Thoughts on IT by Stephen King, What it Takes to Enjoy Horror, and Why I Write It

I recently finished the beast of a novel It by Stephen King. (Most people know it as ‘that one about the scary clown.’) Finding a book that will scare me again is sort of a white whale for me. I love being scared. Horror movies often scare me because they have the advantage of jump-frights and suspenseful music, etc. Books are at a disadvantage in the fear department, because if it begins to scare you, you can just put it down until you’re in a different mood. (Few people will pause a movie and finish it days later.) The fear has to be utterly insidious to stick with you from reading session to session, and there’s no such thing as a startle when you’re reading words on a page. (BOO doesn’t work; I’ve tried that one.)

It’s interesting to me that so many people assume I’m hard to scare. They think that because I’m a horror writer I must be tough as nails. The little-known secret? I’m quite easily scared. That’s why I write horror; I know and understand the emotion fear. How can I expect to scare readers if I can’t scare myself? Don’t believe this myth you hear that horror authors write about such things because we’re messed up in the head. That may be true for a few authors; I don’t know. But in my experience, horror writers are the nicest, mildest people you’ll meet. For one thing, we regularly exorcise our demons. It’s a very healthy thing. But also, we don’t write what we write because we’re disturbed ourselves; we write what we write because we’re afraid of how disturbed people (and the world) can be. By and large, we aren’t hardened cynics; we’re observant sensitives.

Don't forget to exercise your demons!

Don’t forget to exercise your demons!

All of that to explain: I’m easily scared, and I love it. I’m not a ‘scaredy cat’ though; I seek out what frightens me. It’s a form of both thrill and conquer. And because I know that headspace so well, I’m good at putting others there. So why do I write horror? One answer out of many is that I’m good at it, and writing what I’m best at is super fun. Few emotions are as vivid and visceral as fear; creating that for readers is seriously empowering.

I can get most of my scares from movies. As I mentioned, movies have the advantage, but since I love books so much, I doubly like it when a book can get under my skin. It’s why I’m a horror reader! That said, although there are many horror books I love, very few have successfully scared me. Fun little creeps? Sure. But body-reacting level of fear is hard to come by. Poe’s short stories when I was a kid did it. The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot as a teen. And as an adult, House of Leaves (in a different way). Others have come close but ultimately failed to smoke that particular cigar.

Now we’ve circled back around to It. It, as an adult reading it for the first time, scared me. Like really, under-my-skin scared me. I have nightmares all the time (of my own making), but this was the first time a book has given me nightmares since I was a kid. I had a full-on, wake-me-up-scary nightmare about the monster from It. You guys, it was awesome. This is exactly why I love Stephen King.

I won’t give you any spoilers, but since It has been out so long. I’ll tell a tad more than I might for a new release. The famous clown of this story, Pennywise, isn’t actually a clown. He appears as a clown sometimes, but he’s more than that; he’s a shape-changing monster that takes the form of whatever his victim’s fear is. (Thus the ‘It’ and not just ‘Pennywise.’) So if one kid is afraid of werewolves, It becomes a werewolf. If another is afraid of homeless people, It becomes an aggressive hobo. And that brings me to the crux of my post today. What does it really take to enjoy good horror?

My answer is simple: Imagination! There’s a reason why kids get scared so much more than adults do; their imaginations are still stuck in the “on” position. Fear is based primarily in the unknown, the potential for something – anything. That is imagination’s breeding ground. Luckily for me, I’ve chosen a life that keeps my imagination going nearly 24/7. I’ve built a career out of letting my mind wander the unknowns, the what-ifs, the could-bes. So when a really good book or movie asks a scary question, my mind is more than willing to get to work coming up with the scary answer.

There is one more component, though. To really enjoy good horror, you have to let down your defenses. Anything “scary” seems stupid if you laugh at it before you let it sink in. To get a good scare, you have to banish the ego. Drop the defense mechanisms and be willing to feel small and embarrassed. Every once in a while a work will come along that smashes through defenses and scares even those who don’t want to be scared. (Those are cool and fascinating works.) But for most of us, for the rest of the time, we have to allow ourselves be scared. We have to sink into the questions and unknowns rather than racing to plug them with safe answers. Honestly, it’s the most fun way to enjoy horror.

And even beyond fun; you can learn a lot about yourself if you allow fear in instead of running from it. It is primarily negative, yes, but it’s one of the dominant emotions of the human experience. The best way to overcome negative things is to acknowledge them and learn. Fear isn’t going anywhere. It has a lot to teach us. Do you really want to block it out?

