I originally submitted this to my friend Rich Chizmar of Cemetery Dance Publications to be included as a guest essay for his Stephen King Revisited project. But after talking to him and getting his blessing (and since he’s still a long way from revisiting IT), I decided the timing was right to share it with you now.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, partly because it was the first serious piece I’d done in years and partly because in writing it, I had to turn over quite few stones that would have preferred to lay undisturbed. Even viewed through the lens of time, I had my heart broken all over again, and re-reading it now is difficult. But for anyone who has wondered why books and reading are so important to me, this is the reason.
(originally written for “Stephen King Revisited”)
Geek. Nerd. Weirdo. Four-eyes. Freak.
You get used to hearing these words hissed at you when you grow up introverted, undersized, and bespectacled. I would know – standing at least a head shorter than everyone else, with my Coke-bottle glasses, nose perpetually buried in a book, and, for a few terrible years, a mouth full of braces, I was the poster child for all of these insults. But I was also lucky – unlike a lot of kids, I had pretty thick skin and could let the jeers and taunts roll off my back. I’ve always had a strong sense of self, of who I am and (maybe more importantly) who I‘m not, so even when I was young I was able to treat the name-calling as so much background noise. Of course it stung – depending on the circumstances, sometimes it stung quite badly – but I didn’t allow it to diminish or break me. I just kept to myself and to my books.
Because I was so content in my solitude, I didn’t have many friends growing up (I still don’t, as a matter of fact). I was okay with this…for the most part. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t dark moments of regret and gnawing jealousy that my Friday nights consisted not of parties and dates but of homework and episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street.” I think that was what first attracted me to IT. I was a middle-school kid who loved scary, suspenseful, supernatural stories, and was just starting to make the transition from kid-friendly chapter books to more grown-up fiction. The fantasy worlds of Madeleine L’Engle gave way to Michael Crichton’s creepy sci-fi visions, and R.L. Stine morphed into (who else?) Stephen King. I vividly remember standing in front of all those perfect, new Stephen King paperbacks in the horror section of our local Waldenbooks and being transfixed and terrified by one particular book, its cover showing a decayed skull in the guise of a clown. And the inside blurb said the main characters were kids my own age? I was sold. IT became one of the first Stephen King books to join my library.
I remember how overwhelming that first reading was, almost too much to take in. But I also know that I wouldn’t have been able to stop reading it even if I’d wanted to. I was rapt. Over the course of the next few years, through the rest of middle school and into high school, I would read it so many times that I lost count. There were a few instances where I’d get to the last line and, without pause, flip right back to the beginning to start again. It wasn’t only that I loved the story, or the setting, or the language, although they certainly played a part. It was that I loved those seven kids. They were nearly tangible, so real that I couldn’t bear the thought of their story ending. In them I’d found the friends I’d been looking for. I didn’t need my classmates or the children in my neighborhood – I had Stuttering Bill and Richie Tozier and Stan the Man. I had the Losers’ Club. They were outcasts themselves, but despite their own quirks and weaknesses and shortcomings, together they became greater than the sum of their parts. They accepted one another and brought out the best in each other. They were the best kind of friends imaginable…they were the best friends I’d ever known. That might sound sad but it wasn’t, not then and not now. They were, quite literally, all I needed.
And like any group of friends, I had a deeper connection to some more than others. My favorite of the bunch, from the minute we’re first introduced to her, was (of course) Beverly. It would have been enough that she was the lone female, and a badass one at that. But she was also a redhead, a ginger, just like me. At the time, the only people who expressed any appreciation for my red hair were family members and sweet old ladies I’d come across at the store or at church. Among my peers, however, it was more an object of ridicule than of admiration. So the fact that the brave, sassy heroine looked a little like me (or so I imagined) meant quite a lot. Bev became my hero. But it was only a few years ago, when I was re-reading IT for the first time in a very long time, that I realized I had it all wrong – I wanted to be Beverly… but I was Ben. I had revisited Derry dozens of times by then but, either because I just didn’t see it or because I didn’t want to see it, it never once occurred to me that Stephen King was essentially describing, through Ben’s clumsy bookishness and shy awkwardness, me. Mr. King knew. He understood. I may have grown up in 1980s New Jersey instead of 1950s Maine, but otherwise he had it right exactly. The snide comments made by mean kids, the exclusion from playground games, the utter surprise when someone showed genuine interest in me and the things I had to say – my experience was exactly the same as Ben’s. This realization was like ripping off a bandage – painful, extremely so, but cathartic. Because like Ben, I grew strong and self-sufficient from it. I turned it to my advantage, almost without realizing it. I not only survived; I thrived. I have a hard time reading those chapters now, but they’re among my favorite ever written, by King or any other writer. I have yet to find another character in all of literature to whom I feel more connected.
That’s the beauty of Stephen King’s writing. It’s no secret that he has an innate understanding of people and human nature, but his grasp on childhood and how awful and wondrous it can be is uncanny. And I have no doubt that other Constant Readers, especially if they were lucky enough to stumble across his books at a young age, have this sort of deep attachment to his world and his characters. For some, it might be the survivors from The Stand. For others, it might be the boys from “The Body,” or the ka-tet of the Dark Tower series. But for me, all roads will always lead back to IT. Through Rich Chizmar, who might be the only person on earth who loves IT more than me, a few years ago I was able to rather inelegantly tell Mr. King just how much that book meant to me. I hope this expounds on that quick, clumsy paragraph. Thank you again for giving a lonely, nerdy kid the best friends she could have asked for.