Stephen King‘s presence is writ large in the town of Bangor, Maine, even if he’d perhaps prefer it not to be. Born in Portland, Maine, the legendary, wildly prolific horror author has kept a home in or around Bangor for decades now. From the small trailer he shared with his wife Tabby back in the 70s, when the pair could scarcely find two nickels to rub together, to the gorgeous mid-19th century home they share now that their fortunes have considerably changed, Bangor has long served as an inspiration for the author (most famously as the basis for IT‘s Derry, Maine) and stepping through the streets of the New England town is like stepping into the pages of one of his novels, strangely familiar even if you’ve never been there before.
And if Bangor’s presence is felt in his books, King has also made his presence felt throughout the town. His house, for one, has become something of a pilgrimage for fans — the grass beyond the cast iron gates trampled beyond repair by the boots of eager King-o-philes taking snapshots of appropriately gothic looking home. But, he has also made a genuine impact on the town, famously generous and charitable, setting up scholarship funds for local students, building ball parks and community pools, and refusing to put his name on any of it — except, of course, his local rock ‘n roll radio station, WKIT, which he outfitted with a bigger, better broadcast tower and proudly labelled as his own. But that’s the only one of his additions to the town you’ll find bearing his name, according to the fantastically knowledgeable tour guide Stu Tinker, who runs the local SK Tours.
With The Dark Tower in theaters this weekend, I had an opportunity earlier this week to visit Bangor, where Tinker took me and a small group of journalists around the town to learn about the sights and experiences that inspired King’s works. We were also joined by Robin Furth, King’s longtime personal assistant, who started with the author with On Writing and wrote The Dark Tower Concordance. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I haven’t even got to the part where we interviewed King himself ahead of our screening. (You can read that full interview here).
But let’s start at the beginning. After flying to Manhattan with an air of mystery hanging over the trip, we were driven to Teterboro Airport and shepherded onto a private jet, where we found long-stem red roses waiting for us in our seats. Boy, let me tell you, flying on a private jet really is all it’s cracked up to be. Have you ever wished a flight would be longer? Yeah, me neither… until we got on that jet. A short hop and a skip across state lines and we landed in Bangor and headed to our first stop, Dysart’s truck stop, which served as the inspiration for King’s short story Trucks and later his first and only directorial attempt, the ill-fated Maximum Overdrive.
A short hop and a skip across state lines and we landed in Bangor and headed to our first stop, Dysart’s truck stop, which served as the inspiration for King’s short story Trucks and later his first and only directorial attempt, the ill-fated Maximum Overdrive. After enjoying some quintessential New England seafood at the diner, we jumped into the van with Tinker and Furth, who led us on a 2+ hour excursion through King Country. A short drive took us to the trailer park where the Kings lived in the 70s, a humble double-wide overgrown with tall grass, where Tabby plucked the manuscript for Carrie out the trash, told her husband to get back to work, and saved the story that would launch his career.
From there, we headed down the freeway where King set his dystopian nightmare The Long Walk and slid into the parking lot of a local store by the name of Flagg’s. Yep, it inspired the name for King’s great evil incarnate, Randall Flagg, though Tinker says King has never actually gone inside the store itself. We’re told King found many of his other character names on the gravestones in Mt. Hope Cemetary (“You can’t get sued by dead people”), the next stop on our trip and the location where King filmed his Pet Sematary cameo.
From there, we’re off for a quick stop at King’s radio station (the wifi network was “Shawshank”), and then it’s the big one — a stop at the King estate. Tinker says that King will often come down and say hello to folks on the tour. Naturally, we’re all hoping we’ll have such luck, but when we arrive we’re told the car is gone. I was still holding out hope to see King’s adorable dog Molly, aka The Thing of Evil, bound across the yard, but the cards were not in our favor that day. In keeping with King’s reputation for humility, he leaves his driveway gate wide open, and in keeping with Bangor’s reputation for friendliness, nobody bothers him.
From there, we kicked off an IT heavy portion of the tour. Just a few streets over we find the storm drain that is said to have inspired Georgie’s horrific meeting with Pennywise the clown — not the gutter we’ve come to associate it with thanks to the miniseries, rather, a small circular grid in the street. Easy to overlook and hard to imagine that it conjured such grisly images in King’s mind — but that’s what makes him one of the greats. Next, we hit up the Standpipe — a giant construct. A few feet down a grassy hill sits a bench, where we’re told King would sit and hand write page of IT. There is no sign commemorating this, no hint that a horror classic was created in this spot. That feels very #OnBrand for King.
We drive through the barrens, which look just like you always pictured the ones in the Bangor-inspired town of Derry, we pass a canal, again conjuring the image of Derry, and we end up in Old Town at the storefront of Gerald Winters and Sons — a Stephen King centric bookstore, filled wall to wall with rare books, signed books and specialty trinkets. Finally, we’re off to the Oriental Jade; a favorite local restaurant of King’s and the inspiration for IT‘s The Jade of the Orient. We didn’t find any eyeballs in our fortune cookies, but we did get some tasty Lo-Mein and then we were off to screen The Dark Tower. Of course, Sony had one last surprise up their sleeves — that 20 minute sit-down with King himself. Truly a career highlight, and a moment that proves sometimes you really should meet your heroes after all.
Now, there’s no substitution for the real thing and if you’re ever in Bangor, you absolutely should look up SK Tours because they are fantastic, and if you ever run into Stephen King, you should get over being star struck and chat the dude up because he’s also a gem. But for now, you can check out the sights of Bangor in the images below.