It’s those bones I remember most. Brittle, mildew-coated, shreds of clothing still shrouding the mortal remains of a boy 14, maybe 15 years old. They’d lain there forgotten in the sewers beneath Derry, Maine, for 27 years, undiscovered until 1985. They were just one of the many missing children from that awful summer of 1958. Those bones may lay there still.
27 years. A number unimaginable to a 15-year-old. It’s impossible for a 15-year-old to imagine life at 42; for a 42-year-old … not so much.
All a 42-year-old has to do is remember.
Back to those bones. In life, their name was Patrick Hockstetter, and in life, he was a Bad Kid. He smothered his baby brother in his crib. He set things on fire. He abducted neighborhood pets, sealing them in an abandoned refrigerator down at the Derry town dump, starving them, and tossing their small bodies into the brush when they had died.
Then, one sunny summer afternoon in 1958, It took him.
I was Patrick Hockstetter’s age when I first read Stephen King’s It in the summer of 1989. I’d been given the paperback by my grandmother, herself a big horror fan. “You’ll like this one,” she said knowingly between puffs of the cigarette that would eventually take her four years later. “It’s scary. You like scary, don’t you?”
I did, but not at first. Truth is, up until age 10, I was terrified of being terrified. I would have unbelievably vivid dreams, still at that age when monsters—the made-up kind—were very real. But then my father brought home Alien for us to watch on our VCR (Betamax, if you must know) and challenged me to watch it with him. It took some convincing, but in the end, I watched it—albeit through partially covered eyes. When the credits rolled and Jerry Goldsmith’s score swelled, it was over. For my dad, anyway, not for me. I’d had nightmares after seeing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. No, Alien was going to terrorize me in my dreams that night.
Except I slept sounder than I probably ever had. There were no visitations by a Giger-esque Xenomorph, then or ever. I woke to the sun shining through my window. I had confronted the monster and survived. And from then on, I was a committed fan of things designed purely to terrify you.
It dominated that summer of 1989. A bit between shifts at my job, a few pages in the evenings, as much as I could get to in bed before sleep overtook me. It’s a long book. At the time, it actually made the news solely because of its page count—over 1100 of them. But it’s also a very finely rendered book, playing to King’s strength of creating worlds that feel real and are populated by people you could expect to see passing you on the street.
As someone of close enough age to the kids of the Loser’s Club—and living in a town not that dissimilar to Derry—I gravitated more to the 1958 sections than the present-day 1985 sections. Despite its moments of terror, in many small ways, It is a gentle book. It frames the horror of a town besieged by a supernatural being the adults all but ignore even as it preys on their children through the lens of bicycle rides and weekend matinees. Of exploring the pine barrens and byways of your small town. Of building dams and forts and reading comic books. Of confronting the town bully and feeling those first pangs of adolescent love. The book took me all summer to read (I must have finished it the weekend before school resumed). I put it on my shelf, and it stayed there for the next 28 years…
Until I saw It again.
See also: Three Clowns Talking About It
It was while exiting the theater after my screening of the new It that I realized I was the age the now-grown kids of the Losers Club would be today, give or take a few years. That the movie version set the childhood passage in 1989—the summer I first read It—felt uncannily familiar to my experiences that year. The clothes, the hair, the music—the whole package felt like I was looking through a window back into my own childhood.
On the ride home, I wondered: what would reading It be like now, as an adult? Would it have that same impact, or would it be something different? Something deeper? I resolved to find out, and once I dug through my bookshelves and found that same creased, battered paperback, I read It for the second time.
So what happened? Well, for starters (and as I suspected), I responded more to the modern-day sections detailing the adult lives of the Losers than I did to those flashbacks to that horrible, momentous summer of 1958 (and 1989 for that matter). In 1989, the sections set in the then-present-day world of 1985 with the kids all grown up were less than compelling because, at that age, I had no inkling of what awaited me in the adult world. But reading It now, it was the adult sections that cut deeper. Maybe because I’ve grown up as well, but all the things the adult Losers grapple with are things my friends and I have had to face as well. The successes, the failures, the disappointments. The deaths.
The world we inhabit, with all its very real terrors, is a frightening place. But that’s why we read scary stories and watch them on TV or in a darkened cinema. Because those fictional terrors help us manage the very real ones that may be lurking unseen around the corner. Books, like all art, are static. They remain the same thing. Same words. Same everything. It’s you who changes. You, who has changed every time you pick up a book previously read and revisit it.
But it all comes back to those bones in the sewer. Patrick Hockstetter’s bones and the bones of the other lost, stolen, and murdered children of Derry. The ones who would never grow up. The ones who would never learn to drive a car or fall in love. They would lie there, decomposing beneath Derry while the rest of the world moved on. I think of those kids and the ones I knew at 15 who aren’t here anymore. The ones who succumbed to car accidents and overdoses and cancer and suicide. The ones who never got a chance at really living.
The things that scare you at 15 aren’t the ones that scare you 27 years later. In my now-adult eyes, that’s the true horror of Stephen King’s It: that knowledge that we all only have a brief time on earth before It gets us.
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Brad Abraham is the author of Magicians Impossible (Thomas Dunne Books), creator of the Mixtape comic book series, screenwriter of the films Fresh Meat and Stonehenge Apocalypse, writer on the television series Canada Crew, Now You Know, I Love Mummy, and Robocop Prime Directives, and a journalist whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dreamwatch, and Fangoria. He lives in New York City.