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Romantic IT and novelistic IT | Stephen King’s 'It'

There are two different ways to approach It: with IT or without IT [1].

The first interpretation, the one that focuses on the doings of the monstrous creature, is the uninteresting one: after all, it does not say much rather than that a vicious being spawns in the town of Derry, Maine, every 27 years, shapeshifting according to the deepest fears of his victims and perpetrating all sorts of atrocities. In the story, IT is eventually vanquished by seven friends at the end of their strenuous journey of personal growth, who manage to banish the creature after a rather thrilling final clash.

This approach to King's novel is the romantic one and has been, perhaps inevitably, the inspiration for the renown TV series from 1990 and for the contemporary cinema edition.

It is fair to point out that embracing the second approach to the novel would lead us right into a quite inconvenient question: how would you ever read It without IT? Although the text would deserve a thorough examination, I will try to draft a concise answer based on two particular passages of the story.

The first one recounts the testimony of a bloody massacre that Mr. Keene delivers to Mike Hanlon, one of the members of the Losers' Club. Keene says that in 1929 – 27 years before the murder of young George – a gang of robbers had landed in Derry after a long runaway through the Midwest and had reached the local gun store to resupply. Thanks to the owner of the shop, who had immediately recognized the criminals, the entire city soon knew about their unwelcome visit. Within two days, about 60 people among the ordinary folks of Derry decided to take the matter into their own hands: they ambushed the gang by the street and did not show any sign of mercy as they were shooting the gangsters one by one.

There is an important detail in Keene's account. The old man recalls, in fact, that during the shoot-out he had clearly seen a clown firing at the robbers with the same gun he was using. Later, Keene adds that an old friend of his, Mr. Biff Marlow, also claimed to have seen a clown firing with a Remington instead, which Marlow had immediately recognized because it was the exact same model he was holding.

The uncanny vision caught by both Keene and Marlow seems to indicate how on the occasion of the massacre IT spawns as a monstrous doppelgänger of the good folks of Derry, really mirroring the ambushers in their bloody job rather than taking on it. As a matter of fact, on the day Pennywise came back after its 27-year rest, the bloodshed was already rampaging and the evil clown just played the part of what René Girard would call a monstrous double.

In the rest of the book, some more gruesome episodes of violence in which IT is not involved do actually surface here and there: it is the case of Patrick Hockstetter, for example, who chokes his younger brother in his sleep; or Richard Maclin, who murders his stepson with a hammer; or even Alin Marsh, who regularly beats his twelve years old daughter, and maybe sexually abuses her.

It seems evident at this point how King pictures scenes of brutality that do not include Pennywise purposely, caring to enrich the main plot with quick flashes of evil unrelated to the doing of his demonic creation. I believe that here lies a first point of an alternative interpretation that rules out the principal villain of the novel. King, in fact, is trying to show through such small hints how malice would run across the streets of Derry even without IT. Hence, the message flashing between the lines is that the evil rooted within humanity has never needed any external or supernatural support to spread its seed after all.

The second passage I would like to talk about is the most crucial passage of the book and it involves the seven friends of the Losers' Club. Let's think about it for a moment: what does Stephen King's It really talk about? Is it Pennywise against the Losers's Club? Loser’s Club versus Derry?

King’s It tells about seven persons who live their lives floating, succumbing, desiring and re-emerging. Seven persons who are courageous enough to walk the 27yers path – “if it ever did end” – that will bring them in their undergrounds, where they risk losing themselves and each other.

Oddly enough, at first glance the climax of the story would seem a bizarre scene of group sex between teenagers: lost in the sewers and terrified by the possibility to never resurface again, in the most crucial moment Losers' are stunned by Beverly, who propose them to have sex with her in a rather unexpected situation.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of this moment in the TV series nor in the movie, which is a real pity, as it is precisely this scene that sheds light on the core of the novelistic interpretation that does so well without IT (however I must admit that Andy Muschietti, in his second chapter, tries to fix this problem by proposing some shy but noteworthy solutions).

Beverly is paralysed in her own life, first at the mercy of an abusive father and later of an abusive husband. She is stuck in the worst of the prisons, as the torturer and the keeper of the prison’s key are the same person. Her father holds her hostage with his paternal love (Eddie Kaspbrak, mutata mutandis, is in the same situation). Through a cruel regime of blame, every desire for a different form of affection – especially from her peers – is shamed and deterred. Beverly is forced to feel guilty for experiencing attraction towards other men and is taught to fear the desire someone else might feel for her. In this deadly cocktail, her sexuality is obviously depicted as a demon.

Eternal prisoner, her only conceivable satisfaction goes always together with the humiliations that indicate the presence of the stumbling block that stands in her way. The chains forged by her father are devilishly efficient: every attempt to get away would only envelop Beverly even tighter in the trap of guilt; and yet, in the darkness of the sewers under Derry, she finds a way to break free. I know something. […] I know it because my father told me, she says.

The double bind that keeps Beverly in check is enforced by the demonization of Bev’s desires that could make her independent from her father. Beverly – with a move that deserves a detailed analysis – breaks up the double bind, taking back her desire to be loved. But this move cannot be priceless. In order to escape the prison she has to painfully give up any hope of paternal love. By performing a sort of exorcism that hints at the gospel’s episode of Jerash, Beverly finds the way to access her desire, finally free from every scandalous blame and shame.

The importance of this passage, however, cannot be reduced solely to Beverly's awakening, as she finds the key to her prison but she needs also somebody else to open the door [2]. The young girl offers her desire to the other members of the Losers' Club, trapped in their prisons of fear, hate and guilt. Beverly’s desire expresses itself, grows and finds satisfaction in facing the desire of the other.Show me how to fly Ben. Teach me.” After her abnegation, in the middle of the desert, it comes her demanding to be thought. Showing her need to be thought, showing her desire of love – and longing for love entails the answer of the other – she exposes herself. In the lowest and darkest place of the underground it is all or nothing. Behind the door of her cage she will find six people who manage – in tears, fear, desire and pleasure – to escape from their prisons. It is not a formal oath of friendship that saves them, as shown in the movie.

The sexual part is not the core of this moment the seven guys share, however, as King made clear. Of course, all Losers have sexual desires. But the real protagonist of the scene is desire, not sex. Desire and the meeting with the desire of the other are the way out from Derry’s underground. To grasp this fundamental passage, the presence of IT is absolutely unnecessary.

The topic cannot be considered exhausted in this article, as further analysis is required to explore all its complexity. Since Stephen King shows deep understanding of interdividual dynamics and ejection mechanisms, I intend to provide an extensive review of his narrative through the lenses of Girard's studies.

I want to give my thanks to Matteo Bisoni and Mattia Carbone for this article. In their works I have found concepts that turn out to be highly relevant for my present analysis. Also, another special thanks to Matteo for having recommended It and the importance of the scene in the sewers.

[1] By 'IT' I mean Pennywise, by 'It' I mean King's novel.

[2] Jake, in The Waste Lands (the third book of King's The Dark Tower series), will be in the same situation.

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