A breeze blows solemnly from the east. Trees rustle, making sounds like maracas playing a dirge. The hill we’re driving on curves downward, and a massive, grinning figure looms into our view.
The plastic Paul Bunyan has welcomed us to Bangor, Maine.
SKEMERs (Stephen King E-MailERs), an internet group formed two years ago, began its first annual convention in Bangor on August seventh, 1997. People who have written each other via e-mail or chatted on the phone for the two years of the group’s existence were now, for the first time, meeting face-to-face. Like the Loser’s Club in It, every time a new member arrived, there was an almost audible click. We belonged together.
The first SKEMER I met was Rich DeMars. A tall, funny Minnesotan gentleman, Rich simply exudes charm. It’s impossible not to smile when you’re around him, a fact that proved itself over and over again during the convention. It was with Rich that I descended upon Bangor that first day, and visited the Bangor counterpart of Needful Things: Betts Bookstore.
Stepping into Betts is like stepping into a dream. The glass display case to the left contains wonders mere fans can only gawk at: The lettered edition of The Regulators (complete with real bullets jutting from the front cover), or a pristine Christine, the first King limited edition from Donald M. Grant. Behind the case sits an almost overflowing bookshelf replete with even more treasure: The Philtrum Press edition of The Eyes of the Dragon, the profusely illustrated Scream/Press edition of Skeleton Crew, and so much more.
The first person to assist us was Judy Sherman, a hilarious woman with a sharp sense of humor. She displayed and promoted many of the items for us (some of which we put on hold), then introduced us to Stu and Penney Tinker, owners and operators of Betts.
You will never meet a nicer pair of people.
For three hours, Stu and Penney talked to us, even letting us stay in the store after official closing time. We chatted about their hometown and its sights, about their amazingly impressive stock, and, of course, about Stephen King.
Rich and I left Betts that night overjoyed. It had already been a day of discovery and excitement, yet it still wasn’t over. We made a call to our resident Bangor SKEMER, Liese Wood, who arrived minutes later and brought us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn on Odlin Road.
We had just finished putting our travel bags away when the phone in our room rang. Picking it up, I found myself talking with Michelle Rein, the “dictator” of SKEMERs, and a close friend of mine whom I had never met. Rich and I hurried down to the lobby, where we were greeted with running hugs from Michelle. It was happening; the distance of the internet was being replaced with personal contact. That night, six of us (Rich, Michelle, her fiancee Jim, DiAnne Vandevender, Chris Storck, and I) went out to dinner and later found ourselves in the room I was sharing with Rich, talking until well past midnight, becoming real friends in the process.
The SKEMERs conference had officially begun.
The morning began at nine o’clock (delayed a little because we all forgot to call DiAnne and wake her up). In the lobby, we met more of our group: John Thornburn and his mother Olivia, Rich and Tara, and May Hess. Our plan for the day was to visit Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, driving in a gypsy caravan to the Maine coast. At one point, we stopped to ask directions at a convenience store. I walked up to an older man, sitting at the counter and reading a newspaper.
“Do you know the way to Acadia Park?” I asked, a little timidly.
“Ayuh,” the man responded, and slowly lifted a gnarled finger to point at the road to the left of the store. Then he went back to reading his paper.
It was my first real taste of Maine.
The trip ended up going nowhere, mainly because people were too busy talking with each other to pay much attention to our maps. It didn’t really matter much, anyway, because we all wanted to get back to Betts.
On the way, we looked for names and places out of King’s books. It would have been quite silly if there weren’t so many. In our car alone, we saw the Hanscom Hotel, a tractor-trailer reading “Hallorann” on the side, and a place known simply as “The Ironworks.”
By the time we returned to Betts, we were tired but happy. Stu informed us (to our utter surprise and joy) that his shipment of the much-anticipated Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass would be arriving that day. It was when the trailer containing the multitude of boxes arrived that our real camaraderie exercised itself. No one asked the SKEMERs to unload the boxes; we just did. The unloading and unpacking went much swifter than usual, and SKEMERs were the first in the country to buy copies of the book.
As we were about to leave Betts for dinner at the hotel, a man stepped into the store, wearing glasses and a Maurice Sendack shirt and sporting an amazing tan. I should have recognized him, but he had lost weight since I’d first seen his picture in Stephen Spignesi’s The Shape Under the Sheet. George Beahm, who had broadened my knowledge and appreciation of King with his Stephen King Companion in 1989, stood before me and shook my hand.
