It (1986)

An expansive and engrossing work, It tells the story of seven children battling an archetypal monster in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, and opens with a chapter that ranks (in my opinion) among the best that the author has ever written - a microcosm of the rest of the novel. King quickly introduces us to Bill Denbrough, one of his central characters, through the eyes of his younger brother, George. Bill, sick in bed in 1957, makes his brother a paper boat. George braves the imagined horrors of the basement to fetch paraffin to waterproof this creation, kisses Bill's cheek in farewell and then heads out into the rain. The boat is swept into a storm drain, and little George is startled when a clown offers him a balloon from down in the sewer. Reaching for it, he is savagely murdered, his arm torn clean off. With this one chapter, King touches on several of the book's key ideas - childhood, the end of innocence, the nature of community - while dragging the reader from the everyday to the uncanny and finally to the horrific.

The next chapter is a slightly different beast. Jumping to 1984, King details the circumstances surrounding the grisly death of Adrian Mellon. An effeminate and rather childish homosexual, Mellon has been targeted by some local assholes who take exception to his existence, beat him to a pulp and then throw him from a bridge into the canal. As the police try to get to the bottom of contradictory statements, a common factor emerges: witnesses on both sides of the conflict report seeing a clown beneath the bridge. And one of them sees it biting into the prone Mellon, tearing a large chunk out of his armpit. As the victim's boyfriend tearfully explains, he understands what the clown is - it's the dark underside of the town. As must surely be the intention, this sequence leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Spoilers ahead! The duality of these two chapters is reflected throughout the novel. Structurally, King splits the rest of the book between 1958 and 1985, childhood and adulthood, innocence and corruption - beginning with our introduction to the protagonists: Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Beverley Marsh, Richie Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon. Childhood friends bound together by the events of 1958, they have all moved away from Derry and mysteriously forgotten their shared past. All apart from Mike, now the town's librarian. As the other adults (now unusually successful in their chosen fields) each receive Mike's pivotal phone call reminding them of an old promise and summoning them home, King juxtaposes their current lives against their hazy recollections of youth. Only methodical, rational Stan remembers enough to break his word, and his calm, shocking suicide is a vivid and terrible window onto a nightmare that the others are yet to recall.

With his central characters established and on their way back to Derry, King gives us more and more detail into their backgrounds. As the mist that hangs over their memories begins to lift, each one remembers their early encounters with the titular monster and the circumstances that pushed them together into their Losers' Club (school bullies, parental neglect/abuse and physical difference emerging as core issues). These evocative scenes are important in several ways, as King deftly conjures Derry as a real place, makes the kids' friendships believable and sweet, and occasionally gives us lurching scares as It circles ever closer. Beset from the outside, the children turn to each other for support and a semblance of safety.

The nature of the monster that stalks the sewers and abandoned places in town gradually comes into focus as the Losers join together and share their experiences. As we learn more about the threat they (and the other children of Derry) faced in 1958, King gives us interludes in the form of Mike Hanlon's ongoing attempts in 1985 to compile a history of It and its relationship to the town. Having never left Derry, Mike's memories of their experiences never completely faded - and he has sacrificed the fame and wealth that the others stumbled into later in life. Bill, who has a personal stake in facing It, may be the de facto leader of the Losers, but Mike is our anchor in the narrative: an occasional narrator, trustworthy but scared, and the source of much backstory...

Major spoilers ahead! One of King's most vicious and unsettling antagonists, It violently feeds on children and their fear. Although often appearing as the jocular, nightmarish Pennywise the Clown, It is a shapeshifter able to take the form of its victim's deepest dread - including a mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a giant bird (a warped version of Godzilla's sometime ally Rodan), a leper, a teenage werewolf, the ghosts of dead children, a witch, Frankenstein's monster, a vampire, a living statue, the Crawling Eye... and on and on through the touchstones of horror lore pulled from prose and B-movies. Indeed, in many ways the novel reads as King's love letter to his own influences.

In general, only children see these glamours; adults tend to ignore them, either consciously or subconsciously, sometimes to a child's cost. It can influence troubled minds in its favour - human monsters like Henry Bowers, the Losers' unhinged bully (who is goaded into psychosis as the novel progresses), or Al Marsh, Bev's abusive father - but for the most part, adults are seemingly willing to look the other way. By setting things up in this way, King is able to explore the horror lurking beneath the veneer of small-town values, focusing in on how children process trauma and differ in their reactions to friendship and death. When children are forced to deal with the adult world on its own terms, it throws into stark relief how easily adults can use kids for their own ends - as emotional crutches or as punching bags, say. King has touched on themes of childhood before (see, for example, 'The Body' from Different Seasons), but It feels like the culmination of his ideas on the subject.

