How do I begin to describe what can only be called an epic horror story, a 1,300-page tome about a demon (or something; we’re never really quite sure) who lives beneath the sewers in the Stephen-King-mainstay town of Derry, Maine, preying on children in the guise of Pennywise the Clown (who is a lot scarier in print than as depicted by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries based on the novel). “It” works in cycles, hibernating for approximately 25 years before waking up to instigate a new bout of murder and mayhem. “It”‘s the biggest bad seed in Derry, no question, but it’s abetted by the ineffable, just-under-the-surface malignancy of the town itself. In fact, “It”‘s emergences seem to be correlated with, if not piqued by, incidents throughout Derry’s history that illustrate just how off the place is: arson at a black nightclub; a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque gangster takedown by vigilante townspeople; a deranged, vengeful woodsman’s hacking people to death in a barroom; or the brutal beating of a gay man by three local teenagers who throw their victim off a bridge (under which he is promptly killed by Pennywise).
I have to say that there is absolutely no conceivable reason this book needed to be 1,300 pages long—but there’s also no denying that Stephen King can really tell a story. It (published in 1987) begins in 1957, when a just-roused Pennywise, skulking in a drain during a heavy rainstorm, kills six-year-old George Denbrough by pulling his arm out of its socket. The scene is brutal, and this senseless killing of an Innocent (you really don’t get more innocent than a sweet six-year-old sailing a boat made out of newspaper down a gutter, after all) serves as the benchmark against which “It”‘s evil is always measured. “It” succeeds in murdering others throughout the novel, of course, but they’re mostly either ciphers or thoroughly Bad Kids who kill animals and torture humans. (The character rubric isn’t complex, though King does provide villains like the town bully, Henry Bowers, with enough of a backstory that you can, if not sympathize with him, at least conjure some understanding.)
“It”‘s Kryptonite comes in the form of seven best friends, who start out as base adolescent stereotypes—the fat one; the sickly one; the guy who’s ostracized because he’s black; the guy who’s ostracized because he’s Jewish; the tomboy; the cutup; and the Moral Center—and grow into successful, albeit damaged, adults. In 1958, after a very Stand By Me-ish summer battling both real and supernatural demons, the kids make a blood pact promising to return to Derry and kill “It” once and for all should “It” ever resurface. Twenty-six years later, in 1984, Mike Hanlon (the black one) calls his former friends and tells them the worst has happened. As if pulled by a force beyond their control, each gets on a plane and hightails it back to Derry for what will surely be the Final Encounter with Ultimate Evil.
It is, in fact, very engaging and genuinely scary, and the pure, honest friendships between the core six (there’s one peripheral member of the crew who doesn’t show up for the reckoning) is what really holds the story together. The novel, in short, is absolutely classic Stephen King—I liked it more than Carrie and The Shining, about the same as Misery and The Dead Zone, and less than Different Seasons and The Green Mile. Also, if you enjoy the Stephen King Parlor Game (charting one book’s references to the others in his canon), there’s lots of fodder in It. I was, in fact, inspired to detour back to the author’s old-school work thanks to 11/22/63, his recent alternative-history semi-thriller, part of which is set in Derry. That book’s protagonist, Jake Epping, discovers a wormhole that lets him travel seamlessly from 2011 to September 1958 and, upon arriving in Derry to stop a gruesome murder, he stumbles upon two of the It kids, Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier, just a month or so after they believe they’ve gotten rid of the monster. Despite all they’ve witnessed the past summer, the kids still don’t believe that Frank Dunning, the would-be killer, is capable of committing the crime. This kind of childlike purity is lionized in both 11/22/63 and It. King is careful not to idealize the “good old days” in either novel (the whole idyllic image of “the fifties” was of course perpetrated by the only demographic group it ever benefited—white men), but he’s very attached to nostalgia. Some of it is eye-rollingly saccharine, but King’s eye for detail and zeitgeist sensibilities (not to mention his superlative ability to spin a good yarn) elevates It above mere horror schlock. I’d never call him one of the great American novelists, but there’s no denying he’s got what the French call a certain…I don’t know what.