In which horror writer par excellence Mats Strandberg(author of upcoming chiller Blood Cruise) takes a trip to Stephen King’s hometown and discusses the ways in which horror is the perfect genre to write about class. Originally published on Aftonbladet.
We are standing on the corner of Jackson and Union Streets, staring at a sewer drain. I feel a shiver, even though it looks like every other drain in town. Our guide, an enthusiastic little man named Stu Tinker, places an arm that seems to have been pulled off a mannequin over it. It is supposed to look like someone is trying to climb out from the sewers. Stu chuckles, and offers to take pictures of us next to the drain. Me and my husband decline, but the young American couple travelling with us pose for a whole series of photos.
Elvis fans have Graceland. Dolly fans have Dollywood. Stephen King fans have Bangor in Maine, a state in the north east of the USA: far from the intellectual New York, even further from the glamorous Los Angeles.
Bangor, with a population of 33,000, is an industrial town that has been the home of lumberers, sawmill workers and railroad workers. Being here reminds me of growing up in the small town of Fagersta in Sweden’s old iron belt, and it reminds me of the America that I imagined when I was ten years old and started reading Stephen King’s novels. Being here is like being in a place that I vaguely remember from a dream.
Almost every Stephen King story is set in Maine. Many of them are in the fictional town of Derry, which is based on Bangor. The sewer drain we are staring at is the one where Pennywise the clown gets his gloved hands on little Georgie in the novel It.
The American couple are happy with their photos. Stu Tinker puts his prop back in the trunk of the silver Chevrolet with Pennywise painted on the sides. We get in the car. We look at the statue of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack from American folklore that comes alive in It and starts chasing Richie. We look at the tiny airport where the easily forgotten Stephen King adaptation The Langoliers was filmed. And we look at the Mt Hope Cemetary, where Stephen King himself makes a cameo as a priest in the movie adaptation of Pet Sematary.
But we don’t just look at places from the books and movies. Stephen King’s presence is all over town – at least if you know what to look for. And our guide Stu knows. His company, Stephen King Tours, is not authorised by the author. but according to Stu, he knows Stephen and his wife Tabitha well, and calls them ‘Steve and Tabby’.
It’s not as unbelievable as it might sound. King is known for being spotted in the streets, eating in local diners like any regular guy. When the Observer asked him why he still lives in Bangor, his anwer was that here ‘people treat me as a neighbour, not as a celebrity freak with two heads, and that’s too good to give up’. I can’t help but wonder what he thinks of the four of us being driven around in Stu’s little car.
Stu shows us the places that Bangor has the Kings’ charity to thank for. The professional-sized baseball field, which the locals lovingly calls ‘Field of Screams’, was built in 1992 with a million dollars given by ‘Steve and Tabby’. A very discreet plaque on the ground is the only clue that the Kings made the donation. Stu goes on to show us the water park where all the local kids can afford to go for a swim. He tells us about the library, which is now one of the most visited per capita in the country. The pediatric wing of the hospital that has all the best equipment.
But King is well aware that charity is not enough. In 2012 he wrote an article for The Daily Beast, with the headline Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake! In it, he demands higher taxes for the rich, including himself. He writes that the rich have got rich by exploiting the poor, and is dumbfounded by why the rich are so idolised in America: ‘Don’t ask me why; I don’t get it either, since most rich people are as boring as old, dead dogshit.’
King is well aware that charity is not enough.
It is hardly surprising for anyone who has read Stephen King’s books. The class perspective is always present. The heroes are almost always working class or hard-working middle class. Dolores Claiborne works her fingers to the bone to help her daughter. In The Shining, Jack Torrence has big dreams of climbing the social ladder and becoming a writer. In Cujo, the mother and her son are stuck in a broken-down old car. In The Stand, the rich are the least prepared for the apocalyptic breakdown of society, being used to luxury and comfort.
In 2003, the previously so frowned-upon King was given the National Book Foundation’s Medal for the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his introductory speech, highbrow writer Walter Mosley praised ‘Mr King’s . . . almost instinctual understanding of the fears that form the psyche of America’s working class. He knows fear. And not the fear of demonic forces alone but also of loneliness and poverty, of hunger and the unknown we have to breach in order to survive.’
This understanding comes from first-hand experience. King grew up with a hard-working mother, who was left with full responsibility of raising her children after the father left ‘to buy cigarettes’ and disappeared for ever when Stephen was two years old. He grew up surrounded by Republicans, but has been a passionate Democrat since the Vietnam War. His political views have impacted his life ever since. His and Tabitha’s son Joseph Hillstrom King is named after the man who was born in Sweden in 1879, moved to the USA and became a working-class hero under the name of Joe Jill. King’s son, now a successful horror writer in his own right, uses Joe Hill as his pseudonym.
Stephen King’s political passion shows no signs of fading. Our guide takes us to King’s local radio station that broadcasts old-fashioned rock’n’roll and left-wing politics. King keeps on criticising the Christian right wing’s double standards, especially when it comes to the environment: ‘Whenever it comes to money – the national debt, for instance – they yell their heads off about “What about our grandchildren?” But when it comes to the environment, when it comes to resources, they’re like, “We’ll be okay for forty years”,’ he says to Rolling Stone. Gun control is another issue that King is very vocal about, something that drives trigger-happy Republicans up the wall. And his Twitter tirades about Donald Trump (for instance calling him ‘a thin-skinned racist with the temperament of a three-year-old’) has made the President of the USA block him – something that King himself seems to take as a compliment.
The last stop of our Stephen King Tour is the enormous mansion where the writer lives with his family. It’s a home worthy of a horror king, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence decorated with bats, dragons and spiders. The door is open, but no one can be seen. We take photos outside the gates, and I feel a bit like Annie Wilkes, the woman in Misery who kidnaps her favourite author because she is his ‘number one fan’. Moments earlier, we visited the run-down area where ‘Steve and Tabby’ lived when he wrote Carrie, published in 1974. In 2004 his books had sold more than 350 million copies. The geographical distance is small, but the class journey is enormous.
Standing at the gates I think about the issue of class. It’s a theme that somehow works its way into my novels, too. Perhaps it makes sense that horror is a genre that lends itself so well to examining questions about class and social groups. The very nature of horror is to shake up society, the whole worldview. If you are chased by an evil clown in Derry, or vampires on a ferry, it makes no difference how much money you have. Horror shatters all our social constructs. It challenges the status quo. Which is perfect for a working-class hero such as King.
First published in Aftonbladet, 2017