It’s impossible to talk about It without talking about Derry. The setting is ultimately just as much the villain as the monster, if they’re even separate entities—”It is Derry” is one of the more harrowing revelations that the Losers’ Club is privy to in the course of their fateful summer. The atmosphere of perversity that King lends the town is absolutely crucial to It‘s success, and it’s emblematic of a talent he’s not praised for often enough: his sense of place.
There is a continuity of mood throughout King’s pre-1990s work that exists, in large part, due to his fabricated Maine locales, particularly the towns of Jerusalem’s Lot and Castle Rock. The two towns are brilliant combinations of one of King’s recurring authorial concerns—the lurking darkness in the midst of “normal” towns, merely exposed by the supernatural rather than generated by it—with his intimate knowledge of the state of Maine. He’s clearly deeply familiar with the landscape and vernacular of the place, and his unique fusion of that culture with his own dark fantasies results in an Americana that’s subtly twisted, both familiar and repulsive. During this period he managed other locations in mostly non-horrific works—most famously Colorado in The Shining, The Stand, and Misery—but his horror is always at its most effective when set in Maine.
Unfortunately, this fusing of a very grounded local culture with a rotting core of suspicion and evil is an ability that King has to a large extent lost in his more recent work. He made a fair amount of noise about the disastrous Needful Things being “The Last Castle Rock Story”, and sure enough has not revisited the town in a single novel since the early 1990s. While this was a well-intentioned move—it would have been very easy for King, if he had continued haunting that particular locale, to drift into self-parody and endless name-dropping rather than scene-setting—it took away from the dark unity of a few small places endlessly haunted by fear. King tried his hand at the “small town eaten from both the inside and the outside” novel again with 2009’s Under the Dome, but that book, while more successful than Needful Things (indeed, it betters so many elements from its predecessor that the former novel feels like a fifteen-years-in-advance test run), lacks the rich sense of place that its 1970s-80s counterparts possess; its town of Chester’s Mill simply isn’t as well-defined or lovingly pictured as Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock, or Derry.
Which brings us to the main subject of this chapter. Derry only appears once in King’s Golden Age period, and while it pops up again in Insomnia and 11/22/63, these are pale shadows of its awful presence in It. Once, however, is enough. Derry is not only the most fleshed-out of King’s imaginary places, it is in many ways the culmination of the rotting town with the shiny veneer, a theme that would only pop up sporadically in King’s subsequent work.
“Sing a song of long ago…”
It’s easy for any period piece set in the 1950s to be overcome with nostalgia in spite of itself, even one whose intention is to dig beneath that decade’s veneer of friendliness to reveal a darker underbelly. There’s something so quintessentially American to the aesthetic, an ineffable sense of Things Being Simpler and Food Tasting Better and Books Only Costing a Quarter and the like, and the fact that it was the decade that saw the invention of rock and roll doesn’t help matters. King, despite his best efforts here and elsewhere, isn’t immune to this feeling, and both It and his other major period piece, 11/22/63, occasionally fall victim to the ease of a rose-tinted remembrance of things past. But the nostalgia for glass Coke bottles and Little Richard on the radio that pervades It is viciously undermined by King’s ultimate intentions for the town of Derry: for it to serve as a cesspit emblem of everything that was wrong with the days gone by.
The center of this deconstruction, as well as what is perhaps the key scene in the creation of Derry-as-Evil, is the horrific description of the fire at the Black Spot, located in the second of Mike Hanlon’s diary interludes. When Mike’s father Will served in the army and was based in the town of Derry, Maine, the NCO club was not open to blacks. And so, as the old man, dying of cancer, recounts to his son, he and the other black servicemen present in the town (including one Dick Hallorann, who between this book and the events at the Overlook Hotel seems to have rotten luck when it comes to the supernatural—even fleeing from Maine to Colorado couldn’t save him) began to fix up a broken-down shack to serve as their own. Piecemeal, as a band was formed and supplies gathered and fixing-up applied, the new club, dubbed the Black Spot, grew into a veritable establishment of its own right. And then the League of White Decency came along and burned the place to the ground.
In a novel filled with mutilation and death and supernatural horror of the highest order, Will Hanlon’s description of the fire is one of the most frightening passages. It’s not horrific—save for its final moments, in which Will lets his son know that It was indeed present at the scene, floating in bird form—but filled with raw, claustrophobic terror as dozens of bodies are slowly, agonizingly turned into nothing more than piles of oozing, burning meat (King emphasizes the almost pleasant smell of roasting human flesh, a trademark bit of sensory description that should by all rights have exhausted itself but nevertheless always manages to faintly turn one’s stomach). The sheer senseless atrocity depicted is far worse, in its way, than anything Pennywise could ever have performed, because the reader knows that it is a microcosm of over three centuries of history. The supernatural horror at the heart of It is frightening because it cannot happen; the evil of the Black Spot is frightening because it did happen, over and over and over again, and has not stopped.
