I first read this book when I was about 13 but didn’t really get it at the time. Now I am in my 40s, I can look back with hindsight and admit that I didn’t get it. But that’s ok. Not everybody gets Stephen King all of the time, not even his long term fans. Much of his earlier work follows a theme, and IT is probably the one that most typifies that.
The setting is 1958 and 1984. In 1984, A group of friends known from their childhood as “The Loser’s Club” are called from across the USA back to their home town of Derry, Maine. Derry is a fictional place and the setting for many of his books, although it is heavily based on Bangor. Anyway, they are called back to Derry because something is happening again. In 1958, we see a spate a child murders and the forming of a ragtag group of eclectic friends centred on one boy whose brother was killed by a creature in the sewers. Each are also targets for the town bully. This is “The Loser’s Club”.
Every 25-30 years, there is a cycle of child killings in Derry. The last time it happened, our group of protagonists – stuttering Bill, overweight Ben, Mike is the only black boy in Derry in the 1950s, tomboy Beverley the group’s only girl who has a physically abusive father, the cocksure Richie, Edward the hypochondriac, and Stanley the Jew. This mix of “losers” come together in a pact. Following a battle in which the town’s bully and his minions are fought back, their friendship is forever cemented.
Yet there is another threat looming – the titular “IT”. The thing that mostly appears as a clown carrying helium filled balloons killed Billy’s brother and Billy wants revenge. The characterisation progresses in two different time periods. We see their friendship develop in 1958 and we see how they have changed but still remain the same people in 1984-5. In both time periods, “IT” torments them. It does everything it can to sow discord and panic amongst their group. “IT” knows that it is weak while they are strong and vice versa. It picks at them one by one, preying on their fears.
This is a story of friendship and of growing up – those things that put strain on friendships but also those tragedies that bring us and keep us together. The titular “IT” is an ever-present threat, but actually does not appear all that much for most of the book. “IT” is a clever mcguffin and a primary antagonist all in one. We know “IT” is real, but much of what the thing represents is about the struggles and traumas of growing up, something to which we can all relate. That, in essence, is what IT is all about.
“IT” is (to my knowledge), King’s longest book in terms of wordage. The paperback of The Stand is just short of 1100 pages. This is just short of 1400, so it is an immense and daunting book. Yet, like The Stand, at no point does it feel dragged out. Modern publishing has demonstrated time and time again just how easy it is to over-write to the point of unnecessarily bloating a book. Length does not mean quality, but King does it in style. Every page. ever word, every lengthy chapter here does count. Only with this density can you see the importance of the characters, their lives and what happened to them as they face “IT”. That’s the beauty of this book. It is very (and perhaps surprisingly for a horror) character driven. The back story of each character, both their childhood and everything that happens to them between 1958 and 1984-5, is relevant to what will happen to them as they face “IT” one last time.
This is a modern masterpiece in horror books. The 1990s TV series didn’t quite do it justice, but I hope the 2017 film will do so. Either way, this book stands as a modern classic of the genre.