That’s my food for thought for today. As a side note, I had some problems with It. Some really big problems, actually, but that’s the joy of my Not Quite Book Reviews: I’m not giving a balanced review; I’m just ruminating on books I liked. In It’s case, I gave it five glowing stars because it’s the first book that’s truly scared me in years – and that’s nothing to sniff at.

Do you want to be scared as well? Whether for fun or for thought, I’d suggest any of Stephen King’s finest. My favorites so far have been The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, and Pet Sematary. If you sit down with a will to be scared, a willingness to let down your defenses and banish your ego, and a killer imagination, you won’t be disappointed.

When’s the last time a book scared you? I’m always looking for new recommendations!

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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    “And even beyond fun; you can learn a lot about yourself if you allow fear in instead of running from it.” << I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Whether it's horror or the more run of the mill daily fears, I definitely agree, Annie. I totally understand writing horror because you're easily scared because I also write about things that either scare me or I struggle with. And as you know from my recent blog post… how can I expect readers to feel things if I don't feel them first. This is a really great post about being scared and about being there. So helpful to look at something I've thought a lot about from another POV. Thank you (and I probably won't read IT… even if it is written by one of Maine's most famous authors!).

    • Thanks, Julia! I think most writers end up writing their fears one way or another, don’t you? It’s just a matter of what those fears are, how optimistic the writer is, and how literal they want to be in exploring them. I did think of you when I was reading IT! I think of you now anytime I hear something about Maine. 🙂

  • Cynthia Robertson

    You do such a good job explaining what it is about being
    scared that is so fun, Annie. I’ve tried to explain why I like watching horror
    movies and reading scary books to my husband, but he just doesn’t ‘get’ it. It’s
    an emotion that carries its own particular thrill.

    The Shining was scary. And it had some problems too (funny
    how writing ruins us a bit, as readers) which surprised me, as I haven’t read
    any SK in quite a while (at least not his older ones). But it was still
    wonderful, scared the heck outta me, was perfect for mid-winter, and kept me on
    the edge of me seat. Thanks!

    • How nice to hear! Thanks, Cynthia. I wonder if it’s one of those things you just ‘get’ or you don’t; even some people who know and love me still remain baffled by my affinities. (I guess that’s why I’ve put so much thought into trying to understand and explain them myself.) Yes, The Shining has its problems as well. I do think the more I learn about writing the more problems I spot when I’m reading. I credit starting reading so young for my ability to overlook those problems and still appreciate other aspects of a book. And thank goodness, or I’d go crazy!

  • IT is definitely one of my favorite books! It’s really amazing how many different sub-genres there are in horror, and different readers liking different things. The last time a book scared me was during the summer when I read Still Life with Crows by Preston & Child. The antagonist’s “sound” freaked me out! I went on to read every book in their series, and while I think others in the series might be better, Still Life with Crows really got to me by playing on my imagination before the antagonist was fully revealed.

    • Cool! Still Life with Crows is a gorgeous title; I added that one to my to-read list. I’m thoroughly intrigued. Thanks for the rec!

    • Shannon

      “Muhhhhhhh!!!!”

      Still Life With Crows scared the living daylights out of me as well. Love that series.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Love your post and, as always, your enthusiasm for the horror genre. You’re a very convincing salesperson. Your comment about kids and why they’re easily scared is a good one — it really made me think about how much of our emotion and creativity we stifle as adults (unknowingly, often). You might have convinced me to re-watch those scary movies from my youth that I loved so much (Pet Sematary being one of them, Cujo, Christine….)… I love that you loved being scared by it, and I also appreciate your humor so much. The “exercise your demons” cartoon is perfect! As is this: “BOO doesn’t work; I’ve tried that one.)”

    • <3 Thank you, Melissa! If you do rewatch those movies, be sure to have a safety net. In other words, don't do it on the one night your husband is out of town; I've done that — big mistake! You'd be surprised by how many ghosts and demons a warm hubby can ward off. 🙂

  • Lisa KB

    I read somewhere once where Stephen King also said he wrote horror because he wanted to write through the things that terrified him. Of course, maybe he isn’t really worried about a killer clown, but definitely something that could take his children away. Great post!

    • That doesn’t surprise me at all! He’s fabulous at tapping into deep-rooted fears. Maybe he’s not worried about a killer clown, but he certainly feels the fear inherent in “It.” He uses child characters a lot; I get the feeling he still vividly remembers what it’s like to be a kid, you know? And then he sort of draws that memory out of his readers, which is why he’s so good at scary. Thanks, Lisa!

