It’s in The Lord of the Rings, I think, where one of the characters says that ‘way leads on to way’; that you could start at a path leading nowhere more fantastic than from your own front steps to the sidewalk, and from there you could go…well, anywhere at all. It’s the same way with stories. One leads to the next, to the next, and to the next; maybe they go on in the direction you wanted to go, but maybe they don’t. Maybe in the end it’s the voice that tells the stories more than the stories themselves that matters (King, 431).
I find that with the novel “It” by Stephen King, I have an interesting relationship in which my own experiences with the novel mirror the story itself.
The novel begins in 1957 in a seemingly typical small town called Derry, Maine. A six-year-old boy is murdered by a clown who speaks to him through the street gutter drain. During the following summer, the evil, murdering creature (It) plagues a group of 7 eleven-year-old kids (Bill, Richie, Eddie, Ben, Beverly, Stan, and Mike). The creature appears to them in many different forms – the most common being the clown – and their shared experience with It bring them together in a bonding friendship. Together they try to fight against It. Not sure if they have destroyed the monster, they promise to return to Derry if/when It ever returns. Time passes. Life moves on. It’s 1985 and It is back murdering in Derry. The children who are now adults with successful careers and relationships must face the stream of both pleasant and unpleasant memories of growing up as they return to Derry to face It again.
The film adaptation of King’s book was aired as a television miniseries in 1990. I was about two-years-old at the time. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 (the same age as the kids in the novel) that I actually watched the film, which my parents rented from our local library. I was probably too young to be watching such a thing and of course it freaked me out. It wasn’t something that gave me nightmares, but to this day I still occasionally thing about the voices coming out of the shower drains. I could connect with the kids in the film because I was a kid. I could understand their fear. And so the story stuck with me into my adult years – their story became part of my story. As I am reading the actual novel as an adult, like the adult characters, I must go back into the fears from my childhood. I must face the monster again as well. Now that I am a grownup, I am still connecting with the novel. However, it is a new connection that is able to understand how the imagination of children works to create fear. This understanding does not make the story less creepy. In fact, it helps me understand the motives of It. There is something unique about the way that a child’s mind works and it is impossible to understand this until one is grown up. The book has become more interesting to me because now it is possible for me to understand how the monster uses the unique fears of the children.
It changes; we know that. I think It also manipulates, and leaves Its marks on people just by the nature of what It is – the way you can smell a skunk on you even after a long bath, if it lets go its bag of scent too near you. The way a grasshopper will spit bugjuice into your palm if you catch it in your hand (King, 490)
We know that It is a very old, supernatural creature. In King’s book, Richie and Mike have a vision of It falling out of the sky millions of years ago and landing in the place that is now the center of Derry. As an adult, Mike relates this experience to his friends. ” ‘It came out of the sky,’ Mike repeated, ‘but it wasn’t a spaceship exactly. It wasn’t a meteor either. It was more like…well…like the Ark of the Covenant, in the Bible, that was supposed to have the Spirit of God inside of it…except this wasn’t God. Just feeling It, watching It come, you knew It meant bad, that it was bad’ (King, 727).” So we know too that It is definitely evil. In fact, It is almost like Satan. It is a fallen angel perhaps? This idea can be further supported by a passage that comes straight from the mind of It in which King uses Biblical language. “It had created a place in Its own image, and It looked upon this place with favor from the deadlights which were Its eyes. Derry was Its killing-pen, the people of Derry Its sheep (King,965).” The use of Biblically related words such as “Its own image” and “It’s sheep” along with the contrasting, morbid words “killing pen” and “deadlights” show us an image of It as some sort of aberration of The Creator. At the end of the book, It refers to itself as an eater of worlds – the direct opposite of The Creator. This is the nature of It, but how does such a creature manifest itself physical in our experiences?
When the adults face It for the final time, they come the closest to seeing what It actually is. Their minds are not able to conceive of the creature’s true form so they see something that their imaginations are able to digest. A huge, pregnant, spider. That’s right, folks. It’s a girl spider! The creature is called “It”- a title that indicates a lack of gender; and perhaps the spirit form of It is genderless, but when conceived by a human mind, It, the eater of worlds, becomes female. This idea alone could provoke pages of feminist critique, but for now I’ll forgo that to focus on other aspects of It.
