Betts Signing '98

An In-Depth Report Back from the Betts Bag of Bones Signing
In Bangor, Maine, November 1998


Since the recent weekend I spent in Bangor affected me more than I thought it would, I decided to share my thoughts on the weekend in detail with anyone interested. Since I'm sure my ramblings will be long on thought and detail, I’ve decided to keep the days separate. I've also tried to keep my thoughts as eloquent as possible, which, as I'm sure you're all aware, might be hard for the go-for-the-throat mentality of much of my posts and, on a lesser note, my fiction.

A warning: some of you may not give two flying figs about what I write here. I had a life-altering time, and I figured here, more than anywhere, would be a place for me to ruminate. If you simply don't care about anything, or if you just care about the signing itself, that is your prerogative. I felt I had to share. So, here, my friends, is the beginning:

1. Betts Signing '98, Part One: In Which I Discover Bob Ireland is Really Mr. Mojo Risin'

Airports never seem to lose their mystery to me. There's something magical about seeing men and women entering the belly of these large, metal beasts and somehow floating majestically into the air, only to touch ground at some far-off place that I may never see. Friday night, the twentieth of November, I stood watching out the large plate-glass windows, half-heartedly wondering what it would be like to just buy a ticket and take off to anywhere. I have enough money in my pocket, for once: I cleaned out my savings account that day to give myself spending room for that weekend's jaunt to Betts Bookstore. The thought of it made my mind tingle a bit, and I again became restless.

I held a battered, much-read copy of The Shining in my hand as I paced around Boston’s Logan Airport. I was four-fifths away from the ending, but I was suddenly too antsy to continue reading. My friend, Bob Ireland from Virginia, is a little late, and I'm a bit worried. Could I be at the wrong gate? Isis flight delayed? Has he -- dear Lord, have mercy -- crashed?

As it turns out, I got the middle one right. Bob's plane was delayed. Whence finally touched down and walked through the door connecting plane-world with terminal-world, I could almost hear the click: two SKEMERs, meeting again. The fact that I hadn't seen Bob in over a year meant nothing -- Could have seen him just yesterday. That's the power of SKEMERs -- your friends never really go away.

We arrived at my house late (mostly due to my lack of both driving and directional skills), ordered Chinese food and just talked. We caught up little, I showed him my SKEMERs scrapbook (you'll all see it at the next conference, right, folks?). Then, Bob brings out his cassettes we are to listen to on our way up to the River City in the morning. A brief preface: Told Bob he could bring his own tapes if he left his Harry Conic, Jr. at home. I'm not a metalhead when it comes to my rock, but I like the homegrown stuff like Springsteen, Seger, and Petty, indulging in the nineties "true rock" like Barenaked Ladies and Sheryl Crow. I wasn’t up for lounge music.

But Bob pulls a surprise on me. What he delivers is not The Best of Ethel Merman or Big City by Merle Haggard. We got Pat Benetar Live from Earth,U2's The Joshua Tree, The Doors Greatest Hits, and something that looks truly frightening: Blackfoot's album Tomcattin' I guess my Harry Connick, Jr. worries could be left at the door.

We drove up to Bangor Maine in a metallic blue Geo Metro (logo: "We look like a less-cute Beetle, but we get GREAT mileage."), all the while talking and listing to hard music. Tomcattin' was like music straight from hell: loud and screaming and just what I needed. Bob, for all his accountant looks and placid veneer, can really ROCK OUT. There's another side to this man, you know -- suddenly, I wasn't driving with super-intelligent computer techie Bob Ireland. I was living with the Lizard King, and Mr. Mojo Risin' had me in his thrall.

We arrived in Bangor at the dusky beginnings of early evening. As with my previous three (!) trips to the city that year, Betts was the obvious first stop. Like SKEMERs, Betts is like family. Stu and Penny are Mom and Dad, Lauren is like the sister you wish your sister had been, and Judy is the Aunt that tormented you throughout childhood, but you still loved her. As Bob and I walk into the newly-designed store, we see other SKEMERs have already arrived: Donna (Innsomnia2) and her sister are here chatting away with Stu and happy to be in town. Other SKEMERs begin trickling in: Jay Torreso, Valerie(who now has a computer!), others.

