It is Valentine’s Day, 1985. There have been two more disappearances in the past week—both children. One is a sixteen-year-old boy named Dennis Torrio, and the other is a little girl named Laurie Ann Winterbarger, who police suspect got snatched by her father, Horst Winterbarger. Mrs. Winterbarger is divorced from Horst and accused him of molesting their daughter. Laurie has not seen her father in three years, not since she was two. Chief Rademacher says that he has the Florida State Police looking for Winterbarger, which is all he can do.
The possibility of sexual abuse in Laurie Ann’s family, as well as the parents’ custody battle, gives the police good reason to explain her father as the cause of her disappearance. In the police’s narrative, Horst Winterbarger is the villain, or the figure who represents evil. Therefore, it does not occur to look for another source of her disappearance.
The case of Dennis Torrio makes less sense. Torrio comes from a wonderful, stable home, is an honor student, and a star athlete. He also has a girlfriend, whom he loves. Torrio had no reason to disappear from Derry. Mike Hanlon wonders what happened to him. Might he be keeping company with Betty Ripsom, Patrick Hocksetter, and Edward Corcoran?
Unlike Laurie, it is less likely that an athletic teenage boy would be kidnapped. With no abuse or delinquency in Dennis’s history, the police are stumped. Only Mike senses what actually caused Dennis’s disappearance, but his explanation would jar with the police’s narrative.
Mike chastises himself for going over the same ground repeatedly and being unproductive. He comes close to dialing Stanley Uris’s number and wonders if he really has to. Perhaps he is just afraid of withstanding this alone. He calms himself with the thought that the right time to call will come.
Mike still doubts himself. He doesn’t want to call the group back to Derry without being certain, though there have been plenty of inexplicable murders pointing to It as the culprit. Still, he also does not want to disrupt his friends’ lives.
Mike Hanlon’s diary entry for February 20th covers the burning of the Black Spot, which he discusses with Albert Carson. The story of the Black Spot, which is largely forgotten by everyone except for Carson and Mike Hanlon. It’s an example, Carson notes, of how the Chamber of Commerce tries to rewrite history. Mike’s father, Will Hanlon, was stationed there in 1930 and has told his son the story.
The Chamber of Commerce tries to rewrite this history because it does not want the outside world to know that Derry has a legacy of racism and that, maybe, those who belong to the organization have benefited from this legacy.
Will Hanlon talks about going back to Derry from a three-day pass in Boston. It is the spring of 1930 and Will is returning with four buddies who accompanied him. When they come through the gate a “big old boy”—that is, a racist, red-headed sergeant, is standing at the gate. When Hanlon greets him, the sergeant, whose name is Wilson, forces him to dig ditches for being “smart.”
The sergeant singles Hanlon out for mistreatment out of both envy and racism. Hanlon is indeed smart, which disturbs the sergeant’s learned belief that black people are always inferior to him and other whites.
Will Hanlon digs for about two hours and is soon in a hole up to his chin. Then, Sergeant Wilson demands that Hanlon refill the hole. After that, Wilson again demands that Hanlon dig out the dirt that he has just replaced. Hanlon obeys but also fills it again. Wilson asks Hanlon why he filled it because he wants to defecate in it. So, Hanlon digs the hole out again, only for Wilson to tell him to fill it back in. Wilson only leaves him alone after he gets into some trouble for missing an inspection. Hanlon eludes punishment because his friends cover for him. Hanlon goes to find Wilson’s name on the punishment roster but never finds it. He figures that Wilson simply explained that he was teaching “a smartmouth nigger” a lesson. Hanlon surmises that they may have given Wilson a “medal” for that instead of having him peel hundreds of potatoes.
Sergeant Wilson tasks Will with digging holes and then refilling them simply because he can. His authority gives him the power to abuse Hanlon and he takes full advantage of that perceived right. Hanlon does not believe that the sergeant was ever punished for missing inspection, due to his belief that Sergeant Wilson’s superiors are quietly supportive of his racist attitudes. Hanlon has had enough bad experiences in the army with racists to know that the sergeant’s attitude and behavior are not unique and are even tolerated by society as a whole.
Will Hanlon tells his son, Mike, this story in 1958, when Will is around fifty and his mother, Jessica, is “only forty or so.” Will says that he was only sixteen when he joined the army. He is born and raised in Burgaw, North Carolina and joins up only because his mother tells him to. His father dies in a farming accident. His mother does not want to send him away, but someone needs to take care of his mother and younger brother, Phil, who later becomes a lawyer and councilman in Tucson, Arizona. She says that Will should then send her the allotment that he will get every month.
For many poor black families, both in Will’s time and now, military service is perceived as a chance to escape poverty and enter the middle-class. Will’s mother probably does not envision that her family will move this far up the social ladder, but she knows that they will have a better chance of survival with the money from Will’s monthly allotment.
