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The Essential Stephen KingA Ranking of the Greatest Novels, Short Stories, Movies, and Other Creations of the World's Most Popular Writer
By Stephen J. Spignesi
New Page BooksCopyright © 2003 Stephen J. Spignesi
All right reserved.
The clown seized his arm.
And George saw the clown's face change.
What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the
thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in
one clawing stroke.
Why It belongs in the number 1 spot:
It is more than just a novel.
I know, I know ... that sounds like fan hyperbole, but truth be told, It is undeniably a contemporary literature event.
I remember finishing reading It and feeling the way I did when I turned the last page of Dickens's Great Expectations: unabashed awe at the storytelling talents of the author.
It is not only one of King's longest works (only the uncut The Stand is longer and then only by a few thousand words), but It is the book I and many other King researchers and fans consider to be his magnum opus. It is the greatest manifestation of his many narrative gifts, and the book that may very well be the definitive, quintessential "Stephen King" novel--if we make the questionable leap that such a thing can even be defined.
Pepperdine English professor and Stephen King authority Dr. Michael Collings feels that It and The Stand are interchangeable as holders of the number 1 spot on the list of King's top 100 works. He told me that he considers both novels "contemporary epics" (and, he specified, "in the true, literary sense of the term, not the facile commercial sense") and admitted to now and then surrendering to this belief and stating that both novels are his "top pick."
I decided to grant It the hallowed rank of number 1, however, because I believe wholeheartedly that the novel is a literary performance of the highest caliber; yes, even more accomplished than The Stand.
In his gargantuan epic, King juggles multiple characters, parallel and overlapping timelines, a ghoul's parade of monsters, plus several complex sociocultural themes. These include childhood and coming of age, child abuse, spousal abuse, homophobia, bigotry, the nature of existence, the eternal nature of good and evil, and the power of faith, trust, and love.
Longtime King fans (King calls them his "Constant Readers") can intuitively sense when Stephen King was in "the zone" (not the Dead Zone!) while writing a specific work. The story seems to emanate a narrative confidence and flow that seems to transcend the mere words with which it is being told. I have often described this experience as being pulled through the book; being dragged through the story at breakneck speed; the tale being absorbed by the brain almost by osmosis, seemingly without actually reading the words. This is a feeble way of describing a transcendent experience, but I think you Constant Readers have an understanding of this phenomenon. It happens with The Stand, The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, Misery, The Green Mile, Pet Sematary, and many other works, but never more so than with It.
King was in the aforementioned zone when he wrote It (as I am sure J. R. R. Tolkien was likewise inspired when he wrote his The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and he has never been better. You want proof? In lieu of rereading the entire novel (which King fans have been known to do on a regular basis ... likewise, The Stand), open It anywhere, and read an excerpt for a taste of just how good Stephen King can be.
The story told in It is truly epic. The haunted town of Derry, Maine has a dark soul. In 1958, seven friends--dubbed The Losers Club--fight an apocalyptic battle with It, a monster from "outside" who has been feeding on Derry's children in 27-year cycles for centuries. It is gravely wounded in the 1958 battle and returns to its subterranean pit beneath the town to heal. The Losers promise to return to Derry if It ever resurfaces and, in 1985, they must come together to honor their vow and try and defeat and destroy It for the final time.
King confidently interweaves the dual stories of all seven Losers, plus the stories of an array of myriad secondary characters, using only italic typeface to indicate flashbacks to 1958, all the while managing to keep everyone's story clear in the reader's mind at all times. It--It--is truly a virtuoso performance.
I do not recommend It to first-time King readers. The novel is daunting and may scare off readers who are not used to novels over 50,000 words, let alone 550,000 or so words. It requires effort and concentration, yet it pays off in amazing ways, and thus, It should be "prepared for," for lack of a better term. I usually suggest newcomers to King begin with something more accessible like The Dead Zone or 'Salem's Lot; then move on to The Shining and The Stand; then to the stories in Skeleton Crew; and then, finally, to It. They can then go back and fill in the holes in their Stephen King reading list, but by that time they will have experienced a healthy, heaping dose of Stephen King's imaginative powers and storytelling genius.
Both scholars and fans now perceive It alike as the completion of the "monster" phase of King's career as a novelist. From It on, for the most part, King has focused on the "monster within" (as opposed to from the outside). Such works include Misery, The Dark Half, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder, and other diverse works; in addition to novels that ponder the existence of God and his involvement (or lack thereof) in human events, as in Desperation, The Green Mile, and others. The Mummy, the Werewolf, and the other classic denizens of the horror genre are of less interest to King in his post-It works. It may be his final word on childhood and its mythic hold on the adult. There will be child characters in later works, but It marks a turning point in King's treatment of childhood: We get the sense that the underlying message at the conclusion of It is that childhood can once again be remembered with nostalgia, rather than fear.
So there you have it: I consider It the best thing Stephen King has ever written. "So far."
[skull] C. V. [skull]
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Main Characters
Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Eddie Kaspbrak, Beverly Marsh, Mike Hanlon, Richie Tozier, Stanley Uris, Pennywise the Clown.
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Did You Know?
Stephen King's middle name is "Edwin," and in It, there is character named "Eddie King," described as "a bearded wan whose spectacles were almost as fat as his gut." Eddie King was one of the guys who were playing poker in the Sleepy Silver Dollar the day Claude Heroux went nuts and killed everyone in the game. Eddie King's demise was particularly grisly. When Claude began his rampage, Eddie tried to flee but ended up falling out of his chair and landing flat on his back on the floor. Claude straddled King (who was screaming to Claude that he had just gotten married a month ago) and buried an axe in Eddie King's ample belly. Claude then wiggled the axe out, and swung again, this time putting an end to Eddie's screaming, and to Eddie. "Claude Heroux wasn't done with him, however; he began to chop King up like kindling-wood."
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] What I Really Liked About It
The flawless evocation of childhood summers, plus a slew of too-many-to-mention elements of the novel that I greatly enjoyed. There really isn't anything I did not like about It. In fact, like The Lord of the Rings, I actually wished it were longer! Perhaps we can hope for It: The Second Millennium one of these years?
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Film Adaptations
Stephen King's It (TV-miniseries, 1990); starring Tim Curry, Richard Thomas, Annette O'Toole, John Ritter, Tim Reid, Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Olivia Hussey, Seth Green; directed by Tommy Lee Wallace; screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen (Part 1) and Lawrence D. Cohen and Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 2). (Grade: B+.)
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] The King Speaks
"Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write about the troll under the bridge or leave him--IT--forever. Part of me cried to let it go. But part of me cried for the chance; did more than cry; it demanded. I remember sitting on the porch, smoking, asking myself if I had really gotten old enough to be afraid to try, to just jump in and drive fast.
I got up off the porch, went into my study, cranked up some rock 'n' roll, and started to write the book. I knew it would be long, but I didn't know how long. I found myself remembering that part of The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins marvels at how way may lead on to way; you may leave your front door and think you are only strolling down your front walk, but at the end of your walk is the street, and you may turn left or you may turn right, but either way there will be another street, another avenue, and roads, and highways, and a whole world." [Note: King was 34 when he started writing It; he was 38 when he finished it.]
--From "How IT Happened" (1986)
Excerpted from The Essential Stephen King by Stephen J. Spignesi Copyright © 2003 by Stephen J. Spignesi. Excerpted by permission.
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