It | Study Guide

Stephen King

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It | Context


Narrative Structure

It takes place during two periods: the summers of 1958 and 1985. The two summers' events parallel one another: the children who fight It in 1958 follow a similar cycle of events in 1985, when they return to their hometown to defeat It once and for all. The adults of 1985 recover lost memories of their childhood as they prepare for their final battle. As a result the narrative frequently shifts back and forth in time, as characters remember events and discover new information. Sometimes these shifts occur within chapters, even within a sentence. Sometimes the time differences are indicated with italics or are labeled in headings on chapter subsections. Since the story format is not linear, many moments are foreshadowed early and explained fully later when the Losers regain more of their memories.

The narrative perspective likewise shifts frequently. Some chapters or sections of chapters use an omniscient narrator or limit perspective to one character and then shift to other characters' perspectives in subsequent sections. In the last two chapters, when the Ritual of Chüd commences, King also provides narration from the creature's perspective, indicated with italics.

Bangor, Maine, and Its Fictional Counterpart

The novel mentions the city of Bangor, in northeastern Maine, as a neighboring city to Derry—in the book Derry is about 20 miles west of Bangor. But in fact the book's Derry is a fictionalized version of the real-life Bangor.

When King prepared to write It, he knew he needed to live in a city to capture the atmosphere. He convinced his wife to move to Bangor in 1979, "because it was this hard town that had a real history." Many Bangor landmarks, such as the Thomas Hill Standpipe—a water tank—and Paul Bunyan's statue, are pivotal locations in Derry. Like Derry, Bangor also features a canal through the center of town and has a convoluted, unmappable sewer system built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a U.S. government initiative to create jobs by improving infrastructure during the Great Depression (1929–39). An area of undeveloped land near Valley Avenue in Bangor closely resembles the Barrens in Derry, located near Kansas Street. Georgie Denbrough is murdered near the intersection of Jackson and Witcham Streets in Derry, and Jackson Street in Bangor runs between the Thomas Hill Standpipe and the Whitney Park Historic District, through a residential neighborhood that resembles the Denbrough family's neighborhood.

King also winds bits of Bangor's lore into Derry's events, and he makes few efforts to disguise the details. Most notably the real-life 1984 murder of 23-year-old Charlie Howard is echoed in the fictional Adrian Mellon's murder—the first event in the creature's 1985 killing cycle. Like Adrian Mellon, Charlie Howard was gay and was thrown from a bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream by three teenage boys who told police they "wanted to beat up a 'faggot,'" according to the Bangor Daily News. Howard, who couldn't swim, drowned in the stream. In the novel, Pennywise the clown takes Adrian Mellon into the creature's lair. In another piece of Bangor history, gangster Al Brady died in a shootout with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in October 1937. A sporting-goods-store owner notified police when Brady came in to order ammunition. In It, the shootout takes place in 1930. It is orchestrated by Derry's townspeople when gangster Al Bradley comes to town to buy ammunition.

Film and Folklore

In the 2010 edition of King's nonfiction book Danse Macabre (1982), he reflects on horror as a a genre. King says, "For me, the terror—the real terror ... began on an afternoon in October of 1957, I had just turned ten." This is when he saw his first scary movie, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, in a Connecticut theater—an experience that had an enormous impact on his life and work. Perhaps not coincidentally, the terror of It commences in fall 1957 with Georgie Denbrough's murder. It is suffused with King's fascination with classic horror and science fiction films. The novel's creature is a shapeshifter. It assumes the forms of monsters from 1930s to 1970s classic horror movies: a mummy, Frankenstein's monster, the giant pteranodan Rodan, a vampire, a werewolf, and the shark from Jaws, among others. King wanted It to be like "a final exam on horror," so all his childhood movie-house influences find their way into its pages.

To integrate so many different monsters, King decided to make his novel "like a fairy tale," creating a town "where these things happen and everybody ignores them." He has cited the classic story "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" as inspiration for the bridges, tunnels, and sewers in It. In the story, a troll living under a bridge threatens three goats with death if they try to cross the bridge. It directly references "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" when Ben Hanscom hears a librarian reading the story to children. It also mentions the story "Hansel and Gretel"—in which two children are lured into a witch's gingerbread house and nearly eaten—when Beverly revisits her childhood home. The character Pennywise the Dancing Clown also evokes the story "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," in which a flute player solves a town's rat problem and then—angry because the townspeople won't pay him—kidnaps all their children. In It the creature makes Derry prosperous but takes many of the town's children as "payment."

Clowns and Culture

Fear of clowns is called, coulrophobia. The fear may stem from clowns' garish, masklike makeup, which hints they are hiding something. Clowns also move unpredictably, which makes people nervous. Other notable scary clowns in pop culture include Batman's nemesis the Joker, who was based on a disfigured sideshow performer in the 1928 horror film The Man Who Laughs. In real life, American serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed as a clown at children's parties and was convicted of murdering 33 victims, many of them children, in 1980, a year before King began writing It.

