"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A King and I Remember 'It'

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most frightening experiences I have ever had began during a visit to Bangor, Maine--Stephen King’s hometown. While serving as a missionary, I participated in the Mormon equivalent of an exorcism. To this day I don’t know if it was real or merely psychogenic. I lean toward the latter, but I don’t care. It was the most spooked I had ever been in my life. The feeling of terror was genuine. And it happened one night in Maine.

I’m inclined to take the novel It personally, fantasy and all. Stephen King novels set in Maine have become a means for me to revisit the state and cope with the odd homesickness I feel for it. Through adventure, brotherhood, and trauma, I bonded strongly with the place. Maine, with its gritty history and quirky culture, is cavernous enough to hold the tallest tale a horror-smith like King can craft.

Say what you want about genre fiction, horror novels in particular, It is a masterwork. At the core of this vast and elaborate work is a traditional tale of children preyed on by a monster. Yet given the grand scope, the compliment of fully-realized main characters, along with a multi-generational back story, this novel is a worthy entry in the pantheon of epics. The book is also a wonderful piece of Americana. Though it has plenty of pulp, It is not just pulp fiction.

It is the first King novel where I chose to read at a slower pace, especially during the middle third. I felt speeding through that section would be cheating myself. Actually, the novel’s structure encourages moderately paced reading. Past and present plotlines alternate section by section. The story arc is further segmented with colorful Interludes that develop the town of Derry as a character. Each of these building blocks functions almost as an independent story. At all times, memory functions as revelation.

Ultimately the novel triumphed by getting me to fall in love with the chamber-sized ensemble who served as a collective protagonist. Even as these children ritualistically approached the monster’s lair, they and I found moments worth giggling about. Memories of my childhood surfaced as well, moments fraught with sharp pain and jarring embarrassment, moments that I and my buddies countered with giggling.

Still, It is a work of horror, replete with nauseating brutality and messy sexuality. I would have reached the last page sooner, but there were several times I had to take the night off. However, for all its abrasiveness It also champions the pure aspects of childhood. Youthful essence wields power not only against a monster, but against the corrupting forces of aging and settling. In Its mythology, if not theology, full surrender to adulthood is apostasy.

Truly this novel is about calling up the past, youth specifically, to achieve something magical and redemptive. It inspired me to take a similarly troubling journey into memory. As I worked on an earlier draft of this post, I faced a troubling moment where I started to question the accuracy of my reminiscence of being young and terrified in Maine. After all, my brief time there is now some 16 years distant.
Did my spiritual adventure in Maine really happen in the sequence and locations I supposed? Or am I only a common blogger absentmindedly rearranging the past in order to link himself to a famous writer? I scurried out to my car and grabbed a road atlas to check the geography. The towns I remembered being in and the sequence in which I visited them still line up. I did have my own It-like experience in Maine. I’ll spare the details for now and simply say, read It. It’s a much better tale than mine.

While vying with a monster, King’s circle of heroes also duels with their memories. As the narrator suggests, memory can be a curse. The price of remembering is vulnerability to the worst influences we tried to leave behind by growing up. If memory has any value then, perhaps it derives from its ability to refill us with the pure vitality that childhood alone seems to hold. That energy, that light, which this novel so ably taps into, is worth preserving with vigilance. As the novelist proclaims, “All the rest is darkness.”

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