Will Hanlon goes to the courthouse where the army recruiter is and asks about joining up. When Will asks about training to be an officer the recruiter laughs, saying that there will never be “nigger officers” and that he should hurry up and sign the papers or just leave because he is “stinkin the place up.” Will signs, watches the recruiter staple the allotment form to a muster sheet, then takes his oath. When he becomes a soldier, they send him to Derry and place him in Company E.
Will’s meeting with the recruiter is his first experience of racism in the military. The refusal to allow black officers shows that the problem is systemic. After World War II, however, black soldiers are allowed to become officers. King uses the recruiter’s statement to make a point about how wrong he will prove to be.
Will Hanlon concludes that the North and South are pretty much the same. The fire at the Black Spot convinces him of this. Will thinks that, in a way, the fire made him a man. He is clear, too, about who set the fire. It was not Sergeant Wilson and his “grits-and-cornpone” friends but the Derry branch of the Maine Legion of White Decency. Mike asks who they were, but Will does not have much of an answer. He mentions how history books talk about the KKK in the South but often leave out the White Legion of Decency, perhaps because Northerners write the history and are ashamed of their own legacy of racism. The Legion of Decency tried to organize in Maine but was really only successful in Derry.
Racism, both individual and systemic, is not particular to the South. Will has no illusions about going to the North to escape the racism in the South. He, like many other black people at the time, were merely seeking improved circumstances. As horrific as the fire was, Will regards it as a transformative experience, which helped him mature and better understand the nature of racism in his country.
Will Hanlon thinks that the White Legion of Decency was merely another seed of evil that found a place to grow in Derry’s wretched soil. Mike wants to hear more about the burning of the Black Spot, but his mother tells him that it is his bedtime. Still, Will assures Mike that there are good people in town, too. Mike again asks to hear about the fire at the Black Spot, but Will insists it’s no story for a boy. It’s another four years before Mike hears what happened at the Black Spot.
Will thinks that Derry is an inherently evil place. He uses the analogy of “wretched soil” because he is a farmer and thinks in terms of what can and cannot take root and grow in a particular place. Racism is one of many evils that, while not native to Derry, are capable of developing there.
On February 26, 1985, Mike Hanlon writes about reading over his last entry about his father and bursting into tears. His father has been dead for twenty-three years. Mike’s grief lasted for two years, until he graduated from high school in 1965, but he still feels the pangs of the loss. Will Hanlon left the army in 1937 with a disability pension. With the money, he was able to marry Jessica a year earlier than he planned. They live first in Houston, where they work at war factories until 1945. Will saves up some money and sees a classified ad for a farm for sale. They ride up from Texas. Will obtains a ten-year mortgage and the family settles down.
Will Hanlon returns to the South. He reverses his northern migration due to his disillusionment with the North after the fire at the Black Spot. However, when he finds a farm for sale—in Derry, coincidentally—he returns. It is almost as though the town calls him back with the temptation of cheap land, which was rather difficult for black people to obtain at the time, due to racist practices in real estate and homesteading.
Will Hanlon admits that he and Jessica had some problems at first from people who were hostile to the presence of black people in Derry. However, County Sheriff Sullivan gets to work on the matter. Sullivan finds out who killed Hanlon’s chickens and vandalized his coop: Oscar “Butch” Bowers. Mike Hanlon mentions how kids at school say Butch is crazy. Will agrees that Butch was never quite right after he came home from fighting in the Pacific during World War II, when he was a Marine.
As loathsome and spiteful as Bowers is, his mental illness allows some room for sympathy. What both he and Will have in common is that they were both disappointed by what they believed would be the fruits of their military service. Hanlon failed to get any respect and Bowers never got the mental healthcare that he needed.
Sheriff Sullivan informs Butch Bowers that Will Hanlon does not want to press charges and only wants two hundred dollars to cover the cost of the coop and chickens. Bowers refuses, and dares Sullivan to have him tried before a white jury that he knows will not care about a black man’s chickens. Sullivan agrees that might be true, but then he tells Bowers that a jury will care that he painted a swastika on the coop. Frightened by this prospect, Butch tells his brother to sell his new Mercury, which Butch had bought, so that Butch could pay off Hanlon. Meanwhile, Butch goes around telling everyone that he will burn Hanlon out.
Bowers is so secure in his status as a white man that he knows that the other citizens of Derry will not punish him in favor of sympathizing with Hanlon. However, in the sensitive aftermath of the Second World War, their hatred for Nazis and any assumed sympathizer will convince them to punish Butch. Knowing that he cannot win through legal means, Butch considers other ways to terrorize Hanlon and run him out of town.
