Let me explain why we love Stephen King, commonly misrepresented as a horror writer. The true horror of King is not terrible and frightening things happening, but that they are happening to people he has made you care for.
I recently read The Shining and could not get through a subsequent re-watch of the famous Kubrick adaptation because it casually disregarded all I’d read, wide-eyed, transfixed, begging inwardly throughout that salvation might be granted to the family I’d somehow grown to love.
Pet Sematary, better known as a schlocky horror movie, was a book whose true horror was its confronting examination of a parent confronting that most inconceivable of griefs, the loss of a child. With that inexorable tumble of mishap that seems to precipitate all literary tragedies, it illuminated parental terrors that were, at the time of writing, almost taboo in fiction.
The ghouls and gore are just a bonus, and he’s a master of those too, but this is how King really drags you under: emotional truth.
So why go to Bangor, where King lives and works? The first thing you need to understand is that King’s locations, characters and motifs inhabit multiple works – the more you read, the more it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt as you build a mental map of the King universe and plot the connections between the books. “Derry”, a fictional town based on Bangor, is the centre of that universe.
Pet Sematary contains a reference to an affectionate doglike raccoon domesticated by his Derry ‘owners’. About eight years later, this re-emerges as the ‘billy bumbler’ Oy in Wastelands.
Father Donald Callahan is a Derry resident who fights the head vampire in 1975’s Salem’s Lot. Callahan reappears in 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, a story in which he must go back in time. He briefly considers, while he is at it, attempting to avert the Kennedy assassination, but fears the butterfly effect.
This idea formed the plot of King’s 2011 novel 11.22.63, recently adapted as a miniseries.
A fictionalised version of Bangor, including King’s house, also appears in the Dark Tower 6, Song of Susannah; Randall Flagg, named for a kitchen store in Bangor, appears as villain under various guises in numerous King novels.
There are websites that go through all of the hundreds of connections exhaustively, but before I get carried away… our pilgrimage was not just to gawk like dorks at King’s awesome house or tick sightings of the famous locations off a list, but to appreciate the beauty of small-town Maine that King has described over our entire lifetimes with such a wealth of affectionate detail that the moment we stepped into town we already felt we had been there, ‘once upon a dream.’
Our guide at SK Tours, also named Stu, put us to shame, though. Not only had he seemingly read just about all of King’s 60-odd books but as a smallish town (around the size of Bunbury) everyone is connected through numerous community, personal and professional ties. So Stu knows King, knows his family, knows his friends, as well as knowing the works and films, and the history of the development of King’s career right back to the time he was an impoverished, unpublished wannabe. He wove the stories of King’s early struggles and setbacks, slowly building the suspense of the various stories he told in an expertly paced drive through town that lasted for about 3.5 hours and left us hanging on every word.
We knew, perhaps, about the locations in town that key scenes were based on, but we didn’t know about how much King’s love for his town has shaped what he and wife Tabitha King have done through their charitable foundation. We’re talking a beautiful new children’s wing for the local hospital, perhaps 90 new kids’ playgrounds, a public pool with super low entrance fees, countless sizeable donations to local not-for-profits and a baseball field for children. Tabitha King led a fundraising campaign for the previously crumbling library that unexpectedly raised millions, which the Kings then gamely matched – their only condition being the extension and restorations had to include a vastly improved children’s wing.
Stu and I later visited this library and found it massive and beautiful, with a huge and delightful children’s wing. Putting Perth to shame, the library is open until 8pm nightly in winter and 7pm in summer, and its book circulation outstrips that of Boston’s despite Boston being a city nearly 50 times larger!
Needless to say, all this warmed the cockles of our hearts and fanned admiration into something closer to adoration.
I’ll add here that the couple has not insisted any of these buildings be called “The King Pool” or “King Library” or King Baseball Field”, etc. Instead, they had the pool and field named for local children who died from illness, whose families the Kings knew. The local city hall has had to content itself with subtle plaques at each location thanking the Kings for their donations.
