In the summer of 1958, the small town of Derry, Maine, suffered one of its periodic outbreaks of murder and death, as it did every 27 years or so, as far back as such things were recorded. That summer was different, however. Because that summer, someone fought back.
That summer, seven prepubescent children bonded together, seemingly by coincidence. Bill, Richie, Ben, Stan, Mike, Bev, and Eddie had virtually nothing in common except the bullies who harrassed them, and their personal experiences of the frightening oddities of Derry. These experiences led them to the conviction that something was hunting the children of Derry: that, in fact, this something, which they came to call IT, had killed Georgie, the younger brother of Bill, as well as several other children, and was trying to kill them as well. Out of this conviction came the inescapable conclusion that they had to kill IT first.
And 27 years later, they have to kill IT again.
The terror begins on page one, with the horrifying death of little Georgie Denbrough in the fall of 1957 and the equally vicious murder of a gay man in contemporary Derry. (As an aside, recalling that this book was written in the early 1980s when the AIDS scare was at its height and gay men blamed for all manner of societal ills, I’m proud of how King portrayed the police officer involved in the investigation of that murder. It would have been so easy — and so in keeping with period — to make him a stereotypical small town homophobe in uniform.)
King then introduces his major characters through the simple device of a phone call from home with a reminder of their childhood promise to come back if IT ever reappeared. With one exception, none of the group remembers their childhoods or what happened that fateful summer. Only Mike had remained in Derry, and only Mike remembers. After the gay-bashing murder, Mike reluctantly concludes IT has returned and places his fateful phone calls. Prompted by that call, the others begin to regain their memories, in bits and pieces, each bit more horrifying than the last. And they pack their bags for the return.
The remainder of the novel alternates between the story of the summer of 1958 and the children’s first encounter with IT, and the adults’ contemporary preparations for what they hope will be their last encounter. The flashback sequences drive the action of the contemporary story, but these flashbacks are the absolute heart of this novel: compelling, absorbing, gutwrenching, heartbreaking. King has a gift for getting inside the heads of children, adolescent boys in particular, and this gift serves him well indeed in IT.
And as fantastic as the events of the story are, King makes the reader believe them, because the children believe them. IT embodies their every nightmare, their darkest secrets, their innermost insecurities; IT plucks their deepest fears from their minds and shows it to them in living breathing deadly Technicolor. And IT specializes in children. It’s not an accident the most frightening face IT puts on is that of Pennywise the Clown, nor that the most terrifying object is a simple helium balloon on a string. “We float. Yes, we float. We all float down here…”
You’ll float, too, in this mad trip through the streets and alleys and sewers of Derry. And you’ll be glad you did.
Thus ends the review portion, fit for public consumption and containing no spoilers. Stop reading now if you wish to avoid discussion of a spoilerish nature, or click the MORE tab to continue…
- My version of this book had 1,376 pages, nearly 300 pages longer than the edition most of my fellow IT-alongers read. I believe King may have done with IT what he did some years ago with The Stand: had it reissued in its original manuscript form, with any cuts restored. One of the perquisites of being “the bestselling author of all time” is being able to call the shots, yes? Of course, my Google-fu has failed me, and I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support this theory.
- The subtitle to Needful Things, another of Stephen King’s monster tomes, is “The Last Castle Rock Story,” and in it, Castle Rock is utterly destroyed. IT should have a similar subtitle. Although, according to its synopsis, Insomnia also takes place in Derry, and in a time after downtown’s destruction. It’s been forever since I read Insomnia, though, and I couldn’t tell you any of the details. Ditto with Dreamcatcher, which is also associated with Derry.
- Many of my fellow IT-alongers have noted that the “bonding experience” initiated by Bev after the Losers fought IT in the sewers generated an ICK factor. It was not so much ICK with me, as sheer disbelief that (a) an 11-year-old girl in 1958 would think of such a thing; and (b) 11-year-old boys would go along with it, especially this bunch of 11-year-old boys. It’s possible I was more innocent than most, but I can tell you with absolute certainty when I was that age (in 1973), I had only the vaguest notion of the, um, ins and outs of relationships between the sexes; had I been in such a situation, laying myself down and inviting my companions-in-peril to have sex with me would have never even crossed my mind. In fact, I found it so unbelievable I had actually forgotten the scene ever happened until I started reading the book again, although I’d read the book twice before.
- Unlike most other IT-along participants, I really liked Mike’s recounting of Derry history. The delivery may have been a little dry, but I felt these sections added depth and resonance to the storyline. Mike recognized himself as the keeper of the mysteries, so to speak: filling the archetypal role of The Storyteller, preserving the tale for future generations, and even for himself as he also began to forget.
- Another of the hot button issues was Bill’s adultery with Bev. You know, this bit of strange did not seem out of place to me, especially when taking into consideration the resemblance Bill’s wife Audra bore to Beverly. And, although it was not one of our Hero’s more shining moments, he was well aware of his transgression, thus the thought “If he was going to betray his wife, let the betrayal be complete and in his own bed.” (Or something like that, I didn’t mark the passage.) He also knew this was a one-time thing, a time out of time, separate and disconnected from the rest of his life. Not that that’s an excuse, mind you, but I’m cutting Bill a lot of slack under the circumstances.
- So, we’ve got the Storyteller archetype covered, and the Hero. King is a master at building an archetypal ensemble. Who are the other archetypal characters in IT? My take: Richie is The Trickster, the comic relief; Stan is the Shapeshifter, whose loyalty wavers in a most dramatic fashion; Bev, the Orphan, with an emotionally absent mother and an abusive father; Ben, the Warrior, fierce in his quest to protect Bev; Eddie, the Magician, with his ability to navigate in the dark and his belief in the power of his inhaler. Of course, each character contains elements of other archetypes: Mike is also The Herald; Bev is also Mother and Priestess; Ben is The Artisan/Craftsman; and so forth. But I believe their primary motivating archetypes are as above. Your mileage may vary.
- To me, the scariest manifestation of IT isn’t Pennywise and his balloons. Nor is it Mike’s giant bird, nor the zombie, nor the maniacal Paul Bunyan, nor any of the other physical forms IT took while running rampant through Derry that summer. To me, the most frightening manifestation of IT is the indifference of the adults. The most chilling moment is when the old man looks right at Bev when she’s in trouble, and turns around to go back in the house; when the people in the car drive by, see what’s happening, turn their heads away, and keep driving. Kids are invisible, and IT makes them even more so.
- If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve read A LOT of Stephen King. Let me run through the list here, as well as I can remember, with the help of the bibliography on the author’s website: The Bachman Novels, Bag of Bones, Carrie, Christine, The Colorado Kid, Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Dark Half, Danse Macabre (non-fiction), Dreamcatcher, Four Past Midnight, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Suzannah, The Dead Zone, Desperation, The Regulators, Different Seasons, Dolores Claiborne, The Eyes of the Dragon, Firestarter, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, Insomnia, IT, Misery, Needful Things, Night Shift, Nightmares in the Sky (non-fiction), Pet Sematary, Rose Madder, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Skeleton Crew, The Stand (both versions), Thinner, The Talisman, and The Tommyknockers. Sitting on my shelf waiting to be read: On Writing (non-fiction), Black House, The Dark Tower, Under the Dome. Many of these have been read several times. So, yeah, you could say I’m a fan.
- This third trip through IT is probably my last. It’s been a harrowing and thoroughly enjoyable ride. Thank you, Jill, for allowing me to come along.