When it comes to writing about an influential work of Stephen King, I think most people would probably end up choosing The Stand. As one of his most popular works, it’s the obvious choice. But for me, when it comes to the Stephen King book that entertained me the most as a reader, and influenced the most as a writer, I’d have to go with IT.
The book is told in two parts. The first takes place in 1957-58 and tells the story of a town, Derry, Maine, held in the grip of fear as several local children are murdered. The killer is a clown who calls himself Pennywise, but, like the town of Derry itself, there’s more going on beneath the surface.
Since this is Stephen King, I probably don’t need to tell you that Pennywise is no ordinary clown. He — or rather, IT — is a shape-shifting creature that can transform into its victim’s greatest fear. IT has been using Derry as its own personal buffet for hundreds of years, which has infected the populace with a kind of supernatural malaise that makes them almost ignorant of all the horrible events going on.
But the magic runs both ways in Derry. While the town exists under a veritable black cloud of murder and misery, another force, personified by an entity called the Turtle, works in its own mysterious ways to draw seven children together to combat this menace. These kids, outcasts who refer to themselves as the Losers Club, come together to combat IT and succeed in defeating the creature.
Or so they think.
The story picks up twenty-seven years later, in 1985, with the characters grown up and scattered across the globe. When they find out that IT is still alive and the child murders in Derry have started up again, they’re each faced with the decision as to whether or not they will return to fight IT once more.
King throws every monsters he can think of into this book, and while it’s a big one, it never feels bloated. There’s a story here as sprawling as The Stand, but refined in a personal way that tell us the magic we experience as kids doesn’t go away just because we grow up.
In IT, the characters go back to their childhood town to fight a monster, but in a way they’re also fighting their own mortality. As adults, each one of them has experienced success, and yet none of them are truly happy. They’ve lost something along the way, and maybe that’s ultimately why they’re willing to return to the lion’s den.
Going back to Derry is a way for the Losers to reconnect with their lost childhood. This would seem to be a side trip on their primary mission to defeat the creature they first fought almost thirty years earlier, but the characters soon realize that making that connection to their earlier lives is crucial, not just to the success of their goal, but in order to make it out alive.
IT is the ultimate monster story, but at its core it’s about finding out if the old magic still exists. Stephen King seems to think so, and most days I’m inclined to agree.