There's also a woman named Chris who has dealt with the Tinkers over the phone for nine years, but was meeting them for the first time. It was also her first time in Bangor, but she had no car -- a fact we were not made aware of until the next day. We immediately struck up a friendship with her, chatting about King and Betts and the like. Everytime conversation waned, I would pickup a copy of Stephen Spignesi's newly-released The Lost Work of Stephen King, awed by its thorough brilliance. Magnify an "ordinary" King fan with a knowledge of pop culture by 100, and you'll get some idea of the man who is Spignesi. Obsessive in his details, utterly readable, and, at heart, a fanboy with a brain -- I couldn't stop pawing through the book, and I talked several other people into needing it, as well. This isn't a plug for that book, not really: these are the facts, take em or leave em.

A certain SKEMERs wife came up with the idea for Bob to foot the bill for our hotel room (a far too generous offering that I was slightly embarrassed but ultimately gratified by). Because of this, I was able to afford the Dark Tower Gift set in one lump sum, in addition to the Stranger Than Fiction double CD (featuring some of your favorite Rock Bottom Remainders -- including King! -- singing and having a great ol' time) and the sepia-toned The Shining. I also made a point to pick up my pass for the signing on Monday -- you need to hold onto your pass, because without one, you're not getting in. No exceptions.

Bob and I retired to our hotel than night (Super 8, which, for my money is better than the mucho-expensive Holiday Inn right next to it. Plus, we get the art-nuveau style of the plumbing on the outside, like that controversial building in France) tired, but happy. We drifted watching TV (don't try to explain Deep Space Nine to an unconverted -- it's an exercise in futility)and discussing ourselves and Stephen King. Bob has an uncanny knack of making subjects I normally find boring (the military, quantum physics, kids) utterly gripping. And when he shifts into overdrive and starts talking about music and concerts and King, you can get blown away. Usually when I'm around very smart people, I feel stupid as a side-effect. Bob never makes you feel like that. Like when I read King, I feel better and smarter for just having shared the knowledge of someone else, if only for a little while.

I fell asleep dreaming about a moment in the future -- at a now tangible time when I would finally meet Stephen King, and talk with him, and shake his hand. I held that dream in my heart, harboring it like some greedy men harbor diamonds. I don't want to explain how or why King became so important to me. The truth is, as King says: the magic exists. And as I tumbled into the dark area of my sleep, I tasted that projected magic. And the magic tasted sweet.

2. Betts Signing '98, Part Two: In Which We Take a California Girl Though River City and End Up Talking About Beagles and Bruce Springsteen

Bob Ireland snores.

Now, before I go spreading vicious truths about a SKEMER I admire and respect, I thought I'd go ahead and do it again:

DiAnne Vandevender also snores.

The reason I bring these two seemingly disparate elements into a forum regarding a Stephen King book signing is simple. The last time I slept in a room with DiAnne was after the SKEMERs conference, and it was the night before I had to go back to work. I got hardly any sleep that night, due to the near- deafening quality of DiAnne's deviated septum. Why is this important?

I became conditioned. Nothing -- I mean NOTHING -- can equal the eardrum- rupturing decibel of our DiAnneVan. So, even though Bob Ireland (a.k.a. The Lizard King) snored loud enough to rate on the Richter scale, I was able to have a peaceful night's sleep in preparation for Sunday morning.

By the time we finished our breakfast at Howard Johnson's (where we were served by an eerily polite young woman who bore a striking resemblance to my idea of Mattie Devore in Bag of Bones), I was wondering what our day might consist of. I had been in Bangor three times previous this year (for each of the Different Seasons, if you include this trip, you might say). I had seen the majority of the "King attractions" and Bangor isn't really a party town.

We were drawn to Betts once again. There's something almost mystical about Betts. It's hard to put a finger on it, but somewhere between the great customer service and the kingly treasure trove, you discover that Betts has transcended the idea of a "shop." Perhaps it's because Betts is the one place in Bangor you can be assured of finding other King fans at any given time. Margaret Cho makes a funny comment on her album Drunk With Power, that when she is in a place with very few Asians, she has to seek them out to feel comfortable. Betts is like that. King fans bond together at Betts, sharing a common thread, understanding a shared lore. I suppose it's one of those places "where everybody knows your name."

