Tony McKenna looks back at Stephen King's IT
Some years ago, a study was carried out into the fears of young children in the night. Just before the lights were turned off and the children were ready for sleep they were each asked where they thought the monster was. The majority of little boys said they believed it was hiding in the cupboard. The majority of little girls thought it was lurking under the bed. From this, the scientists derived a particularly provocative and exciting conclusion. At the very dawn of our own pre-history, the females would have tended to be in the trees with the children; ergo they would expect any attack to come from below (underneath the bed). The males who were hunting on the ground would expect the danger to come from the side (the cupboard). The fears that very young children have at night, therefore, are the echoes of the distant primordial darkness of our most ancient origins somehow embedded in the shadowy recesses and deepest depths of our psyches.
This was, perhaps, more supposition than science. It certainly doesn't stand up as a coherent pre-historical or sociological depiction of the lives of early hominids, but at the same time it has a poetic and allegorical resonance which does register a certain type of truth. The truth being that young children are in some way closer to the type of elemental fears and instincts which, over time, we shed, as we move into adulthood, and the rules and norms of a more structured social existence take over. The fear of the monster under the bed, or the creature in the cupboard, is replaced by the rather more prosaic fears of things like unemployment, illness, poverty and old age.
One of the strongest themes in Stephen King's IT is the recognition of this. The recognition that pre-pubescent children are in some way alive to a strange and topsy-turvy world of figures, spectres, rituals and terrors which remains invisible to adults and takes place largely under their radar. So in IT, it is 'the Losers' – the collective name for the gaggle of misfits and geeks bonded by the fact that they are all outsiders – who are able to detect that a supernatural evil is at work in their small rural town in a way in which their parents can't. It is the late 1950s and the town of Derry has seen a horrific series of deaths of young children; the adult population are bemused and benumbed by the shocking events but are unable to come to terms with what is really going on.
The Losers, however, are able to see through the eyes of children, to gradually apprehend the supernatural reality of the threat which is confronting them. They are able to figure out the modus operandi of the sinister and murderous clown Pennywise, surely one of Kings most fantastical and terrifying creations. They come to understand that the entity which manifests as a creepy clown – or IT – exists in a subterranean realm, deep underground, lurking in the vents and the sewers, appearing to them on the periphery, in the forest, in an abandoned decaying house, on the edges of their known world.
Like this, King is able to call into being a dualistic reality; the world of the adults over and against the world of the children: the world of the sun-drenched town centre and the library and the shops, the world of the ordinary – and then that other world, the word of the underground, of shadows and death, ancientness and decay. This is set against a rather finely wrought depiction of childhood and the way in which the Losers come together through their friendship. At first the evil shapeshifting entity appears to them individually in the guise of their worst childhood fears: for the germophobe and hypochondriac Eddie, IT appears as a leper, for Bill Desborough, the bright stuttering leader of the group, IT appears in the form of his murdered brother Georgie, and so on. These are kids who are particularly vulnerable, bullied and alienated by their peers, often ignored or mistreated by their parents – and so their connection with each other becomes quite literally a life-saving one; it becomes the way they can graduate the understanding of their own subjective fears and isolation into a broader and shared understanding of the evil which does exist, the spectre of Pennywise, and the realisation that they are the only ones who are capable of resisting it. IT is a horror story, for sure, but it is also that thing which King does so well, a coming of age tale in which the tentative friendships and puppy loves of a group of children on the cusp of adolescence bloom against a darker background of supernatural threat.
But IT is more than a simple bogeyman. Like the very greatest horror creations, IT in some way becomes a cipher for the ills of the historical past, a conduit through which very human evils are channelled. At the start of the novel King describes a festival which took place in Derry, a fun, frolicking, light-hearted occasion. A gay couple are depicted holding hands. Later, as night falls, they are attacked, and one of them is murdered. The way King describes the political and spiritual psychologies of the homophobes who carry out this attack throws into relief his attention to the little, gentle details which underpin the affection and love of the two men. It is an acute, tragic and highly modern description of the way in which prejudice operates and the bleak anomie and hatred which lies behind it.
And, of course, when the homophobes toss the victim over the bridge, having very nearly beaten him to death, the spectre of the clown is waiting in the shadows underneath, like an awful troll in some medieval fairy tale. King's point, here and elsewhere, is that the adults in the town remain oblivious not only to the supernatural atrocities which IT carries out, but they are also capable of turning a blind eye to the run of the mill oppressions endured by those who somehow fall outside the political and cultural mainstream – the disempowered, the marginalised, the undesirables. IT draws fuel for its supernatural sadism from the everyday forms of cruelty which take place in and through very human relationships of power and exploitation. It is fitting, therefore, that the challenge to Pennywise's dark dominion over the town comes from the solidarity which forms through a group of children who are themselves exiles from the mainstream – misfits and oddballs, the objects of extreme bullying.
King's wonderful novel pans several decades, flitting back and forth in time from the children the Losers were, to the adults approaching middle-age they are destined to become. And this, I think, allows for the novel's central conceit; as we become adults, we leave our most elemental and primitive fears behind – adulthood consists, in part, of precisely this. In IT, the Losers experience a form of collective amnesia; as they grow up and their battle with Pennywise is consigned to the past – they forget all about IT, they settle into their adult lives and they even forgo the memories of each other.
What is truly provocative and terrifying is the moment when, from within the certainty and normality of adulthood, IT's malevolent evil begins to stir again, and the Losers are left with the harrowing realisation that their primitive childhood fears and superstitions were all too real. The monster never really left the cupboard, rather it remained, wreathed in darkness, waiting for its time to come.
Tony McKenna is a writer, his latest book is 'Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives' (Zero Books).