      • Nan

        I’ve always been impressed with how SK writes kids, and their dialogue. So spot-on! Completely real.

        • I totally agree! It feels 100% authentic; I find myself remembering my own childhood thoughts and fears that I thought I’d forgotten.

    • Sam Richard

      Potential Spoilers: The forward to Pet Sematary (my all time SK book) is him telling the story that, at the time of writing the novel, the house he was living in had a very busy street. One afternoon his daughter was running towards the road and he caught her at the last minute or she would have been run over by a truck (like the novel) and it’s what created Pet Sematary. He says it’s the only one of his books that scared him because of where his imagination took him.

      • I think I remember hearing that story too. It certainly makes sense. I *love* Pet Sematary, but I always thought it was more sad than scary — or perhaps just scary in an emotional way rather than a visceral one. The tragedy and grief felt painfully real to me. It was a remarkable work, so I’m not surprised that it came from a deep place of personal fear.

  • Carie Juettner

    I haven’t been scared by a book in a while. House of Leaves did it and so did Amityville Horror, but that was years ago. (I read Amityville Horror the weekend I moved into a new apartment when my roommate was out of town. Not smart!) Straub’s Ghost Story creeped me out in parts but the scares didn’t stay with me afterward. BUT… I’m about to start The Shining, so yea!

    • You know, Amityville was one I just could *not* get into. It irked me that it claimed to be a true story. If they’d just called it fiction I might’ve been okay with it, but as it was I rolled my eyes the whole time. Ghost Story is up soon in my stack, though, and I have high hopes for that one. Let me know what you think of The Shining!

      • Carie Juettner

        The terror of Amityville was party a stage-of-life thing for me. I was only 20 when I read it and much more willing to believe. 🙂

        • Sure, I understand. I’ve always been a skeptic, so for me it’s just a matter of suspension of disbelief. Ironically, I can do so much easier if I know it’s not true. As soon as it gets slapped with a “true story” claim my skepticism overrules that willingness.

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  • jclementwall

    Adding IT to my TBR list. (And HOUSE OF LEAVES which I meant to add when you first wrote about it. That can be my genre book this year.)

    • Awesome to hear! I hope you let me know how you like them. 🙂

  • isabellellh

    Hi Annie! Loved this post – been a Stephen King fan since I was 10 and have practically all his books (favourites are It, Firestarter, Rose Madder, The Stand, The Shining, The Green Mile, ‘Salem’s Lot). Out of them all, I’ve always returned to It time and again because it shines so brightly in my mind as to how a horror novel should be. Since you asked for recommendations, I wonder if you’ve read Dean Koontz’s Relentless? Because it is scary. It’s the kind of book that you want to be reading in a brightly lit room with your back to the wall, with moments where your hair literally stands on the backs of your arms and neck. But it’s not just about horror – there’s a great deal of dry and witty humour in good, clean prose. Hope you like the recommendation!

    • Thanks so much! I haven’t read Relentless, but I have read some Koontz. The “keep the lights on” type is my favorite kind of read, so thanks for the rec!

  • Fiona ebden

    I had the flu when I was 14 and my mum came home with this book for me. There began my love affair with Stephen King ( I even wrote my dissertation on him).
    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you.

    • I love that you wrote your dissertation on him! I wrote my senior thesis on Wuthering Heights. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, Fiona!

      • Fiona ebden

        I love Wuthering Heights. Every time I read it there is a secret part of me that holds out hope for an alternative ending!

  • coby

    My romance with Stephen King started when i was fourteen. It started with “it”. The book is gigantic and fonts are too small however it has details, a chracteristic lacking in majority of horror novels nowadays.

    • That’s two commenters in a row who started at age 14. And come to think of it, I think I picked up The Shining at around that age, too. Must be just the right time to hook a reader for life, huh? Agreed; I loved the details!

      • Fiona ebden

        I am certainly hoping 14 is the magic number for my son! He ‘hates’ reading but is currently enjoying Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I have suggested The Talisman next.
        Fingers crossed…

    • Fiona ebden

      My eldest son (14) has just started Nightmares and Dreamscapes and is really enjoying it. This is a major breakthrough as he ‘doesn’t enjoy reading’. Can you imagine how heartbreaking that is for an English teacher?!?

      • Oh yes, I can imagine! It’s a pretty common struggle, I think, to hook kids who don’t like to read. I think the trick is just finding the right gateway book(s). Horror is great for that because it has an element of “forbiddeness” that makes it fun. I hope he falls in love with books soon. Good luck, Fiona!

