In the Watches of the Night

19 September 2017*

It’s 3:46 AM, and I can’t sleep. Because I’m thinking about It.

Not the movie—I haven’t seen it yet—but the book; I finished it about twelve hours ago.

I’m not awake because I’m scared, although the fact that I’m sitting here in the dark and can’t see anything beyond the screen of my laptop is a bit unsettling. And I don’t think I’m awake because I’m approaching pre-middle age and am confronted by what Bradbury called “the soul’s midnight.” No, I’m awake now because, as often happens, some random night-noise woke me. But instead of drifting back to sleep like usual, my mind almost instantly lit right back to the same thoughts it was having when I fell asleep a few hours ago.

This has been my summer of It. I started reading it back in late July, and I’ve been living with the Losers almost constantly for two months. I think it’s safe to say that It is one of the best books I’ve ever read—ranking right up there among my favorites—and that there are so many things wrong with it, in both construction and content—and that I might never read it again.

I grew up in It’s shadow. I watched the original mini-series broadcast in 1990—I was just coming up on eight, and I have no idea where my parents were, bless their hearts, but I doubt they were watching with us—and I was appropriately traumatized. Well into my teens, as one example, I was terrified-fading-into-wary of the seldom-used staircase in my great grandpa’s house, as I’d never been quite able to dispel from my head the image of the clown-mummy slowly descending an old Victorian staircase toward the trapped Stan Uris. And grownup Stan the Man’s talking head in the fridge later didn’t do me any favors, either.

Surprisingly, though, novel-It didn’t terrify me. Sure, it’s definitely made the early morning dark a little less comfortable, but over the last several weeks I haven’t found myself singing “La Vie en Rose” in the shower in our quiet apartment as often as I thought I would. What It did do, however, was break my heart, over and over.

I haven’t read a lot of King, so I guess I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. I wasn’t expecting to find so much to love in his prose and in the sometimes idyllic moments he crafts in the middle of this tale about a demonic clown that feeds almost exclusively on children. I definitely wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the Losers, the circle of seven friends around which the story revolves. But I did—collectively and individually, children and grownups alike. For two months I relived my childhood as their childhood. I was bullied, watched monster movies, ran through the barrens, played guns, laughed, cried, threw rocks, grew up, grew young, and fought for my life with them.

I’d like to give concrete examples of each of these experiences, of each how and why the book affected me so profoundly, but I don’t want to give anything too specific away. I know that a book published in 1986 has legally and ethically moved well outside of the Spoiler-free Zone, but I still don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or already read it but might want to. Still, I think I might be able to share a couple of scenes from one chapter/section without doing too much damage. Bear in mind, though, it’s a big, complex book, and any excerpt I share won’t come close to conveying all of the book’s flavors.

Now, Mike Hanlon. He’s something of a pariah even compared to the other six Losers because he is the only black kid in Derry, Maine, where the book is set. However, in some ways his childhood might have been the happiest, Pennywise the Dancing Clown notwithstanding. Reading the scenes that show Mike’s home and parents, I found myself truly envious of him. I have two amazing parents myself, so I think my envy is more nostalgia and missing my childhood than anything. (pre-p.s. I guess I’ll have to turn on the light to transcribe a couple of them, but I won’t complain much about that right now.) Here’s the first:

     On one occasion Mike had asked his father why, since they harvested rocks every April, there were always more of them the following April.
     They had been standing at the dumping-off place near sunset on the last day of that year’s rock harvest. A beaten dirt track, not quite serious enough to be called a road, led from the bottom of the west field to this gully near the bank of the Kenduskeag. The gully was a jumbled wasteland of rocks that had been dragged off Will’s land through the years.
     Looking down at this badlands, which he had made first alone and then with the help of his son (somewhere under the rocks, he knew, were the rotting remains of the stumps had yanked out one at a time before any of the fields could be tilled), Will had lighted a cigarette and said, “My daddy used to tell me that God loved rocks, houseflies, weeds, and poor people above all the rest of His creations, and that’s why He made so many of them.”
     “But every year it’s like they come back.”
     “Yeah, I think they do,” Will said. “That’s the only way I know how to explain it.”
     A loon cried from the far side of the Kenduskeag in a dusky sunset that had turned the water a deep orange-red. It was a lonely sound, so lonely that it made Mike’s tired arms tighten with gooseflesh.
     “I love you, Daddy,” he said suddenly, feeling his love so strongly that tears stung his eyes.
     “Why, I love you too, Mikey,” his father said, and hugged him tight in his strong arms. Mike felt the rough fabric of his father’s flannel shirt against his cheek. “Now what do you say we go on back? We got just time to get a bath each before the good woman puts supper on the table.”
     “Ayuh,” Mike said.
     “Ayuh yourself,” Will Hanlon said, and they both laughed, feeling tired but feeling good, arms and legs worked but not overworked, their hands rock-roughened but not hurting too bad.

