|Would you get into a vehicle that has this painted on the back?|
On our first full day in Bangor, we went on a Stephen King Tour led by local enthusiast Stu Tinker. Stu is a lifelong Bangor resident who has known the King family for about thirty years, and used to run a local bookstore that specialized in King collectibles. (Betts Bookstore is now an online-only entity, run by a guy named David.) Although the Bangor Conventions & Visitors Bureau runs a similar tour during the summers, I can't imagine a more friendly or enthusiastic tour guide than Stu. It's worth noting that while the BCVB tour takes place only four times a year and in large groups, Stu is available for private tours 365 days a year. (I asked him how many people request tours in the winter, and he said he runs about 1 tour a week... which is remarkable considering how intense the winters get in Bangor.)
Our first stop, on the northeastern edge of the Bangor city limits, was a restaurant equipment store called R.M. Flagg's. Anyone who has read Stephen King's The Stand (or The Eyes of the Dragon, or the later Dark Tower books) will recognize the name. When I saw the sign from the road, I figured that the owners had decided to pay tribute to the master of horror, but Stu explained that the R.M. Flagg Company has been around since 1928. He suggested that Stephen King saw the sign when he was a young man, and later adopted the name for his uber-villain Randall Flagg. (King couldn't have done much research beyond the road sign, because according to the company's website the founder of the R.M. Flagg Company was Roscoe Flagg, not Randall Flagg.)
Our tour guide went on to explain that King used to drive by this store on his way to and from college in Orono -- and when visiting the nearby Mount Hope Cemetery. He said that, as a student, King used to go to the cemetery to relax and think about his writing. I know, I know -- what better place for a horror writer to spend his afternoons than in a cemetery. Sounds appropriately morbid, right? But unlike most of the cemeteries I've been to, Mount Hope is not morbid place. It's a lush and peaceful "garden cemetery," designed to appeal as much to the living as to the dead. The landscaping is stunningly beautiful, with recessed walking paths and plenty of space for visitors (not just permanent residents). While we were there, we saw a group of children fishing and chasing frogs around a pond full of lotus plants, and the sound of their laughter took away any hint of eerieness.
|Mount Hope "garden cemetery"|
Of course, Stu Tinker recognizes that many of his guests have come to Bangor for eerieness. That's why he drove us to the back side of the cemetery, where the older gravestones are sinking into the soft ground. This, he says, is where Stephen King saw a path that might lead to a much darker place.... a pet cemetery, or an Indian burial ground. When Hollywood came to Maine in the summer of 1988 to shoot the movie PET SEMATARY (which I wrote about HERE), the author asked the filmmakers to duplicate the look of this particular path at the filming location in the nearby town of Hancock.
|The path to the pet cemetery?|
|Looking down on the spot were Missy Dandridge's funeral was filmed|
|Looking up at the spot where Gage was buried in PET SEMATARY|
|The corner of Union/Witcham and Jackson|
Just up the hill from Georgie's death trap is a much smaller park, sitting in the shadow of the Standpipe, a prominent landmark in IT. This is where Stan Uris saw Pennywise for the first time. Here's how King describes the setting: "Memorial Park was a rough rectangle which sloped downhill. The grass (white and dead at this time of year) was kept neatly cut in the summertime, and there were circular beds of flowers. There was no playground equipment, however, This was considered a grownups park. At the far end, the grade smoothed out before dropping abruptly down to Kansas Street and the Barrens beyond. The birdbath his father had mentioned stood on this flat area. It was a shallow stone dish. set into a squat masonry pedestal that was really much too big for the humble function it fulfilled."
|Stan's bird-watching bench on the right / birdbath on the left|
|Thomas A. Hill Standpipe (zoom in and you'll see some people in the photo for scale)|
|William Arnold House - 2013|
There is no Lower Main Street in Bangor, but Stu Tinker suggests that Beverly Marsh's lower-class neighborhood in IT may be based on a real neighborhood between Second Street Park and Davenport Park, down the hill from the historic district. The Kings lived near there, in a (long-since demolished) apartment building on Sanford Street, when they first moved to Bangor in the early 1970s. Certainly it's a rougher looking neighborhood than West Broadway, but it seems to me that even the worst sections of Bangor have their charm. Since IT is set in the late 1950s, I can only assume that King was imagining the city before the major urban redevelopment of the 1960s and 70s -- and before he and his wife began sinking millions of their own dollars into the community.
In general, I was expecting Bangor to be a much grittier place -- perhaps even a bit forbidding to tourists. In his novels, King presents Derry as a rough town with a LOT of dirty secrets. Although Bangor is clearly the geographic template for Derry, and although they share some similar historical incidents, I didn't see much evidence that the two places are very similar in character. Derry has a long legacy of devastating fires and floods, as well as a seemingly endless string of violent murders (particularly child murders) dating back to 1741. According to Trudy Irene Scee's City on the Penobscot, Bangor has had plenty of devastating fires and floods -- the worst being a major flood in the 1840s and a fire in 1911 that ravaged the downtown area -- but she reports only a handful of homicides over the years (most of which she attributes to drunkeness and anti-Irish sentiments). Crime statistics were particularly low in the early 1980s, when King was writing IT -- with one notable exception. Scee avoids any specific mention of the 1981 murder that inspired Stephen King to set his magnum opus in a facsimile of Bangor.
