Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.
Then I heard it again.
I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.
I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.
Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.
Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?
Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.
Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over. This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?
Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.
It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.
Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy
grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.
(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)
Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)
The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.
For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.
But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.
The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.
Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that
its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.
It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.
Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.
‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’
‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’
This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.
This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.
Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)
One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.
Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies
‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’
‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’
It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.
Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.
He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.
Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.
The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:
if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.
There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.