Because the It character Pennywise the Dancing Clown is so closely associated with the evil clown trope, King felt obligated to issue an official statement condemning a rash of creepy clown appearances in the woods of North and South Carolina in 2016. In early 2017 King drew criticism from professional clowns after a trailer was released for the film adaptation of It. They feared the portrayal of Pennywise would be bad for business. This prompted King to tweet, "The clowns are pissed at me."


Near the end of It, after the Losers' Club has bested the creature in 1958, the kids find their bond with one another weakening, and they get lost trying to find their way out of Derry's extensive sewer system. Beverly's solution to this problem is to reconnect the group by having sex with each of the six boys. Unsurprisingly, the description of 11-year-olds engaging in sexual intercourse has proved problematic for many reviewers and readers. In 2016 a Los Angeles Review of Books writer stated, "The scene has, to put it mildly, not aged well." A contributor to website Movie Pilot calls the scene "a sewer orgy," and the scene made a list of sickest Stephen King sex scenes in the Houston Press. A reviewer for science fiction publisher Tor noted, "Readers have done everything from call King a pedophile to claim it's sexist, a lapse of good taste, or an unforgivable breach of trust."

Some of these same reviewers and commenters recognize the scene is meant to portray a bridge between childhood and adulthood for the Losers and to represent an act of love after a summer marked by violence. King may also intend to show the Losers—Beverly in particular—overcoming a final fear: the fear of growing up.

In addition It contains conversations, jokes, and language referencing race and ethnicity in ways today's readers might find troubling. In 1958 the Losers' Club members often use stereotypes in their jokes. Richie often makes jokes about Stan's Jewishness. For example, he says Stan is good at Monopoly because Jewish people are good at making money. Stan doesn't seem to take offense and usually responds in kind. The Losers can make such jokes because they are like family to each other, and they feel comfortable giving Richie a "beep-beep" when he is in danger of crossing the line. Many of Richie's Voices, such as Pancho Vanilla, also make use of stereotypes—sometimes regional, sometimes racial—and appear to use humor to criticize those stereotypes.

Richie's humor comes from affection for his friends and a desire to entertain them, and they seem to realize this. The purpose of these passages, however cringe-inducing they may be, is to create a contrast between the Losers and characters who use racial slurs and other epithets based in hate. For example the boys who attack Adrian Mellon and send him to his death use words such as faggot to address and describe Adrian and his partner, Don. This inflammatory term signals these boys' roles as instruments of evil. Henry and Butch Bowers also frequently use the word nigger. The Bowers men are two of the novel's most despicable characters. Their use of racially inflammatory language complements the bullying, vandalism, and criminal harm these men inflict on their fellow humans. Henry Bowers and his friends use offensive terms to describe women as well. The creature behaves monstrously because monstrousness is in its nature, but Butch and Henry Bowers are monsters because they choose to be, and their words reflect this choice.

Connections to King's Other Works

Stephen King often connects his novels by reusing characters and settings in multiple works. Derry debuts as a setting in It, but it also provides the setting for King's later novel Insomnia (1994), which also includes an appearance from It's town librarian, Mike Hanlon. The town appears in or is referenced in 19 of King's other novels and short stories, including The Dark Tower series (1982+), which also connects closely with Insomnia. The creature It is associated with a phenomenon called "the deadlights," an extradimensional space of evil and madness also associated with The Dark Tower's villainous Crimson King, who visits Derry in Insomnia. The Ritual of Chüd resembles a riddling competition in The Dark Tower series. Its final earthly form is a giant spider, also the physical form of the Crimson King's son, Mordred. The Turtle that assists the Losers in It and is said to have created the universe also figures prominently in The Dark Tower mythology, in which it is said to support the universe on its back.

Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh make an appearance in King's novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 11/22/63 (2011). Furthermore, It makes a number of references to Shawshank State Prison, the setting of King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982)—the basis of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. Mike Hanlon's father also mentions serving in the U.S. Army with Dick Halloran, who saves Will Hanlon from a fire and makes his first appearance in the King canon as the cook at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977).

It is also thematically and structurally similar to King's 1982 novella The Body, which became the 1986 film Stand by Me. The novella makes passing mention of Derry, which is said to be near Castle Rock, the novella's setting. King wrote The Body either shortly before or concurrently with It, which he finished in 1983. Like It, the novella focuses on a group of children who don't quite fit in with their small-town world. The four boys in The Body, like the Losers' Club in It, set out on a quest that seems somewhat dangerous. They hope to find the body of a classmate who has allegedly been hit by a train, so the stakes of the danger are considerably less. Both stories focus on the personalities of a group of childhood friends, the way the bonds of friendship form, and how strongly those bonds can hold over time.

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