Throughout the novel, the main thing that It is, is a representation of the town of Derry itself, which King shows us through the motif of cycles in the plot.
The monster itself goes through a cycle lasting in total of about 30 years. Every 25-27 years, It comes out of a sleeping state and begins to attack children in Derry. This lasts for a year or so until something tragic accident occurs – there was an explosion at the Derry Iron Works plant while children where having an Easter Egg hunt; and during an earlier cycle, there was a shootout downtown in which two cars full of people were killed because of suspicions of the residents of Derry. After these events, It returns to sleep for another quarter of a century. The cycle is completed.
Other cycles in the book are related to how the memories of children return as they become adults. Since attacking It the first time, the children have gone on with their lives and forgotten the events from their past. They probably blocked out the memories of It as one would block out any traumatic event. When Mike calls his friends back to Derry when they are grown, the memories start to return. Richie describes this for us through the memory of Henry, a tormenting bully from the kids’ childhoods. “Gonna getcha, creep! The ghostly voice of Henry Bowers screamed, and he (Richie) felt more crypts cracking open inside of him; the stench he smelled was not decayed bodies but decayed memories, and that was somehow worse (King, 62).” Richie’s memories are cycles from death into life. This quote also shows us how fear is cycled back into the children’s lives. For them it is more terrifying to remember than it is to die. King also shows us the cycle of memories when old scars reappear on Bill’s hand. When the children made their pact to come back to Derry to destroy It if It ever came back, they made cuts on each others hands. The scars on Bill’s hand had gone away until he heard from Mike again as an adult. Bill’s wife states, “Scars can’t come back. They either are or aren’t (King, 131).” This is not true for the children. Just as It cycles through Its periods of sleeping and killing, the children must cycle through their experiences with It.
These cycles of fear and memory might be shown more clearly in a quote from Ben’s experiences.
I’m (Ben) scared almost insane by whatever else I may remember before tonight’s over, but how scared I am doesn’t matter, because it’s going to come anyway. It’s all there, like a great big bubble that’s growing in my mind. But I’m going (back to Derry), because all I’ve ever gotten and all I have now is somehow due to what we did then, and you pay for what you get in this world. Maybe that’s why God made us kids first and built us close to the ground, be He knows you got to fall down a lot and bleed a lot before you learn that one simple lesson. You pay for what you get, you own what you pay for…and sooner or later whatever you own comes back home to you (King, 78).
The above quote reiterates the idea of memories returning in a way that is unstoppable, but it also adds a new idea. Ben gets at the fact that everything we do has an impact on our future and, like memories, other things can come back to bite us. There is a cycle of cause and effect in our lives that we can’t stop.
Sooner or later who we are as children will influence who we are as adults. As a child, Ben has a strong interest in building things and he helps his friends create a dam in the local Kenduskeag River. He then grows up to be an architect and designs buildings in London. “Years later he would build the hotly debated BBC communications center in London, and the arguments might rage for a thousand years and still no one would know (except Ben himself) that the communications center was nothing but the glass corridor of the Derry Public Library stood on end (King, 171).” Here we can see how architecture from his childhood has influenced Ben’s career as an adult. King shows this kind of cycle in the other children too. Bill who loves stories as a kid becomes a novelist and maybe unconsciously plants images from his experiences with It into his horror novels. Beverly is another character whose life contains cycles. Bev grows up living with an abusive father who both verbally and physically punishes her for being a “slut.” She then grows up to marry Tom, a man who beats her with a belt. She essentially marries her father and it is not her fault. Because of her father’s actions when she was a child, as an adult, abuse is what she understands about men who are supposed to love her.
An interesting side note: Beverly is the main female character in the book and the only female child to encounter It. Is is a coincidence that the way in which she experiences It is through the appearance of blood? One of the foremost female experiences includes a monthly cycle involving blood. Beverly who is on the verge of puberty, hears It talking to her through the drains in the bathroom. As she comes closer to the sink drain, blood gushes forth from it and other drains to cover the bathroom in blood. The appearance of this blood in the bathroom supports the theory that it is connected to the cycle of menstruation. For men. perhaps this female cycle is contained with the bathrooms of homes everywhere. The blood could then represent Bev’s sexuality. Her father comes into the bathroom when he hears Bev screaming. He can’t see the blood. Just as he can’t understand sexuality or the friendship she shares with the six male characters in the book. Her father distorts their friendship and calls Bev a slut. Is all of this Its doing? Essentially, you could say that because It sent the blood, the blood corrupts Bev’s sexuality and she ends up marrying an abusive man who is just like her father who can’t understand her.