The night progressed: after the long dinner, many of us went to enjoy the Jacuzzi, which turned out to be as cold as Maine in January. We decided to use the (much warmer) swimming pool instead, later meeting out on the lawn of the outside pool. More SKEMERs arrived, many standing around to listen to George talk about his newer projects and to talk about previous King books. People from all over the USA and Canada were finally meeting other people who didn’t think they were weird for liking King. We all had stories about friends and co-workers who either didn’t read in general or didn’t read King specifically, and didn’t have any idea why we would want to perform a conference dedicated to him.
SKEMERs knew. Something special was going on here.
The day of the actual conference opened early. Rich, Michelle, Bob Ireland, and I got to the conference hall early to set up. Rich’s amazing selection of items ranging from a Grant hardcover of The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands to a photocopied set of The Plant to “men’s magazines” containing interviews and stories were set out for, in Rich’s term, “The Drawing of the Three…and Then Some,” a raffle (the smaller amount of items I brought were dwarfed in comparison). Upon each chair sat a “gift bag” from my collection, each containing a Dark Tower IV preview booklet, a Green Mile screen saver, and another cheap item like an Insomnia bumper sticker or a Nightmares & Dreamscapes bookmark. Michelle supplied plastic spiders. In a surprise move, George supplied five sets of The Dark Tower III artwork portfolios for a separate drawing.
Michelle stepped up to the podium to speak, when Rich and I began our preplanned surprise.
“Wait, Michelle,” Rich interrupted in his big voice, “Kev has something he wants to say.”
I came up to Michelle, bringing my backpack out from a lower shelf of the podium.
“Michelle, we at SKEMERs really appreciate what you’ve done for us, and we really wanted to show you how much you mean to us.” I opened my backpack and brought out a traycased copy of Six Stories (the book sold to us – at cost – by Liese Wood and the traycase by Betts Bookstore). Before Michelle could say a thing, I said, “Let’s see what number it is.” I pulled out the book, and below it sat a thank-you card. I opened it for Michelle, and out drifted the gift certificate. Money donated by SKEMERs and Betts Bookstore since Jim Talmadge came up with the idea in April was finally making it into Michelle’s hands.
She collapsed in joy. Tears streamed down her face. This was quite possibly the happiest moment in her life. However, being the first scheduled speaker, she composed herself quickly and spoke.
Rich and I followed, then Stu and George, respectively, gave expert-eye speeches. Stu proudly displayed his copy of the lettered edition of The Regulators, complete with the Richard Bachman “canceled check” made out to Betts Bookstore. After the speeches came the drawings, transforming many fans into collectors. Then, George graciously agreed to a signing, spending time with each person’s book or issue of Phantasmagoria to leave a personal note – something he didn’t have to do, but wanted to. He was becoming less “GEORGE BEAHM, published author and Stephen King expert,” and more “George,” a guy who shared our interests and wanted to be part of us.
After the conference room closed, the “It Tour” commenced. SKEMERs traveled around Bangor, visiting sights which that book made famous: the Standpipe, the birdbath, and a small part of The Barrens (where some of the more dedicated fans picked up remnants of balloons and pom poms). Then came the part of the tour many SKEMERs had been anticipating for years, a visit to the house formally known as the William Arnold house.
We went to 47 Main Street: Stephen King’s mansion.
The SKEMERs spent about two hours there, taking pictures in front of the iron gate. We walked around to the side, noticing the window where we believe he got the inspiration for “Secret Window, Secret Garden.” A few of us just spent some time staring up at the place King writes his ideas down. There’s a dividing line in perhaps all readers of King that separates the appreciator and the fan. King’s house, more than any other sight we saw in Bangor, edged us closer to plain fandom than any other.
We were still caught up in the moment when a gas station attendant informed us that King was watching a ball game at the park he financed a few years ago. We hopped into the car and hurried to the field, but no one was there. It was really the only moment the locals tried to pull a fast one on the tourists, and we took it with good humor (but still more than a little disappointment).
Once again, we traveled to Betts. The place was beginning to feel like home. Stu and Penney’s raffle went without a hitch, none of us leaving disappointed with our prizes. This was also the day for large purchases, the shelves emptying faster than they could be restocked. After weighing our cars down with merchandise, we made the trip to Miller’s Restaurant.
Everyone enjoyed the buffet meal, which was punctuated by several surprises. George asked Michelle to leave the room and presented a limited edition copy of Demon-Driven, a book about King by George himself, and asked us all to sign it for her. As we all set signatures and messages down, I felt that sense of friendship and community again. We were all here for the purpose of discussing and enjoying Stephen King, but were, mostly by accident, becoming a family.
