Last weekend a group of us joined millions of other horror geeks for the opening weekend of IT, a cinematic re-imagining of the 1990 TV movie imagining of Stephen King’s epic, 1,000-page novel, originally published in 1986.
I was quite excited, as was my mom, a King mega-fan, just like the throngs of other King fans nerding out in the Alamo Drafthouse theater over their bottomless popcorn bowls and adult milkshakes. Not only is IT is my favorite King novel, it was the topic of the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation, which grew out of an undergraduate English paper that kinda sorta set the whole shit crit thing in motion. In that respect, IT is arguably the heart and soul of what became my academic career (such that it was). IT is where it all began, this quest to understand how we imagine embodiment and what that says about the society we live in.
All of this renewed interest in the film—and by extension the book—has also renewed regrets that I never did anything with my dissertation, but also stirred a small hopeful feeling that maybe it’s still possible. So, I wanted to post the chapter here not because it’s in any shape to really be published in its current form, but just to make a first incremental little baby step in the direction of finally doing something with it. Cuz after all this time, I still believe in that project, which is also to say that I think what King is doing and saying in that novel is important and revealing.
From the Bedroom to the Bathroom: the Scatological Horror of Stephen King
In 1989, when I was 10, Stephen King was the shit, figuratively. My mother understood this and maintained an ever expanding library of King novels on a special shelf of the living room bookcase; my best friend Sarah understood this and was forever reading King in and out of class, further whetting my curiosity. Unfortunately for me, the King shelf at home was off limits, since my mother, as much concerned parent as she was avid King fan, felt that his novels were not for the impressionable eyes of children.
Why not? I asked, intrigued. What’s so bad about Stephen King?
Too much profanity, replied my mother with mysterious finality: case closed.
Or not—because she had never spoken so enticingly, and I would crave the quiet Saturday afternoons when, my parents off running errands, I could carefully slide King’s hefty volumes from their place on the living room bookshelf and curl up on the couch, one ear cocked for the sound of the garage door. My particular favorite was It, an epic tale in which a group of preadolescent outcasts bands against a shapeshifting, sewer-dwelling monster—in part because the novel was satisfyingly profane in all the ways I had hoped. Full of ess-words and eff-words and killer clowns whispering seductively from inside storm drains (the kind of storm drains my grandmother had warned me to stay away from during heavy rains because, she said, you could get sucked down below) It made good on both my mother’s enthusiasm for King and her proscription against him.
At the time I understood this proscription literally; too much profanity meant too much swearing. Yet in retrospect I see that her injunction made a more subtle distinction as well. In saying, Do not read King because he’s profane, my mother was also effectively saying by contrast, but you’re free to read Conrad and Faulkner and Hemingway and DeLillo if you choose—canonical, literary writers, in other words—the implication being that while these authors wrote works that were just as disturbing as King’s novels (if not moreso), they presented this disturbing content in such a way that at age 10 I could not readily understand or even recognize it. My mother’s injunction thus implied a distinction between an imagined realm of “real literature,” in which writers presented disturbing content covertly, shrouded in layers of complex metaphor or formal experimentation, and the world of popular fiction, in which the text was bald and eviscerated, its meaning gutted and exposed for the apprehension of all—even, or especially, children. This injunction did not state, Don’t read Salinger because you won’t understand him; but rather, Don’t read King because you will.