In the midst of the Cold War, homophobia, the arms race, drug wars, and the awareness of the AIDS epidemic, the beloved horror writer, Stephen King, released a new novel called It. With the novel's expected popularity exceeding all bounds, King's publishers gave him a $3 million advance and printed 800,000 copies, catapulting the novel to the top of the best-seller list before its official publication date in September 1986 (Kanfer, 74). Like all King books, It fulfilled expectations, selling over 1,000,000 in its first year of publication. Although several critics balked at the novels 1138 pages, all agreed that King's fans would love the epic tale of a monster invading the town of Derry, Maine and the heroic children who band together to defeat it. The book resembled many of King's popular horror novels with its supernatural story and its reliance on underdog characters that save the day. However, King also employed several original techniques in It that contributed to the book's popularity in the 80s decade.
King's popularity rises largely out of the same formula old Gothic horror writers used to create chills in the audiences of yesteryear. Like Frankenstien and Dracula, the monster in It gives the reader an escape from fearing the everyday worries of life. In the 1800's and early 1900s, gothic fiction's heyday, readers spent fearful days awaiting a war, a plague, or the next famine. The monsters in gothic horror literature allowed readers to stop focusing on their real problems and instead brought them into a supernatural realm. Martin Tropp says this ability to transport readers into another, more fearful world, largely accounts for the popularity of gothic fiction. Tropp says, "horror stories are not nightmares transcribed, but fears recast into safe and communicable forms?a concrete, related, yet separate reality" (4).
King's novel It granted readers the same permission to escape from reality, but added a twist. With the more culturally specific problems of the 1980s such as the Cold War and crime, King attempted to tap into the fears of the average small-town citizen and shape them into It?a monster that takes many forms throughout the novel. In It, real life merges with nightmares and the actual fears we encounter each day, such as school yard bullies and first loves, are juxtaposed with unimaginable visions of horror. In addition, King's novel uses the same elements as a fairy tale?children, monsters, good versus evil, and love. With this horror fairy tale, King succeeds in writing a novel that appeals to a large audience of mature adults looking for escape and grown-up children looking for a new evil stepmother. Therefore, the novel first draws the reader in by allowing the reader to feel a sense of camaraderie with the characters and then makes the reader forget all he knows and instead escape into a world of terror. King, then, writes a story that every reader can identify with and enjoy.
One feature of the novel prized by critics when the novel was published was King's descriptions of small-town America?one aspect of the book's widespread popularity. As the backdrop for the atrocities that happen to its residents, Derry is a portrait of a small town unlike the reader's own home-town, lending a comforting sense of familiarity to the book. Stefan Kanfer, a reviewer for Time magazine, describes the scene by saying "King begins with all the reassuring American trappings: the 7-Eleven stores, the ribbons of super highway, the town high schools that seem part of an ordered landscape" (80). The book forces readers to recognize elements of their own childhood past. For example, at the beginning of the novel, King describes a local Derry festival, the Canal Days Festival with quaint detail:
The town was spruced up from east to west and north to south. Potholes which some residents swore hadn't been patched for ten years or more were neatly filled with hottop and rolled smooth. The town buildings were refurbished on the inside, repainted on the outside. The worst of the graffiti in Bassey Part?much of it coolly logical and anti-gay statements such as KILL ALL QUEERS and AIDS FROM GOD YOU HELLBOUND HOMOS!!--was sanded off the benches and wooden walls of the little covered walkway over the Canal known as the Kissing Bridge. (20)
Even short descriptions of mundane events in the lives of the seven children that the novel centers on bring nostalgic images in the mind of the reader. One example is when King describes an afternoon at the local movie theater, the Aladdin, writing "Kids were ponying up their quarter admissions at the Aladdin's box-office window and going into the lobby?The popcorn machine was in overdrive, spilling out drifts of the stuff, its greasy hinged lid jittering up and down" (352). Reviewers of both Newsweek the Atlantic agreed that these scenes of life in the 1950s are some of the best parts of the novel?guaranteed to appeal to all readers.
