It (1986)
By: Julian on January 20, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 1138
Stephen King's It, a sprawling 1138-page tome that covers thirty years and seven close-knit characters, is without a doubt the author's most stunning, most vibrant and most compelling piece of work. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word: King has never written better characters nor has he written more cutting prose before or since penning this novel.

It oscillates between two periods of time – 1957-8 and 1984-5 – with both periods centred on the same characters as pre-teenagers and then as adults. The book begins in 1957 in the midst of a vicious storm battering Derry, Maine. Six-year-old George Denborough sets out to treat his paper boat to its maiden voyage down one of the flooded gutters near his house. 'Stuttering' Bill Denborough, sick in bed, helped Georgie make his boat floodwaterworthy and cautioned him to stay safe. Over the din of the rain, Stuttering Bill hears his little brother meet his fate at the hands of Pennywise the Clown, one of 'It''s faces. After luring Georgie to the mouth of a stormwater drain, Pennywise rips the young boy's arm off and leaves him to die in the gutter.

Eight months later and Bill's terror of It is left simmering beneath the surface of his psyche. As Bill and his friends, Bill Hanscom, Eddie Kaspbrak, Richie Tozier, Stan Uris, Beverly Marsh and Mike Hanlon, seek solace by playing on the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream, they discover that each of them have had past acquaintances with It – both in It's 'Pennywise' incarnation, as well as others. As It begins revealing Itself to the gang with increasing frequency, they set out to destroy It once and for all.

The book alternates between young Bill and Co's attempts to put an end to It, and their efforts as adults in the mid-eighties. Mike Hanlon, the only member of the group who remained in Derry, informs each of his old friends the day that It becomes active for the first time in almost thirty years. They all receive the invitation, but not all of the friends return. Those who do return to Derry show as much determination and resilience as they did when they first faced It in 1958, and they prove themselves ready to destroy It once again.

As hefty as this volume is, It remains a totally compelling piece of work. The only time that the novel's continuity threatens to be broken is during the 'Interludes', inserted intermittently throughout the novel. These interludes are a series of thirty-odd page segments and they comprise the body of Mike Hanlon's novel (a novel within a novel) about Derry and chronicles how It has terrorised the young people of the town. These segments, short as they are, fail to maintain the stellar quality of the main text.

The rest of the novel, though, is absolutely seamless. Each character – both in their child and adult personas – is masterfully written and they have a depth that only the best literary authors are able to evoke. In this respect Stephen King is quite underrated: he is often ignorantly written-off as a pulp author or, at the very best, a popular author, as far as both terms are used pejoratively by 'elite' readers. Those who identify King as such obviously haven't read a great deal of his work – at the least, nothing from his pre-Misery Golden Age.

It's Derry is described with the same clear elegance as 'salem's Lot's titular town and those novels are quite similar in writing style and theme: although 'salem's Lot doesn't flick between two time periods, both novels are focussed on a small, close-knit community terrorised by a force that only a select few are able to understand (and therefore defeat). Unfortunately, King also replicates one of 'salem's Lot's few faults – 'salem's Lot boasted an absolute powerhouse opening two-thirds, but was marred by a comparatively gutless climax. It isn't quite as bad as that but there's certainly a difference in quality as the book progresses. I suspect that this might have something to do with the fact that a thousand-odd page investment in a series of characters so perfectly written means that the climax must be an absolute knock-out, and King's occasional difficulties with execution tarnishes the overall impact of the novel.

On the whole, though, It is King's zenith. The novel is a remarkable effort in character development, prose and terror, and King's success with the latter has time and time again confirmed the author as a mainstay in the horror genre, alongside his filmmaking contemporaries. This novel will surely silence many of King's detractors but, more important, it lays to waste the conceited claims by literary sophisticates that horror fiction cannot be quality fiction. This book is simply a must for all horror fans.
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