We rounded out the night in room 218 of the hotel. TBS was airing the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining, and we all gathered around to watch. Mainly, what we did was heckle. We held our own Stephen King-flavored version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, deconstructing Shelley Duvall’s performance in the cruelest ways imaginable. (Several quips called out included “You gotta wonder about a movie where the finger acts better than Shelley Duvall,” “Don’t choke up on the bat so much!” and, my favorite, accompanying the scene where Wendy finds Jack’s ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ manuscript: “Maybe the next page will be different!”) George wrote a note reading “Think SDRAWKCAB and say the password!” When someone would knock, we’d all scream out “PASSWORD!” The response, calling from the other side of the door: “REDRUM!” It was great fun.
Michelle came up to me once during the party and said, “I can only describe this as magic.” It wasn’t just the party or the tour; it was us. We were becoming magic. And I think we all knew it.
It was another early morning. This was the day when most of our clan was leaving, and we had much to do before then. After a brief jaunt for breakfast, we concluded the “It Tour.”
Down the street from the hotel, we traveled to the first image of Bangor Rich and I had seen: the monolithic Paul Bunyan statue, his axe slung over his shoulder and a crazy gleam in his plastic eyes. After handing our cameras to Olivia once again, we all climbed onto the stand Paul stood on and posed for pictures at his huge feet. We decided that the “Richie” of our group should be the mirror of Richie in the Loser’s Club, sitting on the bench near Paul and holding his hands up in horror.
Soon after, we decided to hit the Kenduskeag River. The day before, we had visited a dry part of the Barrens; this would be we all remembered from the book. When we got there, we all agreed that this was the picture the novel had left in our mind. Rich, Becky and I took off our shoes and went wading. As we prepared to leave, a reporter and cameraman from a local Bangor station arrived. Purely by coincidence, they were driving around Bangor looking for groups to get together and yell “Hi, Steve!” “Steve” apparently is the name of the station’s weatherman.
But as we stood on that large rock in the Kenduskeag, we all knew which Steve we were talking to.
Our last stop that day was Mt. Hope Cemetery, where a portion of the motion picture Pet Sematary was filmed. It was there, in the cemetery, where many of us had to say goodbye. Michelle’s departure was the most emotional. She hugged everyone, crying the whole time, not wanting to leave. No one wanted to leave. We had stepped into a world where we were all accepted for who we were and what we read, and the circle was breaking apart.
We were all returning to that thing folks call “reality.”
On my last day in Bangor, Rich and I decided to spend a little more time at Betts Bookstore. I wasn’t just to look at the books one last time or say goodbye to Stu, Penney, and Judy; Stu needed help loading and shipping the boxes of The Dark Tower IV to his customers. That morning we took all the boxes from the back hall and filled up a U-Haul. After that was done, Stu pulled me aside and said, “I need you and Rich to come with me. You need to make a solemn oath. I have to deliver boxes to Steve’s office, and there will be no taking things off the walls or drooling on the carpets. You also can’t tell anyone where it is.”
Rich and I, our brains exploding with excitement, agreed wholeheartedly.
We stepped into the front door, our arms loaded with heavy boxes, and met Marsha DeFillippo, Stephen King’s secretary and fellow SKEMER. She shook our hands and thanked us for bringing the boxes.
Then, to our utter surprise and amazement, she asked, “So, do you have time for the ten-cent tour?”
We were astounded. Once again, we were in the presence of someone who didn’t have to do anything special for us, but she was. Maybe it’s me, but in Massachusetts, this type of thing doesn’t happen often.
She led us through the offices. King’s office was simply amazing, replete with foreign and limited editions of his and other author’s books. Upon the coffee table, sitting placidly among the issues of Time and Sports Illustrated was a lettered, bulleted copy of The Regulators. We saw the artwork for the upcoming re-release of all the Dark Tower books. But, more than the objects in the room was the sense that we were in a room where genius works.
The hall was lined with paperback books set in glass cases and posters for Insomnia and The Shawshank Redemption. The storeroom – simply amazing. Stacks of King books sat piled high, foreign editions cozying up to U.S. trade editions, expensive limiteds standing next to knock-off paperbacks. It was almost too much.
When the time came to leave, Rich and I shook hands with Marsha and thanked her effusively. She, and Stu, had given us an experience that had transcended everything we had hoped for during this trip. Their kindness helped make these five days in Bangor, Maine, more special than we ever thought they could be.
Driving home, feeling Bangor bleeding away, I had time to reflect upon these and other thoughts. The convention had been too short, there had been too few experiences. And yet, thinking back upon it, those days were packed with more excitement than any I had lived through in a long time.
As I watched Rich enter the plane terminal and leave my sight, I began to feel a little sad. My last connection to the Maine event was leaving. Nostalgia for the past few days began to creep in, and I let it. There comes a time when the good times end and the good memories begin. I forged a lot of friendships in Bangor, put faces and personalities to the words I had read on my computer screen. And now, by God, I miss each and every one of them.
I can’t wait until next year.