Likewise, the lives of the children are a breeding ground for likable characters. By giving the reader the chance to jump back into the realm of childhood, King allows another type of escape into the past. The portraits of the characters evoke memories of awkward childhood. The seven main characters in the novel, the Loser's Club, are an eclectic group of stereotypical kids who are ostracized by the "cool" kids in their school. The group includes a fat boy, an abused girl, a boy who impersonates people, a black boy, a Jewish boy, a stuttering boy who dreams away his days, and a hypochondriac mama's boy. The 12 year-old outcasts encounter all the trials of childhood, including a group of bullying boys, snickering classmates, and overprotective parents. As in several of King's other books such as The Shining, the children become the heroes, saving Derry from the horrendous monster. Scenes from the lives of the children are sprinkled throughout the book, following the kids through their everyday behaviors:
Mike, dressed in corduroys, a tee-shirt, and black high-topped Keds, came downstairs, ate a bowl of Wheaties (he didn't really like Wheaties but had wanted the free prize in the box?a Captain Midnight Magic Decoder Ring), then hopped on his bike and pedaled toward town, riding on the sidewalks because of the fog. (264).
David Gates, of Newsweek, says these childhood scenes are some of the most well-written parts of the novel. The scenes give the reader the chance to connect to another world while reminding them of their own past fears, hopes, and dreams.
Another aspect of the novel which both delights and horrifies readers is the monster, It?a changing mass of terror, able to morph into a different shape depending on the worst fears of the character it appears to. This monster changes from the image of Bill's murdered little brother to a werewolf to a huge spider. Like the monsters in the gothic tales of old such as Frankenstein and Dracula, the monster represents those fears that cannot be faced and try to hide in the depths of the subconscious. The worst fears of the members of the Loser's Club echo the fears of the reader, who, as a part of the 1980s society, must deal with the pressures of an era of extravagance. This era saw a widening in the gap between the lower and the upper classes and instilled a fear of an escalating arms race, a war with the Soviet Union and the emergence of an epidemic disease. Like the monster in the novel, the average small-town reader may not be able to visualize these fears that reside in the world around them. Instead, the fear can be channeled into the experience of reading the horror story. Tropp writes that "the most fantastic escapes of all?the fictional excursions into the supernatural and medieval world of the tale of terror?in the end, probe deepest at the terrifying core of ordinary life" (23). The escape of the horror story forces readers to confront their fears and then give release to them through the reading of the novel, accounting for the popularity of the book.
Another aspect of the book, overlooked by most of the contemporary reviewers, is the sexual undertone included in many of the book's scenes. This feature of King's writing is reminiscent of the sexual imagery present in many gothic novels of the nineteenth century. The sex scenes are another chance for readers to become personally involved with the characters while allowing them another outlet for their fear. When the children get trapped in the tunnels surrounding the lair of It, they decide that sex may be the way to connect with each other and to the outside world they must soon enter. During the sex scene, Beverly sees images of birds flying in the sky?a metaphor for the same feelings the reader feels when he is allowed to escape his fear while reading the book:
So she flies, she flies up, and now the power is not with her or with him but somewhere between them, and he cries out, and she can feel his arms trembling, and she arches up and into him, feeling his spasm, his touch, his total fleeting intimacy with her in the dark. They break into the lifelight together. (1085)
This ability of the children to find each other in the dark is analogous to the reader's ability to escape the fears that constrain them in the real world. This feeling that the book gives the reader is another reason for the novel's popularity.
With translations in many languages across the globe and continued popularity, King's novel, It, has the makings of a classic horror story. It's reliance on both real-life descriptions of everyday events and colorful characters intertwined with horror and monsters provides readers with the unique opportunity to escape the fears that invade their lives in the 1980s and focus instead on the fears of seven Loser's Club children in Derry, Maine.
Gates, David. "The Creature that Refused to Die." Newsweek. 1 September 1986: 82.
Kanfer, Stefan. "King of Horror." Time 6 October 1986: 74.
King, Stephen. It. New York: Viking, 1986.
Lloyd, Rose. "The Triumph of the Nerds." The Atlantic. September 1986:102.
Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1990.