Stalking Stephen King in Bangor, the world capital of horror

With the big-screen version of ‘The Dark Tower’ now showing in the UK, Mike MacEacheran takes a tour of Bangor, Maine, which has long served as inspiration for the best-selling horror novelist

Mike MacEacheran
Monday 21 August 2017 13:05 BST
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Stephen King’s house in Bangor is as creepy as his novels
Stephen King’s house in Bangor is as creepy as his novels (Getty)

“That’s where they found the eyeball in the fortune cookie,” says Stu Tinker, turning to point out a suburban Chinese restaurant from the window of his tour van. “Steve used to go with his wife Tabby to the Oriental Jade and it’s the inspiration for the scene in It. But you know he renamed it the Jade of the Orient, right?”

Stu Tinker is undeniably America’s biggest Stephen King fanboy, having owned a book shop for nine years that only sold titles by the horror author, and he’s once again stepped through the looking glass to chew over his favourite scene. It’s 9am on a dreary Saturday and we are sat in his van, the windscreen wipers adding a syncopated Psycho-like stab, while Stu obsesses over the devilish plot lines of It that lurk on the streets he grew up on.

The northern Maine town of Bangor is justifiably famous for its association with King, an author with more than 60 novels and close to 200 short stories, and it’s getting in the mood for two new film adaptations this summer. The first, The Dark Tower, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, arrived last week while an updated version of his cult classic It (famous for Pennywise the clown, whose chuckling, rotten voice still scares the bejesus out of plenty of adults) is out next month. “The producers wanted to film the new It here,” says Stu, noticeably irritated. “But they couldn’t get the money together, so they shot in Ottawa instead. Still, Bangor is Derry.”

It takes the best part of a day to see Stephen King’s Bangor, or Derry, the boundary-crossing fictional Maine town King has imagined in novels including It, Dreamcatcher, Pet Sematary, Carrie and The Running Man. Though born in Portland two hours to the south, he has lived here for decades, prompting some locals to argue that a life-sized statue of him should be erected. Others go further, calling King the best president America has never had, particularly following his ongoing social media spat with Donald Trump (a few recent tweets include “Ineptitude, thy name is Trump” and “Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, currently in a battle to see who is the craziest man on the planet”).

Bangor enjoys its reputation as the capital of horror (Getty)
Bangor enjoys its reputation as the capital of horror (Getty) (Getty Images)

Few cities in America are so indebted to the work of one man and there’s little doubting King’s credentials. Not only does he own three local rock radio stations, including WKIT-FM (the K for King, IT for It) and WZON (so-named because of The Dead Zone), but he fronted $1.8m (£1.4m) for the children’s wing at the East Maine Medical Centre (“clowns are banned from the hospital”). The town’s librarians, meanwhile, claim the novelist is responsible for making Bangor the best read town in all of New England. This may be the town that horror built, but it has a caring, studious heart.

As we continue past the Bangor Waterworks, the setting for Graveyard Shift’s army of dog-sized rats, I suggest it’s the way King looks (serious, inscrutable, a little like Charles Manson, especially when he was at college) that may belie the way he really acts. Stu agrees, recounting a tale when the multimillionaire was asked by a tuxedo-wearing businessman to change his tyre for $20 in a car park. Yet there was no acrimony. “He did it, of course,” says Stu. “But that’s Steve. So down-to-earth it’s creepy.”

Bangor is the inspiration for the fictional town of Derry (Getty/iStockphoto)
Bangor is the inspiration for the fictional town of Derry (Getty/iStockphoto) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As for King himself, it’s often easy for fans to spot him having breakfast at Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner on Union Street, buying scratch-off lottery tickets at The Corner Store (appearing as The Red Apple in Insomnia), or walking his dog at Hayford Park (where Thinner, originally released under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, comes to its grisly conclusion).

Not that we’re so lucky. We stop at a number of whisper-quiet King-related sites, including the Thomas Hill Standpipe (inspiration for the haunted water tower in It), then move to Hampden Academy (where King was once a gonzo English teacher), before stopping at the Mount Hope Cemetery. Here, among the crypts and tombs where much of the film Pet Sematary was shot, is the headstone for one Randall Flagg, King’s alias for his recurring devil-like sorcerer. Superstitions are discussed – I admit to being a little jumpy – before we continue onto the intersection of Jackson and Union where King sets his most famous character’s story in motion. “Look,” cries Stu, hamming it up with a joke shop prop, “a bloody, severed hand coming out of the kerb drain. Pennywise is back!”

Much of ‘Pet Sematary’ was filmed in Mount Hope Cemetery
Much of ‘Pet Sematary’ was filmed in Mount Hope Cemetery (Thomas Burby)

This last goofy episode forgiven, the van parks up one last time on West Broadway, long the most prestigious address in the city where Bangor’s lumber lords once lived. Unlike other American celebrities, the exact location of King’s family home is hardly a close secret, and on approach to number 47 it’s pretty clear the house on the hill isn’t the kind that needs to get dressed up for Halloween. Behind a horror show tribute gate, adorned with inky cobwebs, iron spiders, bats and three-headed dragons, sits a blood-red Queen Anne clapboard mansion guarded by stone gargoyles. A silhouette flits past a veiled curtain as we peer through the gates, and for a moment – if only a split second – a shadowy hand waves back at us. “Even Steve thought the house was haunted when he bought it,” adds Stu. “And, you know, it’s not that hard to believe.”

They say to be successful, you have to write about what you know. And for Stephen King that means Bangor, Maine. Because on these streets, horror starts to come alive if you know where to look for it.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Norwegian (norwegian.com) flies from London Gatwick, Edinburgh and Belfast to Providence/Boston-TF Green, with fares from £142 one way. Bangor, Maine is a four hour and 45 minute drive north via I-495 N and I-95 N.

More information

Stu Tinker’s SK Tours of Maine run every day at 9am and 2pm (£35; sk-tours.com).

visitmaine.com

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