It's Not Just Horror: Stephen King's Haunted Hamlets
I can remember the day, the moment, I first read Stephen King. At the tender age of eight, I picked up a used, well-loved copy of Cujo from a local library sale. As a timid kid, dogs scared me, so what better place to start...
Wrong. I didn’t even make it through ten pages. Hell, I never even got to meet the titular rabid St. Bernard. Serial killer Frank Dodd* stopped me dead in my tracks. In the opening scene, Little Tad Trenton is convinced Frank is living in his closet, just waiting to grab him as he walks by. I took one look at my own closet, closed the book, and hid it in my sock drawer like a good Indiana boy.
I would eventually read Cujo - not to mention pretty much everything else King wrote throughout his illustrious career - but it’s not the Frank Dodds or the Pennywises that have made me a lifelong fan of man's macabre musings. It’s the towns: Derry, Castle Rock, and my personal favorite, ‘Salem’s Lot. Every diner, every corner, every fixit shop (with chambray shirt-wearing mechanics of course) is laid out with the zeal of a mad city planner.
Closing my eyes, I can see these everyday environs. Yet it’s not because I’ve read ‘Salem’s Lot thirty-one times (I have). It’s because ‘Salem’s Lot and Derry are my town. As I read and re-read King, I see Franklin, Indiana in my mind's eye: a fantastical facelift of the boring Nowheresville that formed me.
Reading IT, Pennywise wasn’t in Derry. Pennywise lived under our old bridge on Water Street. The store where Gordy went to buy supplies for his and his friends’ trip down Old Harlow Road? That’s Smiley’s Mill, where we used to stop for cheap knock off sodas and maybe a purloined dirty magazine. We even had The Old Witches House, our local Marston House.
Underneath it all, there’s that underlying evil, something sinister bubbling just under the surface. Like the small towns of Stephen King, we had that too. A local factory leaking poison into our groundwater took, and is still taking, the lives of our youths with the vindictive evil of an ancient clown. A local murder cast a pall over our town (not unlike the crimes of one Frank Dodd). Our neighbor, like Carrie’s mother, feigned righteousness while committing dark deeds behind closed blinds.
The real terrors in King’s towns aren't the ancient evils. They're not vampires, possessed Plymouths, or the “shit-weasels” of Dreamcatcher infamy. It’s the bullies, the holier-than-thou Bible Thumpers, and the abusive parents. I’ve known plenty of Ace Merrills and Henry Bowers in my time - with their dead, shark eyes, just waiting for you to take a wrong turn down a dark alley. Then your milk money is theirs, along with a pint of blood if they see fit.
Still, I don’t come back to these towns for the darkness that exists on their edges. I return to these thickly accented communities King builds; boroughs full of decent, hard working folks, people. Not to sound like a Republican running for office, but these are the towns I want to live in. Sure, there are bullies and killers in King’s towns, but I don’t think about them much. I return to ‘Salem’s Lot to spend time with people like English teacher Matt Burke. Matt’s kindness and pedagogy inspired Ben Mears to pursue his career as a writer, and that's what I needed early in my life.
Matt and Ben's relationship make me think of John Strickland, my Senior English teacher. He let a burgeoning screenwriter write his thesis paper on Blade Runner (1982) and gifted him with his first book on screenwriting (which still stills on my bookshelf). Like Matt Burke, John was a man of letters in a small town, inspiring the next generation of artists. I never got to say thank or goodbye to my teacher before he passed, but he’ll always be there when I read King's seminal vampire text.
I’ve known my fair share of Jud Crandalls as well. I’ve seen him in my neighbor, Jim Strong - or “Jimmer” to his friends. Jimmer's the guy you call when you need anything fixed fast, or if you want to play a quick game of Monopoly over a cold Coors. If you think Jud Crandall with all his All-American goodness is a bit over the top, then you certainly haven’t met Jimmer, another real life example that the truth will always trump fiction.
Or there's my childhood best friend’s dad, Allen. A plumber by trade with the wit of Mark Twain, you wouldn’t believe it if you read how he eloquently spoke in plain wisdom. There’s a simple goodness to people like Jimmer and Allen; something that’s tough to put into words. Yet I see it in Allen’s grandson, Oliver: a burgeoning Bill Denborough if there ever was one. I don’t know if Oliver will ever fight an evil clown, but he’ll definitely make the world a better place with whatever pursuits he eventually sets out on.
Here I am, getting all sappy in the middle of an essay about a horror novelist. Truth be told, it's difficult to remain unsentimental when you’re talking about King. You may think you don’t know a Jud Crandall or a Matt Burke, but I think you do. It’s no surprise that Stranger Things has become this cultural phenomenon, and I’m certainly not the first person to see the obvious connections between the world of Hawkins and King's Castle Rock or Derry. Still, I don’t think it’s about the monsters. People want to live in Hawkins because it reminds them of their own American ideal.
That world is 100% King. He owns a corner of the market on Norman Rockwell's Americana -- the diners, the gas stations, old men chatting on the porch. That’s a town I want to live in, that many of us want to live in.
Near the beginning of Silver Bullet (1985), our plucky narrator, Janie, says, “This is Tarker’s Mills, where I grew up. And, this is how it looked that spring, a town where people cared about each other as much as they cared about themselves.”
I’m not sure I ever lived in that town, but it's another reminder of the blue collar nightmares and dreamscapes King helped us glimpse from time to time.
*If this name rings a bell for other Constant Readers, Dodd was the Castle Rock Strangler from King's previous novel, The Dead Zone, responsible for several rapes and murders during the '70s, and who was hauntingly dispatched via a pair of scissors in David Cronenberg's '83 film adaptation.
Marten Carlson is the co-host/founder of Secret Handshake.