It - Stephen King
I dug this one out again for a bit of Halloween reading. While this is in many ways a typical Stephen King book (Set in Maine? Check. Hero is a horror writer? Check), he's gone for something a bit larger than his usual provincial ghoulies this time, with an almost Lovecraftian Elder-Gods backdrop to the smalltown horror. The town is not Castle Rock, but Derry; opening with two mysterious deaths in the town thirty years apart, we get the immediate impression that there is something horribly wrong with the place. Like Sunnydale with its Hellmouth, it's no coincidence that Derry has a bad reputation, and there's something nasty lurking in the sewers.
"...Of course, he didn't know what Derry was really like. He thought he did, but he hadn't been here long enough to get a whiff of the real Derry. I kept trying to tell him, but he wouldn't listen."
"And what's Derry really like?" Reeves asked.
"It's a lot like a dead strumpet with maggots squirming out of her cooze," Don Hagarty said.
The two cops stared at him in silent amazement.
"It's a bad place," Hagarty said. "It's a sewer. You mean you two guys don't know that? You two guys have lived here all of your lives and you don't know that?"
The Buffy parallels are obvious, though of course this was written long before she slew her first vamp; it's the band of geeks and losers (librarian included) who land the unenviable job of beating the monster. The story is written in two parallel strands - one in 1958, where seven children set out to find and kill the monster that's feeding on their friends, and one in the present (well, 1985) where the survivors return to Derry as adults to finish the job they started. These adults are also only just recovering their memories of what happened back then, so we get the tale as a mixture of flashbacks and recollections, as well as the as-it-happened version from the summer of '58. The build-up is genuinely creepy, and there's a great contrast of impending doom with growing friendship as the gang slowly comes together.
As it turns out, Derry is the home of It, a shapeshifting monster from Outside, who usually appears as the infamous Pennywise the Clown, but will also take the form of whatever his victim fears the most. This makes for some interesting psychological horror, as the children and the monster try to use each other's beliefs and fears against each other. It also ties in suspiciously well with King's non-fiction book Danse Macabre, an overview of the horror genre published shortly before It, and in many ways is a fiction version of his analysis of the different horror archetypes and the differences between kids' and adults' reactions to fear.
The story is nominally split between our seven protagonists, who cover a comprehensive range of outcast-stigmas (the kid with a speech defect, the fat kid, the speccy smart-mouth, the asthmatic mummy's boy, the token Jewish Kid, Black Kid and Girl), but it's clear which one of these is supposed to be the Hero, and unfortunately he's one of the least interesting. This is Golden Boy Bill (the future horror writer, of course), quietly handsome and a natural leader, but relegated to the Geek Squad by his crippling stutter; it's author self-insertion at its worst. I'd have much preferred one of the others to take centre-stage, but unfortunately the supporting cast, while likeable and entertaining, they're two-dimensional at best, and King hasn't even bothered to keep their back-stories straight (for example, Richie Tozier appears to be both Methodist and Catholic depending on which chapter you read).
Still, the interplay between the characters is very pleasant to read; it's the theme of Great Childhood Friendships that King also used in his novella The Body (better known in its film incarnation Stand By Me). It's obvious that King had enormous fun writing this and didn't want to stop; the whole thing clocks in at over 1100 pages, much of which doesn't contribute directly to the plot but provides some good and scary horror set-pieces. While it's easy to see why he often gets accused of flab, there's not much of this I'd cut out - the exception being the execrable pre-teen gang-bang, often rightly cited as one of the worst scenes ever written, and a really pointless addition to the story.
As well as being a fine storyteller, King is also adept at building atmosphere and writing gory setpieces, but he's not so great at the nebulous horror needed for his Elder-God antagonist. The sense of dark mystery is substantially reduced by letting It have a couple of cheesy viewpoint chapters, and if you've got a monster that can apparently cause minor characters to go instantly insane from the sight, you'd probably want it to manifest as something slightly scarier than a 50's B-movie werewolf. I'm not even sure that King initially intended it to go quite so Lovecraftian - the fact that Pennywise introduces himself, inexplicably, as Robert Gray, makes me suspect that the original plot was something rather more prosaic and just got out of his control. These quibbles aside, however, It is an extremely compelling read that provides some quality chills, and certainly deserves its reputation as a horror classic.