So, last night I started my reread of Stephen King’s It. The book is slightly over 1100 pages long; and was the second novel King published that I never reread after the initial read (the other being Pet Sematary, which I think I will reread at some point now; I really disliked the book, but I think it was more because of its subject matter than anything King did, if that makes sense?). I sat down with it in my easy chair, and before I knew it the evening had passed and I was well past page two hundred. King is always compulsively readable; I can’t think of a single King novel where I just thought, meh and was able to put it down and walk away from it without regret. Likewise, I was so enmeshed in the story last night that when Paul wanted to watch some of our shows (How to Get Away with Murder, Will and Grace) I was a little annoyed to put the book down. I have no doubts that i will be able to get the entire thing reread in a matter of days; it’s simply a matter of finding the time to read.
Over the years since I first read It, I’ve seen some negative commentary on the book; I myself can distinctly remember not being overly thrilled with the ending, and being more than a little disappointed, which was a first with a King novel for me. The criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the book have included its length (I thought about that while reading last night, and frankly couldn’t imagine being King’s editor, trying to decide what to cut and what to leave behind), which I suppose can be justified in some ways; 1100 is awfully long. But as I was reading, I couldn’t imagine what needed to be cut from the book. King brings Derry vividly to life, and almost every word, every sentence, used to create his characters seems absolutely necessary. One of the things I’ve always loved about King was his realistic-seeming characters; whether it’s Stan Uris’ wife with her bitter recollection of not being allowed into the after-prom party at the country club because she and her date were Jewish, or Eddie Kasprack’s realization that in his overweight and needy and clingy wife, he has actually married his mother; and so on. No other writer I can recall has ever captured childhood, or written about children and the way their minds work, the way King has; the children he creates take me back to memories, long buried and forgotten, about my own childhood and its insecurities and its terrors–like Ben Hanscom when I was a kid I loved the library and lost myself in books, and was never lonely because I never really knew what it was like to have friends or a gang of friends. I always had books, you see, and I could see myself in some way in each and all of his characters as children.
Another one of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at It has to do with the gay-bashing murder of Adrian Mellon in the second chapter of the book; it’s this murder that brings the cycle of death back to Derry; just as the the first chapter’s depiction of how Georgie Denbrough dies, chasing his paper boat down the gutter triggers the cycle of death in 1958. I’ve seen criticism of the Adrian Mellon death as proof that King is homophobic, or criticism that the depiction of Adrian and his lover, Don Hagarty, was homophobic. Rereading it last night, I never once got that sense. The book was originally published in 1986, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the societal terror/homophobia that was triggered by the epidemic; some thirty years later it is easy to forget, or downplay what a truly terrifying time that was. And here was King, one of the biggest selling and most read authors of our time, putting in a vicious homophobic attack at the start of one of his biggest and most ambitious novels to date. Was his depiction of Adrian and Don, with their lipstick and tight pants and glittery eye shadow, indeed homophobic?
No, I didn’t think so in 1986 and I don’t think so in 2017.
Maybe Adrian and Don weren’t the most masculine gay men King could have chosen to write about, but the thing that we, in our more ‘enlightened’ times, tend to forget was that back in the day, back when the community was primarily focused on not dying and getting medical research into treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, the big butch straight-acting gay men were deep in the closet and desperately terrified that anyone might find out their truth. The effeminate gay men, ones who embraced who they were and wore make-up and flashy clothing and might have minced and pranced around a bit, flaunting their homosexuality–they were out because they didn’t have a choice. They weren’t straight-acting, the societal definition of masculine; they couldn’t hide their sexuality if they wanted to. Even if they remained closeted, everyone thought they were gay and treated them accordingly anyway, so they came out and got in everyone’s face.
And sometimes, getting in people’s faces, being so defiant about who they were, got them killed, as was the case with Adrian Mellon in Chapter Two of It.
King doesn’t show this hate crime as two fags getting what they deserved, either, by the way; he makes both Adrian and Don sympathetic, making the point that no one deserves to be beaten, attacked, or killed for simply being who they are. This was a radical statement to come from a straight white man whose books always shot up to Number One on the bestseller lists and had become a cultural phenomenon. Even the cops, who themselves were homophobic, made it clear that they maybe didn’t like gays but felt they should be left alone. King even talks about the small gay community in Derry, that it exists. He shows the death of Adrian as a tragedy, what happened to him as undeserved, wrong and terrible. He also shows, in a scene where Don shows Adrian, who has fallen in love with the small city and wants to stay there, the homophobic graffiti on the bridge where he ultimately dies–and the horrible words made this reader recoil, in horror and revulsion, at the inhuman sentiments expressed there with spray paint; the way the scene plays out only the most homophobic monster, without any feelings or heart, could possibly read any of it and think, well, that fag got what he deserved or agree with the sentiments spray painted on the bridge.
I’m sure there are others who can find this scene homophobic; I remember reading it back in my closeted days and having my decision to stay closeted confirmed; this is what happens to out gay men. I don’t think that was King’s intent; I believe King was trying, in his way, to show the oppression and abuse that gay men in 1986 were subjected to, something you didn’t find very often in mainstream novels of the time or even in mainstream novels of today.
He showed homophobia in all of its ugliness, and it still resonates today, thirty-one years later.
I have to go to the grocery store this morning, and I have a lot of cleaning and writing to do. So here’s a hunk to get your Saturday going, as I head back into the spice mines.