Since I first read it, It has always been one of my favorite books. I read it no less than five times when I was in high school, and this marks the second time I've read it as an adult. It's always resonated with me in ways I never questioned, and I have fond memories of reading the book and experiencing the friendship of the seven main characters. And that sounds pretty sad.
When I was in high school, I had friends, but I didn't feel as close to them as the friends in the book were. But when I was about the same age as the characters in the book, I had a very close friend, possibly the closest friend I ever had until I met my wife. We played in the woods across the street from where I lived, and we made up countless adventures and were pretty much inseparable during the summers. In It, the characters are pretty much that same way, so I'm not surprised that this was such an important book for me when I was younger; it brought back memories of the best times of my life.
When I re-read the book as an adult, I was in my mid-twenties, and pretty friendless. I knew people, and I hung out with some folks, but, again, they weren't friends like these characters were friends. The book still brought back memories of a good friend, and I felt sad when I ended it, and I still thought, This is one of my favorite books.
This year, I turned forty. I've been married for ten years. I have a small circle of friends who feel pretty close to me. I get out, I see people, and I do things. In short, I'm a very different person than I was the last two times I read It, and as a result, my take on the book is also very different. I still think it's a good book that's worth reading, but it doesn't have that resonance as it used to have with me.
For one thing, I recognize now why it had such an impact on me then. That doesn't change my memories, but with a more active social life, I don't feel that same sort of connection with the characters any more. That perspective gives me a chance to look a little more closely at the structure of the book, to look behind the curtain, and, like Dorothy finding no wizard but an ordinary man, I find myself disappointed.
I remember this story being tightly constructed, despite its length. I remember the narrative flowing naturally. I remember thinking there were parts of the story that could be written better, but I also remember thinking that the qualities of the story outshone those shortcomings. Now, I think that the story is sort of all over the place, sometimes rambling a bit, with some aspects of the plot being downright laughable. I found that the construction of the story happening simultaneously in the past and in the present to be distracting, and even spoiling some of the tension of the story. I mean, we know that all seven of them will survive their encounters with It in 1958, because we see them all as adults in 1985 in the early part of the story. All we lack is the details of how it happened.
And I guess that's one of the downsides of re-reading any book, as you get a chance to step back from the story and look at it with a more critical eye, because this is something that King does a lot. He'll make a big reveal in the early part of the book (like "He didn't know it would be the last day he would see the sun") and then carry on with the story while you have that in the back of your mind. The story lies in the details, and the tension lies with your anticipation of what's coming. It works (and now that I think about it, a large part of what makes horror work in general is that anticipation, so it makes a lot of sense to use it here), but it also removes some of the larger tension of the novel.
Something else I noticed (though not for the first time) is the way that King tends to keep the plot moving with some sort of psychic connection, usually with a kid, that feeds the right information to the right people at the right time. It makes the story feel like it's pre-ordained, and not something that's up to the characters. And it's pretty damned annoying sometimes. I didn't notice it then (possibly because it wasn't as prevalent a device then as it is now for King), but I sure as heck noticed it this time. He's a great storyteller, and knows how to keep a reader reading, but he seems to have a hard time resolving the how and the why of his stories. That's especially true with It.
There were some good things to take from re-reading the book, though, specifically with the way that I was able to recognize the themes. I've always considered It to be King's celebration of childhood (which was another part of why I liked it so much when I was younger), but now I realize that it's not quite the celebration I thought it was. If nothing else, the book looks at the halcyon days of youth and strips away our fond memories to remind us of how horrible childhood is, too. It's a time when we struggle to have ourselves taken seriously, when we lack independence, and when the bullies will come after you for no other reason than because you're different. King epitomizes that horror with It itself, and even makes it a shapeshifter so that it can be any and every form of horror we remember from our childhoods.
Also, King seems to be suggesting that people can't grow up until they have children of their own. When the main characters reconvene as adults, all of them are childless (either by choice or happenstance), and the fact that they are means that they still have some of that childhood wonder and belief that will help them defeat It. In fact, when they're down in It's lair and trying to defeat it, they have to remember what it's like to be a kid, when they believed almost anything, and it seems odd to me that not having kids was somehow important to that perspective. Maybe I'm off base on this, but the characters' kidlessness is mentioned as a key factor early in the novel, so it seems like it's important in some way. It's an interesting theme, and not one that I necessarily agree with, but it's also something I hadn't noticed when I read the book before.
One more good thing: I used to complain about Stan's suicide at the beginning of the novel. It didn't make sense in the way that King portrayed what It really was. It had to be something so terrible, so horrible that Stan would choose to kill himself rather than face It again. And it didn't come across that way as King presented it. What I neglected to realize then was that it had nothing to do with It; it had more to do with Stan's desire to be neat, orderly, and in control. Near the end of the book, the younger Stan starts crying, not because he's scared, but because he's dirty. And that was when it clicked. And I thought that was a brilliant little addition to the story, since it gave Stan a bit more depth than the other characters.
Next on my list is to re-watch the TV miniseries to see how it holds up against my memories (which, I should note, have invaded my reading of the book, as well; I kept seeing the actors and the settings whenever I pictured them in my head). I remember hating it the first time I saw it, but finding a new appreciation for it when I re-watched it years later. I seem to remember that it did a better job of translating the 1100-page book to a four-hour movie than I had first though, but who knows? Maybe I'll find that the movie has as many problems as the book did.