Can an entire city be haunted? This question kicks off the “Derry: The First Interlude” portion of the novel IT, which lands somewhere around page 147 depending on your edition. Barely cracking the spine of the massive tome, the constant reader can already give an answer by this point in the story. Yes. Duh. A child-snacking monster with the face of a clown lurks deep within the sewers, and Its hunger has no end. A town can be evil, especially when constructed by Stephen King.
The author has erected many corrupted burgs across his home state of Maine, as well as a few other nightmare destinations throughout the United States. His most famous fictional spots are Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Haven, but there are a handful more. Unless you’re reading Faithful, the Boston Red Sox celebratory memoir he wrote with Stewart O’Nan, anywhere his pen lands on the map is doomed to the chaotic realm of horror. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s special about Derry is that anyone can travel there if they choose, and earlier this summer I did, along with my wife Lisa, as we looked to add a little pop culture flare to our 10th wedding anniversary. Like a lot of you, King was my gateway into reading, and his work knocked down the door that led to the darker avenues of my imagination. One trip to ‘Salem’s Lot and the tame experiences with Scooby-Doo and The Monster Squad would no longer suffice. From King forward, my narratives had to strive for the extreme: extreme scares, extreme action, extreme violence, extreme emotions. Give me melodrama in the purest sense of the word.
For Lisa, a vacation in Derry was not about relishing nostalgia or even revering the master of the macabre. She didn’t grow up with spooky stories. Her family background was extreme in a much different manner: Catholicism. As such, she did not encounter anything creepier than the Muppets’ mad bomber until her late teens. The appeal of walking around Derry was the idea that you could actually step into the pages of a book. A person can sit beneath The Standpipe water tower and read along as young Stanley Uris first confronts the malevolent creature of IT a few feet away. Traveling to Stephen King’s Maine transforms the stories into a 4D experience, and that is very much Lisa’s jam.
Derry is as real as the town where you hang your hat, but you will not find it on any map under that name. King nabbed the designation from a New Hampshire municipality which, in turn, stole it from an Irish community across the pond. However, nearly all the sites you discover in IT are located in Bangor, Maine, the city where King and his family settled right before he put pen to paper on his epic saga in 1981. Most King fanatics learn of its location early on in their obsession, and they have converted the one-time lumber town into a hotspot of horror tourism.
A quick word of warning: I will attempt not to spoil any narrative climaxes, but in describing our tour of Bangor, I will reveal minor details from various Stephen King stories. Nothing to ruin the experience of the plots or characters, but the more sensitive readers should be cautious.
We drove a straight 14 hours from Northern Virginia to reach Bangor. We made no plans, no reservations. The idea was to go, see if we could make it in one shot, and worry about a bed when we got there. In transit, we tinkered with the fantasy of finding an Airbnb seated on a Stephen King landmark or at least one featuring the view of The Barrens (a mile and half track of woods where The Losers of IT spend their afternoons and square off against the Henry Bowers gang). No such luck. We settled on the Holiday Inn, but our consolation was that it’s the same hotel where Louis Creed’s in-laws stay after their grandson gets splattered in Pet Sematary. Maybe not worthy of a photo, but it checked a tiny box in our nerd quest.
We arrived late and hit the hay early, drifting off to sleep with Creepshow playing on my laptop. The next morning, we drove out to King’s famous house with its wrought-iron fence and bat-winged gargoyles. The sun had barely risen, but there were already tourists parked outside snapping selfies. It looked like a necessary requirement for the trip based on Instagram stalking, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to step outside our car. We ogled and moved along quickly.
Not too far from the house is Pennywise’s storm drain, on the corner of Union and Jackson. In both the film and the TV miniseries, poor Georgie is attacked by the clown from a curbside drain, but in reality, it’s a flat circular grate cast to the left of the street. Written on the drain in faint, red letters is the word “IT” and a tiny red arrow pointing towards Union Street. Someone enjoys keeping the travelers tickled. When you follow the arrow, it brings you to a square-grated drain that also had the word “IT” scrawled on top. Fascinating. Which one belongs to Pennywise? When you read the travel sites, they all indicate that the circular drain is the genuine scene of the crime.
If in doubt, turn to King. In the novel, on page 12 (in the current trade paperback), Georgie’s paper boat races over a river of rainwater only to be consumed by an open gutter. King writes, “It was a long dark semicircle cut into the curbing, and as George watched, a stripped branch, its bark dark and glistening as sealskin, shot into the stormdrain’s maw.” Hmmm…that actually doesn’t sound much like either of the drains we saw at Union and Jackson. As we traveled through Bangor, we kept looking for any kind of semicircle drain to match the book’s description, but all of them seem to be of the grated variety.