It is a novel that means a great deal to me. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be there, there’s some stuff that doesn’t hold up—and that’s not even a term I typically like—and even some things that make you cringe to read. But there are also entire stretches of what might be the best horror novel ever written. Somewhat ironically, you take the stuff you remember fondly, the stuff that works, the stuff that scared the shit out of you when you powered your way through it for the first time, with the ugly bits. It’s only ironic because that’s what the novel is literally about. This is a book that, despite its size, I’ve read an embarrassing amount of times in my life. And every single time I read it, I get it a little more. The older I get, the more I understand not just what It sets out to achieve, but what It is, because it is ultimately just a book about going home again. Like some of the best Stephen King stories, and even the best horror in general, the demonic clown isn’t the point, at least not all of the point. It’s not the heart. And this is without a doubt a book—and thankfully film—with a whole lot of heart.
I was probably nine when I tried to read It for the first time, only to find that I couldn’t. Age wasn’t really the issue, I had already read my share of King. The length wasn’t even the problem, I was surprisingly unswayed by that. If anything, I didn’t get far into It the first time I tried to read the book, because it almost felt wrong. Like I wasn’t supposed to be doing it. I kind of got, at least subconsciously, that I wasn’t ready to understand it, at least not in any way that would be remotely meaningful. The first time I actually read it cover-to-cover, I was a freshman in college and even then I grasped it way less than I thought I did, after all, I was barely out of high school. My nostalgia for childhood was just beginning to form, but the friends I missed from those times growing up were people I had seen in less than a year, the town was one I revisited often. I wasn’t even going to college in another state.
If anything, the power of reading It for the first time was in recognizing home. I grew up in Maine and I usually recognized it in most of what King wrote, that’s a connection to his work that I will always be grateful to share. But King grew up in Southern Maine, around Portland and Cumberland and areas I had certainly spent time in but didn’t know nearly as well. But Derry? Derry was Bangor and Bangor was home away from home, not necessarily by choice, either. It was more that Bangor was where you had to go to do something, at least the indoor kid things I loved to do. Go to the movies? The mall? Gotta go to Bangor.
Reading that book for the first time was a kind of horror I was unprepared for because I couldn’t escape it. I knew every single location, from the fair to the standpipe to the Paul Bunyan statue, because I had seen them hundreds of time. The silver-eyed clown I saw in my head felt very, very real because he was occupying streets, canals and even sewer drains that I knew very well.
I have embarrassingly read It maybe four times since the release of Chapter One in 2017. Now I am thirty, about a decade younger than the adult Loser’s Club when they make their return to Derry, and when I read it now I understand what King was doing, I understand the way it plays with nostalgia and memory, and I just understand the core of it much more than I ever could when I was younger. It is a novel about nostalgia, to be sure, but it’s about taking the good with the bad. It’s about going home again and having to deal with everything that bubbles to the surface, the times spent with friends that made youth feel so eternal and powerful, but also the times when you acted in ways you couldn’t believe, even times when you were afraid you might lose your life. You remember the signs of unhappy home lives you didn’t want to pry into, you might even remember parents that hated their children, you remember the ugliness of your home town in ways that you didn’t want to see as a kid but are glaring in hindsight. That’s what It is about. Hell, in general, that’s literally what It is.
When Don Hagarty is asked, early on in the book, what he saw in the clown’s eyes, what it was, he says, “It was Derry. It was this town.” And that’s a thesis that the rest of the book effortlessly follows. Pennywise the Clown is just face paint, just clown makeup for a cosmic thing that is rooted deep into the soul of Derry. It’s the evil that seeps into every day people, especially in crowds, sometimes into whole towns. It’s the subtleties of how Derry is affected by It that still remain some of the scariest things about the book. These cosmic flourishes aren’t far from the truth, which is that more often than not, people turn a blind eye. That’s true everywhere, of course. But sometimes it feels especially true in Maine.
Part of why I can so easily identify with the novel now is that I haven’t lived in my home state for nearly a decade. I haven’t seen most of my childhood friends in just as long—in some cases, longer. When I tried to read It the first few times, I had never really been away from home. While I think anyone can probably read the book and love it no matter their circumstances, I’m not sure you can really feel it as deeply if you’ve never left home. When I got married in Maine in 2017, I reunited with several childhood friends I had not seen in years and joked that the only thing missing was a clown, and we laughed, but there was a lot of truth in there. It felt like being in that novel, almost to a surreal degree.
I’m admittedly someone who looks backwards often, reflecting on childhood in all kinds of ways, and It absolutely nails the bitter-sweetness of that in a way that few things do. If anything, it’s a major focus of the book. After all, it’s not all horror and trauma. This is, at its core, a story about friendships. The best friends that you make in your entire life, the ones you would have laid down your life for, the ones that might even continue to be a source of your strength—conscious or not—even if you’ve lost touch.
