Viking • 1986 • 1138 pages
A Novel Critique
It marks a deliberate shift in Stephen King's career, a stated conscious decision to sum up everything he had to say about children and monsters. It also functions as a statement of intent as to what he hopes to accomplish with his later novels: explorations of adults and the dual natures of creativity and creation. One of King's most important books, It is a massive undertaking, not only addressing and expanding upon the themes in his earlier fiction, but also transcending those themes, uncovering and creating something new.
A novel as long and complex at It defies simple summary; as with most of King's novels, the real story lies in the characters rather than the plot or situation. One of King's most clever devices is his technique of developing his main characters through the observances of lesser characters. Used to great effect in The Dead Zone (in which we come to know Johnny Smith through the impressions and reactions of Sarah Bracknell), in It, King approaches his characters even more cautiously, discovering each of his seven primary characters through the eyes of secondary - and even tertiary - characters. He is fascinated by these people, and develops them slowly and richly enough to allow readers to become fascinated by them, as well. Advancing this technique further, King introduces these people as adults, in a series of short vignettes that eventually give way to their lives as children. Even at this early stage in the novel, we begin to sense how profoundly the events of 1958 have shaped the adults of 1985.
King's seven characters - eventually known collectively as The Losers Club - begin the summer of 1958 in Derry, Maine as loners, each an outcast "type": Ben Hanscom is fat, Beverly Marsh is poor, Eddie Kaspbrack is asthmatic, Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Richie Tozier wears thick, "Coke-bottle" glasses, and Bill Denbrough stutters. At twelve, these characters are classified and limited by these traits, but as with most child characters in King's fiction, it is not who they are but what they do that truly defines them. Only by coming together and sharing their talents with one another do they truly blossom, cementing their later roles as adults.
Structurally, It is King's most ambitious work, tackling dual time frames that parallel each other and eventually merge. Most of the adults in It have lost the memories of their childhoods completely, and only over the course of the novel do they regain them. What results is a split narrative of discovery and action that works on literal, symbolic, and allegorical levels. King's clever reversal of the two years - '58 and '85 - recalls George Orwell's 1984, published in 1948; King himself had used a similar reversal with The Shining's "redrum." The 1958 segments function largely as coming-of-age story, as children learn how to be adults (culminating in a frank sexual sequence that is at once shocking and moving); as the adult Losers begin regaining their memory, they are learning how to be children. The notion of forgetting the past is a central conceit in It, as the citizens of Derry have learned to ignore the cycle of violence and death that has defined the town since its inception.
"Can an entire city be haunted?" This question, posited by Mike Hanlon in the first of his five "Interlude" segments, introduces the primary conflict of It early on. In these segments, interpolated throughout the text, Mike sketches the brutal history of Derry, Maine. Part of the reason It functions so well is the effectiveness of these segments, which not only form a backbone to this sprawling book, but also prove the nature of It's influence on the town. Mike's history of Derry is also a history of It, monster and town feeding off one another in the same mutual parasitism King had explored between Todd and Dussander in "Apt Pupil," and later between Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes in Misery. More than simply being It's minions, the Derry residents are more fundamentally of It, understanding and cooperating with It on basic, subconscious levels. That adults - and more specifically, parents - can't see the blood that burbles out of Beverly's bathroom drain is symbolic of their literal ignorance of Derry's astronomical murder rate, or, in several instances, the way they dismiss violence even when they do see it.
Indeed, It serves as a definitive statement on the cruel and absent parents populating King's early work. Beginning with Margaret White in Carrie through Roland's treatment of Thomas in The Eyes of the Dragon, much of King's early work is a study in the various ways parents can hurt their children. The Overlook exploits Jack Torrance's physically abusive relationship with Danny in The Shining, Rachel Creed's parents leave her with her dying and deformed sister in Pet Sematary, and Charlie Decker's father both psychologically and physically abuses him in Rage. Even "good" parents, through either their actions or behavior, destroy their children. Arnie Cunningham in Christine, Tad Trenton in Cujo, and Linda Halleck in Thinner die as a direct result of their parents' actions, whether their parents intended maliciousness or not.
