A Look Back at It, Stephen King’s Dark Fairytale for Grownups

Many books have been likened to “a fairytale for adults.” It’s a phrase usually meant in a literal sense—a way to indicate the presence of mature themes within a familiar storybook milieu, or signaling that the author is telling a dark, violent story set in a lyrical fantasy world. But It, Stephen King’s vast horror epic about childhood fear, the terrors of growing up, and the rot lurking under suburban nostalgia, earns the descriptor on its own terms.

It is certainly in the fairytale mold—it accounting of a group of children fighting a nightmarish child-eating trauma monster could be straight out of the Brothers Grimm, minus a few embellishments and the modern setting. But it’s also very much for adults—though far too many of us read King at what is probably far too young an age. There’s a maturity and melancholy to It, though those sensations only really only come through with age. It’s not a book for younger readers so much as it is a book for older readers about being young, and about how youth inevitably reshapes, twists, and fades. 

There’s a certain sense of loss that only comes with the realization that the past is a foreign country, as memories begin to dim and warp with the passage of years. It’s something that has to be felt to be understood—a sadness unique to the world of adults, and perhaps to that of those children unlucky enough to have faced life-changing trauma that split their lives into a “before” and “after.” It’s the sadness of knowing things were, and then they weren’t; that things have a different meaning now than they did then.

In a very visceral way, It is as much about loss and memory as it is about a murders and a monster. It’s no coincidence that the straggly group of kids it follows refer to themselves as the Losers’ Club—it’s not only their attempt to take the insult back from the bullies who throw it at them, but a symbol of the fact that each of them has suffered a measure of loss—be it an abusive home life or horrific racism. It’s their trauma that draws It to them, and causes It to target them again and again. It’s trauma that pushes them together and ultimately makes them uniquely qualified to take the fight to It. 

In many ways, the novel is a dark mirror of the traditional coming-of-age fantasy in which a nascent hero matures into their role, faces a great evil, and ends the journey triumphant—the world saved, the bad people dead, and magic very much alive. At the close of the Losers’ Club’s quest, the monster is indeed dead. But the town It poisoned with its evil is also literally collapsing around them, and all that’s good gets swallowed with the bad. The trauma is stared down and defeated, but with it go the memories of Derry and the deep bonds the heroes have formed. In the end, they all forget.

It ends with the magic fading away, with Bill taking one last ride on his childhood bike, to accomplish one last feat with the magic the town has left. The final strands connecting the weird, dark fairytale of adolescence and the more grounded, downbeat melancholy of adulthood finally snaps. Now grown, Bev’s must still deal with the fallout from her abusive husband; Mike’s still got to live in Derry’s ruins (and finish his book). The glass walkway between the children’s library and the adult library that so enchanted Ben when he was younger is shattered for good. 

But it’s the best the Losers can possibly achieve. They win out against their childhood nightmares, and are allowed to move past them. They don’t necessarily forget everything (later King books show that after Derry is rebuilt, the Losers’ Club donates a statue to the town), but they forget enough. They leave all of it—good and evil—behind. As the memories fade, as the trauma fades, they get a chance to live their own lives. They’re finally on the other side of the work, even if they can’t remember what that work was. There’s loveliness in that loss. There’s a wistful beauty to that ending. Beyond merely surviving their fight, greatest thing the broken members of the Losers’ Club could hope to achieve is a measure of closure, and they get it. 

The bittersweet melancholy of their triumph forms the book’s emotional core. It’s also what makes it (makes It) such an enduring classic. The first time you read it, it’s about a bunch of kids coming together to face down a nightmare. Pick it up again in a few decades, and it becomes the story of broken adults finally dealing with the loss that comes with growing up and growing older—accepting the painful fact that the past is only going to fade further and further into the background. In It, Stephen King finds a soft, secret, vulnerable spot hidden within all of us, and slides a story into it like a stiletto. Forget scary clowns—this is a book that will make you scared of growing up. You just won’t know it until it’s too late.

Why do you think It endures?

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