Saturday, August 14, 2010

It by Stephen King

It by Stephen King
Copyright 1986
1135 pages

I just completed reading this book for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. Other than The Stand, it is the lengthiest of King’s books and ranks just behind The Stand as one of my favorites.

Something sinister lies beneath the Maine town of Derry. Something that rises once every 27 years and gorges on slaughter and fear. Seven misfit children of 1958 are determined to make it stop and almost succeed. Those same children – now adults of 1985 – keep the blood oath they made 27 years prior and return to finish the job.

The mayhem that begins in 1957 starts with the murder of six year old George Denbrough who merrily chases after a paper boat swept on the currents of a storm sewer following a rain storm. Georgie chases his boat until it falls into a storm sewer. Whilst staring down this sewer, Georgie encounters a clown holding balloons – balloons that float. As little Georgie’s arm is pulled from his body like the wing from a fly, the carnage starts. Soon, kids begin disappearing from Derry at an alarming rate.

The local constabulary seems less concerned than it ought. For that matter, while parents keep their children closer, the level of juvenile carnage in Derry fails to rouse much alarm in the town or anywhere else in the world.

Drawn together are seven misfit children. Their leader, Georgie’s brother Bill, has a horrible stuttering problem. Ben Hanscomb is morbidly obese. Eddie Kaspbrak is a psychosomatic asthmatic. Mike Hanlon is one of few black kids in town. Richie Tozier is a mouthy would-be comic who doesn’t have the brawn to back up his taunts. Stan Uris is a consummate bird watcher and Boy Scout. Beverly Marsh – the lone girl of the group – is a budding adolescent with an abusive father.

Each of these kids has his own encounter with It from which they narrowly escape. One by one, they are drawn together by their survival of the encounters and the need to be in groups to avoid being killed by the entity which haunts Derry. They also stay together to avoid bully Henry Bowers and his street tough friends who harbor a grudge against each member of “The Losers’ Club.”

Each has his own power, they realize. But they come to learn as events of that summer of 1958 unfold, that together, they are a special group, much like Roland’s Ka-Tet in The Dark Tower. Bill Denbrough, bent on revenge for the murder of his brother, vows to kill it. Each promises to help.

Late that summer, they are forced into the sewers as Bowers and his buddies pursue them. There, they encounter not the sinister, but enticing clown that has drawn so many kids to their deaths, but the real It – or the It that their young minds can conceive. They battle it and hurt it badly, sending it fleeing into the depths of the earth.

They emerge from the sewers and strike an oath through a carnal act and a blood pact to return to Derry and finish the job should It ever emerge again.

After their deed is done, the Losers’ Club drifts apart emotionally. Adulthood and adult pastimes sweep them all over the globe. But It survives under Derry, wounded but waiting for the next cycle of blood letting.

Left behind in Derry is Mike Hanlon who assumes a vocation as the town librarian and the job of being the watchman, looking for signs of It’s return. When the murders start again in 1985, he summons them, one by one, to return to Derry to finish It off.

The Losers are losers no more. Bill Denbrough is one of the world’s most prolific horror writers, married to a beautiful actress. Beverly is a fashion designer of some renown. Eddie forms a limo service that serves the glitterati of New York. Ben Hanscomb sheds the baby fat of his youth and emerges as one of the world’s most influential architects. Richie Tozier takes his mouth and makes millions as Los Angeles’ highest rated radio personality. Stan Uris is one of Atlanta’s most successful accountants. Only Mike Hanlon, the man that stayed behind, leads an obscure life.

Each immediately puts his life on hold when the calls come from Hanlon. They have forgotten It. They have forgotten the events of that summer. They have forgotten Derry until Mike summons them. For one, however, the terror of returning is too much and he takes his own life. But his role was fulfilled in 1958, so his part is done.

They come back to do battle with It one final time. They must recapture the fanciful and unquestioned beliefs of youth. They must recapture their innocence. For it is that belief in the simple joys and horrors of youth upon which they must rely to return to that land beneath the sewers – another world of expansive darkness where It reigns – and hand It Its final defeat.

After having read this expansive, epic novel so many times, what still strikes me is King’s ability to make a town into a character in his novels. I noted this in my review of 'Salem's Lot, but King kicks it into overdrive in building Derry. Derry, Maine is more than just a middle-sized town. Derry the city is a sinister place and its inhabitants have evolved into compliant bystanders of the horror that grasps it nearly every quarter century.

I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and its sequels, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Farewell Summer. Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of growing up in Waukegan, Illinois captures the culture, the zeitgeist, and the essence of the simplistic innocence of youth and growing up in the 1920s. Bradbury spins three wonderful tales of youthful whimsy set in a dark setting. King does that with Derry as well.

