It would be difficult to find a modern writer who explores the notions of place better than does Stephen King—how a holy place might be made “haunted,” radiating the evil of Hell rather than the grace of God…
Ever since God exiled Eve and Adam from paradise, we have longed to know place. Sometimes that place is where we are born, sometimes where we will go, and sometimes merely in our brightest (or darkest) imaginings. Most of us—especially in modernity—rarely stay in any once place for too long. We are as restless as we are desirous of surety.
In twentieth-century literature, no one understood this better than Willa Cather. In every one of her stories, she asks repeatedly if we know our place. In his own fiction, the great humanist Russell Kirk also repeatedly asked about the notion of place as understood in geographical space as well as in a Platonic understanding of story.
What we often don’t recognize is that our desire to find place is as mythical (Eden) as it is natural. As to the latter point, we would do well to remember the ancient definition of justice: to give each his due. This is, of course, a rather philosophical way of understanding where our place is in society.
For Cather and Kirk, it is worth noting, we can easily misjudge what we believe to be our right place. And, we must also recognize that while a place might be holy, it is just as possible for it to be unholy, especially if repeated abuses have been committed over and over again on the same soil. Such a place becomes “haunted,” so to speak, radiating the evil of Hell rather than the grace of God.
For Cather, these places are almost always redeemable. The grave of a suicide, for example, might become a crossroads, a spot that all revere, even though the reasons why have disappeared with the passage of time.
Kirk, however, remained more skeptical. In both his fiction and non-fiction, he argued that the rape of Michigan’s forests might forever make a certain soil more hospitable to evil than to good. Such, he thought, was the case for his own Mecosta County. The “genius loci is malevolent,” he wrote of his county. Despair lingered over his home soil, he feared. Indeed, Kirk seems to have considered himself, his ancestral home, and his family almost as sentinels of good, keeping watching on the growing evil around each. Kirk was, it seems, a sort of American Heimdahl.
Cather and Kirk have long since passed out of time, but one of their most important followers, Stephen King, writes stunningly of place, whether in Maine, Nebraska, or Colorado.
Since sometime in my later junior high years, I’ve been rather in love with Maine. Granted, I’ve only been to the actual state three times in my forty-nine years of life, and all of those in the last five. For at least thirty-five years, though, I have visited it too many times to count—at least in my deepest imaginings. My love for that most northern of New England states came exclusively from the realm of imagination and imaginative literature. Back in the earliest years of the 1980s, Stephen King’s fiction made Maine seem as mysterious as it was magical, full of horror and heroism, a place located in this world but not necessarily in this time frame. A third of a century later, King’s Maine still intrigues me almost as much as Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Bradbury’s Mars.
Many of King’s stories take place not just in Maine, but in three Maine towns: Castle Rock; Salem’s Lot; and Derry. Feel free to look for them the next time you visit that most northeastern of states. Sadly, no matter how much you look, you will never find any of these towns in any official road atlas or on Google Earth.
These three towns exist (well, to varying degrees, as evil has taken its toll on each) strictly in the heart and soul of Stephen King and in those of his readers. There is nowhere in Maine actually called Castle Rock, Salem’s Lot, or Derry.
Using artificial geographies, though, we can somewhat determine where each would exist were Stephen King’s mind completely accurate in matters of this reality.
King’s Castle Rock would exist somewhere southwest of Rumford, twenty or so miles from the New Hampshire border. Of his stories, the most important that are placed there are The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and the short story, “The Body” (the basis for the movie, Stand by Me).
One hundred and twenty miles to the east of Castle Rock is another King place of fictional wonder—Derry, Maine, home to another whole set of his stories, including the spectacular, It. This town, as King has described, sits just west of the very real town of Bangor.
If one headed northeast from Castle Rock and northwest from Derry, he would find Salem’s Lot, home to the novel of the same name. This is the hardest of towns to pinpoint on the map, but it appears to exist southwest of the real Maine town of Chesuncook.
The three seem to form a kind of “Bermuda Triangle,” in which anything can happen, and women, men, and children as well as towns frequently succumb to the darkness of the abyss and disappear from all realities. As the father of a main character in It tried to explain to his son, “It’s because of that soil. It seems that bad things, hurtful things, do right well in the soil of this town. I’ve thought so again and again over the years. I don’t know why it should be… but it is.”
In Stephen King’s Maine, temptations linger and sins multiply in this triangle of the absurd, but nobility exists as well. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a modern writer in any genre who understands and explores the notions of place better than does King.
And, yet, one might complain, King is “just” a horror writer. True. But, who better to understand the evils that plague us?
Dedicated to Liz Bardwell, my favorite Mainer.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.