To coincide with its 25th anniversary, Cemetery Dance Publications, a specialty press publisher of horror and suspense stories, has published a special limited edition of Stephen King’s It. Other authors published by Cemetery Dance Publications include Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It is being released as three different hardcover collector’s editions — an unsigned gift edition (2,750 copies, which I reviewed), a signed edition (750 copies), and a signed and lettered edition (52 copies). Each version features a new dust jacket illustration by Glen Orbik, and interior black and white and color illustrations by Alan M. Clark and Erin Wells. Of especial interest to fans is a new afterword by Stephen King, discussing what inspired him to write the novel.
The book is quite large and substantial, measuring 7 x 10 inches. Chapter sections are printed in two colors throughout and make for a handsome piece. The hardcover gift edition comes with a slipcase. The many illustrations peppered throughout add to the package, although the color illustrations tend to verge on the gruesome side. But for serious collectors of King’s work this special edition of It is definitely something they would want to add to their bookshelves.
“’Who is that trip-trapping upon my bridge?’ Miss Davies spoke in the low, growling tones of the troll in the story. Some of the little ones covered their mouths and giggled, but most only watched her solemnly, accepting the voice of the troll as they accepted the voices of their dreams, and their grave eyes reflected the eternal fascination of the fairy tale: would the monster be bested … or would it feed?”
Stephen King’s It is a monster of a book. He intended to write a very long book, and on that score — length — he was more than successful. It is also ambitious in its scope. King pulls in lots of characters and horrors to help explore his central theme, the transition from childhood to adulthood. At times, however, his truly interesting ideas and characters just get buried under his desire to throw in anything and everything he imagines as part of Derry, Maine’s history. If this 1000+ page novel had been introduced to a bloody red pencil it would only be the better for it. Is reading It worth the substantial time investment? I would say yes. But the reader should be warned that there is a lot of effluvia to wade through to get to a conclusion that some may ultimately find disappointing.
It jumps back and forth through time, between the summer of 1958, when a series of child murders in Derry, Maine spur seven 11 year-olds, the self-proclaimed “Losers Club,” to try to track down the creature responsible; and 28 years later, 1985, when the killings start again. Like the twin time zones of the major characters, King also serves up twin monsters — Pennywise the Clown, or It, a demon with a thousand faces that has been operating in Derry for a very long time, and Henry Bowers, an older classmate of the Losers and a sadistic bully who spends most of his free time terrorizing anyone he deems weak or in his way.
[George Denbrough, illustration by Alan M. Clark and Erin Wells]
The Losers are:
“Stuttering Bill” Denbrough, whose brother George was the first of Pennywise’s victims murdered in 1958. The de facto leader of the Losers Club, he becomes a successful horror novelist and is clearly the author’s stand-in. I found Bill the least sympathetic of the group, however. All of the characters hero-worship him, but I couldn’t see why.
Beverly Marsh, the only female member of the Losers. The six Losers are all in love with Beverly, as much for her beauty as for her plucky attitude. She has an abusive father and later an abusive husband. I wasn’t convinced by a lot of Beverly’s actions. She was viewed as smart and strong by her pals, but King frequently has her acting weak and unsure of herself and too dependent on the closest male in the vicinity.
Ben Hanscom, an overweight kid who has no friends until he meets the Losers in their play space, the Barrens, a thickly wooded, almost jungle-like area of town. The most well-rounded and sympathetic character, Ben has an innate sense of how things work and grows up to become a successful architect.
Richie Tozier, a fast-talking kid who likes to do “Voices” and who later becomes very successful West Coast radio DJ. Some of the voices King has him do — all racial stereotypes — a black servant’s voice, a Foghorn Leghorn-like white Southern gentleman, and a Mexican right out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre seemed more than a little questionable, but Richie is still a likable character. His humor is something that is proven to be effective against It, but King introduces that fact and then drops it.
Eddie Kaspbrak, a 90-pound weakling with an over-bearing, over-protective mother who has convinced him he has asthma. Eddie travels everywhere with his inhaler, which although a placebo, also proves as an effective weapon against It. As an adult he manages a successful limousine service.
Stan Uris, a Jewish kid who has an interest in birdwatching. He becomes a successful accountant as an adult, but was always hyper-sensitive and the one most affected emotionally by his encounter wth It.
Mike Hanlon, an African American kid who completes the group when they rescue him from a violent attack by crazed bully Henry Bowers. Mike is the only one who stays in Derry. He becomes the town librarian and compiles a hidden history of the town relating to It.
When we meet the Losers 28 years later, all grown up and successful, their childhood adventures and friends have been completely forgotten. But the murders have started in Derry again, and the one person who stayed, Mike, has called them all together to honor a promise they made — but first they must remember the past.
“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends — maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
[Dust jacket illustration by Glen Orbik]
In the afterword King says, “I worked on the book in a dream. I remember very little about the writing of it, except for the idea that I’d gotten hold of something that felt very big to me, and something that talked about more than monsters …” He also says that the book could be considered his “final exam on famous monsters.” The creature, It, that terrorizes the children in the story has many faces, and can appear as whatever its victim fears most, which gave King the opportunity to play with the Teenage Wolfman, the Crawling Eye, The Mummy, and many other of his favorite film horrors from his own childhood. But Pennywise the Clown is still the creepiest incarnation.
“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 Gardner asked softly.
“It was Derry,” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town.”
. . .
Mike Hanlon, “Can an entire city be haunted?”
Like so many of his other books, location is all-important. In this case, the town of Derry. King based the fictional town of Derry on Bangor Maine, which is bisected by a large canal — again echoing the dual nature of the narrative. The fate of It and the town of Derry are inextricably entwined, but for all of the anecdotes that King creates to form Derry’s past, I never felt I knew it, that I was there, the way I knew the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or the town of ‘Salem’s Lot. So many of the History of Derry stories — the burning of the Black Spot Lounge, the rampage of logger Claude Heroux, the Bradley Gang, were interesting in themselves, but didn’t really add to the overall story. They might have worked better in a short story collection.
I found It more gruesome than scary. King catalogues pretty much every gory and disgusting aspect of the killings that he can, which makes for a gross-out read, but is It really frightening? The elusive nature of the beast actually makes it less threatening as the novel goes on (and on and on). In the last quarter of the story it seems that King himself may have lost interest in the monster, or at least a sure sense of what exactly It is supposed to be.
There are some great moments when the boogeyman in the closet does become horribly real, but no matter how many killings It has done, it’s hard to compete with the lethal psycho that King created in the bully, Bowers. It makes me wish that he instead made It just something in the water, some local intrinsic evil rather than a physical entity. Then maybe all those other anecdotes would have made more sense. But I don’t want to rewrite It. I’d just like to edit the hell out of it.