Will Hanlon cuts Butch Bowers off on Witcham Street by the trainyards and takes out his Winchester rifle. Will warns Bowers that if there are any fires by his place, he will go after Butch. He reaches into the Ford that Butch is now driving and grabs him by the hair. He also tells Butch that the next time he calls Will a “nigger” or a “jig,” his brains are going to be dripping off of the domelight of his car. Butch starts to cry. This is the last bit of trouble Will recalls ever having with Bowers, though he remains unsure about how the family dog, Mr. Chips, died.
Will violently confronts Butch because he can’t allow Butch to think that Will is tolerant of any threat to his family or his livelihood. Butch cries both out of fear that Will may kill him and due to his pride being wounded. Butch is a failure as a farmer and his reputation as a crazy person overshadows his record as a veteran. All that is left is his sense of pride in being white. Will’s ability to get the best of him, however, undermines even this.
Mike Hanlon is alone in the Derry Public Library and thinking of his father’s voice telling him the story about the burning of the Black Spot. He hears the final story about six weeks before Will Hanlon dies. Mike goes to visit him every day in the hospital, every afternoon after school. They never speak of the cancer. In one of their interminable pauses, Will asks about the burning of the Black Spot. Will figures that, at fifteen, Mike is old enough to hear the story.
Will probably does not tell Mike the story when he is eleven because he does not want to risk giving him nightmares. At fifteen, however, Mike is more likely to have some awareness of the evil in the world. Indeed, he knows plenty about the evil that is particular to Derry.
Will Hanlon tells Mike that when he was at the army base in Derry from 1929 to 1930 there was a Non-Commissioned Officers’ Club where the E Company boys—that is, the black company—were not allowed to go. At this time, Derry is a logging town with a number of bars that would have technically been speakeasies, though Will thinks that is too fancy a name for these places. The bars roar all night long and the cops do not mind. Will figures that payouts kept people quiet. The hooch is ten times better than what is available in the NCO club, for it is brought down from Canada. You could also pick up a woman—a white woman—at one of the Derry bars, though that comes with risk.
The exclusion of E Company from the club is not only due to it being an officers’ club but also due to systemic racism in the army, which will not allow black men to become officers. The men go to the bars in town instead. Will refrains from calling them “speakeasies,” which he associates more with the upper-class, fancy bars in New York or Chicago. The people in Derry’s bars were rough-looking and ill-mannered loggers.
Lumbermen were the main customers in these dives and Will Hanlon insists that they did not mind the presence of black men. If they had, they could have easily thrown each one of them out. One of them takes a liking to Hanlon and offers to buy him a drink. The lumbermen were not the problem—instead, five men on the Town Council who do their drinking in country clubs want to ensure that no white woman “[gets] polluted by the blacks of Company E.” Major Fuller says that he never wanted black people in Derry in the first place. An old man on the council, whose name is Mueller, says that is not his problem. Mike makes the connection to his classmate Sally Mueller. Will says that this Mueller would have been her uncle, not her father.
This anecdote establishes the relationship between racism and classism. It is not the working-class loggers who have a problem with the presence of black men in their bars, but the upper-class white men. Though they have fears about sex between black men and white women, which could upset the town’s racial demographics, they are probably more worried about an alliance forming between the black soldiers and the white loggers, many of whom are employed by men on the council. It could be the start of a class war that the wealthier men would lose.
Major Fuller solves the problem by forming an old requisition shed where Memorial Park now stands. Dick Halloran, a private first-class who works as a mess-cook, suggests that they could fix it up nice, if they try. They do the best they can, but the place still has only two windows and a dirt floor. It starts looking nice enough that the white troops begin to grumble about it. Soon thereafter, the white officers seek to have a competition with the black soldiers on who has the better club. The black soldiers, however, want nothing to do with this.
The soldiers use the ingenuity that black people have always demonstrated in response to exclusion. They create their own space and make it so well that it draws the envy of the white NCO officers. However, the black soldiers do not want the officers to feel that there is competition, out of fear that they could then do something to destroy the black officers’ club.
The Black Spot becomes home to a decent jazz band, and by the end of August, a rather good Dixieland combo is playing there on Friday and Saturday nights. Soon, people from town start showing up at the black soldiers’ club. When the white people show up, the black soldiers forget to be careful. They bring in their own booze in brown paper bags—fine liquor. The black soldiers, who Will Hanlon recalls as “young and proud of what [they’d] done” underestimate how bad things can get.
When whites from town begin to show up, the young black officers do not perceive the danger. Hanlon describes a condition in which the young men always had to be on guard, even when trying to have fun. The new presence of the white patrons will worry the Town Council members again about integration.