For King to pull off this scene is a balancing act that is far harder than it initially appears. If It is to succeed in linking Pennywise and Derry as one evil, it needs the supernatural entity to have been behind this senseless evil, as it is behind every other evil that happens within the city limits. However, to reduce the fire to the depredations of a shape-shifting clown, no matter how horrifying said clown is, is to cheapen the incredible (and incredibly banal) pestilence that is American racism. The thinnest of lines needs to be balanced on—more than anything else, it is this nightmare vision of black bodies and their torment at the hands of white oppressors that symbolizes the evil lurking at the heart of Derry, but it cannot be limited to Derry.
It’s with the words of Will Hanlon that King manages to successfully walk this line, firmly implicating the evil at the heart of Derry in the Black Spot’s untimely demise without passing it off as something that would never have happened elsewhere:
“Well, part of it was just Derry. I don’t know why it happened here; I can’t explain it, but at the same time I ain’t surprised by it.
“The Legion of White Decency was the Northerners’ version of the Ku Klux Klan, you see. They marched in the same white sheets, they burned the same crosses, they wrote the same hate-notes to black folks they felt were getting above their station or taking jobs that were meant for white men. In churches where the preachers talked about black equality, they sometimes planted charges of dynamite. Most of the history books talk more about the KKK than they do about the Legion of White Decency, and a lot of people don’t even know there was such a thing. I think it might be because most of the histories are written by Northerners and they’re ashamed.”
King’s record when it comes to racial issues is unfortunately mixed at best—he is a habitual abuser of the Magical Negro archetype, especially in The Stand‘s Mother Abigail and The Green Mile‘s John Coffey (Red from “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” doesn’t count, as he was not explicitly a black man aiding a white man until the film adaptation made him so). However, in this passage he has an insight of, for him, rather startling prescience. He avoids the all-too-easy trap of relegating racism to the Deep South, rendering racists a dehumanized Other who are unfathomably wicked. Rather, he crafts his own, more subdued version of what Randy Newman sings from the perspective of a Southern racist in “Rednecks”:
Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free
Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston. . .
In his own way, King acknowledges the systemic racism that infects not simply a bunch of uneducated assholes below the Mason-Dixon line but the entirety of America—indeed, is integral to it. There is also an interesting note from Will Hanlon later on in the passage: “Maybe they only meant to scare us. I’ve heard it the other way, but I’ve heard it that way, too. I’d rather believe that’s how they meant it, because I ain’t got feeling mean enough even yet to want to believe the worst.” While this statement doesn’t technically apply to white privilege or colorblindness in the context of the novel—in that racists going out of their way to torch a black men’s club are an order of magnitude removed from the racism of colorblindness, in intent if not in effect—it does highlight the fact that, regardless of white people’s intent, black people often end up brutalized and dead. For King, it’s an unusually insightful insight into the banality of evil as applies to racism—whether or not racists are “bad people”, whether or not they consciously intend to hurt black bodies, oppression and brutalization are always the end result.
And yet, in spite of this acknowledgement of the systemic, banal nature of racism in America, King manages to tie the horror at the Black Spot firmly to Derry. Pennywise’s presence is not the only factor here, although it is important in that it explicitly gives the scene a horrific tinge. Just as important is Will Hanlon’s thought that part of what happened was Derry. The novel does not insist that the evil of Derry is such that the fire at the Black Spot could only have happened there. It does, however, present Derry as a place where this sort of evil, banal as it is elsewhere, is even more banal. In a world full of commonplace evils, Derry is a magnet.
One of the most evocative, chilling moments of the book comes in Mike Hanlon’s first interlude, the conclusion of a 150-page slow burn of dread that is among the finest things King has ever written. Mike writes:
Can an entire city be haunted?
Haunted as some houses are supposed to be haunted?
Not just a single building in that city, or the corner of a single street, or a single basketball court in a single pocket-park, the netless basket jutting out at sunset like some obscure and bloody instrument of torture, not just one area—but everything. The whole works.
Can that be?
Haunted: “Often visited by ghosts or spirits.” Funk and Wagnalls.
Haunting: “Persistently recurring to the mind; difficult to forget.” Ditto Funk and Friend.
To haunt: “To apepar or recur often, especially as a ghost.” But—and listen!—”A place often visited: resort, den, hangout. . .” Italics are of course mine.
And one more. This one, like the last, is a definition of haunt as a noun, and it’s the one that really scares me: “A feeding place for animals.”
As chillingly mundane as that. If evil is what causes us to lose our humanity to bestiality, Derry is where we find our feeding trough.
Because, in the end, the evils that chiefly infest Derry aren’t the feastings of Pennywise, horrific as it is to picture as many as 170 children being devoured in the course of a single cycle. Elsewhere in the novel, Mike notes that the homicide rate in Derry is skyhigh. Not only when Pennywise is out and about—always. And racism, homophobia, and misogyny are latent. It’s not that Derry is the only place where the fire at the Black Spot could have occurred, or the hate crime that is Adrian Mellon’s death could have, or the axe murder of a multitude of bystanders by Claude Heroux could have, or the regular abuse of Beverly Marsh by her father could have. It’s just that, as ordinary as these things are elsewhere, they’re even more ordinary here.
And so it is that Derry, in a novel full of fear, is the most frightening thing of all.
(to be continued)