The new film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT may have been filmed in Oshawa, Ontario, but for the author there’s only one Derry, Maine. In a 2002 interview with Tony Magistrale, he explained, simply, “Derry is Bangor.”
Stephen King and his family moved to Bangor, Maine, in 1979, around the time that he conceived his ultimate horror novel. They chose the town, he said, for both personal and professional reasons. First of all, King and his wife Tabitha fell in love with the graceful Victorian houses on West Broadway, and with a nearby school that their children could walk to. As a novelist, King was also drawn to Bangor because the town had stories. And some of them were pretty dark.
The darkest story revolves around a hate murder that happened in the summer of 1984. On the night of July 7, a 23-year-old gay man named Charlie Howard was assaulted by three teenagers on the State Street bridge downtown, and thrown into the concrete-walled canal below. Charlie couldn’t swim, and his body was found downstream a few hours later. This real-life horror story inspired the murder of Adrian Mellon in King’s novel… except Adrian doesn’t drown. When he gets thrown off a bridge, he finds Pennywise the killer clown waiting for him below.
In the novel, the murder of Adrian Mellon prompts a reluctant reunion of Derry natives—the Losers Club—who come back home to re-live their childhood and confront their worst fears. The leader of the pack is a guy named Bill Denbrough, whose kid brother George was killed by Pennywise on a rainy day in 1957. George was sailing his newspaper boat on rivulets of rain near the corner of Witcham and Jackson Street, until his boat disappeared down a storm drain. When he tried to retrieve it, Pennywise attacked.
As it happens, there really is a storm drain near the corner of Union and Jackson in Bangor, Maine. Thankfully, it has a manhole cover.
In Stephen King’s novel, the sewer system beneath the streets of Derry is Pennywise’s secret lair. In a 2002 interview with Tony Magistrale, the author spun a yarn about an urban legend that the sewer system in Bangor was so hastily built in the 1930s—while the WPA was throwing money at public works projects—that the town’s engineers “lost track of what they were building under there.” As a result, King says, nobody has a truly reliable map of the Bangor sewer system and “it’s easy to get lost down there.” True or not, it’s a good setup for a horror story. Bill Denbrough essentially repeats this urban legend in IT, right before he and his friends embark on their underworld journey into Pennywise’s labyrinth.
Their point of entry is a drainpipe in the middle of an overgrown patch of woods and weeds called The Barrens. In the novel, King admits that it’s an ironic name because The Barrens is “anything but barren.” The town of Derry, like Bangor, is built in a river valley. In both cases, the river is the Penobscot. The Barrens near the intersection of the Penobscot and the Kenduskeag Stream, in a part of the valley where the land is too marshy for construction—but perfect for a group of kids on an imaginary expedition through some remote jungle. It’s hard to imagine 21st century children being set free to roam in a place like The Barrens… but there is a place very much like The Barrens in Bangor, visible from an overlook just off of Valley Avenue. And, if you look closely, you can see a drainpipe in the middle of it.
In any place where a killer clown is lurking underground, you’d think that most people would instinctively try to get to higher ground. The western edge of Bangor is that higher ground, and it’s where you can find both Summit Park and the Thomas Hill Standpipe. The standpipe is one of the most iconic landmarks in Bangor. (When I was there in 2013, I remember seeing a craft brewery that featured the standpipe on its beer labels.) In King’s novel, these locations are equally famous. Memorial Park, home of the Derry Standpipe, is the “grownups park” where Stan Uris goes to birdwatch and encounters a certain infamous clown.
Perhaps the only man-made feature in Bangor that looms larger than the Thomas Hill Standpipe—in the imagination, at least—is the 30-foot Paul Bunyan statue on Main Street in front of the Cross Insurance Center. Built in 1959, this statue has always been a bit controversial. Built to pay tribute to the town’s historic connection to the lumber industry, many residents have complained over the years that the statue is too gaudy, and… well… downright creepy. That, of course, made it a perfect inspiration for Stephen King. In his novel, the statue comes to life and starts chasing Richie Tozier down the street. When Richie finally turns around, the statue no longer resembles Paul Bunyan. Instead, he is looking at a 30-foot tall, Day-Glo clown. (Wearing the same shit-eating grin, I imagine.) Kindertrauma, anyone?
If you’re ever in the neighborhood and you want a real tour of Stephen King’s Bangor, be sure to contact Stu Tinker’s SK Tours of Maine. Stu is a long-time fan and collector of King’s work. And like Pennywise’s creator, he has a lot of good stories.