It swells and swells (feeds and feeds). It’s bloated now, inflamed, the boils growing ever larger until Derry, Maine, ruptures in spewed sewage and fallen power lines and 55-mph winds that kill with the things their currents carry. Strokes the clock tower misses at 5 a.m., at 6, at 7 instead show up mortally in the brain of the old cop who knew the kids who knew Its secret back in 1958.
It is one town’s evils given monstrous reign and, like Georgie Denbrough’s newspaper boat that floats down Jackson street on a tide of gray floodwater, Stephen King’s novel takes adulthood and folds it up – creasing at the corners, tucking in the flaps – into a kid’s plaything. Let the good times roll!
Who is that trip-trapping upon my bridge? The line from “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” echoes like so many cloven hooves throughout King’s novel, its attendant and eternal question, “would the monster be bested…or would it feed?” close behind. Doesn’t matter who’s trip-trapping, but somebody is and, really, somebody always will be until somebody stands up against It with all they’ve got.
Seven kids, seven so-called Losers: Ben the fatty, Richie the four-eyes, Bev the abused, Eddie the asthmatic, Bill the stutterer who lost his brother George to It, Stan the Man the Jew and Mike, the only black kid in small town, U.S.A. (this is mid-century America after all). They know the killings that summer were a little, shall we say, off.
The bully, the victim and the brave are all players in this gruesome game that has gone on every quarter century since Derry Township first sprang up among the marshy reeds growing along the Kenduskeag River. A bully needn’t always be the big kid in the schoolyard taking his punches to Fatty or Four Eyes, oh no, the bully can be a noncom who orders humiliating, back-breaking work to the sole black man in the unit; the bully can be the husband who smacks you upside the head; the bully can be the alcohol that makes you worry a lot, makes you worry so much that you just might bruise your child.
And it’s pay to play, paying back violence with violence as a whole town massacres a robber gang, feeding into the violence with relish – such tasty vittles!
The bully isn’t always the same. Its victim, though…Its victim can be the same as the brave, even if he’s a Loser. The Losers hurt It and hurt It good in ’58, but they didn’t kill It, and It’s got Its fingers in Derry again, killing and letting the balloons rise and drift and float. A clown and carnival smells are the lures into the sewers where It feasts.
King’s storytelling, evenly paced, turns anxiously arrhythmic toward the end, deftly moving between past and present at an ever quickening rate, changing perspective, never losing ground, faster and faster, a whiplash of now and then, of now and…again. The sewers are rank once more with Its stench. And again: will the monster be bested…or will it feed? Can grownups use kid magic? King’s novel is intricate in its execution, and for all its back-and-forth it never stumbles into incomprehension.
His story reflects, distorts (really, tries to simplify) our fears as in a fun house mirror so that they take shape in the artless forms of childlike terrors. Grownup fears are too intangible; kid fears are too simplistic. King layers them in a déjà vu story that is a never-ending nightmare – or at least a nightmare that asserts itself every quarter century – that is, once in every generation: a new crop of kids, a new crop of evils, a new crop of fears.
The horrors that Bill et al see are well below the kid-line, King’s name for that barrier of imagination between kids and grownups. Grownups don’t (can’t) see the blood ballooning and popping in squirty little bubbles, gurgled up in little hiccups by the drains. Grownups don’t hear the plastic squee-squee of clown Pennywise’s balloons, the ones that float against the wind. Grownups don’t see the knife that Henry Bowers holds just below Bev’s ear at the tip-top of her neck. No, they fold up the paper and go inside. This is August 10, 1958, and It’s time is here, finally, after a summer of disappearances (or mutilated discoveries of same disappearances).
Imagination is infinite, amorphous, changeable, rampant, hungry. It grows up. It’s hard to be afraid of things we don’t believe in anymore, so imagination has to change with us; It’s gotta keep up, a shape-shifter that claws Its way into our minds when we ourselves could never find the way.
Bullying, racism, domestic violence and alcoholism are the harsher evils that King’s novel transforms for the juvenile mind. But there’s also the more nettlesome ills, the ones disguised by a kind face – the blameless quiet (and even more blameless guilt) of one son’s death and another’s stuh-uh-uhtered sp-spuh-spuh-eech. The fat kid, who tries to fill the void his overworked single mother can’t fill. The placebo medicine that keeps you weak and oh so dependent, never free (you want to think your mother is well-meaning, but please, Ma…)
The storm (1985 again, Back to the Future, as the broken theater sign Richie grabs when the Losers are back in the sewers, advertises) bursts the glass hallway that runs between Derry’s adult and children’s libraries. There’s a lot of destruction in Derry, but maybe this one hurts the most. It had been a protective little thing, keeping out the wind, the rain and the cold, making the pathway from childhood to adulthood so easy and smooth and warm. Do you see the warm light inside? The storm did away with that untruth; it’s a lonely walk in the weather now, leaving your childhood behind.
Will the Losers do it? Can they kill It? They’re not kids anymore and they hardly remember the first nightmare.
It · Stephen King· 1986
Scribner, 2016 · 1153 pages, paperback