by Stephen King
Viking, 1138 pp., $22.95
by James Clavell
William Morrow, 1147 pp., $22.95
Stephen King’s books contain much that is childish, even infantile, but that alone is no scandal. We have all been children, and we hold the hidden signs of that ordeal—even a serious interest in art begins in childish make-believe. King seems to have no other subject than the ways by which childhood conceives of itself, and his resolute loyalty to that subject seems finally a little sad. It is also rewarding: at thirty-nine he is said to have sold fifty million copies of his twenty books. Yet his work avoids a cynical or exploitative note. I would judge that he believes in what he does, that he writes not just to make money but to exorcise demons, his and ours.
It begins, demonically enough, in 1957, when a six-year old boy has his arm torn off by what appears to be a circus clown lurking down a storm drain. This happens in Derry, Maine, where similarly dreadful things have been recorded, at intervals of about twenty-seven years, since 1741, when the entire settlement, some three hundred Yankee souls, simply vanished. The general murder rate in Derry is about six times the average for small New England municipalities, and Derry’s young people have had a particularly rough time: in addition to many officially recorded murders and “accidents,” 170 children disappeared there in 1931, and 127 in 1958, high for a town of 35,000. But even though many of the victims were later found horribly mutilated, the press for some reason never took up the case.
King organizes the tale as two parallel stories, one tracing the activities of seven unprepossessing fifth-graders (“The Losers’ Club”) who discovered and fought the horror in 1958, the other describing their return to Derry in 1985 when the cycle resumes. In their youth the Losers were a sorry crew, but time has consoled them. Their leader, “Stuttering Bill” Denbrough, has become a famous horror novelist and married a movie star. Ben Hanscomb, the lonely fat kid who played with his erector set and hung out at the public library, is now trim and handsome, and also (according to Time) “perhaps the most promising young architect in America.” Richie Tozier, the wise-cracking rock-and-roll nut who wore glasses and got good grades, is a big-time disc jockey in Los Angeles. Beverly Marsh, the tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks, is a sexy Chicago fashion designer. Eddie Kasprak, the asthmatic mama’s boy who survived on vitamin pills and nasal sprays, now owns a limo company in Manhattan. Stanley Uris, the class Jew, runs his own accounting firm in Atlanta. Only Mike Hanlon stayed in Derry, to work as a librarian. Mike is black, King tells us rather late in the novel, and so most of the precincts of childhood “otherness” eventually report in.
As children they all had in common unpopularity, various special talents (Ben could build things, Eddie had an uncanny sense of direction, etc.), a fascination with horror movies and …