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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Before You Go: ‘Chasing Stephen King’

CRL columnist John Gray goes in search of the author's home.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words so let’s take 1,144 to explain the photo on this page. That’s me standing in front of author Stephen King’s home in Bangor, Maine just two months ago. In the moment before the photo was snapped I noticed two things: someone was home and the side gate was wide open, almost inviting me to walk up and knock on the door. No clown named “It” or snarling dogs named “Cujo” were protecting the property. It was wide open for mischief. And wasn’t I entitled? I mean, I drove all this way, six hours, to a place you couldn’t find with good luck and a map, with a King novel in my hand hoping for an autograph. Plus it’s October, the time for tricks or treats, so surely Mr. King would understand his number one fan stopping by for a cup of cider. So did I do it? Did I creep past the wrought iron fence adorned with bats and spider webs to meet the master of horror?

Like a good King story you’ll have to hang with me a bit until we get to that part. I told you the journey from Albany to Bangor takes six hours, but the truth is my search for King began in the fall of 1994 when I had a chance to meet my favorite author, but blew it. I threw it away like a winning lottery ticket. Here’s how: Stephen King once said he has the heart of a small boy that he keeps in a glass jar on his desk. He’s kidding (I think). The truth is he has a huge heart. Back in the 90s when he saw a number of independent bookstores closing because they couldn’t compete with the Walmarts and online discount sites, he wanted to help. He hopped on his motorcycle, drove cross–country on a 10-city tour and stopped by a handful of smaller bookstores to bring media attention to the problem. One of them was the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.

The year was 1994. I had a new baby at home and anchored the early morning news on TV. Those 4am to noon shifts can be a killer, so when my boss offered me a chance to drive to Manchester to interview King at 3pm, I hesitated. Sure, I’d read about 20 of his novels and he was my favorite author by far, but I was exhausted so we sent a videographer in my place.

The next day when I asked him how it went, I was actually praying he’d say “Stephen King was a jerk.” Please tell me he was rude and dismissive, weird and aloof. Nope. “Oh my God John, he was amazing,” he told me. “He jumped off his motorcycle and took pictures with everyone and signed every book that was put in front of him. He answered questions for a half hour, even the stupid ones and was so down to earth.” Shoot me now. I made myself a promise that day. Never again would I pass up a chance to meet someone that cool because I was tired. I also vowed to someday take a trip up to Bangor, Maine, King’s hometown where he still lives to this day, in the hopes of meeting him.

I’ve read biographies on King and know a lot about his personal life. I also know he likes to keep it private and the people of Bangor protect him that way. Stop a local person on the street and ask them for directions to King’s house and they’re just as likely to send you in the wrong direction. I turned to a stalker’s best friend, Google, but found conflicting information on where King lived. Not to worry, I’d seen photographs of his spooky-looking home, so if push came to shove I figured I’d drive every street in Bangor until I found it. I mean that’s what Annie Wilkes would do in “Misery”, right?

When I checked into the hotel in Bangor I made small talk with the desk clerk and got ready to ‘grease’ her (that’s code for bribe). Being local she’d have to know where King lived and I figured an Abe Lincoln would get the job done. I leaned in to whisper, “I know this sounds geeky, but I’m wondering if you could tell me where a certain author…”, she interrupted me. “Sir.” Oh God, here comes the lecture, I thought. She’ll probably call security and say they’ve got another whack job who traveled halfway around the world to break into King’s house like that guy in “The Shining”… “Here’s Johnny!” She continued, “On the piece of paper I gave you with restaurant suggestions we have already printed out directions to Stephen King’s home. Have fun.” Alrighty then. So much for secrecy.
Two turns and a half-mile later I was parked on King’s street staring at his spooky fence. Someone was definitely home, and as I said the side gate was open. I traced my fingertips across my copy of Hearts In Atlantis picturing him greeting me at the door with a smile and signing it, “To my favorite columnist in Albany. Keep writing. Your friend Stephen King.” Then I thought of King’s many stories and how they NEVER have a happy ending. My God, he even killed John Coffey in “The Green Mile.” What if this story ended the same way? I started to calculate how much time I might get in jail for trespassing. I’m sure if I told him about the Northshire and my morning shift and how tired I was back in 1994 he’d tell the cops to stop tazing me, right?

Just as I was about to say “to heck with it” and step onto the property, I remembered that movie “Misery” and a line James Caan said to Kathy Bates right before she broke his feet with a sledge hammer. “Annie, whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. Please don’t.” John, whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, please don’t. So I turned myself around and posed for this photo instead. That’s twice now I’ve missed my chance to meet Stephen King. The first time for doing the wrong thing, the second for doing what was right.

One of the nice things about being a writer is you decide how and when the story ends and I think there is one chapter in this tale still left to tell. Somehow, someway I see the King and I meeting up. It’s a silly little dream, but where dreams live so, too, does hope. And didn’t Andy teach us in “The Shawshank Redemption” that “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing.” We’ve all seen that movie, but do you know who wrote that wonderful story? Here’s a hint. I’m standing in front of his house.

John Gray
John Gray
John Gray is an Emmy-winning journalist and writer. In addition to his 32 years of television experience, John is the author of three children's books and two novels. He is married with three children. He and his lovely wife Courtney have five dogs, three of them are rescues with special needs. They make their quiet home in Rensselaer County.

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