We met a few SKEMERs there that morning: IowaBob, RandTor, Ray Jackson. In the SKEMERs confusion, Bob and I ran into Chris again, our friend from California we had met the night before. We had been planning to visit King's house briefly that morning -- it's another one of those "gotta" things. Chris asked demurely if she could "tag along." It occurred to me then that Chris was a newcomer to all of this. My enthusiasm and naiveté I felt during much of the first con was present in Chris now -- a sense of wonder at the marvels of King's fictional/real world. And that, in turn, made me excited for her.

We hopped in the Geo Metro and made the jaunt to King's house. I wrote in my essay about SKEMERCON '98 that I had maybe "gotten used to the magic" of King's house. It turns out, that's not necessarily so. Seeing the house again, touching the gate -- it sounds pathetic and it probably is, but I still get the ol' fanboy rush. It's a sense of wonder and astonishment. The man who has changed my life a thousandfold slept in this house, wrote in this house. It's a bit intimidating.

Whatever I or Bob was feeling, Chris got the bug that much more. We had seen it before, she had not. It was wonderful to see that type of emotion on someone else's face, someone who not only understood but also felt what I felt.

After the house, we made stops at the plastic Paul Bunyan statue, the gazebo (Chris had fun playing "a dead girl" on the gazebo -- Sarah, you started a trend!), and The Standpipe, which looms like a pillar of ivory into the Maine sky. No wonder why they call it "The Crown Jewel of Bangor." We toured around this colossus, locking Chris in the wood-cage on the side, posing near the birdbath, stepping on the rocks out front where King finished his novel It. Then, the idea struck us: there was something none of us had seen. The idea came from the inescapable presence of Stephen Spignesi's Lost Work of Stephen King: why not visit the Special Collections room at the University of Maine in Orono?

I'd been at the university library twice before, and at neither time the Special Collections room was open. Now, it was. Bob and Chris and I checked the stacks, the most apparent place for King material. A collection of King's books was kept there, but the only out-of-the-ordinary exception was a signed 'Salem's Lot, inscribed to the Folger Libray in 1975, hoping for "more books to come." If only they knew then ---

I had to fill out a form to see the "rare stuff" box. My problem was I asked specifically for the "unpublished material," excluding anything in manuscript form that might have been of interest. As it turns out, the "rare stuff" box is available only to those who get a signed release from King himself. We left, a bit elated at the signature, but also disappointed at not having seen the good stuff. If only I had been less specific!

We departed the library, heading back to Bangor from Orono, chatting away about our jobs and our lives and everything else. Bob and I discovered that we each have a connection with Chris: those two both own beagles and spent nearly an hour talking about their respective pets. I was content to listen for awhile -- we were all having a great time and it's always a kick to hear people talk about what excites them. Then, I brought up my rock-god idol, Bruce Springsteen -- and Chris almost flipped. I'm sure Bob felt like an outsider here: when you get two Bruce fans together who find the fact that "Be True" has finally been released on an album endlessly fascinating, you're going to feel a tad bit alienated. He seemed cool, though, like always. The Lizard King does not break a sweat.

We returned that night finding Charlie Fried, Chris Cavalier, and two other "supercollectors" being interviewed for a local TV broadcast. When you're around someone like Charlie, you can feel a little inferior. I mean, this guy has EVERYTHING. But as he points out: "I'm not better a King fan than you. I'm just compulsive, and I have the means to indulge that." That's not verbatim, kids, but the message is there. Charlie's just great.

What was really fun was seeing George Beahm plop down on a couch in the lobby of the Phenix Inn, not yet noticing me. I snuck up behind him, got really close, and said, "Boo!" George didn't jump too much, but I understand they had to turn the cushions on the sofa the next day because of "unexplained urine odor." (Just kidding!)

A word about George Beahm: not only is he on par with Stephen Spignesi as one of the most authoritative King people in the world, he is also my friend and a wonderful man. His sense of humor, though somewhat understated, is the stuff of legend. He's been called everything from "Everything Serves the Beahm" to "Pimp Daddy George," and I for one am better off for having him in my life. 'Nuff said.