In It, the Losers' parents damage their children in vital ways. Bill's parents, still distraught over his brother George's death, essentially ignore him. Ben's mother overfeeds him. Eddie's mother creates an atmosphere of codependency by convincing him that he is constantly sick. Beverly's father is physically and, perhaps, sexually abusive. We see Stan's parents only in vague sketches, but we learn that they are opposed to his marriage, thinking him too young; that his parents themselves married young is an early, subtle indication of grownups forgetting the impulses of "the kids." One of the more telling moments is a segment when Richie breaks his glasses and his mother won't listen to the truth of how it happened; though minor, this moment shows that even parents who are ostensibly kind and understanding cannot be trusted. (This motif extends beyond the Losers' Club; Henry Bowers' father systematically abuses him mentally, physically, and spiritually. His tenuous grasp on sanity is directly related to his father's own mental deterioration, allowing him to be more malleable to It's influence, and thus the Losers' most dangerous enemy.) Only Mike's parents - especially his father - seem truly understanding and sympathetic. Mike's father passes on a healthy interest in history (the only instance in which a parent's interest directly assists the Losers in their battle with It) and teaches him life lessons that instruct rather than damage. Mike's close bond with his father symbolizes his similar bond with Derry, which he claims at one point to love.
These segments are ostensibly Mike's journal entries, and peeking in at them serves to give the reader an even more intimate experience with this character and the town he remains fascinated by. In many important ways, It is a historical novel. King's study of Derry since its inception through its days as a small town and into its "present" state as a small city is a history of America - particularly New England - in microcosm. Late in the book, King even introduces pre-history into the narrative, as Richie and Mike (whose presence here as the resident Derry historian is important) witness It's arrival during the Smoke-Hole Ceremony. In a real-world context, It is now a historical artifact of the time it was published. King's two narrative streams - 1958 and 1985 - take place twenty-seven years apart; as of this writing, it has been nearly that long since the novel's publication date. King has returned to Derry a few times since It, most notably in Insomnia (in which Mike Hanlon appears) and Dreamcatcher, but neither has explored Derry's more recent history as deeply as It had done (though Dreamcatcher, with which it shares surface similarities, provides some details).
If It is, at least to some extent, a history of towns and people, it is also a history of monsters. It's nature is such that it takes the form of whatever It's victims are most afraid of. In children, these fears are made manifest as monsters. Drawing from literature, film, even television, King populates his novel with any number of horrifying creatures - Dracula, the mummy, Rodan, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Teenage Werewolf, the Crawling Eye, dead children come to life (in various forms; both Bill and Stan are visited by revenant boys), giants, the witch from "Hansel and Gretel," among others, are all forms It takes at various points. For Eddie Kaspbrak, It even becomes the personification of disease, a terror instilled in him by his mother - another oblique way in which parents are hazards to their children.
It magnifies the fears of adults as well, which cannot, in general, be solidified into a specific shape: King draws sketches of racism, poverty, spousal abuse, addiction, and mental instability as particularly troubling in Derry. A chillingly brutal homophobic murder at the start of the book actually kick-starts It's waking/feeding period in 1985, a ritual sacrifice portending further horrors in the same way as Ralphie Glick's murder had in 'Salem's Lot. Like Barlow, It seems to require a sacrifice at the beginning of its conscious periods, and additionally seems to require a large-scale act of violence before it returns to hibernation. In one of Mike's "Interlude" segments, he relates the story of the fire at the Black Spot, a black nightclub of sorts, whose burning signaled the end of It's activity in Mike's father's time.
Both racism and homophobia are trenchant themes in It. The mere suggestion of gay sex is enough to drive Henry Bowers closer to insanity, as, later, a similar suggestion leads to Adrian Mellon's murder. It is worth noting that when the Losers discuss homosexuality, it is always in terms of facts, rather than negative reactions (reminiscent of how Jack Sawyer in The Talisman would respond to male affections). A subtle but persistent thread running through King's work is that his "good guys," as well as his authorial voice, is for the most part neutral on the subject of homosexuality, with the exception of the bisexual hero Dayna Jurgins of The Stand. Only later would King begin to feature gay characters in more prominent, heroic roles in novels like Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Cell.
