Stephen King’s horror novels make a lot more sense when you realize they’re YA

kids from It movie
kids from It movie
Image: New Line Cinema
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When I was in junior high, I read a lot of Stephen King novels.

If that sounds vaguely age-inappropriate, you have to remember that the late 1980s and early 1990s were a real fallow period for young adult literature. Authors like Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Mildred D. Taylor had made the genre exciting in the 1970s, with straightforward sex talk and social realism. But in the 1980s, complex novels about sex, class, gender, and race gave way to saccharine series like The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. If you wanted real characters and a gripping plot, in which a happy outcome was not necessarily guaranteed, it made sense to go with King.

Today, King is enjoying a renaissance, with a fresh film adaptation of his horror classic It killing at the box office, a new novel co-written with his son Owen coming out on Sept. 26, and a J.J. Abrams-produced Hulu show called Castle Rock, set in the King “multiverse,” in the works. That makes now a great time for those of us who grew up on King to revist his work—but be prepared to find his books a lot more terrifying as an adult.

King’s early works—including Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Shining, and most especially It—are heavy on murders and monsters. But at their core, they are some of the most affecting explorations of the profound vulnerability of childhood I’ve ever read. The scariest thing in King’s universe is being, or having, a kid.

Consider Pet Sematary, which I tried to re-read this summer. Back in sixth grade, most of my attention was focused on the goofy thrill of a zombie cat. As a 40-year-old mom, I had another takeaway entirely.

In case you don’t remember, the novel is about a family that moves to Maine and buys a house on a busy road. After a cubic ton of foreshadowing, their toddler son is killed in a car accident. The dad, a doctor, takes the boy to an old Indian burial ground–after a test run with that cat. Things go downhill from there.

As an adult, I recognized that the book’s true subject is the absolute and total horror of losing child, and our fundamental inability as humans to accept the hard stop finality of death. The book was so emotionally uncomfortable to read that I had to return it to the library.

How about Cujo? Well, that’s about being trapped in car by a rabid dog while your child slowly dehydrates to death. I put a case of water in the back of my minivan after that one. Firestarter? Not only could your child be too talented for her own good, your ability to protect her from herself and a world poised to exploit those gifts, is feeble at best. The Shining? Not only can’t you protect your family from the outside world, you can’t even protect them from the monster inside of you.

And then there’s It.

Being a child is, in some ways, incredibly lonely, and loneliness is very scary. Childhood is inherently ephemeral, which we fetishize as adults, but as a kid you have little power over your own life, and you’re always waiting for the next thing, the next grade, the next birthday, the next level of privilege and responsibility. Where you are is inherently impermanent and shifting, unreal in a way. King’s 1,000-plus-page novel is all about being a child with knowledge of great evil and no authority or ability to stop it, until an ephemeral moment of deep friendship with other children experiencing the same thing–and giving voice to that experience–shifts the power balance.

In the book, a rag-tag band of kids growing up 1950s Maine identify and battle an unnamed evil—the titular It—that adults cannot or will not see. The kids are vulnerable not just because of their age, but because they are loners and losers, unpopular nerds who already occupy the fringes. There is no authority these kids can turn to; no one to whom they can report the problem. They’ve been cast into the yawning chasm of adult responsibility before they are ready, and their adversary literally wants to devour them. As a child’s voiceover explains in the new trailer for It, “When you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer.”

King has written that it’s much easier to scare people with the anticipation of a monster than with the revelation of the monster itself. When I was a kid, devouring page after page of King’s vampires, killer cars and killer clowns, what propelled me forward was the idea that I was getting closer to confronting the monster, face-to-face. I thought I had fully grasped his pantheon of fiends by the time I turned 15. But it turns out he’s been playing the long game all along. In her 2014 review of the novel Revival in The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes that King channels a “metaphysical, universal terror. He writes about things so inevitable that he speaks to us all.” It wasn’t until I hit the belly of adulthood that I was finally able to see the true horror of the beasts he’s been conjuring all these years.