The first ever public appearance of Pennywise the Dancing Clown was on the evening of the eleventh of November, 1980, six years before the publication of IT. David Morrell, the author of First Blood (1972) and professor of American Literature at the University of Iowa (UI) at the time, had invited King to speak and read at the Macbride Auditorium in Iowa City.*
King and Morrell had recently become friends. During King’s semester as writer-in-residence at the University of Maine at Orono (1978-1979), King put Morrell’s debut novel First Blood—the first in a series about John Rambo—on the reading list for his creative writing students:
Well, I had my college students read DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James M. Cain […] [and] […] a novel by David Morrell called FIRST BLOOD. Morrell is a college teacher and he constructed this very careful novel of predestination.†
Shortly thereafter, King “met Morrell’s publisher at a 1980 Literary Guild cocktail party, where King agreed to provide an endorsement for the back of Morrell’s 1979 novel, The Totem. Soon, a budding friendship between the writers began”.‡
There were two parts to King’s visit to Iowa in November 1980. On the evening of the eleventh, Morrell had arranged for King to read from his work and answer questions from an audience of more than five-hundred people. The next day King talked more informally to a group of writing students about the craft.
One of the five-hundred in attendance was James Kaufman, of the Des Moines Sunday Register. In his report on King’s visit to UI, he identified the two passages from the performance, both from unpublished works:
King read from the beginning of a new novel, “It”, which starts with the horrible and shocking death of a six-year-old boy at the hands of an alien (?) in the guise of a clown. He also read from “Pet Cemetery,” [sic] a novel that is finished, but that will not be published for a few years, if ever, according to King.§
The passage from IT unmistakably came from the first chapter. It is remarkable that King chose to read this particular text on that evening, when he was not even half-way through his writing of the first draft of IT, which he did between August or September of 1980 and June of 1981. On November eleventh, taking into account King’s per diem of six pages, he would have been working on Part 3 of the novel, in which the members of the Losers’ Club come together as adults in Derry.
The newspaper report of the event attributes the shocking murder of Georgie Denbrough to “an alien (?) in the guise of a clown”. The cosmic origins of Pennywise are not alluded to in the text of the chapter, so King must have used the word “alien” himself, before or after the reading, to typify Pennywise. This is interesting because it reveals that King had by that time already formed an idea of the true nature of his monster. It reveals that the twist in chapter 21, “Under the City”—that the actual physical form of the creature is in fact an ancient, Lovecraftian, cosmic God-monster—was not something that King decided on the spot when he was writing that particular section, but that he knew from early on that It was a being you could describe, for want of a better word, as an “alien”.
What function, if any, might this public reading of the first chapter of IT have had for King during his writing process? What was he looking to achieve? I would love to ask him that. Perhaps he read the text aloud to five-hundred people to experience how the sentences flowed, to find out where in the text he needed to take another beat, slow down the pace, and where to speed up. Perhaps he hoped to measure the tension in the room during Pennywise’s disturbing murder of Georgie, to establish whether the scene had the effect it needed as the event that launches readers into the epic novel.
In any case, Kaufman wrote in the Des Moines Sunday Register that the crowd was “enthusiastic” and King was “remarkably likable”: “Each question from the audience seemed to elicit either an amusing or gruesome anecdote from King, who is as good a story-teller in person as in print.” There is every reason to assume his reading of the first chapter was also well received. The first chapter in the typescript of the first draft of IT does not bear witness to any changes that might have been made as a result of this performance. The chapter was expanded quite significantly during the second draft rewrite in 1984, with many small adjustments in pace and characterization specifically to optimize the effect on the reader, but that work was done close to three years after the evening in Iowa.
Some months later King reciprocated David Morrell’s invitation and asked Morrell to perform as his guest at the University of Maine at Orono (UMO) during the “Week of Gore”, a series of events organized by the UMO’s English department between the 20th and the 25th of April 1981. At this moment, King was still a month-and-a-half away from completing the first draft of IT.
On Monday night King and Morrell told the fifty students at the Hilltop Conference Room that they would each read their “most gruesome” short stories. King read “Weeds”—to be turned into a film adaptation just a few months later as “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” in Creepshow, with King himself in the role of Jordy Verrill—and Morrell read “Black Evening”, which he introduced by commenting that he was “incredibly addicted to speed in a story. I am fascinated by how efficiently you can tell a story.” King read his story “with a beer in his hand, and pausing occasionally in his narration to say things like ‘God, I love it,’ with a big smile on his face”.¶ Morrell stayed at the King house on West Broadway during the entire “Week of Gore”.
- *https://davidmorrell.net/bio/. Accessed 1 July 2022.
- †Janeczko, Paul: “In Their Own Words: An Interview with Stephen King.” The English Journal, Vol. 69, No. 2 (February 1980), p. 9.
- ‡Tyler Strand: “Stephen King Collectables For a Cause.” https://www.foriowa.org/iowa-stories/iowa-story.php?namer=true&isid=11. Accessed 1 July 2022.
- §James Kaufman: “A ‘Cowardly’ fright-writer?”. Des Moines Sunday Register, 28 December 1980, p. 5C.
- ¶Sean Brodrick: “Authors treat students to horror stories.” The Maine Campus, 21 April 1981, p. 1.