Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stephen King's Maine - Day 2 (Bangor and Derry)

Would you get into a vehicle that has this painted on the back?
Continued from PART 1: BANGOR AND HERMON

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?
And that isn't Mount Hope's only connection to the film.  The funeral of Missy Dandridge and the disinterment of Gage Creed were both shot here, in the newer sections of the cemetery.  I took photos of the relevant areas, posted below, but since I'm not as diligent about matching camera angles as some researchers, you should check out this website for side-by-side comparisons.  Also keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming independent documentary about the making of PET SEMATARY, called Unearthed and Untold.

Looking down on the spot were Missy Dandridge's funeral was filmed
Looking up at the spot where Gage was buried in PET SEMATARY
Most of the other Bangor locations that Stu showed us were related to King's novel IT -- which should come as no surprise since the author has admitted that the setting of the novel, the town of Derry, is a very thinly disguised version of Bangor.   IT begins near the corner of Witcham and Jackson streets, where a boy named Georgie Denbrough loses his arm to a sadistic clown hiding out in a storm drain.  That storm drain really exists in Bangor, at the corner of Union and Jackson.  It's an old-fashioned flat drain rather than a curbside drain (like the one in the TV miniseries), which made it even creepier.   Instead of imagining Pennywise the clown looking out at Georgie, I now imagined him looking up.  The arm in the photo was provided by our tour guide -- ever the showman.

The corner of Union/Witcham and Jackson
It's worth noting that the community pool in the background of this photo was financed by Stephen and Tabitha King -- one of their MANY major philanthropic contributions to the community.  The pool belongs to Hayford Park, which is also home to the Shawn T. Mansfield Baseball Stadium (another King family project).   Between the two is an open picnic area -- where Billy Halleck picked up his gypsy pie at the end of Richard Bachman's novel THINNER.

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)
On the other side of the baseball stadium is West Broadway Street -- a long row of historic houses built for the lumber barons who made Bangor "the lumber capital of the world" between 1820 and 1860.  Today the King family lives in the oldest and most elaborate of those houses, a 23-room Italianate style mansion built in 1858 for William Arnold.  This is certainly the most photographed house in all of Bangor -- dozens of Stephen King fans seek it out every day, and stop to take their picture in front of the elaborate wrought iron gate, adorned with gargoyles and a three-headed dragon. 

William Arnold House - 2013
West Broadway Street also exists in the town Derry, as King explains in a passage from IT: "Sally Mueller and Greta Bowie both came from rich families with houses on West Broadway while Bev came to school from one of those slummy apartment buildings on Lower Main Street.  Lower Main Street and West Broadway were only a mile apart, but even a kid like Ben knew that the real distance was like the distance between Earth and the planet Pluto."

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.
To be fair, the town of Bangor tried to atone for the heinous actions of three of its citizens.  Every year the city celebrates "Diversity Day" in memory of the murdered man.  (Howard's murderer Edward J. Armstrong also wrote a deeply apologetic book about the long aftermath of the incident, entitled Penitence.)  In Stephen King's novel, however, the people of Derry practically ignore the similar murder of a man named Adrian Mellon, as well as the overwhelming history of violence in their town.   Only the children -- and the town librarian (who is writing a tell-all history) -- choose to acknowledge the existence of real evil among them.  

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
Stu Tinker led us to the same place -- an overgrown jungly area on the Kenduskeag near the center of town.  From an overlook off of Valley Avenue, we saw the drain, the path that the kids would have taken through the woods, and an imposing rock formation called Lover's Leap.  Aside from that ominous moniker, there was nothing particularly unnerving about the place... at least not on the day we went.  Other bloggers have encountered vagrants in the area, and one visitor described it as "an unsettling place, full of sad looking people looking to pick up."   Personally, I found it a bit hard to believe that this could be King's gateway to evil.  And here's where I'm going to deviate from Stu's tour a little bit...

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

The original Stratford Library building, with Legion Hall to the left and new addition in back
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
Getting back to Bangor:  Our tour guide had plenty of other SK-related locations to show us, including the real-world inspirations for the Derry Town House (where the Losers stay in 1985) and Juniper Hill (the asylum where Henry Bowers is incarcerated in IT), the murder site of gangster Al Brady (whose demise is fictionalized in IT), Ralph Roberts's house from the novel Insomnia, the Rite Aid from Insomnia and Bag of Bones, filming locations for CREEPSHOW 2 and GRAVEYARD SHIFT (interiors only; the exteriors were filmed at Bartlettyarns Mill in the town of Harmony), and much much more.  If you're a King fan, I highly recommend SK Tours.

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.



  1. Just finishing IT - hunting around for tangible landscapes and architecture - what a wonderful blog thank you!!

  2. This blog is brilliant! Visited Bangor a few years ago on a "Derry/IT" quest, but Stu was on vacation so we had to do a lot of guessing. Sounds like we got most of it right. Very strangely we did actually see a guy in a clown suit sitting outside a party shop as we drove to Paul Bunyan to start the adventure. Freaked. Us. OUT!

    1. Thanks, S.R. Mastrantone! Are you following Richard Chizmar's "Stephen King Revisited" project? Seems like it might be right up your alley...