Familiar Territory

Yeah, I’m doing two posts this week, and one of em’s not a book review. But I felt compelled to write this one while it was fresh on my mind. Which probably means I’ll be struggling to write up something for next week, but them’s the breaks.

What spurred this one was starting The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. It’s a book he wrote for the Hard Case Crime imprint, a series that revives the old pulp tradition by either republishing old stories by the likes of Erle Stanley  Gardner (the creator of Perry Mason) to Max Allan Collins, the author of The Road to Perdition. And, of course, Stephen King.

I’ve had the book for a long time but hadn’t picked it up until now because I haven’t always enjoyed it when authors stray outside the genre they’re known for. I guess, judging from what I’ve read so far, that’s being unfair to Mr. King. He’s done some really good crime-related novels and stories that have little or nothing to do with horror. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption comes immediately to mind. Yeah, there’s some horrible stuff goes on in that book, but no beasties jumping out of dark corners, unless you count the dark corners of some of the inmates’ minds.

Anyway, what I want to talk about is going home to familiar territory, in this case, Stephen King’s Maine.

I mention Mr. King a lot on this blog, and with good reason: he’s a major influence on me (and who knows how many others; I don’t claim special status because of this). Where JRR Tolkien inspired me to read and discover new worlds, Stephen King inspired me to write and try to create new ones of my own.

If you’re familiar with his writing, you know he has a special talent for characters and, right behind them, the setting they’re in. In a few of his novels, the setting doesn’t feel quite as fully realized—The Shining, set in the Overlook Hotel in Colorado comes immediately to mind for me—and feel a little like a fish out of water. By the same token, when he tries to get into what it was to grow up in the 70s, as he does in Dreamcatcher, it feels a little forced. Mr. King grew up in the 50s and he’s able to capture that so well that, after reading It and the novella The Body (which was turned into the movie Stand By Me), I feel almost as if I grew up in the 50s. At least, the way it was lived in Maine. He doesn’t do quite as good a job on the 70s, in my opinion, though he comes damn close.

Another thing he does well is Maine, at least as far as I can tell. After reading so many of his novels set in towns like ’Salem’s Lot, Castle Rock and Derry, I feel like I could fit right in there. I know the local customs as well as I know my own Southern hillbilly ones. I’d never be able to master the downeast accent worth a damn, but maybe they’d come to accept me as someone who was all right, even if I was cursed with the stigma of being from away.

I’d forgotten what that part of reading Stephen King was like: that feeling of having Maine as a second home state. He does for Maine what Mr. Tolkien does for Middle-earth, but, in my mind, he does it better because Maine is a real place. I can empathize with the natives’ mixed attitudes towards tourists, especially that breed they call Massholes (summer people up from Massachusetts who look down on Maine natives). I lived in Massachusetts for a while, and while I can’t say I had any truly negative experiences with the people, as someone who lives in another popular tourist destination—I’m not far from either Eureka Springs or Branson—I can understand the love/hate relationship they have with tourists. They bring in much-needed money, but don’t they clog up the roads and act like idiots?

Thanks to Mr. King, I feel like I know the deep Maine woods, it’s lakes with their summer cottages and fireworks displays on July 4th. I know the bullies in school and in town, because I grew up in a small town—Huntsville, Arkansas—that had the same dynamics. I guess they’re common to one extent or another everywhere, but it always feels special when it’s from your town. My mother is so centered on how things are so much better/worse here was never so pronounced as when I told her, back in the 80s, of contending with Massachusetts snows and she stated, with no doubt, that they couldn’t be as bad as Arkansas snows.

In a sense, she’s right. In this area of Arkansas, snows tend to start out as rain, then freezing rain, then snow so you end up with a coating of snow that has a treacherous layer of ice underneath. I didn’t experience that in Mass, but I know it happens other places. A friend of mine was stationed in Wyoming and he tells me it gets that way up there, too. I’ve been out and away enough to know that we don’t have a corner on any particular market.

But I’m still from here, so the elements we have feel special to me. Reading about Mr. King’s Maine makes me feel like the bullying assholes who are, in the long run, big fish in a little pond, are just the same as the ones I knew growing up. I understand the small town/rural dynamic because I’ve lived it all my life.

There are things you take for granted about it when it’s all you’ve known. Back in 2007, when I first went to get to know my daughter, I remember riding around in Santa Monica and wondering how the hell you could ever learn your way around a place like that. By the second visit, though, I was starting to pick out landmarks to guide me—a natural consequence of growing up where there aren’t any street signs to guide you. To this day, in Fayetteville, I know how to get to a lot of places, but don’t ask me to give you street names. In most cases, I ain’t got a clue. I just know how to get there.

If Derry, the setting for It and a couple other of Mr. King’s novels, was a real town, I think I could find my way around it like a native. I admit I’m not always clear on how one location relates to another, but I think if I found myself there in some weird Twilight Zone kind of way, I’d acclimate fast. And maybe be able to visit some of the characters—well, the ones he let live, anyway.

The Colorado Kid takes place—like Delores Claibourne—on an island off the coast of Maine, but the people there are still very much the stock-in-trade Stephen King Maine natives (what’s the name for them? We’re Arkansans if you’re from out of state, Arkansawyers if you’re a true native), and I feel right at home with them. I’m ready to settle in and listen to them, live a small part of their lives. And maybe re-read one of his older books to rediscover some of the other locales he uses. It won’t be quite the same this time around, but when is it ever? Even with your own, real home? It’s not, because we’ve changed and so has it.

What about you? Do you have a fictional/real place that’s your home away from home? By fictional/real, I mean either fictional, such as Derry or Middle-earth, or real but used in fiction, such as the many LA noir books I like to read (as well as books set in Florida). Do you have a place that you can settle into and feel at home? I’d be interested to hear about them.

Later,

Gil

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