There’s nothing to suggest that any of King’s narrative in IT is autobiographical. However, he writes an account of 1958 in only a way that someone who grew up and experienced those days as a youngster, unbothered and unaffected by the drama of the day embodied in such events as the Cold War, Sputnik, and the space race. In doing this, King, like Bradbury transcends writing simple horror to penning a story of Baby Boomer Americana.

King develops the character of Derry through the writings of Mike Hanlon who, as It’s watcher and chronicler, researches Derry’s history and the cycle of terror. In between chapters that recount events of 1958 and 1985, are interludes where we read from Hanlon’s diary. He recounts mass murder, disaster, and violence dating back to Derry’s colonial days. We come to know that Derry’s residents are unwilling pawns in It’s need to feed in a 27 year cycle.

While the narrative captures the zeitgeist of half a century before, the story is pure horror and ranks as one of King’s most horrific.

The concept of a clown serving as an instrument of terror is not new. Bradbury used a carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes. But Pennywise, The Dancing Clown is perhaps King’s most menacing monster. He is a shape changer and appears in many guises other than a clown. He is the wolfman from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” He is a syphilis infected bum. He is a spider. He is a shark. And in his true form, something beyond the human mind’s ability to fathom.

The accounts of the descent into the sewers and beyond is told in a parallel narrative as the book draws to a climax. As noted, in 1958, the Losers were driven into the sewers before they were ready when Bowers, now devolved beyond bully and tormenter into It’s instrument of bloodlust, pursues them through The Barrens – a wooded area along the river – into the sewers. In 1985, it’s Bowers again, now escaped from the insane asylum he was imprisoned in after the 1958 murders were pinned on him. Bowers attacks them as they prepare for sleep after having returned to Derry and forces them once again to flee toward It before they are ready.

The world of IT certainly exists inside the Dark Tower. We come to find that It is not alone in his subterranean lair. With him is a somnolent turtle who, according to It, vomited up the universe, then fell into a drowse. The Turtle is good and awakens briefly as the kids enter the sewer and offers just a bit of crucial advice.

It is the Eater of Worlds. It’s existence predates the dawn of time and will go beyond its end. It, in It’s own mind, is immortal and indestructible. It inhabits a world, while geographically is hundreds of feet beneath our own, is its own plane of existence. This is beyond the comprehension of adults whose mind has been trained to rationalize everything they see. To a kid who still fears to tread across the bridge for fear of the troll who lives under it, this world beyond our own is easily conceived and comprehensible. In that ability to comprehend is the power to destroy it.

The final battle(s) are artfully written. We jump back and forth between the two encounters. In 1958, each child seemed to have an assigned role. Bill is their leader who makes all their strategic decisions, Eddie is their guide with a compass in his head. Beverly is their marksman who wounds it with a silver plug shot with a slingshot (this works because the kids believe It is a werewolf and therefore vulnerable to silver weapons). Hanlon is their source of knowledge about It. Ben is their hero with undaunted courage who inspires the others. Richie is the trash talker who engages and enrages it with his woefully nerdy humor. Stan is the earnest and honest youth who seals their pact in the end. Each wielding his skill and ability comes to It’s lair and does battle.

In 1985, several of the heroes have fallen by the wayside. They enter the sewers and It’s lair in diminished numbers. The roles which came so naturally in 1958 are not so clearly defined. But with the same courage and drawing on the same imagination that was their weapon of yore, they engage It in the final showdown.

I won’t put in spoilers (anymore than I have to), but the denouement of It is wonderfully engaging as It’s defeat brings down the town of Derry.

It has loose ties to the Dark Tower series. It is easily discerned that It and the Turtle are inhabitants of the Dark Tower and creatures of other worlds that exist within the realm of the Dark Tower. Both final battles take place in what is certainly the Dark Tower. The Turtle is referenced in the Dark Tower narrative as a creature of power.

Also evident in It is the books links to other King works – especially the names of characters. The iron works in Derry that explode during an Easter egg hunt in the 1930s and kills dozens of kids and adults is the Kitchener Iron Works. Brad Kitchener is the electrician in Boulder in The Stand. The 1985 detective who works on solving one of Derry’s murders that summer is named Gardener. Gardener is the name of the poet who is the hero of The Tommyknockers which has absolutely no link to the Dark Tower series. The town of Haven where The Tommyknockers takes place and some of its inhabitants are referenced in It and events in It are linked to events in The Tommyknockers.

Derry and the Tracker Brothers truck depot near the house on Neibolt Street where the kids first do battle with It as a werewolf figure heavily in the final half of King's later book, The Dreamcathcer.

It was made into a two part mini-series for ABC television in 1990. While it failed to capture Derry’s horrific nature and abbreviated the apocalyptic battles with It, it was a fun and engaging movie. I will review it at a later date.

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