Stephen King’s It: A 25th Anniversary Review
In an interview I conducted with Stephen King a few years ago, he mentioned that when he and his wife Tabitha graduated from the University of Maine, Orono, in 1970, they debated to which part of the state they should move in order to begin their family and careers. Tabitha argued for the more upscale Portland, while Steve opted for, and eventually won, a move to Bangor. “I wanted to go to Bangor because I thought that Bangor was a hard-ass, working-class town—there’s no such thing as nouvelle cuisine once you are north of Freeport—and I thought that the story, the big story that I wanted to write, was there.”
That story, of course, was It, a 1986 novel replete with many of the themes and narrative techniques that have come to demarcate King’s canon. It is the story of a fictional town in Maine—Derry—where a transmogrifying monster resides and participates in a 27-year feeding cycle, preying particularly upon the town’s vulnerable children. King has acknowledged that Derry is essentially modeled after Bangor; the use of this regional parallelism is a clear borrowing from one of King’s favorite writers, William Faulkner, and his employment of real Mississippi locales as a simulacrum for his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County.
In Faulkner’s novels, actions set in the present are often held in suspension by an interrupted narrative that allows the events of the past to become reanimated, producing a narrative design in which past and present conjoin. In It, the varying time references from 1958 and 1985 flow into one another, making memory and reality synonymous. Indeed, only by reconnecting with the imaginative properties of their youth can the adult characters in this novel confront and defeat the monster from their childhood.
King’s fiction has always demonstrated a particular fascination with the relationship between past and present. Most often, the past shapes the present in negative ways. Novels such as Apt Pupil, The Shining, and Pet Sematary underscore the fact that sins from the past are capable of tainting the present, essentially dooming those who venture back to explore the nature of the original wickedness. But on other occasions, King suggests that the present can be better understood and enriched by references to the past—indeed, that there are magical properties available to those who find a way to venture back. Narratives such as The Dark Tower and 11/23/63, like It, posit that doors exist connecting the past and present, and that crossing through these doors not only offers the potential for personal revivification, but also the ability to alter events that have already transpired. This movement between alternate time zones is a topic that appears frequently in the King canon, but It may contain its most focused and effective utilization.
It also represents the most elaborate and defining representation of Derry in King’s canon, as he returns to the city in other books, most notably Insomnia and the more recent 11/22/63. King’s treatment of Derry is consistent throughout all his work; an entire town has become a haunted landscape. Each time one of his characters ventures inside Derry’s city limits, the air and water are noticeably befouled, the level of violence rises accordingly, and the tension that always exists between children and adults in King’s canon translates into abusive action.
In most of the inanimate, malevolent centers located in King’s fiction—from the Micmac burial ground in Pet Sematary to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining—a connection and/or identification with the human world is absolutely necessary to animate their malefic energies. King may well be suggesting that evil exists only as a theoretical construct without human beings—and that it only becomes real when humans serve as a host. Derry appears to be another one of these places, but on a scale—both geographically and historically—that dwarfs other evil centers in his fiction.
Derry is a town where there is little that is kind or beautiful. However, unlike the Castle Rock novels, such as The Body, The Dead Zone, and Cujo, It is a far more ambitious effort to portray and explain the interrelationship between the town of Derry and the monster, It, a creature with whom the town shares a reciprocal bond: sustaining the city’s economic viability in exchange for the sacrifice of Derry’s youth. As Mike Hanlon recognizes, “It’s become a part of Derry, something as much a part of the town as the Standpipe, or the Canal, or the library. Only It’s not a matter of outward geography. Somehow It’s gotten inside.”
Underneath the veneer of Rotary Clubs and dusk curfews established out of concern for its children is Derry’s hardnosed reality: a history of persecution of outsiders—from African Americans (as Hanlon’s father reveals in his memory of the Black Spot); to the children who play in and around the town; to Adrian Mellon, who is murdered because he is a homosexual, and whose violent death awakens a whole new cycle of It’s violence. In fact, It codifies King’s homophobic affiliation between evil and male homosexuality, an association that can be found throughout his work, from Apt Pupil to The Talisman to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Its core avatar in It is Pennywise, a male adult in clown drag whose lethal orality is primarily fixated on the male children in the Loser’s Club. Fittingly, the young males in this novel establish a kind of protective barrier to Pennywise’s vagina dentata only after they lose their virginities to Beverly Marsh, the Club’s sole female and symbolic earth mother. The bizarre nature of their sexual initiation rite with her—some commentators have likened it to a gang rape—becomes comprehensible only via the implication that the young males’ demonstrated heterosexuality serves as a prophylactic to the clown’s toxic homoeroticism.
Ascertaining the place of It in Stephen King’s prolific canon is no easy task. Certainly it ranks with the best and most impressive examples of the writer’s “epic” fiction, as good and as cherished by his fan base as The Stand and The Dark Tower. That said, It suffers from a liability that often plagues King’s work: the journey appears to be of more interest to the writer than the conclusion. Here, the transformation of the brilliantly perverse Pennywise into a pregnant spider for the ultimate battle scene between It and the Loser’s Club turns out to be a letdown. But getting to that point is a wonderful and wondrous journey that remains the most persuasive of all King’s efforts to establish the sanctity of childhood in the face of adult failings.
Editor’s Note: Stephen King’s It has just been reissued in a 25th anniversary edition by Cemetery Dance Publishers.