Editor’s note: In March 1983 the Bangor Historical Society hosted an event titled “Black Magic and Music,” a fundraiser for the organization held at the ballroom in the Bangor House on Main Street, featuring music by Brad Terry & Friends of Jazz and a reading by Stephen King. King also wrote an essay for the event, titled “A Novelist’s Perspective on Bangor,” which was published in the accompanying program.
To the best of our knowledge, the essay — which refers in several places to the book that would come to be known as “IT” — has never been published in the 35 years since King wrote it. We’re publishing it here with King’s blessing and with permission from the Bangor Historical Society, which retains ownership of the essay.
Since my wife and family and I came to Bangor in 1979, I have been asked time and time again why I want to live here. I live in Maine because I was born in Maine and it’s my home place. The reasons for living in Bangor are not so simple.
The question itself interests me almost as much — just as much, really — as any answers I could give. Will Rogers said, “Let a man ask me ten questions and I’ll tell you who he is.” When people ask Why do you live in Bangor? they are also revealing something about themselves — as people always do, of course, when they ask a question. This particular interrogatory says of the questioner I would expect you to be living in some rather more luxurious place — moored off the French Riviera one yacht over from Harold Robbins, perhaps. And I think it also says something rather more damning: You need to justify your decision to live here, because it seems to me a bit insane, at least on the face of it — if I could afford to do so, I could be out of here tomorrow.
Of course a place always looks better when you come into it from outside, and when you came there on purpose. I did come here from outside, having grown up in southern Maine and having resided with my family in western Maine for a good many years before our eventual move to the Bangor area. But if you insist on clear reasons for choosing Bangor over Portland — which was the choice Tabitha and I made as a husband and wife — if you insist on a clear and neat one-through-five, you’ll be disappointed.
Of course we fell in love with the house we live in, and it has never disappointed us. Have we disappointed it? Disappointment probably isn’t the right word. I think it disapproved of us at first. The parlor seemed cold in a way that had little to do with temperature. The cat would not go into that room; the kids avoided it. My oldest son was convinced there were ghosts in the turret towers (that idea was probably more due to the Hardy Boys than to parental influence). Then one day about eight months after we moved in, I spied a rubber ball sitting in the middle of the parlor floor and felt a flicker of hope. Three nights later, a little platoon of toy soldiers was bivouacked on one end of the sofa. Hope grew. Near the end of that week, there was my wife, curled up on the same sofa, reading a Dorothy Sayers mystery with the cat in her lap. I thought that maybe the house had decided to accept us — tentatively, at first, on approval, you might say, but I believe that our mutual understanding and liking has since improved — we of it, it of us.
West Broadway attracted us, with its graceful Victorian homes, its lovely trees, and its feeling of being a peaceful sort of inlet very close to the bustle of downtown. Fairmount School, a neighborhood school, a school our children could walk to, attracted us; I walked to grammar school for only a year and a half as a child and then was bused, first to junior high and then to high school. My wife traveled back and forth to John Bapst. Our kids walk more often than they ride.
Those are personal things, and I promised you a novelist’s perspective. You may be disappointed, because that may not actually exist — it may be more sell than substance. Nevertheless, it was as much the novelist as the man who wanted to come to Bangor. I had a very long book in mind, a book which I hoped would deal with the way myths and dreams and stories — stories, most of all — become a part of the everyday life of a small American city. I had done something like this before, but with the sort of small rural town in which I had grown up. That book was “Salem’s Lot.” The novel about the small city — a city named Derry which any native of this city will recognize almost at once as Bangor — is now written, in first draft, at least, and will be the basis of any coherent remarks I have to offer today (and when I run out of such remarks, I can always read from the novel itself — which may or may not be more coherent than any extempore remarks I am able to muster). I’m fairly happy with it — as happy as one can be with a first draft I suppose — because the stories are there. Oh my Lord, my Lord the stories you hear about this town — the streets fairly clang with them. The problem isn’t finding them or ferreting them out; the problem is that old boozer’s problem of knowing when to stop. It’s entirely possible, I find, to overload completely on Bangor myth (which may be one reason why the novel runs better than 1,200 pages in its present form). I have cheerfully overloaded the book, and am not debating whether to prune back or stick in even more stories. Sanity cries in one ear to prune back before the novel starts to look like “ The Winds of War,” but there’s a devil whispering in the other ear, “Put in more, Steve! Put in all of them, Steve! Who cares if the book’s 5,000 pages long and you have a long gray beard when it’s done? It’ll be fun!”
And the really horrible thing is that it probably would be fun.
Why Bangor specifically? Would not any small American city do? Why, the skeptic might ask, didn’t you find a small American city in some state where you don’t have to freeze your buns off for three months of the year? Well, I could point out that freezing for three months of the year may improve one morally, and it certainly widens one’s perspective — on a February night with the wind howling outside and the mercury hovering around -5 degrees, the idea of blackflies and clouds of minges seems absolutely jolly.
The real answer is that no, not any small American city would have done. Portland certainly wouldn’t have done. And no, I don’t know why. Maybe the book itself will answer the question (but if it does, I suspect the answer will lie in the narrow white spaces between the lines). If there really is such a thing as a “novelist’s perspective” (or, more properly, a “Steve King novelist’s perspective,” because I suppose each novelist must have a different way of looking at things), then it is a matter of heart and instinct. There’s a voice that says: “Here. Yeah. Right here. Dig in, Sonny. You’re home.” And if you try to ask any further questions, the answer you’re apt to get is, “Shut up, dummy, I’m writing a book down here, do you mind?”
One little story before I let you go — when I began closing in on the actual writing of this novel I’ve been bending your ear about, I went to the Bangor Public Library and asked if they had a history of the town in stock. The librarian nodded and said they had twelve of them.
“I’d like the best,” I said.
“Isn’t one,” she replied.
I looked at her. She looked back, saying nothing, with perfect equanimity. Maine people are good at that. They can say nothing longer and with more emphasis than any other group of people on earth.
“Oh,” I said finally (lamely). “Well, I suppose I should have two or three with pictures, then. You see, I’m going to try to write a novel about Bangor as a locale, and —”
At that she brightened up. “Wonderful!” she said. “Just like that fellow Ben Ames Williams! What a nice man he was! Sat in there —” she nodded toward the Reference Room “— every day for most of one summer. He was so pleasant and polite!” Her brow darkened. “Who ever would have guessed what awful things he was writing!”
I’m afraid I’ve also written some fairly awful things in my book, but I hope that when local people read it, they will sense that those awful things have been informed with a larger love for the place and the people — the love of a resident. The book has been finished for over a year now, but this place will always seem like the right place.
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