Here's what King had to say a few years ago about why he decided to move his family to Bangor in 1979, in preparation for a long novel about childhood fears: "I wanted to go to Bangor because I thought that Bangor was a hard-ass, working-class town... I didn't want it to be Portland because Portland is kind of a yuppie town. There had been a story in the newspaper about the time we decided to move up here about a young man who came out of the Jaguar Tavern during the Bangor Fair. He was gay and some guys got to joking with him. Then the joking got out of hand, and they threw him over the bridge and killed him. And I thought, that's what I want to write about." In short he wanted to write about a place where such a hate crime not only seemed possible, but where the locals would turn a blind eye to it.
|The canal bridge where Charlie Howard was killed during the Canal Days Festival on July 7, 1984|
|Possible inspiration for the "Kissing Bridge" in IT, where Adrian Mellon was murdered.|
In IT, seven young friends ("the Losers Club") confront Pennywise in the sewers beneath the city. King says he always knew that's where the evil would be hidden -- ever since he started researching the history of Bangor and encountered a legend about an underground labyrinth. He explained to interviewer Tony Magistrale: "[A] guy told me that the Bangor sewer system was built during the WPA and they lost track of what they were building under there. They had money from the federal government for sewers so they built like crazy. A lot of the blueprints have now been lost, and it's easy to get lost down there." If this is true, Trudy Irene Scee doesn't say anything about it in her official history of the town.
Thankfully, the kids in IT don't need maps to navigate the labyrinth. They are led by a higher power to a sewer drain (Ben Hanscomb calls it a "Morlock hole") in the woods near the Kenduskeag Stream, in an area they call The Barrens. Here's how King describes the setting: "The Barrens - which were anything but barren - were a messy tract of land about a mile and a half wide by three miles long [...] The Kenduskeag ran through the center of the Barrens. The city had grown up to the northeast and on both sides of it, but the only vestiges of the city down there were Derry Pumphouse #3 (the minicipal sewage-pumping station) and the City Dump. Seen from the air the Barrens looked like a big green dagger pointing at downtown."
|The Barrens in Bangor (sewer drain at bottom center)|
|The Morlock hole|
King description of the Barrens certainly matches the Kenduskeag Stream Park area, but the author has also suggested another source of inspiration for The Barrens -- a place nearly 400 miles away in Stratford, Connecticut. Before his family moved to Maine when Steve was about 11 years old, they lived in Stratford for a few years, and it was there that the future author discovered his first outdoor playground. He explains in On Writing: "Our new apartment was on West Broad Street. A block down the hill, not far from Teddy's Market and across from Burrets Building Materials was a huge tangled wilderness area with a junkyard on the far side and a train track running through the middle. This is one of the places I keep returning to in my imagination; it turns up in my books and stories again and again, under a variety of names. The kids in IT called it the Barrens; we called it the jungle." King goes on to say that he and his older brother Dave once dammed up the river that ran through that jungle and flooded much of West Broad Street... just like Bill, Ben and Eddie in IT.
I went looking for "the Barrens" in Stratford and found a setting that was much creepier than Kenduskeag Stream Park. The overgrown jungly area at the bottom of West Broad Street, running parallel to the train tracks as well as the interstate, is currently home to an abandoned paper factory (The Hudson Paper Factory Outlet). It seems odd that King doesn't mention the paper factory, which has been in business for over 100 years... so maybe my sleuthing isn't as good as I think it is. Still, I must say that I found this place much creepier than anything I saw in Bangor.
|The Barrens in Stratford, CT?|
While in Stratford, I also visited the central library on Main Street, because King says it was the inspiration for the Derry Library in IT. The novel clearly places the Derry Library building on Harlow Street (where the Bangor Public Library actually exists today), but the interior design was inspired by the Stratford Public Library, as King explains: "In Stratford there was a library where the adult section and the children's section was connected by a short corridor. The architecture of the adult section was Victorian; that of the children's library was 1950s modern." The library's official website confirms this memory: "In 1955, the library built an addition at the back of the 1896 structure. The high-ceilinged addition housed a new Children's Department and Reference Room, as well as offices."
Ben Hamscomb (a future architect) describes this same layout in IT, and suggests that the glass corridor between the two sections represents a bridge between childhood and adulthood. Thus the library is a central symbol in the novel, which is about facing and escaping childhood fears. It's no coincidence that the corridor, a "delicate umbilicus," explodes at the end of the story. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, the corridor that inspired the future author no longer exists in real life either. In the early 1980s a third modification was made, creating a library facility with three chambers instead of two, and replacing the corridor with a lobby area. The library website says that "the 1955 addition was dismantled" and the architects designed a new "linking building" to tie the original library to an existing building next door (the former Legion Hall).
|Bangor Public Library on Harlow Street|
|Two historic structures (Legion Hall at left, original library obscured at right) connected by a "linking building"|
|This new addition to the back of the library apparently replaced the one that King remembers|
After the tour was over, Stu Tinker and I speculated on the possible real-world inspirations for the Tracker Brothers Truck Depot and the abandoned house on Niebolt Street (both from IT), based on a Derry map designed by another fan. We decided that there's probably only one man who could lead us to those locations... And he's pretty busy creating new worlds to explore.
Continued in PART 3: ORONO, ORRINGTON, LUDLOW & LITTLE TALL ISLAND