Damn, I’ve been neglecting this blog of late. I’ll try to remedy that; the contract I was working ended up getting extended twice over and I’ve been very carefully juggling priorities outside of work. I’ve even had to cut back on reading a little bit, or at least doing a better job of balancing work and pleasure reading so that I’m not just reading “fun” books all the time at the cost of my crunchy history texts that I actually draw on when I start writing.
I did, for the first time in awhile, pick up and start re-reading a book from ages ago.
IT, by Stephen King.
A classic, obviously. Some consider it a bit overhyped, others think it is underrated compared to The Shining or ‘Salem’s Lot. I liked it a lot the first time I read it, sometime in my late teens, and I’m enjoying it in brand new ways reading it as an adult who has done more and more writing and analytical reading.
I’m really starting to think that, moreso than the rest of King’s library, IT is a book that you should look at if you want to learn to play to your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, because the entire core concept of the book ended up doing so for him. I think that’s one of the reasons it endures as well as it has for several decades running, well enough to justify an updated remake and continual book sales.
First and foremost, it’s about a monster that hunts and attacks its prey by drawing upon their memories, their bad experiences, their emotions. I really can’t think of a better antagonist to put in a King book, because one of his biggest tics as a writer is that every single character, no matter how minor, inevitably gets several paragraphs devoted to their past, to their personality, to their little neuroticisms. Here you actually end up needing to know all of the fluff in their history because that’s what the monster is going to use to gruesomely murder them, so when you read their flashbacks for the first time you’re filled with a certain sense of dread that these things are going to be twisted into a weapon and used sometime in the future.
It’s brilliant, and it’s not something I caught onto as a kid. I have a huge appreciation for it now.
Second, you know how there’s a common trope of writers always writing about writers (because, to be fair, it is a bit of an antisocial profession and if you’ve grown up wanting to write what you know, what better than writing a fellow misanthrope into being)? It’s on full display here but in a way that works for the story on multiple layers.
It presents a pretty great central protagonist in Bill. Bill is obviously a King figure in a lot of ways. He’s an author who writes pulpy stuff and seems to have lucked his way into stability and a loving relationship, and who doesn’t take any of that for granted. He has a stripe of contempt for people who think that you have to pull every story apart and that you can’t just enjoy it on the surface level of being a story. More importantly, and more than almost any other King novel (besides Misery, obviously), the protagonist being a writer is so absolutely integral to how the plot works.
Bill becomes a writer to better hone his mind into a weapon, becoming kind of a foil to Pennywise. Pennywise tells stories to hurt and kill people, but Bill tells stories to empower and strengthen; he’s a horror writer who writes about monsters to show that they can be killed in the end, even if they seem overwhelming. I love the section very early on where he’s struggling with what exactly he wants to write, and he’s drowning in the opinions of people who only want to concern themselves with literary analysis: he ends up reaching deep inside of himself, tapping into his own past traumas and bad memories and ripping them out onto the page as a horror short. When he starts writing it, he becomes like a man possessed:
…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 … after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button to 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.
I mean, come on. I love that. I love the simple, brutal poetry of the piece. Ironically enough, in a story that lashes out at people who analyze, I love what it means underneath the surface.
I think that if you’re a writer, not even a published one but someone who is serious enough about writing to sit down and do it and finish a story, you’ve had an experience like that. You find something that clicks in the narrative and all of a sudden it’s 4am, you want to die from exhaustion, and you have something resembling a first draft cobbled together in front of you because you’re afraid to stop in case you can’t start again.
That’s basically what happens over and over to me. I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of going up against a cosmic clown monster in the sewers to fuel my work, but more and more I’ve started pulling out bits and pieces of historical lore I stored away in the recesses of my brain, mixed them with various personality traits of mine, and ended up wanting to at least finish the story before I stopped to look at what I was doing.
Doesn’t happen with every story. In the recent anthology I think it only happened for a few. Others I really mapped out and planned to the hilt, and they were good and I feel good about writing them, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones I’ve been most heavily complimented on are those that I couldn’t stop writing when I started, because the story absolutely needed to be told and I didn’t think I could tell it as well if I paused in the middle.
Also, on the trail of all this and on an intensely personal note, I didn’t realize it so much when I was younger but Christ did King manage to nail the feeling of Bangor, Maine when he wrote Derry. I read about Derry and I can just imagine walking down the Bangor versions of those streets, looking at those bridges, seeing the peeled paint and the flood damage. My own hometown was probably a lot closer in tone to Durham, King’s childhood home and the basis for Jerusalem’s Lot (probably why Lot is the King book I always gravitate back to) but I spent plenty of time in Bangor growing up and seeing the subtle nods through adult eyes is really mind blowing. It makes me feel weirdly homesick even though the entire book could be seen as a treatise on the unimaginable evil lurking just below the surface of country towns like that.