Friday, October 12, 2012

Stephen King: It (1986)

"Can an entire city be haunted?"

In early 1985, a serial murderer is on the loose in Derry, Maine. Several children have been found dead, some mutilated, with limbs missing. Michael Hanlon, the head of the Derry library and the town's unofficial historian, believes the murders are connected to the return of something that has infected Derry throughout its history.
"I think what was here before is still here – the thing that was here in 1957 and 1958; the thing that was here in 1929 and 1930 when the Black Spot was burned down by the Maine Legion of Decency; the thing that was here in 1904 and 1905 and early 1906 – at least until the Kitchener Ironworks exploded; the thing that was here in 1876 and 1877, the thing that has shown up every twenty-seven years or so. Sometimes it comes a little sooner, sometimes a little later . . . but it always comes. . . .

"I think of us standing in the water, handed clasped, making that promise to come back if it ever started again – standing there almost like Druids in a ring . . ."
It is the story of a group of 11-year-olds – a self-described Losers Club – who in 1958 fought an alien, murdering presence in their hometown. However, they did not succeed in destroying this shape-shifting presence, which they called It. Twenty-seven years later, It's "feeding cycle" has begun again and, fulfilling that promise they made as kids, the friends reunite in Derry and attempt to kill It for good.

As he did in 'Salem's Lot, King reveals the "dark and ruined heart" of a small 1950s New England town. In the case of Derry, evil and apathy – a kind of moral amnesia – has infected the entire community. Derry's murder rate is six times higher than any other town of comparable size (30,000) in New England. Dozens of children – mostly teenagers – go missing each year. Child abuse seems common, if not rampant. Raw sewage is dumped into the Kenduskeag River, and racist and homophobic graffiti is scrawled along the rocky sides of the canal that flows through town. In response to the spate of murders, town officials institute a curfew, but do little else; the investigations into the murders appear half-hearted. One long-time resident tells Hanlon: "Hurtful things do right well in the soil of this town".

Things have never been right in Derry, and we eventually learn why. The town was settled on the exact landing spot of It (from deep space, apparently) tens of thousands of years ago. The dark events and long trail of death associated with the town go back to its founding, when the original community of about 340 English settlers simply disappeared in the late summer of 1741. Four interludes in the book are presented as Hanlon's notes/diary entries for a history of Derry, subtitled "A Look Through Hell's Back Door". (King's original title for the novel was Derry.)

***

King saw this gargantuan novel (1138 pages) as the culmination of the first phase of his writing career, and his magnum opus (at least until the Dark Tower series got rolling). He said that after It, he would not write any more books with children as the main characters. This was his final word on the subject.
[It is] a summation of everything I have learned and done in my whole life to this point. And it's like a monster rally – everything is in this book, every monster you could think of. . . .

It was like a final exam covering this subject. It was a very difficult imaginative feat; not thinking up monsters, because they are easy enough to produce, but . . . reenter[ing] the world of childhood. It had to be a very gradual process to open the time and mindset of my own childhood. The more I worked at it, the more this frame of reference became accessible. . . .

I have always been fascinated with my own childhood. I was fascinated as an adult with the period when my own children were growing up. And I'm interested in the mythic power that childhood holds over our imagination and, in particular, the point at which the adult is able to link up with his or her own childhood past and the powers therein.
King called the novel "a final summing up of everything I've tried to say in the last twelve years on the two central subjects of my fiction: monsters and children".

King began work on It in 1981, shortly after finishing Danse Macabre, his history of the horror genre, and his research for that book, and its bits of autobiography, served him well over the four years he worked on this novel. As he noted, It is a compendium of horror, alluding to numerous books, film, fairy tales, folklore, and to many of King's own novels and stories (for example, The Shining's Dick Halloran makes an cameo as a young Army cook in a 1930 flashback).

The Losers Club – Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Richie Tozier, Beverly Marsh, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stan Uris, and Mike Hanlon – are exact contemporaries of King. They – like their author – were 11 years old during the summer of 1958.

