Friday, September 15, 2017

Stephen King, and the weird sex scene in “It”

I haven't read It in many decades, but in light of the recent It movie release, I decided to take a gander at some reader reviews that have come out over the last few years.

Stephen King’s books are popular—and not without reason. King captivated me as a reader in 1984, when I was a teenager. At that point in my life, there was no way I was going to read any literature that was even remotely challenging. But Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), a novel about vampires taking over a small town in rural Maine? Yeah, I was all about that. 

Many readers have felt—and continue to feel—the same way. 

That said, there are some idiosyncratic aspects of It, King’s mammoth 1986 novel (dubbed his magnum opus at the time) that draw justifiable criticism. Here is an excerpt from a critical review found on Goodreads:

“And, the scene which blew me away and pretty much made me feel I had wasted time getting that far in: a gang-bang consisting of nothing but 11 and 12-year-olds. What the F***? And when I say "gang bang" I mean it--six boys banging the girl back-to-back. Only abnormal people do not raise an eyebrow at this scene and try to defend it as being "natural" and "normal." It's neither and most decent people would be bothered by this segment.”

I read It in September 1986, shortly after the book was first published. (I once owned one of the original hardcover editions, now lost to time and multiple changes of residence.) I was only eighteen years old then, a freshman in college. I was not that much older than the preteen protagonists in the story. 

Nevertheless, that above-described sex scene struck me as bizarre, even then. You don’t have to be well into middle age (as I am now) to read a scene like that and say, “Whoa, Nelly, something’s a little awry here.” 

None of the books King had published before It had contained anything quite like this. And It was chock-full of other oddities as well. (Read the full text of the Goodreads review I cited.) The novel definitely rambles in places; and the story doesn't quite support the massive length. 

As a new reader of It thirty-odd years ago, I felt let down. Every Stephen King novel up to It was a tightly constructed, finely tuned work of art. This was true of Carrie (1974)—the shortest of his early novels—as well as his post-apocalyptic epic, The Stand (1978), which weighed in at over one thousand pages.

What accounts for the shift? King has been open about his substance abuse issues during the 1980s. This may have been a factor. Minimal editorial oversight likely also played a role. By 1986, Stephen King had become a household name, a celebrity author. (In October, 1986, King was featured on the cover of Time magazine, no less.) It was sometime around 1986 that King quipped that he could publish his grocery list, and the document would sell a million copies. This claim wasn’t—and isn’t—that far from the truth. Can you blame an editor for assuming that the King new best? Perhaps not. 

But the finished product nevertheless suffered. Prior to reading It, Stephen King was my favorite novelist, bar none. It was the novel whereby Stephen King started to “lose” me as a reader. 

Don’t get me wrong: I continued to read his novels and short story collections. (I still read them.) But the sense of awe that his early novels gave me had gone. 

Should you read It, if you haven't already? I would say: yes. Despite its many flaws, It is still a worthwhile book, and probably a lot more entertaining than the most recent offering from Jonathan Franzen. 

But if you’re one of those rare fiction readers who hasn’t yet sampled Stephen King, I would start with one of his earlier titles—The Shining, Carrie, Pet Sematary, Cujo, etc. 

You’ll be far more impressed with the books that King wrote before It…and you won’t have to read scenes containing orgies among 12-year-olds.

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