That night wound down with a gut-busting trip to Governor’s (Bob and I committed that pesky sin gluttony that night, I'm happy to say. Only one more and I have the whole set!) We conked out after The X-Files, and now began the countdown to K-Day -- the evening which I would get to see Stephen King in the flesh, shake his hand, and get his signature.

Only a few more hours to go ---

3. Betts Signing '98, Part Three: In Which a Fanboy Gets His Wish.

In retrospect, it's sort of amusing to think that I slept late on the day I was going to meet Stephen King. For someone like me, this should have been like Christmas Eve -- nervous and jittery all night, waiting for the morning to come. I remember one year when I was sixteen I took some cough syrup that was supposed to make you drowsy, and watched Mel Gibson's version of Hamlet, figuring it would be boring. Turned out, I got really into Hamlet and only got about two hours sleep that night.

This morning, I awoke with a start to hear Bob saying: "Holy sh**! It's 9:30!" We had plans to meet George Beahm early at Betts that morning, and I didn't want to keep George waiting. Chances were good that I would be accompanying him on another flyby over King's house and the Bangor surround, and I wanted to be there ASAP. Bob and I didn't eat breakfast, we just cleaned up and hoofed it on over to the Tinkers' store. It was sort of like staying over a friend's house and then going home in the morning -- I really can't overestimate the power of Betts.

When we got there, George had already been there for awhile. I caught up with him, informed all that we would be back shortly, and took off for the airport. Luckey Landings was "too muddy," so BIA would have to do. There was only a slight chance that we could get any air time, but a small chance is better than no chance, and we took it. Luckily, when we got there, we found a pilot just "killing time," so we wrestled him and Time (that guy's six-foot-three and ain't he MEAN?) away from each other and we hopped in a Cessna, heading for the friendly skies. My only wish was that I wouldn't be as nauseous this go- round.

Certain factors were in our favor: the pilot was also a photographer, so George was able to get better-angled shots (unfortunately, it turned out later that the pics were underexposed and were mostly useless.) And this being a cooler season, there was much less turbulence this time, making the ride a smoother one overall. (Although the wind rushing at my face from the air at something like 90 miles? knots? per hour made the jaunt a little frosty.)

Again, the skyview of Bangor is beautiful. The Standpipe sits as the highest structure nearly in the center of town, overlooking Bangor like the Marsten House looked over 'salem's Lot. King's house, even more mammoth from the air due to rear additions, was dwarfed by our altitude. Downtown, the Mental Health center, the Kenduskeag: all laid out for us like some oddly metropolitan kingdom. The Cessna was our magic carpet and Sheherezade was down there somewhere, endlessly telling his stories in his huge red castle.

After landing, George and I met up with Bob, fellow SKEMER Pat Donahue, and of course Chris, and headed off to Oriental Jade (known to SKEMERs as The Jade of the Orient -- the setting of the reunion scene in IT.) A brief little plug for this place: the buffet is AMAZING, more food than you could ever want --- and it comes with FREE orange sherbet (I of course jumped at the idea of free food, much to the derision of my so-called "friends." The Lizard King can be so cruel.) And even though there was no open flame, I couldn't help tossing out the Richie Tozier line "Flambé at MY table!"

Here's where it got tense. We drove back to Betts, and it was obvious to us all that the signing setup was well underway. Stu Tinker had set up the signing table in the back -- a large industrial table with a rolling seat behind it -- a large display of nearly every King book set up behind that. Nervously, some of us took turns posing behind the table, sitting in the seat which King would sit in a few short hours. My heart had begun its jittery little jump. The reality of the signing was coming down fast -- I had waited for this moment for years, and the time was almost upon me. God, I hoped I didn't say anything stupid.

Some of us waited at the tableau between Betts and the Phenix Inn instead of jumping in line immediately. We knew there was a space for King's car beside the building, and we wanted to catch the first glimpse of him. We chatted a little, felt the excitement and tension growing in our bellies. Suddenly, Pat said from behind me:

"There he is!"

I turned. A lanky, denim-clad man sauntered from behind the Grasshopper Shop, heading in the vague direction of Betts. My first reaction was "It can't be him." I looked a little closer. Could it? Could it really?

Oh my God, it was.

Still walking, King turned to us, smiled, and waved. Some of us, stunned, raised our hands in return. Then, he favored us with a thumbs-up. Way to go, kids. And then he was gone, into the bookstore and out of sight.