King mentioned some of the autobiographical material shortly after the book's publication:
Derry 1958 is Stratford, Connecticut, where I was eleven. That's where The Barrens were, and Eddie Kasbrak (when we moved back to Maine his last words to me were, "I guess that's all, bastard-ball!"), and Mr. Nell, who used to buy my brother and me apple pie a la mode at the Stratford Diner. There was a dam in the Barrens; my brother showed us how to build it, and yeah, the cops showed up, Mr. Nell among them.
King uses all of this in It. The Losers spend their summer vacation, and build their underground clubhouse (and join together for an epic rock fight against Henry Bowers and his fellow bullies), in a overgrown, wooded area in Derry called the Barrens. One afternoon, a few of the boys construct a dam, which floods the area and brings a cop named Mr. Nell to investigate. And one of the Losers is named Eddie Kaspbrak. (In addition, King based the murder of Adrian Mellon on the actual death of Charlie Howard, a gay man who was beaten and thrown into the Kenduskeag Stream by three teenagers around the time of Bangor's sesquicentennial celebration in 1984.)

King says he wrote It
in two parallel lines: the story of what they did as kids and the story of what they're doing as grownups. . . . I'm interested in the notion of finishing off one's childhood as one completes making a wheel. The idea is to go back and confront your childhood, in a sense relive it if you can, so that you can be whole.
Michael Collings, who has written extensively about King's fiction, says that when the old friends reunite in Derry, they realize they must re-capture the essence and innocence of childhood, "their willingness to believe implicitly in what they know experientially about Pennywise the Clown [It's most common disguise] . . . to return to that state of belief, bolstered this time by adult strength and perseverance."

King makes the connection between child-like faith and the destruction of It implicit. Back in 1958, It realized that the children had
discovered an alarming secret that even It had not been aware of: that belief has a second edge. If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one – probably a child – who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it. But a stake is only stupid wood; the mind is the mallet that drives it home.
It has waited until the children have grown up before luring them back with the next round of killings. Destroying It as adults is a daunting task; as one of the Losers says, "our perspectives have narrowed; our faith in the magic . . . has worn off". It assumes that the adults, now nearly 40 years of age, will have lost all contact with the feelings of childhood, and will be unable to generate the force necessary to destroy It.
And now, now that we no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Hansel and Gretel, or the troll under the bridge, It is ready for us. Come on back, It says. . . . Come on back, and we'll see if you remember the simplest thing of all: how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.
***

King again explores how kids can incorporate the supernatural into their worldview easier than adults. In this case, that mental malleability makes them better equipped to acknowledge and battle It:
[Ben] remembered that the day after he had seen the mummy on the iced-up Canal, his life had gone on as usual. He had known that whatever it had been had come very close to getting him, but his life had gone on . . . He had simply incorporated the thing he had seen on the Canal into his life, and if he had almost been killed by it . . . well, kids were always almost getting killed. . . . [I]t occurred to him that kids were better at almost dying, and they were better at incorporating the inexplicable into their lives. They believed implicitly in the invisible world. . . . But when you grew up, all that changed. You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window . . .
But how does this view co-exist with another theme of King's: of kids being obsessed by/with their fears, of being afraid to fall asleep or even drape their hand over the side of the bed for fear of what might be lurking under the bed? These seem like two very different theories. On the one hand, the inexplicable is readily accepted (Ben nearly dies, but he quickly forgets the danger). But on the other hand, kids cannot let go of their fears and they obsess on them (At the very start of the novel, George Denbrough is afraid to go down into the cellar, fearing that just before he turns on the light, "some horrible clawed paw would settle lightly over his wrist . . . and then jerk him down into the darkness that smelled of dirt and wet and dim rotted vegetables").

