I was 9 or 10 the first time I spent an evening with Stephen King. My parents were out, and I was staying overnight with my grandmother. For some reason, she had a paperback copy of “Salem’s Lot” stashed away in her bedroom. I’m pretty sure it was my mother’s, since Grandmom never read anything other than “Prevention” magazine and letters from our faraway relatives.
Even at that age, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, so when I stumbled on that well-worn, tattered paperback I dove in like a thirsty drunk who has found a cooler filled with beer. I hadn’t been reading long before my grandmother found me. She was the typical Grandmom – the kind who let me get away with things like tearing all her shoes out of the closet and clomping around in them, bringing jars full of lightening bugs in the house, and whining for popcorn long after I should have been sleeping. But when she saw that book, she pulled it gently but firmly from my hands, said “no,” and stashed it somewhere I couldn’t find it again. All the grandaughterly wiles that usually got me my way were no good this time.
“You shouldn’t be reading him. You’re too young. You’ll have nightmares.”
So of course, from that point on, I was determined to read anything by Stephen King that I could get my hands on.
As I got older, I did just that. My mother, and eventually my younger sister, loved his books as much as I did. We waited for each new release and passed it around like a precious family treasure. I was 16 the year “It” was published, and probably 17 or 18 when I first read it.
I remember that I was enthralled, and scared out of my wits. I remember that I had never been much on clowns, but that after reading “It” that vague dislike became a full-blowned state of creeped out if I came across clown figurines or saw a real one at a kid’s birthday party.
Oddly enough, I spent the first several months of the job I got straight out of college also being terrified of my stern boss. Later, when we’d actually bonded and become friends of sort, I learned that he moonlighted as a clown who made balloon animals.
There are many Stephen King books that stuck with me over the years, but none so much as “It.” Funny thing thing about that is, “It” is also the one I remembered the least. Certain details remained as clear as day, like Georgie’s paper boat and Pennywise and that the central character was a writer who stuttered. But the full storyline in all its amazing detail slipped away over the years, leaving me with little more than vague chills up my spine at the thought of clowns or sewer drains.
So this year, at 40, I decided it was high time to re-read “It.” I went on a Stephen King Kindle shopping spree, getting “It,” “On Writing,” and just for good measure, “Salem’s Lot.” Because that’s one I actually never finished. As far as I know, that paperbook is probably still tucked away in Grandmom’s attic.
Re-reading “It” has taken me over a month. That certainly wasn’t due to lack of interest. But “It” is an extremely long read, and I’ve been dividing my spare time between revisiting Pennywise and the crew and my own writing efforts.
Last night, I shut down my computer for the night at about 11 and delved into “It.” At 3 am, with the wind howling outside and my fat cat snoozing beside me, I closed that chapter on revisiting my own childhood.
If anything, I think “It” hit me more this time than it did when I was 17. I think that was partly due to the fact that this go-round, I am roughly the same age as the characters are when they revisit their childhood terror. At 17, Bill the stuttering writer and his friends probably seemed ancient to me. At 40, they are my compatriots. In a weird way, rereading the book made me feel a bit like them. With the exception of one of them, the librarian who had stayed in their childhood nightmare town, they had all forgotten the details of what they had faced as children. As they rediscovered their worst fears, I was remembering them myself. That made me almost feel like I too, had faced “It.”
But even more than that, I was once again amazed at the things that Stephen King can do.
Do you think of pure terror when you envision a bunch of teenage boys who have just overdosed on beans hanging out in a dump with their pants down, taking turns catching their own farts on fire?
Can you imagine a monster that speaks to you from the toilet bowl being REALLY scary?
I can’t, or at least I couldn’t. These things aren’t scary. They are funny and absurd. They are South Park humor. They are Cartman and Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.
Only, when Stephen King takes them on, they’re not. They send chills up your spine and make you want to sleep with the lights on. He can take the funny and make it terrifying, and the terrifying and make it funny. I think that’s why he’s my hero. Some may prefer the more literary. But I’ll stick with the absurd. If I could ever create an “It,” I’d consider myself a person who became what she wanted to be.
Next up, I go back to Salem.