Monday, 23 February 2009

Stephen King's Maine

The American day begins in Maine –mossy, moosey Maine – that rugged, empty,most northeastern state. Maine is first with the dawn but it is a writer of our darkest nights that is one of Maine’s most famous sons. Stephen King, the world’s bestselling novelist and recent recipient of the National Book Foundation Medalwas born in Portland Maine and has spent most of his adult life in Bangor, Maine.

“King fans come to Bangor from as far away as Moscow,” says Stu Tinker who presides over Betts Books in a small parade of shops on Hammond Street. The bookstore is a virtual King museum; it carries copies of all his works,first editions, foreign language editions, t-shirts and other memorabilia. Tinker even has an address in Beijing on his mailing list. How could someone in Beijing relate to King’s Bangor or those Maine woods? How much of King’s tenebrous world can we even hope to find in Maine? Surely the journey we need to make is inside the man’s teeming brain? Since that is not an option, I rent a car and head for Bangor on a grey autumn day. Bangor looks to this English writer’s eyes, a lot like a northern English industrial town – oppressive dark red brick buildings –a chimney stack or two. For Europeans whose fantasy New England is one of white clapboard villages, the industrial red brick is always a surprise.King’s birthplace of Portland is these days a politely bustling port town of art galleries, coffee shops, fine restaurants and elegant brownstone houses on cobbled streets. But he has chosen to live in Bangor – a bleaker, more northern place a quintessentially America small town whose heart has evidently been ripped out and transplanted to the local strip mall where it now beats weakly if at all.

But of course King is bound to be more redbrick than white clapboard, more Bangor than Portland. And Bangor looms over his work. King’s fictional town of Derry is Bangor, the setting for “It” the 1981 novel that many feel is King’s finest work.Stu Tinker is happy to provide a map that allows King pilgrims to make their way to many Bangor literary locations that feature in “It” and other novels and films.

The gateway to “It’s” lair was through a sewer pipe in a swampy woodland by the Kenduskeag stream on the edge of town. Just a few minutes away is the Thomas Hill standpipe, an immense, white fortress-like structure that contained the dead children’s souls in “IT” and, when the evil erupted out of the earth, toppled and flooded Derry. The standpipe is still functioning – there is an enormous cistern inside. At night it takes on an eerie beauty when it is crowned with lights. The canal where “It’s” unfortunate gay victim is thrown to his death still runs just behind City Hall. “Graveyard Shift” was filmed at the waterworks. The narrator’s beloved wife in “Bag of Bones” dies just outside the pharmacy a few blocks up from Betts Books on Hammond. A lot of “Insomnia” is set around that same humble block of shops on Hammond. King often hides his monsters right there in the utilities - in those mundane, ignored places that hold our lives together – and often it seems the connection is water – the canal, the standpipe and, of course, the sewer. Like so many masters of horror, he knows that the ordinary become extraordinary is the most horrifying of all.

But, of course, he also takes us to the cemetery. Pet Sematary was inspired by a mispelt sign on a real pet cemetery out near Orrington where the Kings once lived. The film used Bangor’slovely Mount Hope cemetery as a location and King himself in a cameo as a preacher.. King’s Bangor home is easy to distinguish even though it is not marked on any of the maps. The neo-gothic structure stands behind a wrought-iron fence on one of the city’s most elegant boulevards where the lumber barons once built their mansions. Spider’s webs are woven into the wrought-iron fence, bat wings adorn the rim – a three-headed griffon rises out of one corner. King has also used the celebrated Maine coast as a setting – most recently in the tv screenplay “Storm of the Century” where tiny Southwest Harbor became the blizzard-bound and blighted Little Tall Island of the Story.

I spend a sunny day in pursuit of King locations at Southwest and neighbouring Bar Harbor. I find instead lovely late summer villages with not a hint of evil. But the woods are all around – those Maine woods so celebrated of Thoreau and transformed into the primeval forest in Pet Sematary. I stop the car on the road and wonder if I should find a trail and walk in. But dusk will fall soon. And anyway King’s universe is elsewhere – in the world of every child who still fears the bogeyman, the child that everyone of us on the planet once was, who knows that the thing that made the twig snap in the woods is real. And is looking for us. And those primeval woods are the same for all of us because they come not from external geography but from some mysterious cellular memory that we all carry whether, in our daily existence, we look upon Red Square, the Forbidden City or Hammond Street in Bangor, Maine.

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