Review of Encountering Pennywise: Critical Perspectives on Stephen King’s IT, edited by Whitney S. May, University of Mississippi Press, 2022. 212 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1496842220). Kindle (ASIN: B0BCXDSJNK).
In the fall of 2016, I was teaching a class on Witches in American Literature and Culture, during which a student alerted us to an email sent out by our campus public safety office stating that no clowns had been observed on or near campus. The strange report of no activity combined with the class subject matter to give us all a creeping, eerie sense of dread. Clowns on campus would have been awful, but a special email alerting us to an absence of clowns was worse. It did not help that in the next week someone tied a red balloon to a sewer grate down the street from campus.
Public safety’s email had not come out of nowhere, of course. In retrospect, that fall of 2016 felt like a weird premonitory state, and it seemed we were besieged by reports of terrifying clowns doing nothing but showing up in unexpected locations and looking menacing. The specter of Stephen King’s Pennywise, the evil clown from his novel IT, stood behind all of these clown sightings, as illustrated by the practical joke with the red balloons. The scary clown has always been a ubiquitous figure in our imaginations, and King’s iteration has left indelible marks.
Thus it was with great interest that I read Encountering Pennywise: Critical Perspectives on Stephen King’s IT, edited by Whitney S. May. The book contains eleven essays investigating the meaning of King’s arguably most famous creation, representing a wide range of critical and theoretical approaches. May begins the volume with an introduction noting the terrifying appearances of clowns, referring to “the clown-laden political imagery surrounding the 2016 US presidential election and its subsequent administration” (3). King’s creation of Pennywise, May argues, is a reconceptualization of the mythic troll hiding beneath a bridge, ready to pounce on and eat unsuspecting children. The figure of the clown is almost always subversive, standing as a comic truth teller or countercultural force, a notion that May calls “the clown as cultural interlocutor” (4).
The first of the book’s four sections, labelled “Countercurrents,” primarily focuses on time and form in the novel. The chapters in this section begin with Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns’s comparison of IT to the “satanic panics” that dominated news cycles and the American imagination in the 1980s. Erin Giannini compares the original setting of the novel in the 1950 and 1980s to the recent film adaptation’s 1980s/2010s setting and finds that, while there are significant thematic changes, the shift in focus from Boomer to GenX protagonists maintains the concerns of the novel. Diganta Roy’s chapter keeps the focus on the presentation of childhood in the novel, arguing that “the subversive power of King’s novel” comes from a “meaningful connection” between childhood and adulthood (56).
“Countercultures,” the second section of the book, focuses primarily on the body. Margaret J. Yankovich wades into the intense fear created by body horror in the novel, noting that IT “reveals a deep insecurity about the lack of control over our innately unruly bodies” (63). Amylou Ahava considers the psychological in her analysis of Patrick Hockstetter, who harbors a “biological form of madness” contrary to other King villains who are acted upon by outside forces (79). Keith Currie rounds out this section by taking King’s often-quoted stance on the hierarchy of fright from terror to the “gross-out.” Currie then foregrounds the “role played by emotions in the task of reading and responding to a horror text” (94).
The third section, “Counterclaims,” contains some of the strongest arguments in the anthology. Penny Crofts considers the function of horror in Aristotelian terms, arguing that IT allows readers to feel “fear and disgust” that is cathartically purged by the grand destruction of the town of Derry in the end (115). Jeff Ambrose tackles the trauma in King’s novel, arguing that the children bury their trauma, and that they are only able to heal from it after they confront and fight it at the end of the novel. Daniel R. Compora’s chapter takes a similar view, looking at trauma through the lens of toxic nostalgia.
The final section, “Counterfeits,” contains two essays that focus on cultural memories in the novel. Hannah Lina Schneeberger and Maria Wiegel compare the murderous actions of Pennywise to the murder of the American Dream, while Shannon S. Shaw argues that Pennywise is analogous to the “monstrousness of colonialism” (183).
In general, this volume offers many things to appeal to both literary scholars and serious fans of one of King’s most popular novels. The collection’s main strengths lie in the third section, where the textual analysis is sharp and focused while situating the novel within contemporary American culture. Although each chapter does make some important claims, there are numerous uneven patches that tend to detract from the arguments. Some tend towards redundancy and rocky prose while others allow the important and necessary theoretical frameworks to devour the central thesis. These concerns, however, should not deter any of King’s “constant readers” who are interested in considering Pennywise in more detail.
-13 May 2023