***

Collings writes that, in It, King continues his exploration of
the child forced to confront the adult world without any support or understanding. Beginning with Rage [begun when King was in high school], King has continually pitted the innocent world of the child against the harsh, cynical, hypocritical world of adults . . . usually to the detriment of the child.
After Bill Denbrough's six-year-old brother George is killed in late 1957 – the murder seems to kick off It's latest "feeding cycle" – Bill is ignored by his grieving parents. (His situation recalls that of Gordie LaChance in The Body.) Bill understands that he must manage his own grief and "find a decent way to go on", and because his parents are unable to help him, he must do it himself (or with the help of his friends). Bill admits being terrified by the sight of his father crying, which opened up a "frightening possibility . . . maybe sometimes things just didn't go wrong and then stop; maybe sometimes they just kept going wronger and wronger until everything was totally fucked up".

Likewise, when the reality of George Denbrough's death hits Richie Tozier, he realizes that anyone could die at any time.
[A]ll the idiot truth of death crashed home to Richie for the first time. It was as if a large iron safe had fallen into his brain and buried itself there. I could die! his mind screamed at him suddenly in tones of betrayed horror. Anybody could! . . . Shit! Fucking anybody!
It is full of riffs on childhood, like this:
[Ben] understood instinctively, as most kids did, that they lived below the sight-lines, and hence the thought-lines, of most adults. When a grownup was ditty-bopping down the street, thinking his grownup thoughts about work and appointments and buying cars and whatever else grownups thought about, he never noticed kids playing hopscotch or guns or kick-the-can or ring-a-levio or hide-and-go-seek. Bullies like Henry could get away with hurting other kids quite a lot if they were careful to stay below that sightline. At the very most, a passing adult was apt to say something like, "Why don't you quit that?" and then just continue ditty-bopping along without waiting to see if the bully stopped or not. So the bully would wait until the grownup had turned the corner . . . and then go back to business as usual. It was like adults thought that real life only started when a person was five feet tall.
Collings says that as both the 1958 and 1985 battles with It are described, the novel
approaches the mythic, a sense that increases as the adult/children themselves draw closer to their final meeting with It. In describing that meeting, King almost ignores physical violence and force to allow the battle to take on a psychological, emotional, and spiritual nature.
Despite It being an kind of encyclopedia of childhood and horror, the novel has an intimacy and warmth that none of King's previous novels possess. It is a remarkable achievement and is worthy of additional literary analysis.

Next: The Eyes Of The Dragon.

8 comments:

laura k said...

But how does this view co-exist with another theme of King's: of kids being obsessed by/with their fears, of being afraid to fall asleep or even drape their hand over the side of the bed for fear of what might be lurking under the bed? These seem like two very different theories.

They are completely contradictory perspectives, yet each seems true in its way. Maybe different kids (i.e. different people) fall into one or the other - and maybe at different moments in childhood, the same person will react one way or the other.

laura k said...

A friend of ours said she stopped reading King after this book. She said, "That's it? I followed you for more than 1,000 pages for that?" In other words, the ending was massively unsatisfying for her. Your thoughts?

allan said...

I understood and appreciated the ending a little more this time, but only because I know how it fits into some themes he will develop later. It still is pretty unsatisfying, though, after the extensive build-up.

laura k said...

If the ending only works if you know works outside the book, works that weren't even written when the book was published... no. But endings are tough.

Devin said...

I'm very glad you find the book deep of feeling. I definitely agree; I think the way it evokes childhood thoughts and feelings is magnificent.

This is one of my favorite Stephen King books (probably #2 behind The Stand), but it has several very serious issues for me:

1) I usually am comfortable with the novel's sprawling, sidetrack-laden narrative (I like the histories, most especially the burning of The Black Spot), but some parts seem utterly unnecessary or wedged in for the sake of completing a checklist. For instance, I don't think Richie's or Eddie's first adulthood encounters with It hold much weight at all (though Beverly's and Ben's do--Ben's encounter in the library as an adult is a favorite segment for me). I feel 150 pages could be cut without losing much of the feeling in the thing (something I think is true to a lesser degree of the uncut version of The Stand). I DO like long fiction, and enjoy the epic nature of this work, but too much is too much.

