Monday 5 September 2016

IT, by Stephen King, at 30

I first discovered Stephen King in the early 80s when my Dad took me into a 2nd hand bookshop in Wellingborough and I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot.  I followed that with Danse Macabre (which I wrote about here), using it as a road map to seek out books, writers and films that helped grow and define my love of the genre.

1986 was a good year for me (as I blogged about here) in a lot of ways, one of which was catching up on King’s body of work.  I read Different Seasons and fell in love with The Body (which was later filmed as Stand By Me), then moved on to Skeleton Crew (an excellent collection that opens with the incredible novella The Mist).  Late in the summer, I read a Fangoria interview with him that, whilst ostensibly about his directorial debut Maximum Overdrive, also touched on a four novel “publishing storm” that was about to happen.  Disgruntled that his Richard Bachman pseudonym had just been exposed, he said he was “going to clear the decks and get rid of everything.”  The first of the four was what he called his “final exam” in the genre.

IT is about 1,200 pages long,” he told Fangoria, “and it’s the first novel that’s all mine since Pet Sematary, which is a long time.  There are seven characters, with half the book taking place in 1958 and half in 1985.  It’s about children who are faced with a monstrosity which they think they’ve killed.  As adults, they discover they haven’t and they must go back to try to do it again.  Win or lose, that’s going to be the end, and I’m going to have to find other things to say or do.”

IT was published in September 1986 and I was very excited about it.  A huge novel, about childhood, coming of age and monsters?  I was definitely up for that.  My sisters bought me the hardback of the novel and I started it immediately.
Hodder & Stoughton 1st Edition Hardback, 1986
cover scan of my copy
Derry: a small city in Maine, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own home town.  Only in Derry, the haunting is real...  In the sewers and storm-drains beneath the streets, in the canals and wastelands beyond them, something is lurking...

In Stephen King’s extraordinary new novel, a group of schoolfriends grow up in 1950s Derry.  They call themselves the Losers.  Yet, as seven desperate children, they face the unimaginable terror that is IT and, in a way, they win.  Or at least they survive.

Now, twenty-five years later, Derry Librarian Mike Hanlon, once one of those children, must hold the rest to a long-forgotten promise.  From all across America, and in one case from England, they are summoned to confront once again a horror that in their successful careers they had sought to obliterate from memory.

And when that fateful call comes - to Bill Denbrough, writer; to Stanley Uris, accountant; to Richie ‘Records’ Tozier, disc jockey; to Beverly Rogan, dress designer; to Ben Hanscom, architect, and to Eddie Kaspbrak, celebrity limousine driver - when the memories of those childhood days are reawakened, when the present begins to rhyme inexorably with the past, the Losers are reunited and nothing can stop their lives from running towards a truly terrifying climax.

IT is a novel of extraordinary power and effect, a novel of childhood and innocence, of growing up and coming to terms with life, and of a seeping, gurgling, grasping fear, a fear conveyed so chillingly and compellingly that this, Stephen King’s biggest and most ambitious book to date, must also be regarded as his most memorable.

I loved the novel - it was scary, it was funny, it was touching, the characters spoke to me and Pennywise was terrifying.  The opening sequence, which sets the whole thing up perfectly, begins with six-year old Georgie Denbrough building a paper boat with his older brother Bill.  Georgie takes it out in the rain where it’s swept into a storm drain, wherein a clown - with the promise of balloons - persuades George to reach in...

“Want your boat, Georgie?”  Pennywise asked.  “I only repeat myself because you really do not seem that eager.”  He held it up, smiling.  He was wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons.  A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.

“Yes, sure,” George said, looking into the stormdrain.

"And a balloon?  I’ve got red and green and yellow and blue...”

"Do they float?”

“Float?”  The clown’s grin widened.  “Oh yes, indeed they do. They float! And there’s cotton candy...”

George reached.

The clown seized his arm.

And George saw the clown’s face change.

What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke.

“They float,” the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice. It held George’s arm in its thick and wormy grip, it pulled George toward that terrible darkness where the water rushed and roared and bellowed as it bore its cargo of storm debris toward the sea.  George craned his neck away from that final blackness and began to scream into the rain, to scream mindlessly into the white autumn sky which curved above Derry on that day in the fall of 1957.  His screams were shrill and piercing, and all up and down Witcham Street people came to their windows or bolted out onto their porches.

“They float,” it growled, “they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too...”