Even in the parts centering exclusively on the young Loser’s Club, It nails that bittersweet nostalgia simply in how realistically it conveys both the events and how the characters respond to them. There’s a moment early on that perfectly conveys the feeling of a first crush. Ben Hanscom has, at the tender age of eleven, just discovered that he is in love with Beverly Marsh. He slaves over a love note—nothing more than a simple haiku—and goes through several pieces of crumpled paper before he finally gets it exactly the way he wants it.
Ben doesn’t put his name on it, he doesn’t expect to get anything out of it, but his heart is pounding simply from the thrill that she will read it as well as the dread of how she might respond. This single moment is filled with excitement and fear, it’s adorably sweet and also a little sad. And all of that stems from the reality of having a crush for the first time. This is a moment that’s so bursting with emotion (it even, honestly, tends to make me misty-eyed) without any nostalgia goggles, it’s such an honest beat and is perfectly representative of the book’s relationship to nostalgia because of that.
The book is full of these moments, in the quiet beats shared between friends as well as (especially) the formation of those friendships. Making friends seems so much easier as a kid than an adult, and it is, but those bonds are formed in any number of ways, as It perfectly encapsulates. Sometimes you see people in school you just think are interesting, other times you simply meet them in random and often surprising ways over the course of the summer, as is the case with the majority of the Loser’s Club. Ben was only someone they recognized in the halls, Mike didn’t even go to their school, but they met when they needed to and when those bonds finally did take hold, they took hold for life.
There’s no small amount of people who say that the adult sections of It, even the novel, are by far the least interesting and I can’t agree with that. They’re so necessary. There’s a great adaptation to be made out of that material and I truly hope that It: Chapter Two manages to pull that off. There’s something about reconnecting that is almost as exciting and interesting as watching those connections form for the first time. There’s a level of hindsight, of looking back and finding great memories you thought you’d lost as well as things you hoped you’d never remember for the rest of your life, that is crucial to why It works as well as it does.
The structuring of these flashbacks is so unique, too. Early on, they are largely separated. There are clear, dividing lines between the present and past sequences, even if bits of memory do seep in as they come back to the adult Losers. As the book goes on, those lines begin to blur more and more until, by the end, the past and present are virtually colliding on top of one another. That’s one major reason why I’m very excited by the possibilities of the extended cut combining both movies, the way it plays with time is so interesting and lends itself so well to the screen. This is a book that is so much about memory and both the fogginess and honesty of it, as well as how it informs who we are in the present in ways that we don’t always consciously realize.
Stephen King is often criticized for his inability to write endings, but there’s a moment at the end of It, just before the brief epilogue, that honestly never fails to make me cry, it’s so good. Mike Hanlon has, throughout the story, been the gatekeeper. He’s been the one manning the lighthouse to make sure that everyone comes back, and he sacrificed a great deal to do it. He’s the only one who remembered everything because he never left. Every other member of the Loser’s Club had childhood passions that they managed to turn into a career. Bill didn’t just become a writer, he became a great writer. Ben became a famous architect. It’s not that Mike didn’t have dreams, he did. He wanted to be a famous rock-and-roll singer and if he ever left Derry, that’s probably exactly what he would have become.
Lying in his hospital bed after they have managed to defeat It for a second time, Mike notices that this time he’s beginning to forget too. He notes that that’s good, because it finally means that things are over. This ending bit perfectly captures the adult relationship to nostalgia. There’s a sadness that he’s going to lose these memories, because these are the best friends he’s ever had. But there’s also a realization that he is finally unburdened by them. He’s free, even at forty, to go and lead the life he never got to had because he was indebted to a childhood promise. Even though the circumstances are fantastical, that’s a deeply realistic depiction of nostalgia that is usually so hard to express. It’s the idea that, while both the sweetness and the sadness of childhood memories are so powerful, there is a weight to them that’s lifted when they’re not there (or at least not as present in the mind) in ways we don’t always want to admit. After a thousand pages, King does the unthinkable by allowing Mike to end his diary and summarize the entire book with two simple, effortless and deeply emotional lines: “I loved you guys, you know. I loved you so much.”
It’s so simple. And yet the repetition, the past tense and the bluntness of it are a perfect endcap to the tale. That is, literally, It. There’s no sense that nostalgia is either good or bad at the end of the book, just an acknowledgement that it’s often both. That memories can be sweet to an almost addictive degree, even when they’re painful. That reflecting back on younger (but not always simpler) times can remind us of friendships and passions that were deeper than they might be at any time in our lives, and can even help us to relearn things about ourselves as adults that we might have lost. But we can also get tied to childhood memories in a way that can often slow us down if not ultimately hold us back. That the good times were often a whole lot darker than we’d like to remember. It’s very literally a story about looking back in order to move forward, about burying the past, about how the worst and most terrible time in your life can also paradoxically be the best. It’s about getting to reconnect and rebuild the best friendships you ever had in your life, at least for a while. At the end of the day, It’s about a handful of losers who prove again and again that they are anything but.