  • Richard van Wyk

    I’d be fascinated to know what you thought was wrong with IT. It (see what I did there…) is one of my favourite books of all time.

    • It’s a wonderful book! (I saw what you did there, haha.) But I don’t like to talk about the negatives on my blog. I don’t like getting into debates, and I admire authors too much (I’m a writer myself) to spend time calling them out. I’m sure you could get some varied opinions by reading reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, though. I can absolutely understand why it would be someone’s favorite book. There’s much to love.

  • Natalie

    The Descent and it’s sequel. As well as The Ruins.Both I think make horrors believable,they play on our fears with things that are real versus make believe creatures or scenarios.I think that is also where King really excels,taking fears based in reality,of objects,of actions,of people,and he twists them to where they become terrifying yet still recognizable as the real thing.

    • The Descent by Jeff Long? I absolutely ADORE that book, but I never got around to the sequel. I need to hunt that one down and add it to my list! I’m not familiar with The Ruins. And I agree with you re: reality. I think fantastical elements are so much more powerful when the blur the lines of what’s believable. Things like that really get under my skin.

      • Natalie

        Do read the sequel,it’s not quite as scary as the first,because we now know where they are and what lurks down there,but it is scary nevertheless. The Ruins is by Scott Smith.I won’t give away spoilers.
        Both these books were made into so-so movies,but I prefer horror on the page….because I can put the book down and walk away for a bit if it gets too intense,without missing important aspects.

        • Okay, I’ll definitely look into both of those. Thanks, Natalie!

  • Karai

    Try some HP Lovecraft. King has said himself that HP was a major influence and you’ll see similarities. They’re not so much scary as they are unsettling but his writing is brilliant!

    • Karai

      Also, I’ve been reading a lot of “true accounts” of folks who’ve lived in haunted houses. Amityville by Jay Anson (even if it is a ‘hoax’) is still preeeeeetty freaky and of course William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” is my all time go to if I”m in need of a scare-a-thon!

      • The Exorcist is one I read only recently, and it was quite brilliant. I wasn’t a fan of Amityville, but I seem to be in the minority with that one.

    • I have read Lovecraft! I actually have some thoughts on that, too, if you feel like reading: http://annieneugebauer.com/2013/09/23/thoughts-on-lovecraft/

  • Kelli Crackel

    I’ve been reading Stephen King books for 28 years. I can almost always count on him to scare me. i’ve gone through 2 paperback copies of it in the last two decades. I read them until they fall apart.

  • Steve Daniel

    Annie, you know there is a sequel to The Shining out now, don’t you? I can’t remember the name of the book, but King wrote it and I’ll never look at a group of Winnebagos the same way again!

    • Steve Daniel

      I found it! It’s called “Dr. Sleep” and it’s a great read!

      • I do! I’ve read Doctor Sleep as well, and it was a really interesting read. Less scary (to me) and more profound. I could really tell that King has grown up a lot. He’s still amazing at characterization. Thanks, Steve!

  • Redd

    Okay, I LOVE it when a book punches me in the stomach, makes me cringe. There are a few books that have done it.
    American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis–scared the shit out of me. It’s real world scary, despite its satirical aspects. I had to stop reading it several times, partly because of its explicit torture scenes, but more so because the idea of being in such a despicable narrator’s head was really unsettling. It felt like I was doing all this stuff. Plus, it made me think about everyone around me in society, how any one of them could be Patrick Bateman.
    The first story to make my jaw hit the floor was Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. Not horror, really, but something that will scare the crap out of you when you realize how…normal of a situation it is, but just gone wrong, wrong, WRONG. I don’t know. I recommend reading that, it blew my mind. That’s part of his book Haunted, which also blew my mind and unsettled me. Palahniuk’s work tends to grab me by the throat and shake me.

    Also, Stephen Graham Jones is a fantastic horror writer. His stories are beautiful written and really, really creepy.

    • If you love that type of real-world punch-in-the-stomach book, I absolutely recommend Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door. It’s based on a (actual) true story, and it emotionally wiped me out for a week. Palahniuk is another who’s been on my list for ages; I have Haunted ear-marked for my first of his to try. And I’ll check out Stephen Graham Jones, too. Thanks for the great recs!

  • I used to love The Twilight Zone show, but I’ve never checked out the stories. I am definitely adding that to my list. Thanks, Karen!

    • Karen Burrows

      🙂

  • Margaret Castro

    spoiler alert!!! Mr Mercedes when the mom is dying on the couch…my imagination let me have it with that one…not that I had a choice with Mr King telling me the story…and I agree with your list as well

    • I haven’t read that one, but I’ve heard such good things. It’s that imagination, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by, Margaret!