IT was hugely successful.  From an initial print run in the USA of one million copies, it topped the best seller lists in 1986 and went on to become the tenth-best selling novel of the 1980s.  King called it “the summation of everything I have learned and done in my whole life to this point.”

Stephen King, 
as pictured on the back cover of the 1986 hardback
The books genesis came about in 1978, when King was living in Boulder, Colorado.  He had to pick up his car from the dealership where it was under repair and decided to walk the three miles there rather than get a taxi.  By the time he reached the industrial estate where the garage was, “it was twilight - in the mountains the end of day comes in a hurry - and I was aware of how alone I was. About a quarter of a mile along this road was a wooden bridge, humped and oddly quaint, spanning a stream. I walked across it. I was wearing cowboy boots with rundown heels, and I was very aware of the sound they made on the boards; they sounded like a hollow clock. I thought of the fairy tale called The Three Billy-Goats Gruff and wondered what I would do if a troll called out from beneath me, “Who is trip-trapping upon my bridge?” All of a sudden I wanted to write a novel about a real troll under a real bridge.”

It took four years to come together, three of which were spent letting it “percolate” in his mind.  He wrote the first rough draft at the end of 1980, after Firestarter was published.  “We moved [to Bangor] in 1979 because I thought Bangor was a hard-ass working town and I thought the big story I wanted to write was here.”

He connected that with the canal which bisected the city and “decided that the bridge could be the city, if there was something under it. What's under a city? Tunnels. Sewers. Ah! What a good place for a troll! Trolls should live in sewers!  There had [also] been a story in the newspaper about...a young man who came out of the Jaguar Tavern during the Bangor Fair. He was gay, and some guys got to joking with him. Then the joking got out of hand, and they threw him over the bridge and killed him. And I thought, that’s what I want to write about.”

Before he began writing, he walked around Bangor, asking local people for stories which he knew probably “weren’t true but I didn’t care. The ones that really sparked my imagination were the myths.”  He discovered “the Bangor sewer system was built during the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and they lost track of what they were building under there. They had money from the federal government for sewers, so they built like crazy. A lot of the blueprints have now been lost and it’s easy to get lost down there.”

As for the town, “Bangor became Derry. There is a Bangor in Ireland, located in the county of Derry, so I changed the name of the fictional town to Derry. There is a one-to-one correlation between Bangor and Derry. It’s a place that I keep coming back to, even as recently as the novel Insomnia…Castle Rock is a lot more fictionalized than Derry. Derry is Bangor.”

In purest terms, the novel is about kids fighting a monster.  King said “My preoccupation with monsters and horror has puzzled me, too. So I put in every monster I could think of and I took every childhood incident I had ever written of before and tried to integrate the two. And It grew and grew and grew…”

The book carried this dedication:
This book is gratefully dedicated to my children.  My mother and my wife taught me how to be a man.  My children taught me how to be free.

Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the trust of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists

There’s a lot I could say about the novel - the little repeated bits, such as Bill Denbrough’s “He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts” to help his stuttering; the detail behind the characters professions; the way the kids are; the bits about writing; how bloody terrifying it is - but the book really deserves to have you discover them for yourself.

The novel was followed by the mass-market release of The Eyes Of The Dragon (originally published by his own imprint Philtrum Press), Misery (which was originally going to be a Richard Bachman novel until he died of "cancer of the pseudonym") and The Tommyknockers, all in 1987.

Stephen King lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife Tabitha and their three children.  He played in a rock band when he was in high school and, as the photograph on the back of the jacket shows, can still be persuaded to take the stage now and then, as long as it’s not the Richie Tozier ‘All-Dead’ Rock Show.
- from the Hodder & Stoughton Hardback cover flap
New English Library 2nd edition paperback, 1987
cover scan of my copy
IT was made as a two-part television film in 1990, broadcast on 18th and 20th November on the ABC network.  Part one was set in 1960 (and praised for both the performances of the child actors and for being scary), part two was set in 1990.  Tim Curry put in a spectacular performance as Pennywise The Dancing Clown and the production won an Emmy for Outstanding music by Richard Bellis.  It was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and written for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen and Wallace.
"Beep beep, Richie..."
The Losers Club (grown-up version)
back row - John Ritter (Ben), Richard Masur (Stan), Harry Anderson (Richie), Tim Curry (Pennywise), Dennis Christoper (Eddie)
Tim Reid (Mike), Annette O'Toole (Beverly), Richard Thomas (Bill)
Happy 30th anniversary, IT.


No comments:

Post a Comment