2) I don't feel close to Bill or Beverly as characters. I feel Bill is a King stand-in, too heroic for the reader to feel close to (although I think the storyline of his regret with George and the emotional freeze-out he endures with his grief-stricken parents is great): noble, inspiring loyalty, unselfish, etc. Beverly I see as overly sexualized and not having much character beyond that and being abused. She's "cool" and such, but I don't feel as close to her as even I do to say, Stan (whose head I wish we got inside more). This is a problem for me with female characters in King's work in general (too shallow, overly sexualized), though there are exceptions.

3) The ending is nutty as all get out and most definitely a disappointment. If the final incarnation of It was going to be so mundane (IMO), not so much emphasis should have been put on finding out what It IS. I don't think any final incarnation could have been satisfying, and King as much as admits this when one character thinks about how anything given a final shape is less scary than the unknown...but it could have been a lot better than what the "answer" turns out to be. Also, I don't think the mental plane struggle makes very much sense, or needed more setup. Finally, there's THAT ONE SCENE, which I don't find as offensive as some do, but I still think it's unnecessary and somewhat icky (on several levels). I will say that, regarding the ending, I DO like the parts where we get a peak at It's thoughts and motivations--that part was satisfying to me in its simplicity, even if a lot of the rest of it was gobbledygook.

A very, very good book, but in need of a more ruthless editor, mainly, and quite a buildup for not much payoff.

I'm glad to read your analysis and know you find it an accomplishment of a book.

Laura: I understand y'all's friend's reaction, but I think she's throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

allan said...

Thanks for the long comment!!

There was stuff that I had notes on, but decided against putting it in, since the post was so long and I couldn't describe my thoughts very well. You hit on two of them: the over-sexualized descriptions of Beverly and what you called THE SCENE.

King rarely described the boys' hair or clothes, but he did it a lot with Beverly. And I KNOW King never alluded to the colour of any of the boys' underwear. It definitely stood out. (Did King describe Bill that way in the sections from Beverly's point of view? I don't think so.) If Ben was narrating the book, I could see it a few times, since he had a massive crush on her, but he wasn't.

The sex scene at the end also seemed unnecessary and I was pretty uncomfortable with it. Not offended or anything, but "icky' is a good word. King makes a big deal about Beverly being better than the boys when it comes to using the slingshot, but I don't think it makes up for the fact that when the battle with It comes, all she can offer is her body. Her 11-year-old body. The icky part of it is that she is clearly, ahem, enjoying the feelings towards the end. The more I think about it, the more fucked up it is. (And earlier in the book, Bev seems not to think much about sex. When her mother asks her in a roundabout way if her father is touching her, Bev really has no clue what her mother is getting at.) It doesn't erase the brilliant parts of the book, but I really have to wonder what King was thinking.

allan said...

In always describing IT as the monster to end all monsters - showing us how all-powerful IT has been through the centuries - King painted himself into a tight corner, I think. Anything he came up with was going to be unsatisfying.

ALSO:
There are hundreds of typos once the kids get into the tunnel and get closer to IT. King screws up his use of apostrophes. Something like: "looks up into Its web" is wrong. It's got to be "It's". I started thinking that maybe King is responsible for no one knowing the difference between its and it's. :>)

Zenslinger said...

There are times in his work when he feels like he has to have something really outrageous happen, and the all-the-boys-have-sex-with-her-for-some-reason thing is one of them. Others that fall into this category are the hotel maid in a later short story collection (Everything's Eventual, maybe?) who feasts on the spunk left by a troubled writer on his sheets, and the cruelty shown to slaves in the historical portion of Bag of Bones. At times like this, he seems to be reaching for something shocking, something that will shock himself, to justify a story somehow. None of them rang true for me.

In 1986, It was a kind of Holy Grail for me. I was given the hardcover -- it was something like $28.95! -- as an unexpected gift, and it blew my mind. But even I was disappointed with the end, and don't count it as one of my favorites that has stuck with me over the years.