And the second:

     It was not all school and chores, chores and school; Will Hanlon had told his wife more than once that a boy needed time to go fishing, even if it wasn’t fishing he was really doing. When Mike came home from school he first put his books on the TV in the parlor, second made himself some kind of snack (he was particularly partial to peanut-butter-and-onion sandwiches, a taste that made her mother raise her hands in helpless horror), and third studied the note his father had left him, telling Mike where he, Will, was and what Mike’s chores were—certain rows to be weeded or picked, baskets to be carried, produce to be rotated, the barn to be swept, whatever. But on at least one schooldays a week—and sometime two—there would be no note. And on these days Mike would go fishing, even if it wasn’t really fishing he was doing. Those were great days … days when he had no particular place to go and consequently felt no urge to get there in a hurry.
     Once in a while his father left him another sort of note: “No chores,” one might say. “Go over to Old Cape & look at trolley tracks.” Mike would go over to the Old Cape area, find the streets with the tracks still embedded in them, and inspect them closely, marveling to think of things like trains that had run right though the middle of the streets. That night he and his father might talk about them, and his dad would show him pictures from his Derry album of the trolleys actually running: a funny pole went from the roof of the trolley up to an electrical wire, and there were cigarette ads on the side. Another time he had sent Mike to Memorial Park, where the Standpipe was, to look at a birdbath, and once they had gone to the courthouse together to look at a terrible machine that Chief Borton had found in the attic. This gadget was called a tramp-chair. It was cast-iron, and there were manacles built into the arms and legs. Rounded knobs stuck out of back of the seat. It reminded Mike of a photograph he had seen in some book—a photograph of the electric chair at Sing Sing. Chief Borton let Mike sit in the tramp-chair and try on the manacles.
     After the first ominous novelty of wearing the manacles wore off, Mike looked questioningly at his father and Chief Boston, not sure why this was supposed to be such a horrible punishment for the “vags” (Bolton’s word for them) that had drifted into town in the twenties and thirties. The knobs made the chair a little uncomfortable to sit in, sure, and the manacles on your wrists and ankles made it hard to shift to a more comfortable position, but—
     “Well, you’re just a kid,” Chief Borton said, laughing. “What do you weigh? Seventy, eight pounds? Most of the vags Sheriff Sully posted into that chair in the old days would go twice that. They’d feel a bit oncomfortable after two or three, and right bad after four or five. After seven or eight hours they’d staat bellerin, and after sixteen or seventeen they’d staat cryin, mostly. And by the time there twenty-four-hour tour was up, they’d be willin to swear before God and man that the next time they came riding the rods up New England way they’d give Derry a wide berth. So far as I know, most of em did. Twenty-four hours in the tramp-chair was a helluva persuader.”
     Suddenly there seemed to be more knobs in the chair, digging more deeply into his buttocks, spine, the small of this back, even the nape of this neck. “Can I get out now, please?” he said politely, and Chief Borton laughed again. There was a moment, one panicked instant of time, when Mike though the Chief would only dangle the key to the manacles in from of Mike’s yes and say, Sure I’ll let you out … when you’re twenty-four hours is up.
     “Why did you take me there, Daddy?” he asked on the way home.
     “You’ll know when you’re older,” Will had replied.
     “You don’t like Chief Borton, do you?”
     “No,” his father had replied in a voice so curt that Make hadn’t dared ask any more.
     But Mike enjoyed most of the places in Derry his father sent or took him to, and by the time Mike was ten Will had succeeded in conveying his own interest in the layers of Derry’s history to his son. Sometimes, as when he had been trailing his fingers over the slightly pebbled surface of the stand in which the Memorial Park birdbath was set, or when he had squatted down to look more closely at the trolley tracks which grooved Mont Street in the Old Cape, he would be struck by a profound sense of time … time as something real, as something that had unseen weight, the way sunlight was supposed to have weight (some of the kids in school had laughed when Mrs. Greenguss told them that, but Mike had been too stunned by the concept to laugh; his first thought had been, Light has weight? Oh my Lord, that’s terrible!) … time as something that would eventually bury him.

Okay, so those are less like excerpts and more like XXL-cerpts, but I think they’re wonderful examples of King’s style and of what made me love It so much. The whole book is like that—even the scenes that ostensibly have nothing to do with Pennywise and his awful appetite—sometimes-fluid-sometimes-ghoulish prose dancing or skittering over the lines that separate beautiful from ugly, sublime from mundane, joyful from tragic, human from monstrous, and comforting from terrifying. And at around 1,200 pages, it’s an exhausting dervish of a read, one I’m not sure I’ll ever again have the stamina to undertake. But if you’re feeling fearless and youthful and you’ve never read It before—and if you’re not into that whole sleeping-through-the-night thing—I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*I’m publishing this a week after the fact because I’m a chronic tinkerer and almost never post anything the day I actually write it. I need help.

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