Monday, July 22, 2013

Stephen King's Maine - Day 1 (Bangor and Hermon)

I started reading Stephen King when I was 11 years old, after my parents bought me a copy of The Eyes of the Dragon for Christmas.  (They had no idea what they were getting me into...)  Within three or four years, I had read all of the 30+ novels King had published by that point.  Around the time Insomnia came out in 1994, I finally decided to expand my horizons.  Then, a few years ago, Duma Key got me hooked all over again.   So hooked, in fact, that I recently decided to take a trip to Maine...

Over the years, many interviewers have asked King where he gets his ideas, and the author has always been ready with a witty response to that imaginitively bankrupt question.  (I like the one about "the idea shop" in Utica.)  Many of King's stories suggest a more serious answer.  This is how Bill Denbrough answers the question in the novel IT 

"All those stories I wrote, he thinks with a stupid kind of amusement.  All those novels.  Derry is where they all came from; Derry was the wellspring.  They came from what happened that summer, and from what happened to George the autumn before.  All the interviewers that ever asked me THAT QUESTION... I gave them the wrong answer..."

Derry is, of course, a fictionalized version of a town in Maine.  And perhaps that is King's way of confessing that "Maine is where they all came from; Maine was the wellspring."   

Sure, there have been plenty of Stephen King novels set outside the author's home state -- The Stand and Desperation belong to the American West, The Shining and Misery are set in the mountains of Colorado,  Christine and From a Buick 8 travel roads in Pennsylvania -- but the majority of the author's best-known stories are rooted in Maine, where King grew up and continues to reside.  Because of that, visiting Maine is like stepping into a fictional world.... at least, for a geek like me.

By visiting Maine, I was not trying to escape from reality into fantasy.  Rather, I was searching for insight into a creative process.  Let me explain...

When I first read Stephen King's short story "The Body," I imagined it taking place in my hometown of Crozet, Virginia.  In my mind, those four boys followed the train tracks west out of town, toward Mint Springs park and beyond.  When I read "Apt Pupil," I pictured Kurt Dussander's house as one in my neighborhood.   Dussander's basement was the basement of my family's old house in Salem, Virginia.  Across the street from Dussander's house was Arnie Cunningham's house from Christine.   Why?  Because the woman who lived there owned a Plymouth Fury.  (It was an early 60s model.  Bright blue.  And HUGE.)  In my mind, IT took place mostly in Salem and Madison, Virginia.  Rage took place at my high school in Crozet.  You get the idea...

In much the way that I drew on personal memories and experiences to make King's stories come alive in my own imagination, I believe Stephen King drew on personal memories and experiences to make the stories real for him as a writer.  That's a major part of his process, because he knows that if he can't convince himself that the story he's telling is real, then he can't convice readers. 

Now I'm not suggesting that every fictional setting in a Stephen King story is based on a real place, or that any fictional setting is based entirely on one specific location.  If that were true, King probably wouldn't have bothered to fictionalize the place names in his novels.  The settings of his stories are intersections of life and art -- "thinnies" based on real places (at least what King remembers about them, or what interests him about them) but modified to fit a particular story.  That leads one to wonder why he has adopted some elements of reality and changed others... and the wondering can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the writer's creative process.

In the end, a fiction writer has no responsibility to the literal truth; he or she is responsible only to the truth of a story.  Fictional storytelling at its best is like dreaming: Fragments of waking reality get shuffled together with vaguely related ideas and impressions to produce a hyper-reality that is more vital than memory or pure imagination alone.  As a result, for King and for many of his readers, towns like Castle Rock and Derry are more real than any place on a Rand McNally map -- because we know so much about them, and about the people who live there.  Is it any wonder that we keep going back?

As soon as I stepped off of the plane at Bangor International Airport, I had a sense that I had been there before.  In a sense, I had.  The airport is featured in the short story "The Night Flier" as well as the novella "The Langoliers."  It was also a filming location for the movie PET SEMATARY and the TV miniseries THE LANGOLIERS, which was shot mostly in the international terminal.  According to a local resident, the space was readily available because there's not a lot of international air traffic passing through Bangor these days.  The city only has such a large airport because it was originally built as a military base during World War II.  (Filmmakers, take note.)

Bangor International Airport

Inside the terminal, I experienced another sense of deja vu when I saw a giant model of Bangor's Thomas A. Hill Standpipe.  Readers of the novel IT know that the fictional town of Derry (based closely on Bangor) has a similar Standpipe, which figures into the finale of the story.  The Derry Standpipe also makes a ghostly appearance in the novels Insomnia and Dreamcatcher.  
Model of Thomas A. Hill Standpipe
There is, of course, no mention of "Thomas A. Hill" in King's novels.  And oddly enough... not much information about him in Bangor.  During our trip, my wife and I visited the Bangor History Museum, located in the "Thomas A. Hill House" downtown, but we failed to learn anything there about either Thomas A. Hill OR the history of Bangor.  The museum, as it turned out, was dedicated entirely to a Civil War exhibit.  