  • Nicole

    It was not the first Stephen King book I read, but it’s definitely one of his scariest. I thought The Stand and The Talisman were pretty scary, as were Desperation and Bag of Bones, but Gerald’s Game is King’s scariest book to me because of the simple vulnerability of the main character. It was the first and only book in my life that actually made me scream out loud & throw it across the room. I’ve never been able to reread it because it scared me a little too much.

    • Gerald’s Game is on my to-read list as well. And wow, your reaction makes me bump it up a few notches in the list!!

  • Peggy

    What an interesting blog post! It’s fun, well written, &
    full of interesting ideas. Reading the comments
    continued the fun. And, apparently, I’m not the only who thinks so, since I see
    that Anne Rice (yes “THE” Anne Rice) posted it on her face book page, and to date
    it has almost 1,000 likes!!! The lady has good taste:)

    • Margaret Castro

      that’s where I found this too! I thought to myself wow, that’s a big deal

      • It certainly feels like one to me! I completely geeked out for a solid 24 hours before I even allowed myself back online, haha. I’m a HUGE fan of hers!

    • Thank you so much! Yes, I just figured out where the signal boost came from as well. 🙂 I’m absolutely floored that Ms. Rice would take the time to read and share my posts. A thank you email is headed her way!

  • I’ve only read two horror books in my life. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as a kid and the Shinning this past Christmas. I think what makes a book truly scary is when it’s about more than fear. When it hits a nerve like a buried insecurity, or tears the scab off an old wound. I think that’s where Horror movies are at a disadvantage. They have the crutch of film and film score to make you jump. But they don’t have the time (or viewer patience) to deeply explore deep psychological waters. That’s where books win 🙂

    Also Lord of the Flies scared the crap out of me!

    • I think I know what you’re saying. All good books are about multiple things, aren’t they? Old wounds and insecurities are sort of a different type of fear, I think. And you have a fantastic point about horror novels having their own advantages over movies. Really well said! Even the best, highest quality scary movies can’t go nearly as deeply or thoroughly into the realms of the mind as a nice long book. PS- I totally believe that Lord of the Flies *is* a horror novel. Don’t tell the school districts!

      • Peggy

        Amen on Lord of the Flies!

  • Peggy

    On a slightly irrelevant note, Richard just told me that he thinks he remembers that The Stand (which i read so many years ago) started in Houston, & they ran into the gas pumps in Navasota:) I can’t possibly remember detail like that, but he lives in Navasota. Funny, huh?

    • That is funny! I notice things like that too. If Richard gets a kick out of stuff like that, he might be interested in The Passage by Justin Cronin. He’s an author based in Houston (I think he teaches at UH), and several of the events in his trilogy take place in and around the Houston/Galveston area.

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  • Jordan

    “All of that to explain: I’m easily scared, and I love it. I’m not a ‘scaredy cat’ though; I seek out what frightens me. It’s a form of both thrill and conquer. And because I know that headspace so well, I’m good at putting others there.” – I find this to be absolutely true for myself as well and have recently decided to start writing short stories of the horror genre! Fear is not exactly the first emotion people think of, when they think of a good time, but in reality it actually can be! I enjoy putting myself into that mindset every night. The last thing that I do most nights is to scare myself silly. You know? To that point where you practically feel the need to sleep with lights on AND the blanket over your head for the rest of the night.

    Anyhow, I just thought that I would drop you a line and say hello and let you know how much I enjoyed reading your blog! Best of luck to your continued success as a writer!

    • Hi Jordan! Thanks so much for stopping by. And since you’ve just branched out into writing horror, welcome! I agree that fear can absolutely be “fun.” I love that spooked-out feeling right before bed myself. 🙂

      No one does scary quite like Stephen King. The Shining is just the best! The Exorcist was good as well, but I think it would’ve scared me more if I’d read it when I was younger, like I did with The Shining. Agreed in that books can go much deeper with the fear than movies — absolutely.

      Such a pleasure to “meet” you here. I hope to see you around!

  • Shawn Pavlik

    I was not impressed with IT. King has written so many better works. The Shining, for example, was fantastic. While The Stand did not have as many horror elements, it was perhaps his best book and showed fantastic character development. Pet Semetary was frightening. As a kid, I loved The Talisman and Eyes of the Dragon, but again not strictly horror.

    • I agree that it’s not his best work. I like The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Pet Semetary better, personally. He’s a very talented man.

  • Bobbi c.

    Harvest Home and The Other, read when I was a teen (many years ago)!

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