One of the things I am working on right now is an article about the visual in modern horror fiction. This will be a scholarly article, the sort of thing that will have footnotes and secondary sources, and all of that sort of thing. (Yes, "that sort of thing" is a scholarly term. Why do you ask?)
The book I am using as my lens text for the project is Stephen King's IT. The reason for this, other than the obvious cool-factor of reading King for my day job, it that it does exactly the things I want as a framework for the way I am thinking about this issue. (I know. The great specificity, let me show you it. But I tend to work from the outside in, and while I know how the article will go in my head, I couldn't articulate a thesis for you right now if my life depended on it.) And also, all of this is tangential to the point.
The first time I read IT I was almost twelve. The summer of 1988. I remember, because I noticed how close in age I was to the kids in the book. I remember it was summer because I remember the skin on the backs of my legs sticking to the kitchen chair as I read. My Mom had finally given in, after a summer of watching me read true-crime and serial killer books with no obvious ill effects (er, other than my wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up), and let me buy Grown Up Books from the horror section. She was worried, a little, because reading 'Salem's Lot had scared her so badly she still won't read any more King, so she bribed me to read IT downstairs in the kitchen, in the daylight, where there were people around. The heat made the colors of the peanut M&M's bleed onto my fingers, but I kept reading.
I wasn't scared.
That's a lie.
I was scared, but not of the things you might expect. The only thing that really frightened me, reading back then, a few months before my twelfth birthday, were the relationships between Bev Marsh, and the men in her life - her dad, and her husband. That was a terror that was possible enough to be real to me. But otherwise, no. The story was so good, I couldn't be scared. (I mean, I had a healthy dislike of storm drains, but nothing bad enough to keep me from walking close to the one on the corner of my street, and peering in it, some small idiot part of me almost hoping to see a silver-eyed clown in the shadows. I had good friends, too, you see. And I knew we could beat It.)
I've reread the book a number of times since then. It's an extraordinary piece of literature, one of the few things I always packed when I lived in the dorms, and had precious little shelf space for books. IT, I knew, would be good enough to justify its place on the shelf.
But right now, I'm rereading it in 2011. One year away from when that 27 year cycle is due to start up again in Derry. And again, I'm almost the age of the characters in the book, only this time it's their adult age, the age where belief in fear is larger than belief in magic. I feel like I'm reading in an ill-fitting pair of glasses, ones that keep sliding off to show the eyes of my child-self. I think if I didn't know the story so well, I wouldn't just be scared reading it, I would be terrified. The magic shouldn't work.
Except that it does. I think that is the thing that I've always loved about this book, beyond Bev Marsh also having red hair, beyond Bill Denbrough yelling "Hi-Yo Silver, Away!" when he rode his bike to beat the devil (I yelled the same thing, before I read this book even), beyond any of the small bits that stuck in my head, is that the magic worked. There are rules for magic, there always are: sacred numbers that must be present and words that must be said and rituals that must be performed, and consequences, horrible ones, if those things are missing. But sometimes, there is just magic.