This reminds me of something I once read.  Stephen King claimed that when he decided to set his novel IT in a fictionalized version of Bangor, he went to the local library and asked for the best book on the history of the town.  The librarian replied, "There isn't one."  He had to settle instead for two or three books on the subject.  (Apparently, that did the trick because IT is more thoroughly rooted in place than any other King novel, with the possible exceptions of 'Salem's Lot and 11/22/63.)  Since then, a comprehensive history of Bangor has been published.  My copy of Trudy Irene Scee's City on the Penobscot (2010) is in the mail.  I'm hoping it will explain who Thomas A. Hill is.

Since we arrived in Bangor late in the day, the first thing we did was go out for dinner.... at Dysart's truck stop in nearby Hermon, a place that King fans will recognize as the setting of the short story "Trucks" (basis for the film MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE) and a key location in Dreamcatcher.  In other words: Not only is this the place where King first imagined machines taking over the world (eat your heart out, Jim Cameron), it is also where one of his heroes stalled an alien terrorist by introducing him to a addictive phenomenon known as the 24-hour breakfast menu.  I'm going to overlook the fact that said hero refers to Dysart's as "Dry Farts," because the food (especially the homemade blueberry pie) was excellent.  
When we were done, we took Route 2 through Hermon, back toward Bangor.  There wasn't much to see along the way, but I wasn't expecting much.  King and his wife Tabby once lived in a trailer park in Hermon and, although the author wrote an early draft of his novel 'Salem's Lot there, he definitely doesn't have much love for the place.  In a 1983 interview for Playboy magazine, King famously referred to Hermon as "the asshole of the universe."  He later apologized and upgraded his assessment, saying, "Hermon is really no more than the armpit of the world." In other words: Ride on.

We eventually settled in at the Hollywood Casino in Bangor, a brand new hotel on the banks of the Penobscot River.
View of the Penobscot River from Hollywood Casino - downtown Bangor on the left, Brewer on the right
If it seems as if we were choosing luxury over local color, let me point out what was across the street: 

According to the most recent issue of Bangor Metro, this 30-foot Paul Bunyan statue was erected in the fall of 1959 as part of the city's 125 birthday celebration.  Craig Idlebrook writes, "Throughout the year, festival planners had gathered a handful of times in the Veazie living room of Channel 5 station manager Dick Bronson to debate what the statue should look like... They decided the statue should represent the city's character, but Bangor was then immersed in the messy shoe industry."  A 30-foot shoe would have made a lousy monument, so the planners turned their focus to the city's storied past as "the lumber capital of the world."  

Stephen King incorporated the result into his novel IT: “The mythical Paul stood twenty feet high, and the base added another six  feet.  He stood smiling down at the car and pedestrian traffic in Outer Canal Street from the edge of the City Center lawn.  City Center had been erected in the years 1954-55 for a minor-league basketball team that had never  materialized.  The Derry City Council had voted money for the statue a year later, in 1956.  It had been hotly debated both in the council’s public meetings and in the letters-to-the-editor columns of the Derry News.  Many thought it would be a perfectly lovely statue, certain to become a tourist attraction of note.  There were others, who found the idea of a plastic Paul Bunyan horrible, garish, and unbelievably gauche.”

Bangor citizens had a similar reaction, but the statue has nevertheless become  an inescapable city symbol... and the subject of many nightmares.  In IT, the statue comes alive and chases one of the young characters down the street.  Based on that scene, I can honestly say that this statue terrified me long before I ever knew it really existed.

Today, the statue stands in front of the Cross Insurance Center (which recently replaced the Bangor Civic Center, King's main inspiration for the Derry Civic Center in Insomnia), eyeballing sleeping tourists at the Hollywood Casino.  Certainly Paul is no more garish than his surroundings... but he does appear strangely sinister.  Is it just me, or is his smile a little bit... well... clownish?


[UPDATE: According to City on the Penobscot, Thomas A. Hill was a citizen-at-large in Bangor in the early 1800s.  He appeared on practically every committee in town, helping to make decisions about local banking, bridges, railways, and the regulation of the Penobscot Canal.  Unfortunately the book doesn't give any additional information about him.  City on the Penobscot is mostly a study of infrastructure, and says very little about the character of Bangor beyond its formal commitments to public education, safety and welfare.  To put it another way: It's a well researched book but dry as dust.]

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7/24/2013

    I thought that in the following quote about the underappreciated role of setting, you captured a truth about great writers’ craft:

    "Fictional storytelling at its best is like dreaming: Fragments of waking reality get shuffled together with vaguely related ideas and impressions to produce a hyper-reality that is more vital than memory or pure imagination alone. As a result, for King and for many of his readers, towns like Castle Rock and Derry are more real than any place on a Rand McNally map -- because we know so much about them, and about the people who live there. Is it any wonder that we keep going back?"

    Wow! I keep coming back to that quote; it’s an absolutely different approach to Aristotle’s famous statement that “art is an imitation of life.” I always interpreted that view to mean that the writer doesn’t attempt to replicate reality exactly but he picks and chooses those details of life that help him create a narrative with a “beginning, middle, and end.” The “pleasing effect” comes from catharsis.

    What you wrote adds an interesting dimension that also reminds me of Coleridge’s comment about “willingly suspending our disbelief” to become immersed in the plot. The quality of dreaming – with its elements of daytime events mixed with “related ideas and impressions …” helped me view setting from a new perspective.