Finally, the cycle which shows us most what It might be is the cycle of hatred in Derry and how this cycle is fueled by silence in the town. One cycle of hatred circles around Henry Bowers and his father. Henry’s father is a hateful racist who teaches his son the same kind of hate.
And because his son was a tireless listener […] Bowers senior filled his son’s ears with a litany of hate and hard luck. He explained to his son that all niggers were stupid, some were cunning as well – and down deep they all hated white men […] In Henry’s ears, it was a constant litany: the nigger, the nigger, the nigger. Everything was the nigger’s fault. The nigger (Mike’s family) had a nice white house with an upstairs and an oil furnace while Butch and his wife and his son lived in not much better than a trapper shack. When Butch couldn’t make enough money farming and had to go to work in the woods for a while, it was the nigger’s fault. When their well went dry in 1956, it was the nigger’s fault (King, 632-3).
So hatred is cycled from one generation to the next and is present in Henry as he murders Mike’s dog for no reason other than that it belongs to an African-American boy.
Later, in the 1980’s when It returns, Derry’s hate is transferred from the African-American population to the gay community. Hate can also cycle from being forced upon one person to being forced upon another. There is a hate crime perpetrated against a gay man and his partner who are walking through town. One of the men is wearing a hat that read “I ♥ Derry” and for this reason a group of teenagers attacks him. The man’s partner watches helplessly. He calls for help, but the town is suddenly silent. The teenagers throw the beaten man over the side of a bridge. His partner runs down under the bridge and there finds It. An Officer Gardener later interrogated the partner.
“You saw those balloons?” Gardener said.
Don Hagarty slowly held his hands up in front of his face. “I saw them as clearly as I can see my own fingers at this moment. Thousands of them. You couldn’t even see the underneath of the bridge – there were too many of them. They were rippling a little, and sort of bouncing up and down. There was a sound. A funny low squealing noise. That was their sides rubbing together. And strings. There was a forest of white strings hanging down. They looked like white strands of spider web. The clown took Ade under there. I could see its suit brushing through those strings. Ade was making awful choking sounds. I started after him…and the clown looked back. I saw its eyes, and all at once I understood who it was.”
“Who was it Don?” Harold Gardener asked softly.
“It was Derry.” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town” (King, 34).
Here for the first time in the novel we see It as a direct representation of Derry. However, It won’t be related to evil until later.
These acts of violence, hate, and fear are in a way promoted by the silence of Derry. Suddenly, there is no one to come and help the two men who are being attacked. This silence occurs many times throughout the book. At one point Ben is being chased by It in the form of a mummy. King states, “Ben looked around wildly for help. He could see no one (King, 187).” It is also said that, “In Derry people have a way of looking the other way (King, 434).” During the shooting in downtown Derry, the whole town showed up with guns in their hands and yet, “Many Derry residents affect not to remember what happened that day. Or they were out of town, visiting relatives. Or napping that afternoon and never found out what happened until they heard it on the radio news that night. Or they will simply look you full in the face and lie to you (King, 611).” It is this looking away that allows violence and hatred to continue in cycles. In order for a problem to be fixed, you have to face it. You have to talk about it. The people of Derry did not talk about It. King writes that the town’s people, “They let it happen, they always do, and things quiet down, things go on, It…It..sleeps… or hibernates like a bear…and then it starts again, and they know…people know…they know that it has to be so It can be (King, 931).” The silence in part comes from the fact that Derry is a small town. No one wants to admit to seeing something strange or horrifying because it means that they will be singled out in the community. Fear of being judged by others outweighs the fear of what was actually seen. Don Hagarty, the man who saw It under the bridge was encouraged not to talk about It because of the craziness of It – the strangeness of It – would hurt the persecution of the teenagers accused of killing his life partner. We tend not to talk about things that will make us look crazy in a community in which everyone knows everyone else. If Derry is It and it is Derry, it logically follows that It is what might be causing this silence and so promoting the continuation of the cycles of hate, violence, and above all the fear off which It feeds.
