Stephen King’s sprawling epic is one of the stories that has become ingrained in the popular culture of the last three decades. A big part of that will be down to Tim Curry staring TV adaptation and the more recent movie version, but also thanks to the sheer scale and relatability of the novel.
Even by King’s standards It is a sprawling tale that comes in three-fold fashion. Set in the town of Derry, Maine in both the late 1950s and mid 1980s it traces a group of youngsters who become a group of friends in the 50s, while also charting their reunion in the 80s and mixing in the mysterious history of the town at the same time.
In many hands this could easily be done through obvious flashback or just become an absolute muddle, but King weaves the three threads together expertly and actually plays up on the switching time frames to great effect in a few of the novels more intense passages.
This method makes it a unique exploration of the divide between childhood and adulthood and, while It certainly features it’s fair share of gruesome terror, it is this that is the crux of the story – like the best horror tales it takes a real world experience and explores it through heightened metaphor, in this case the titular beast, dubbed by the characters simply, It (seen most famously as Pennywise The Dancing Clown but having as many faces as there are people to see it).
In this way its astonishing to think any would ever try to make a film of It. Much like The Shining, King’s particular vision is so ingrained in what the written word can do and a film can’t that it’s genuinely refreshing to read, even more than 30 years since it original publication. Again like The Shining this really comes to the fore as the book heads towards its climax, but is present throughout.
Across the two main timeframes King creates a true ensemble of characters, seven in the heroic gang and a group of antagonists and side players, all of whom are brilliantly drawn and created to give them all real purpose and individuality.
In the 50s passages this grows into a real coming of age story that goes far beyond anything you’re ever likely to see in the cinema, and likely to read anywhere else, particularly in a later scene that has caused much discussion but, to my mind, is handled well enough to fit the story (even if it is a little gratuitous).
Meanwhile in the 80s all these characters are clearly explored developments of the same people and, while at first several appear possible a little too coincidentally successful and the lead being a horror writer veers towards the possibility of King echoing himself, it’s not long before they all make sense and the two time zones link up perfectly.
Added to the coming of age story, where It could represent several aspects of that process, the mysterious and evil presence in Derry grows in the adult sections to represent more grown up troubles and again King balances this, whether its visions of domestic abuse or addiction or more in a way that is never heavy-handed but laced through within the individual stories of the characters.
What I think really makes It stick in the mind though, beyond even just being a thrilling ride of a story, is how it marries aspects of ancient legend, folktales & fables and pulp horror, again echoing the three-fold aspect of the setting.
In doing this it feels like a story that has always been there; clowns have always had a slightly scary edge, children always play in the places adults think scary and wrong and, as children at least, we all know that something lurks just beyond what we can see, waiting to do whatever unspeakable acts it might be there to do. While as adults we have to deal with other monsters unknowable in youth but strangely echoing.
This all comes together to create one of the most compelling novels I’ve encountered that has more depth than its reputation suggests and is at once both chilling, gruesome and thought-provoking in equal measure and I think contains enough substance to have something different in each of those aspects for everyone – I am also now even more confused how they make the rest of the story into the second part of the recent film.