought down at the local mom-and-pop store have indeed contained four horror stories sandwiched between the naked girls and the ads for dirty movies and potency pills. One of them, by a man named Dennis Etchison, is actually quite good.
He sends “The Dark” off with no real hopes-he has submitted a good many stories to magazines before with nothing to show for it but rejection slips-and is flabbergasted and delighted when the fiction editor of White Tie buys it for two hundred dollars, payment on publication. The assistant editor adds a short note which calls it “the best damned horror story since Ray Bradbury’s “The Jar.” He adds, “Too bad only about seventy people coast to coast will read it,” but Bill Denbrough does not care. Two hundred dollars!
He goes to his advisor with a drop card for Eh-141. His advisor initials it. Bill Denbrough staples the drop card to the assistant fiction editor’s congratulatory note and tacks both to the bulletin board on the creative-writing instructor’s door. In the corner of the bulletin board he sees an anti-war cartoon. And suddenly, as if moving of its own accord, his fingers pluck his pen from his breast pocket and across the cartoon he writes this: If fiction and politics ever really do become interchangeable, I’m going to kill myself, because I won’t know what else to do. You see, politics always change. Stories never do. He pauses, and then, feeling a bit small (but unable to help himself), he adds: I suggest you have a lot to learn.
You can easily imagine this argument–a timeless appeal is being ruined by lefty college kids and their postmodern analyses–being made today by an alt-right YouTuber out to cleanse the game industry of SJWs. Throughout It, King keeps cutting back to an image of a librarian reading “The Billy Goats Gruff” to a group of kids, the latter enthralled (King tells us) by the primal purity of the kind of monster stories upon which both King and Denbrough have built their careers. “Will the monster be bested…or will It feed?” That’s King declaring that
Bill’s his professors were wrong to wave aside his short horror stories. See? See?! I made it, and you pretentious eggheads were wrong to ever doubt me! This aspect of It is frankly embarrassing, especially as time marches on and we see how this mindset has taken root in the next generation.
But! While King very clearly believes this stuff, he’s also self-aware enough to include auto-critiques in his writing. Stan’s wife Patty picks up one of Bill’s novels and dismisses it as practically pornographic in its horror imagery. King goes too far in casting Patty’s dislike of Bill’s work as reflecting a lack of imagination on her part, but he then goes on to sympathetically explore how the grounded relatable struggles Patty has faced (anti-Semitism, her father mocking and dismissing Stan, their inability to have children) have led her to consider “horrorbooks” as shallow escapism. The real world, It admits, has horrors beyond anything the Kings and Denbroughs can come up with. “Werewolves, shit. What did a man like that know about werewolves?”
Later on, when Ben is telling his triumphant story about calling out a high school coach who taunted him for his weight, Bill gently notes that as an author, he has trouble believing any kid really talked like that. That’s King using his self-insert to wryly poke fun at his own oft-overheated dialogue. Self-awareness and self-deprecation are absolutely vital to making a book as thematically and structurally ambitious as this one work.
And while some of It’s politics make me cringe, other aspects make me perk up and take notice. King wrote It over the course of four years in which HIV and AIDS became a national crisis that was being largely ignored by said nation’s government. There was a growing conventional wisdom that the afflicted deserved their punishment and should be more or less left to rot. This was all part and parcel with the ascension of the religious right in American politics, especially within the Reagan White House. A huge part of the Reagan narrative (as we see in the “Morning in America” ad, also released while King was writing It) was a portrait of lily-white small-town America as a social ideal being beset by all sorts of ills that the left was either letting happen or actively supporting, and The Gays were most certainly among them.
It opens with a scene that seems to dovetail with that narrative: an idealized ‘50s small town in which an adorable innocent white boy from a good Christian family is horribly murdered by (what seems to be) a nightmarish external force that takes advantage of that innocence. Already, you can see a potential Reaganite spin–It as the Other, the “bear in the woods” threatening the ideal of Derry.
But that’s not what It is about. The second chapter jumps forward a generation, into the mid-1980s in which King was writing, and onto a scene of violence that cannot be wrapped into the meta-narrative of the religious right. Three men attack a gay man on a bridge, their delicate sensibilities offended by his flamboyance. They beat him within an inch of his life and toss him over the side…where he finds It waiting for him with a gleaming sharp-toothed smile. Both the victim’s boyfriend and one of the assailants tell the cops and lawyers involved about the demon clown who finished the victim off, but the powers that be cover it up for the sake of a successful prosecution.
The idea being that they’re dealing with the symptoms, not the disease–the violence, but not the hand-me-down hate driving it. The bereft boyfriend tells the cops that he tried to warn his new-to-town lover that despite its cheery appearance, Derry is a “bad place,” one positively crawling with “AIDS is God’s punishment” homophobia. Moreover, he whispers through his tears, he realized while staring into Its silver eyes as It ate his true love that “It was Derry…It was this town.”
So while the first chapter seemingly wrapped the era’s conservative politics in a cozy semiotic blanket, it was only baiting the hook so that the second can rip that blanket off like a Band-Aid. As Reagan strolled to re-election with 49 states at his back, as the Democrats’ convictions wavered and they began to drift rightward, as thousands of Americans wasted away while their government and so many of their fellow citizens watched pitilessly, here comes Stevie King to stick his middle finger in the Moral Majority’s face and say: gays aren’t the monsters, you are the monsters, you are the ones eating your children. He built a thousand-page Lovecraftian epic around that idea, and made it a bestseller. How fucking awesome is that?
Again, it’s all always going to be complicated. The good not only coexists with the bad–they’re often inextricable. The author who slipped a rant against leftist academics ruinin’ his storybooks into It is also the guy who now declares his support for BLM and his disgust for Trump, and It is both a deeply flawed work and one of my very favorite novels.