Mike's detective work uncovers a pattern behind It's killings dating back to the first settlers to arrive in what would become Derry. In roughly 27-year cycles, the town is prey to escalating levels of child murder, often culminating in larger disasters once the adult community gets involved (a catastrophic explosion at the ironworks; a racially charged fire at the Black Spot, a jazz club run by black soldiers; the killing of the Bradley Gang by the great and good of the town; an axe massacre in a loggers' pub - all vividly written sequences that raise the stakes for our heroes). Derry's collective tendency to forget these events over time is a broader version of what happened to the Losers who left town: It has glamoured their memories.

Ultimate spoilers ahead! But what exactly have they forgotten? While it is clear early on that the children confronted It but failed to destroy It once and for all, King holds back the details of what actually happened until the final section of the book. This allows him to firmly embed the reader with the Losers, building tension while making us care what happens. That the 1958 climax is still riveting despite our foreknowledge that it was ultimately futile shows the effectiveness of this approach. Tracking the monster to its lair, they enter into a ritual battle of wills in which their minds are flung into a metaphysical void (the "macroverse"), hurtling towards It's true essence, an insane Lovecraftian abstraction of light. By confronting their fear in this realm, they can stun It's physical form long enough to deliver the coup de grâce. But they're children, they're terrified and they blow their chance. While this feels like the confrontation we've been expecting, what happens next is a startlingly bold choice on King's part.

Lost in the dark sewers beneath the city, on the verge of mental collapse and with the self-belief that has carried them this far fading fast, the Losers cement their bond in the only way left to them - with their bodies. And so, one by one, the boys lose their virginity with Bev. An "essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity", their brief, immature sex is hugely symbolic, the ultimate affirmation of life. Taken out of context, it's easy to see how a pre-teen group sex scene might trouble readers (which it clearly has over the years, as a very carefully phrased web search will reveal), but King makes it seem like a natural and touching extension of their friendship. What could have been deeply problematic material somehow... isn't. It's a remarkable piece of writing, simultaneously shocking and well judged.

Indeed, It finds King at the top of his technical game throughout. The split timeline allows him to contrast or repeat events as characters return to their childhood haunts, a doubling of past and present that highlights how much or little they have changed in the interim. The cycles of It's killings are reinforced by smaller cycles of behaviour from the protagonists (Bev's abusive father being replaced by a violent, misogynist husband; Eddie stumbling from dependent, smothering mother to dependent, smothering wife). Detailed character development is balanced with tense set pieces (the attacks at 29 Neibolt Street; the rock fight with bullies that finally cements the Losers' friendship; and many others), while occasional vignettes (such as the potted life and death of Patrick Hockstetter, a disturbed teen serial killer in the making) take us out of and then suddenly back into the action.

Transitions between characters, shifting the emphasis from one to another, help to build foreboding as we circle around a running throughline of events, and King gradually builds in shorter and shorter sections, further ramping up the tension. This is especially true during the twin climax of the book, as he interweaves the confrontations with It in 1958 and 1985, throwing in cliffhanger moments that span time and character. As the novel approaches it end, core themes of friendship and memory are overlaid with sacrifice, belief and responsibility.

It is King's longest book since The Stand, but benefits from its focus on Derry and the evil that unpins the history of the town - while The Stand is a continent-spanning epic, It feels like a more personal work by far. The book, like its titular character, plays on our childhood fears; if you can remember being scared as a child, there will be something that unsettles you here. As a result, it's one of King's most chilling, satisfying pieces of work to date. And, as is probably clear from the length of this post, it's one of my favourites.

Notes for the obsessive factfan: It contains numerous links to other King novels. Along with a brief reference to the Castle Rock killings of The Dead Zone and an early appearance by Rebecca Paulson from The Tommyknockers, we also learn early on that the adult Ben Hanscom lives in Hemingford Home (home of Mother Abigail in The Stand), where a "lively" virus is currently doing the rounds. Shortly before Henry Bowers' demise, It provides him with much-needed transport - a red and white Plymouth Fury (Christine!) driven by his dead friend Belch - while a young Dick Halloran (The Shining) plays a key role during the Black Spot tragedy, using his gift to direct his friends to safety during that deadly fire. It also marks the first example (I think) of a protagonist in King's writing who is himself a successful writer; this character type will recur regularly as we progress through his books.

Next: The Eyes of the Dragon.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

This is a really great review. I've probably read "It" a dozen times as a teenager, but haven't picked it up in years. I'm rereading it now as a pregnant adult and HOLY SHIT. It's scaring me so much. I had a hard time making it through the scenes where each kid has their own encounter with It before they form their friend group.

It's fairly seamless how King switches back and forth from the Losers as kids and then as adults. I hear the new film adaptation will be two movies, one of them as kids, and one as adults and it makes me a little sad to lose those transitions.