It may also serve as a response to criticisms of King's treatment of black people in his novels. Much of King's early career had utilized black characters in the stereotypical roles of either messiah or villain. Mother Abigail from The Stand is an almost literal interpretation of a messiah (as is the much later John Coffey in The Green Mile) and Dick Hallorann - who actually appears in the Black Spot sequence in It - fulfills that role to an extent, as well. On the other hand, Killian, the evil megalomaniac of The Running Man - already a book featuring an uncomfortable number of racial stereotypes and epithets - is black. With The Drawing of the Three, King first presented in Detta Walker a black caricature that other characters realize is a caricature; both her alternate personality, Odetta Holmes, and her merged personality, Susannah Dean, are non-stereotypical characters defined by characteristics other than race. Mike Hanlon's race is not mentioned once in the first half of It, perhaps as a way of stating that Mike's seemingly defining characteristic is not his most important or interesting trait ... a motif that carries through the rest of the Losers.
While Richie views his thick glasses as his reason for "Loser" status (which serves to solidify many of his impressions of It; the Crawling Eye the Losers confront in the sewers comes from Richie's fear, and even the giant Paul Bunyan statue that attacks Richie is a product of magnification), it is his often inappropriate humor that serves him well as an adult and makes him invaluable in the battle against It. Ben's weight is eclipsed by his love and innate sense of architecture, integral to the construction of both the dam in the Barrens and the Smoke-Hole. His role as a builder is important metaphorically, as well: it is through his presence that the Losers Club first coalesces. Eddie's asthma and other disabilities make him a victim of both other bullies and his overbearing mother, but it is his directional sense that saves the Losers in the sewers and translates into his adult career as a limousine driver. Stan's Jewishness doesn't come into account at all, though his fastidiousness works to the Losers' favor following the blood explosion in Beverly's bathroom, and also anticipates his method of suicide as an adult (as does his insistence on the blood oath at the end of the Losers' first battle with It in 1958). Stan's career as an accountant is very subtly suggested by the Laundromat scene, in which Stan is the only one with money. Beverly's nascent interest in sketching (taught to her by her father) expands into her design business as an adult, but it is her targeting sense that saves the Losers in their three major confrontations with It, and also saves her in her fight with her husband at the start of the book. Bill, who doesn't stutter when he writes, becomes a famous novelist; it is his abiding belief in make-believe (as well as his guilt and vengeance for his brother's murder at the hands of It) that truly defines him and makes him a leader.
Bill's role as a writer is tied inextricably into the basic framework of It. In an early autobiographical scene, Bill Denbrough rails against those who value fiction solely in terms of metaphor and allegory, ignoring seemingly important elements such as story itself. King would later extrapolate on these thoughts in depth Misery, The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones, and to some degree in The Tommyknockers and the latter books in the Dark Tower series. In these later works, King examines the darker and more negative aspects of creation directly; here, King explores these thoughts through the shapeshifting nature of It. Bringing fiction into the real world can literally kill you. King also asserts the inverse, however: belief in monsters begets belief in ways to kill them. Through his writing, Bill retains a closer connection to monsters, magic, and childhood; it is perhaps only through his faith in these things that he is able to rescue his wife at the end of the book.
It is one of King's most successful novels, impressive on multiple levels. King's ability to balance a split narrative coherently, while also introducing further historical anecdotes, seems effortless. Juggling multiple points of view - including the technique of shifting point of view several times in the same paragraph - is risky, but here it reads easily, seeming to grow naturally out of the characters' close bond. By grounding the book in character, King is able to juggle genres without disrupting the flow of the book, from supernatural horror to historical novel to coming of age story, and finally to cosmic horror approaching science fiction. Special attention must be paid to the pace of the book, which for a very long novel is terrifically fast, attaining a cinematic feel in which words themselves seem almost unnecessary. While the destruction of Derry at the book's climax is a bit similar to the wreckage in King's fictional towns - a sequence King first used in Carrie and would continue through The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Bag of Bones, and beyond - that narrative pace carries the readers through so quickly that one doesn't get bogged down.
Perhaps the most important turning point in King's career, It stands as both a summation of his past work and a statement of purpose about his future. Beyond that, though, It is a remarkably well-written and well-constructed novel, accessible, enjoyable, and emotionally rich. The last elegiac paragraphs remain some of King's most resonant, echoing in readers' memories long after the book is closed.