10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s It

Viking
Viking

Stephen King’s novel It, first published in 1986, is known for its whopping page count and multigenerational horror saga. Thanks to a new film adaptation, buzz around It has spiked again recently. It will be the novel’s second trip to the screen, following a 1990 television miniseries.

If you only have a passing familiarity with the story, you might think it’s simply about a killer clown. But there’s far more to the sprawling saga of The Losers' Club and the fictional setting of Derry, Maine. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the bestselling book of 1986.

1. THE NOVEL WAS INSPIRED BY A NORWEGIAN FAIRY TALE.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a classic Norwegian fairy tale about three scrappy goats outsmarting a bridge troll, might sound like a far cry from a 1000-plus page horror novel, but Stephen King cites it as a primary inspiration. He expanded the bridge to encompass an entire city, and the troll morphed into the terrifying demonic entity known as IT.  

“I decided that the bridge could be the city, if there was something under it,” King wrote on his website. “What’s under a city? Tunnels. Sewers ... I thought of how such a story might be cast; how it might be possible to create a ricochet effect, interweaving the stories of the children and the adults they become. Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write the troll under the bridge or leave him—IT—forever.”

2. STEPHEN KING SPENT FOUR YEARS WRITING IT.

King is notoriously prolific, with more than 50 novels to his name. In fact, when It first came out, it was part of a wave of four books King published in the span of just 14 months. Between 1986 and 1987, King published It, The Eyes of the Dragon, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. Given that kind of productivity, it would be easy to assume that King seamlessly produces doorstoppers in mere months. But appearances can be deceiving: It took four years to write.

3. IT'S KING’S SECOND LONGEST NOVEL.

Clocking in at a whopping 1138 pages, It is second only to The Stand (which came in at 1153 pages) as King’s longest work to date. It weighs four pounds.

4. THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL SCENE IN IT IS TOO DISTURBING FOR ANY ADAPTATION.

It contains an infamous sex scene. In it, the main group of 11- and 12-year-old kids—known as The Losers' Club—gets lost in the sewers after temporarily defeating IT. In order to find their way out, they all have sex with the lone female member of the group as a sort of ritual. “Mike comes to her, then Richie, and the act is repeated ... she closes her eyes as Stan comes to her and she thinks of the birds,” King writes in It.

“I wasn't really thinking of the sexual aspect of it," King later explained of his intentions in writing the controversial scene. "The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood ... Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues."

5. IT WAS WRITTEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF COCAINE.

King has been sober for over three decades now, but in his youth he suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol. His prolific writing career did not halt during this time; he simply continued writing under the influence. “I was a heavy [cocaine] user from 1978 until 1986, something like that,” King told Rolling Stone. According to King, The Tommyknockers—which he published after Itwas the last novel he wrote before cleaning up. 

6. IT COMES TO TERRORIZE DERRY IN 27-YEAR INCREMENTS. THE ADAPTATIONS OF IT ALSO COME IN 27-YEAR INCREMENTS.

In the novel, the creature known as IT is not a clown; IT is a malevolent entity that takes on forms tailored to the person it's terrorizing. Although its most common form is a clown, IT also appears as creatures like werewolves and vampires, wreaking murderous havoc on the fictional town of Derry every 27 years. Oddly, the new film adaptation is hitting theaters 27 years after the 1990 miniseries. Since the film’s production has stalled and changed hands several times, this is pure coincidence.

7. THE FICTIONAL TOWN OF DERRY IS A STAND-IN FOR THE REAL TOWN OF BANGOR, MAINE.

It is set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. According to King, it’s a stand-in for the real town of Bangor, Maine, where he has lived since 1979. King and his wife were debating between moving to Portland or Bangor; King was in favor of Bangor because he considered Portland “a yuppie town” and that Bangor was “a hard-ass working class town ... and I thought that the story, the big story, I wanted to write, was here … all my thoughts on monsters and the children’s tale Three Billy Goats Gruff."

8. PENNYWISE TAKES ON A CLOWN FORM BECAUSE KING THINKS CLOWNS ARE WHAT SCARE CHILDREN THE MOST.

King has stated that his goal with It was to blend all of the scariest monsters together. "But then I thought to myself, ‘There ought to be one binding, horrible, nasty, gross, creature kind of thing that you don’t want to see, [and] it makes you scream just to see it,’" he explained. "So I thought to myself, ‘What scares children more than anything else in the world?’ And the answer was ‘clowns.'"

9. KING ONCE HAD A CREEPY CLOWN ENCOUNTER—WITH RONALD MCDONALD.

In a 2005 interview with Conan O’Brien, King shared that his own creepy clown experience was with Ronald McDonald. King was on an airplane and Ronald McDonald came to sit next to him, in full clown attire. "You think, 'What if this plane crashes? I’m going to die next to a clown,” King said.

10. KING CONSIDERS IT HIS “FINAL EXAM” ON HORROR.

Although King is widely considered to be the master of horror, he’s previously said he doesn’t have an answer when people ask what drives him. It was his answer to these inquiries. “I thought to myself, 'Why don’t you write a final exam on horror, and put in all the monsters that everyone was afraid of as a kid?'" King told TIME in 2009. “And I thought, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it like a fairy tale. I’m going to make up a town where these things happen and everybody ignores them.'"

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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