I should also mention the fantastic King-focused bookstore in town, Gerald Winters & Son, which has “ordinary” editions of King and other books but is also stuffed full of carefully chosen collectors’ items, first and other rare editions of King’s works. It’s definitely a labour of love and is a must-visit for anyone going to Bangor.
Our whole week in Maine was a lesson in why the Kings love this town so. It’s small and beautiful, and has no creepy Pleasantville vibe like Jeffersonville but has the nostalgic country town vibe in spades. Kids rode around everywhere on their bikes, calling to mind E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Now and Then and Stranger Things. We were a little disappointed not to have stumbled over any corpses, Stand By Me-style.
There were fewer American flags here, a welcome respite. But nobody skimped on that other must-have, hanging baskets full of flowers. Almost every cute wooden porch was festooned with them and surrounded by a full cottage garden. The Americans seem unparalleled in embracing the cottage garden. As an Australian, used to spindly trees, frizzled lawns and grey-green natives, I can’t get enough of it. And every patch not filled with flowers sports a leafy big maple full of squirrels that cavort saucily before bemused housecats. I stalked them faithfully but the money shot continues to elude.
Even the derelict population seemed less confronting than in Chicago or even Perth. Rather than overwhelming numbers of people begging on street corners we saw little evidence of social disadvantage, though I don’t doubt it exists. We only saw one guy actually begging with a sign. It read “Why lie? Need beer.”
The other beggar, who we referred to as our friendly neighbourhood homeless guy, asked us to buy him beers on the first night. After we refused, he didn’t try again though we walked past him at least once a day to or from town, but just gave us a kind of morose greeting.
The last time we saw him was as we walked home from a dinner out. I remarked to Stu as we walked that I liked Bangor because it was so pretty, but not overly neat or perfect it still had personality.
It was right then that friendly neighbourhood homeless guy appeared and did a perfectly timed little spew on the pavement right in front of us. He performed this with the brevity of a cat abruptly yakking its dinner up on the rug.
We managed to hold in our giggles until we were past the poor fellow, who looked philosophical rather than embarrassed.
Overall, we loved Bangor, its sense of community that came out not just in Stu the tour guide’s tales of the town but in the big crowd that turned out for the local high school’s rhythm and blues band show outside the library one mild Wednesday night (see video below), and in the huge crowd that turned out for the town Pride Parade on the morning we left.
It’s lucky King’s got the place licked, or I’d be pulling up stumps and carting Stu off permanently.
Stumobservations part 3: Maine
- Average WiFi and acceptable Netflix = 3 out of 5 happy StuMos watching Archer.
- People spending the night in train stations naturally huddle in groups seeking sanctuary. (We spent 1am to 7am in Boston between our overnight train and three subsequent buses totalling 26 hours of continuous travel).
- Racing matching suitcases is a fun pastime.
- Lobster is expensive.
- Stephen King’s life story is fascinating. Lesson: If your wife doesn’t like the neighbours, just buy their house.
- Three sets of earbuds plus a set of headphones is a bit excessive. (Donated bulky headphones to Airbnb).
- Take notes because you will not remember later.
- A flat white is called a latte… but still not what I wanted.
- Dollar stores are a good source of junk food.
- My idea of consumable fries and others understanding of what constitutes acceptable fries differs greatly.
- Bare minimum, pack a spray jacket.
- My name is pronounced Stoo now. May as well embrace it (still cringed even as I write this).
What we’re reading
Em: Mistress Pat, L.M. Montgomery – in preparation for Canada and all of the Anne of Green Gables madness. Still going on Walden, Artist’s Way, My Salinger Year.
StuMo: finished Em’s novel draft! Apparently did not hate it. Will be incorporating his suggestions next month in New York. Now closing in on the end of The Red Queen.
What we’re listening to
Audiobooks: Lee Child’s Worth Dying For; Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, narrated super well by the author (thanks Charlie!)
Music: Miles Davis, John Coltrane… and Native American Dance Trance. Yes. That’s what it is called. Also, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack was a key player in our six-hour drive from Bangor to Prince Edward Island, Canada.
What we’re watching
The Handmaid’s Tale – an Atwood adaptation seems appropriate for Canada. Just finished, and absolutely loved it.