I couldn't believe it. Stephen King had walked right past me and I -- couldn't -- talk. It seemed all right, though, because I was in good company. The others were all stunned speechless, too.

We made our way into line then, where we were treated to cookies and cocoa and hot cider. I eat when I'm nervous, so on top of the large meal from Oriental Jade, I stacked a few cookies and a cup of cocoa, too. I still had no idea what to say when I got up there. I had my copies of Misery and The Dark Half with me, ready for the signature -- I have always believed King's books about writing have been his best, and these two were special ones to me. I thought briefly of engaging King in a discussion of writers and writing, but figured I would probably just screw it all up. I was so damn nervous.

I conferred a little with Jay Torreso, who was behind me in line. I decided I needed to go with something simple that wouldn't fly out of my mind the second I saw King. I hit on it: I'd ask about Alan Pangborn and Polly Chalmers, two of my favorite characters of all time, folks I really want to see in a book again. Great, that was simple and direct.

Soon, Bob Ireland was up. I heard him talking with King about the Rock Bottom Remainders concert Bob had seen that Thursday. I was envious. Bob, as usual, seemed so calm, so collected. I could never be like that, never do ----

Then, it was me. I moved up, a certain lightheaded glee going off in my head like fireworks. Mr. Stephen King smiled at me.

"Nervous?" he asked, sticking out his hand. I gripped it, shaking a little.

"Y-yeah." A big, goofy smile. Dammit, I’d promised myself I wouldn't be a total freak here. From somewhere behind me, I heard Jay Torreso's voice call "Aaaallllan and Poooollllyyyy."

"Oh yeah," I said, finally rerailing my train of thought, "I wanted to ask you about Alan and Polly." King grinned.

"Alan and Polly?" he said. "Those names sound so familiar---"

The Fanboy decided he would assist Stephen King: "From Needful Things."

"Oh yeah. Yeah, they're doing okay." I guess that was all I needed to hear.

Mr. King signed my books, and before I left, I handed him the SKEMERs anthology, explaining as coherently as possible what it was and who had done it. He said he would read it. Ladies and gentlemen, when you hear Stephen King saying that he will read your stories, you have to try real hard not to spontaneously combust with happiness.

I was ushered out the back door. I thought I had everything chilly. I was fine -- no need to worry about me. I had met Stephen King and made it through without embarrassing myself too badly. Then, truth of it hit me -- I had met Stephen King, talked with him, and shook his hand. That's when I began to hyperventilate. My wrists and my ears tingled for some reason. I felt incredibly weak. Bob and Chris helped me to a bench nearby before I could collapse -- this thing ROCKED me, man, rocked me hard.

When I was finally able to climb out of the spell of dizziness I saw George Beahm, Stu Tinker, and Roy Robbins standing around asking me if I was okay. I assured them I was, although even I was in debate on that issue. They got back to what they were doing, and I was left with my books. I cracked the cover of Misery to look at whatever inscription King has written down. I read these words, written in blue ink, and dated 11/23/98:

"Best wishes from your number one fan, Stephen King."

I can honestly say I never felt happier in my entire life.

Soon, it was time for Bob and I to leave. Hugs and handshakes all around, and then the Geo Metro was on the road back to Boston. I don't remember much about that trip, except that Bob once again fascinated me with his vastly superior knowledge, and the soft, percussive rhythm of Steve Miller's "The Joker." Very early the next day, Bob checked out of Chez Kev, and I was once again alone.

But this trip, these past three days, had somehow become the greatest time of my life. Except for the SKEMERs cons, and the various King events I've attended, I never feel that sense of extended euphoria in life -- a kind of rapturous joy you only notice when it's over. You see, King may have gotten to my heart with his words, but it was the people I met, and the places I've physically been to because of those words that have really touched my soul. There really is a "King Community" out there, and I, for one, am blessed to be a part of it.

Stephen King is a storyteller, tending toward the dark side and with a penchant for redefining genres. He is a philanthropist, a novelist, and a fair to middling singer.

But he also grants wishes, folks. And for that, above all, I thank him.

Written over three days: 11/25, 11/26, 11/27 1998. by Kevin Quigley