Home is the place where when you go there, you have to finally face the thing in the dark. [loc. 1605]
In 1958, at the peak of one of the twenty-seven-year cycles of violence in the small Maine town of Derry, seven young children (aged ten to twelve, though some are more mature than others) realise that the violence is caused by something terrible lurking beneath the town -- something that sometimes takes the form of a macabre clown, but can assume the shape of whatever scares you most. They are determined to stop it before there are any more deaths.
In 1985, the adults who those children became are called back to Derry to finish what they started. They are all childless, wealthy, and successful. And they are all haunted by nagging scraps of memories from that summer long ago. Gradually, the haze clears, and they recall the events of the Bad Year.
These two threads alternate throughout the novel, and are enriched by scenes and asides giving the history, sociology and community of Derry. Those cycles of violence have plagued the town since it was founded: a lynching, a racially-motivated arson attack, an explosion at the ironworks ... Derry has six times as many murders as comparable towns; forty to sixty children disappear each year; the townsfolk, seeing a violent act, will look away.
King is astonishingly good at atmosphere, at evoking the cameraderie between pre-pubescent gang members and the shared joys of father-son relationships; he's also horribly good at depicting abusive behaviour, from a mother's over-protective insistence that her son needs his medicine, to a father beating his child. The rough wasteland of the Barrens, where the gang make their (well-constructed and astutely-planned) den, is familiar to me though I grew up decades later in another country. Familiar, too, are the feuds and fears that loom large in a child's mind: bullies, misheard scraps of conversation, shadows where there shouldn't be.
This was truly an epic read (it's over 1100 pages in print, so ideal for the Kindle!) and for 90% of it I was completely engaged by the story (or stories) and the setting. The final tenth of the book, however, seemed to collapse into a more standard and formulaic horror novel. I firmly believe that the power of this novel is in the telling and not the plot, in the characters and King's slow-build exploration of how those children became those adults. But it was the telling that felt drained and faded in those final chapters. One character (in the 1958 strand) did something I found disagreeable and improbable: several characters (in the 1985 strand) seemed to behave in out-of-character ways.
I did, however, like the epilogue a lot, even though I couldn't at first work out how it fitted. It closed the circle, though, in a way that the Grand Denouement(s) did not.