Stephen King wrote in one of his non-fiction works, either Danse Macabre or On Writing, I don’t recall which, that childhood is not a period of innocence. That we imbue it with innocence after the fact to rationalize the unsettling truth that children are far more capable of dealing with horror than adults. Tiny things, born into a world they do not understand, surrounded by adults against whom they are defenseless, children live in a state of constant and unrelenting fear and helplessness. Growing up is about forgetting that constant fear.
That insight is the heart of much of King’s enduring legacy as a writer. He captures the poisonous violence and cruelty that underlies the apple pie sheen of small town America by looking at it through the framing of children’s eyes. Our little towns are as rotten at the core as many of our childhoods, and by bouncing the two themes off of each other, he let them resonate, let them mount into something simultaneously horrifying and nostalgic. With aliens and monsters and even clowns living in sewers, he built block by block a framework of metaphors that we hung all our childhood misery upon. King is to small town America what Dickens was to industrial England, ghosts and all.
This latest film version of It captures everything that worked about King’s masterpiece. Sure, the cynical can say that this is just a cash grab based on the success of Stranger Things last year, and even point to the evidence of cast overlap and the tropes borrowed back and forth between the two. But that’s an unfair dismissal. It’s like saying that Westerns never had anything to offer just because there were a lot of them and they all starred Clint Eastwood.
The film, by being set in that distant memory of the eighties, is working within something of a new genre of the old: the weird small-town eighties, so typified by King’s fiction. And before you dismiss it out of hand as a fluke, recall again Westerns, and how we’ve wrung well over a century of fiction out of small towns on the frontier in the 1880s. And like Westerns were never really about the cowboys and bandits, this new genre has never really been about monsters under the bed.
It gets that, it gets that the monster is the seasoning but not the steak. For that, it relies on the young cast, who more than hold up their end of acting, and upon solid writing and clever direction. This is a film that understands how to convey the fear of going down the creaking stairs into the cellar, of walking by the abandoned house that whistles in the wind, of thinking the creepy painting moved in the corner of your eye.
And more, it understands that fundamental Kingism that childhood itself is continuous helpless terror, plagued by the vicious sociopaths who torture the younger kids, even as they themselves are frightened to tears of their fathers’ fists, and by a parade of adults who either abuse or simply neglect by virtue of having forgotten the fears of youth. The children of It were veterans of the interminable agony of fear long before they saw their first red balloon. All children are.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.