One question that really appears to have been fully answered in Stephen King’s 1986 best-seller IT is whether the fictional town of Derry, Maine he creates here is haunted because of the IT creature or did that creature take up residence there because it found a town that contained more cruelty than any other place –a town where a lot of horrible things happen and yet the people who are born there, who live and work there seem to exist in the ether of indifference?
It’s something King does touch on, though near the end of this book, when the reader is taken on the horrible ride that is Patrick Hockstetter’s death, King implies somewhat that maybe what haunts Derry is nothing more than human failure, the fact the we grown up and stop believing in a magical world, and then our inability to try and fix it, so we bury it: “In other words, Derry Elementary School was the typical confused educational carnival, a circus with so many rings that Pennywise himself might have gone unnoticed.”
I originally read this book back when it was released in 1986. And I took it up again, if I remember right, around 1990 when ABC aired the 2-part version of the novel. I may have read it again sometime in the 90’s, but I’m not sure. I have seen the TV movies version several times, and like many will note, the first half is much better than the second half. In the end, like many King adaptations, IT can be chalked up to the perpetual difficulty of translating his works to the screen, both TV and silver. Part of the problem with the 1990 version is that aired on broadcast TV in an era when broadcast standards were still super strict (though they still are today). A lot of what happens in the book –the extreme description of death, the foul language and the bullies lighting their farts on fire could never been shown on ABC.
But the TV movie also left a lot of reasons why things happen Derry, why people ignored the its own past, why the world ignored the fact that Derry’s long history of child deaths and other murders were well outside the per-capita of the rest of the world. It also condensed too much, left out more interesting plot points in favor of the larger set pieces. It made odd choices in what to keep and what to excise.
With a new version of IT scheduled to be released next month, I took up the book again to remind me what King can do when given a wide palette. He sometimes can do off the rails, detailing the lives of minor characters that do not have any connection to the main plot, but it’s also this sort of world building that does not go on very much anymore. He creates hundreds of minor characters, breathes life into them, gives them a back-story, and then moves on.
The book was, in many ways, another trip to King’s life of growing up in the late 1950’s and early 60s (an affinity shared with Peter Straub). Here he creates small town life that is hardscrabble, yet filled with plain spoken people (and King would revisit 1958 and Derry again in his 2011 novel 11/22/63), but all of it is just smoke and mirrors, covering the dysfunction and malice that lives just below the surface. Sure, like the novels released prior to this and the many ones that came after, King continues his endless ability to recycle the same tropes (2009’s Under the Dome in particular), yet for me it’s the sharp sizzle of his language that makes me continue reading his works, and mostly because he can bring these age-old stereotypes come alive. Whatever weakness he may have, this ability alone makes him worth reading. It’s a talent many authors of today can never come close too.
This re-read also gave me a chance to discover again the early beginnings of his shared universe with the Dark Tower novels. Most strikingly is the turtle, a “long time enemy of the creature, It. In 1958, the Turtle communicates with Bill Denbrough for a moment while he is under an illusion created by IT. Bill pleads for help from the Turtle in defeating IT but the Turtle says he does not get involved with those matters. Pleading again, the Turtle simply gives some advice in that he must stand by his friends and perform the Ritual of Chüd. In 1985, when Bill and the remaining member of the Losers Club returned to finally kill IT, Bill is told that the Turtle has died sometime after their last meeting in 1958.”
The lore of King’s series, the turtle is one of the guardians of the Beams that support the Dark Tower. Where the IT creature came from can be implied somewhat. King calls it the macroverse, though it could be one of the many universes that exist within the Dark Tower itself. We also get a cameo appearance from Dick Hollarann, the caretaker who takes on the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in The Shinning. Here, we meet him in 1930, who is an Army cook and member of the African-American army nightclub in Derry called "The Black Spot", which was burned down by the Legion of White Decency. Dick's Shining allowed him to save the lives of several other clubgoers, including Mike Hanlon’s father. He is also notable for being one of the only sane adults able to see IT in one of its varying forms. The town of Haven is name checked, which would be the focus of a non-supernatural book called The Colorado Kid and a fantasy series that would air on the cable network Syfy.
The book remains for me, one of King’s best (and certainly the best of the 1980s work) and re-reading filled me with happiness. I have hope that the theatrical remake coming in September will be able to capture the essence of the story without defaulting to word soup. King’s adapters (and even himself doing Pet Semetary) seem unable to get out a proper explanation for things, instead those descriptions fall short of making any sense or are dropped like a rock into the ocean, never to seen again.
Time will tell. It always does!