The relationship between It and Derry is an interesting love-hate relationship. The two things in a way depend on each other. At one point Bill reflects on growing up in Derry.
He remembered his childhood here as a fearful, nervous time…not only because of the summer of ’58, when the seven of them had faced the terror, but because of George’s death, the deep dream his parents seemed to have fallen into following that death, the constant ragging about his stutter, Bowers, Huggins, and Criss constantly on the prod for them after the rock fight in the Barrens […] and just a feeling that Derry was cold, that Derry was hard, that Derry didn’t much give a shit if any of them lived or died, and certainly not if they triumphed over Pennywise the Clown. Derry folk had lived with Pennywise in all guises for a long time…and maybe, in some made way, they had come to understand him. To like him, need him. Love him? Maybe. Yes, maybe that too (King, 456).
It and the things that It represents – fear, evil, hate – have existed for so long in Derry and in many other towns across America that if those things were suddenly gone, the town of Derry would be drastically changed. These qualities, as unfortunate as they are, are a part of the culture of Derry and of human nature. To rip out fear and hate from the way that humans understand the world could possibly be even more ruinous to human civilization than what results from them if they remain. Without fear would we be able to comprehend the world around us in the same way? What would our society do if hate no longer existed? When the adult children are attacking It for the final time, an old man has an interesting premonition. “We’re in danger,” He thinks, “All of us. Derry (King, 994).” Indeed as the children are attacking It, a literal storm is raging in Derry in which many residents are killed.
The best way to describe this relationship between It and Derry has come to me through a documentary that I viewed called Eyes of the Mothman. It is about the disturbing events that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the 1960’s. People of Point Pleasant reported seeing a bird-like monster with red eyes. Some believed it to be an evil thing. Following these sightings there was a tragic accident when a bridge collapsed killing over 40 people. Some residents also connected the two events saying that the Mothman creature portended the accident. Surprisingly, I found similarities between the documentary and the novel It.
Like It in Derry, the Mothman became a part of Point Pleasant culture. People went out looking for the creature as a means of entertainment. To this day the town hold a Mothman Festival every year. The creature has become a part of the place, that to remove it, the place would not be the same. Like in Derry, the townsfolk at first did not want to talk about the monster. People who did come forward as witnesses were ridiculed by the community until sightings became commonplace. It’s one thing to read to read about the relationship between Derry and It in King’s book, but quite another to see it in a real situation. In the end does it matter whether the Mothman was really some kind of beast? Does it matter if It was real if It has such a relationship with Derry?
I don’t know if the Mothman was an evil, supernatural being or perhaps just a mutated animal. But I do believe in the power of place. That maybe there are some kind of bad vibes in the land of that area which makes it more likely for unfortunate events to happen. Many people in Point Pleasant believe that the land was cursed by a murdered Native American chieftain. Perhaps the negativity of that place goes back even further that just like in Derry. Mike’s character states about Derry, “I don’t think that the Legion of White Decency happened to get along so well here because they hated black people and bums more in Derry than they did in Portland or Lewiston or Brunswick. It’s because of that soil. It seems that bad things, hurtful things, do right well in the soil of this town (King, 426).” Perhaps it was the soil of Derry which attracted It and not It that diseased the soil.
In the end, Stephen King’s “It” is a kind of critique of American society as it exists in small communities. It addresses problems of racism, homophobia, and violence which are persistent problems throughout lifetimes. It is about how fear works in the lives of those who make up our communities. It shows us how these fears and violence impact our children ans shows us what our children will grow up to believe. In the end, It is defeated by facing our fears and by coming to terms with the realities that surround our fears. In order for Bill to challenge the monster, he must come to accept the fear and guilt that he feels for the death of his brother. He must accept that George was murdered and that it wasn’t his fault before he can fight back against George’s killer. Perhaps King is saying that in the same way, we must come to terms with the existence of hatred and fear of the unknown before we can reverse them. Our communities are It and will be It. And It is and will be our communities in the future unless the cycles of silence are changed.
King, Stephen. It. New York: Signet. 1986. Print.