The members of the Town Council are about a quarter of a mile from the Black Spot in their Victorian homes on West Broadway, overhearing the blues that is playing in the makeshift speakeasy and imagining white women dancing cheek to jowl with black soldiers. More young people come to drink, from all over Maine. There are even fraternity boys there with their sorority girlfriends. The Black Spot opens at seven and stays open until one. By October, the place becomes so popular that people are “standing hip to hip with six other people.” There is no room to dance, only to wiggle.
The problem with jazz, according to the Town Council, is that it is a form of music that encourages people to dance in close proximity. Soon, people from every strata of Derry’s white society are socializing with black people, which poses a threat to the Town Council’s wish to maintain class and racial supremacy. This becomes less possible when traditional resentments dissolve between groups who now dance together.
Major Fuller could have shut them down easily with a court martial but was reluctant to do so, out of fear of upsetting the patrons from town. This leads the White Legion of Decency to put on some white sheets and bring an end to things themselves. It is a Saturday night and the place is “jumping.” Will Hanlon estimates that there were two or three hundred people there. Six or eight white men arrive in a new Packard. None of them are young. The Packard parks on a hill and flashes its lights twice. All of the men have torches. One stays behind the wheel of the Packard. Hanlon recalls that Sally Mueller’s uncle has a green Packard.
The White Legion resorts to vigilante violence to destroy the threat that they believe the Black Spot poses. As Will Hanlon tells the story, he pieces together characters and events that were unclear to him at the time. Mike, too, sees how even his classmate is implicated in Derry’s history of violence. The snobbery that Beverly and Ben perceive in Sally Mueller comes from her family’s sense that they deserve social prominence due to being rich and white.
The members of the White Legion gather in the back of the Black Spot. They douse their torches with gas. Will Hanlon wants to believe that they panicked when their torches blazed from the gas and threw them for that reason. He wants to believe that the men only wanted to scare them. All the same, the black November night is soon blazing with torches, which the men throw through the back windows into the kitchen. Others hold on to the torches and wave them, saying “Come out niggers!”
Hanlon still does not want to believe that the White Legion would be so evil as to burn people alive. He tells himself other versions of the same story to avoid confronting the extent of the evil that has long existed in Derry. He even makes the arsonists out to be incompetent, which is preferable to thinking that they could be so inhumane.
The band in the Black Spot is playing so loudly that no one notices what is going on at first. Flames shoot out from the kitchen and the assistant cook opens the door and gets torched—losing his mess jacket and most of his hair. Will Hanlon thinks that the gas stove has exploded. As he stands, he is knocked down by people heading for the door. A dozen people step on his back. Trevor Dawson pulls him up and saves him. The heat is overwhelming and he can feel his skin baking. Dick Hallorann tells Will and his friend, Trevor, that they have to get out by going through the fire. The safe exit, he knows, is being blocked by the white supremacists. They both go out Dick’s way.
Dick Hallorann’s gift of clairvoyance, which he describes in Stephen King’s later novel The Shining as the ability to “shine,” helps Will and Trevor escape. Having to go “through the fire” is both literally necessary in this instance and a metaphor for the lives of the black men, in which they have to endure the worst in order to secure some of the comforts that whites enjoy and take for granted.
As Will Hanlon escapes, he can smell people burning inside. When Will scrambles to his feet after escaping through a window, he sees the men in sheets. There are people lying on the grass, having fainted from the smoke. Sergeant Wilson comes along in his truck and Trevor Dawson tells Wilson that he needs the truck. Wilson rudely brushes Dawson off, prompting Dawson to hit him. Trevor gets in and hits the side of the building with the truck, to allow for more people to escape. His act prevents many more people from dying.
Trevor is a hero, but the racist structure of the army calls for him to be punished for hitting a superior. Sergeant Wilson is of a lower social class than the men in the Town Council, but they are united in their belief in white supremacy. The sergeant’s complicity with racial oppression at the expense of his own economic benefit helps the men on the Town Council retain economic power.
Mike prompts his father to reveal the thing he saw nearby—the thing he does not want to mention. Will Hanlon recalls seeing a giant bird that grabbed up one of the men in sheets. The bird does not hover but floats. It also has “big bunches of balloons” tied to each wing.
The bird is similar to the one that Mike will later see at the Kitchener Ironworks. The bird’s attack on one of the Town Council members is an example of how It will kill anyone—those on the side of good or evil.
On March 1st, in his final diary entry for this interlude, Mike realizes that the thing has come again. He writes until three in the morning and falls asleep at his desk in the library. When he wakes, he sees a single balloon tied to his reading lamp. On it is a picture of Mike’s face, “the eyes gone, blood running down from the ragged sockets, a scream distorting the mouth on the balloon's thin and bulging rubber skin.” He looks at it and screams, and the balloon bursts.
The balloon appears because Mike recalls his father’s story. The detail of the balloon may have also recurred to him in a dream. It seizes upon the memory and uses it to manipulate Mike into fearing that he will become Its next victim.