They’ve Been Here Before…

A Report Back from the SKEMERs Convention ’98
in Bangor, Maine


Here in Bangor, Maine, it’s the tail end of July, and the weather couldn’t be better. Feel that warm breeze coming up Main Street? I like the way it rustles in the trees, running down the street from our statue of Paul Bunyan all the way down to Betts Bookstore. Ayuh, seems like the stores’re all closed for business at this time of night, and The Tavern won’t be real busy for a few hours. What’s that sound, you ask? Kind of a low rumbling in the distance? Why, it looks like … well, I’ll be! It’s a car, I’d say, one of those minivans – a maroon minivan to be exact. Some tourist folk are in town, and I think I can … just quite … remember some of them from last year. Schemers, was it? That, or something like that. I wonder why they’re here…

Governor’s was our first stop in Bangor after we checked in to the Holiday Inn at Odlin Road. Here’s the deal with Governor’s: you can eat a full meal, including appetizer, salad, drink, entree, and dessert, for less than the price of a small cheese pizza elsewhere. Their staff (like most in Bangor) is friendly and courteous, and they have a working model train running along the walls of the restaurant, just below the ceiling. Keep your Russian Tea Room and give me Governor’s any day.

Later that night, we went to go pick up our esteemed and revered dictator, Michelle Rein up at the Greyhound Bus terminal. She was to be traveling up to Bangor from Philadelphia that day with her friend Jen, and since we didn’t know who was supposed to be getting them from there, we volunteered. Oh boy.

The fact that their plans were forcibly changed due to Greyhound’s error (the triumphant cry of “GREYHOUND SUCKS!” reverberated in our eardrums throughout the weekend) was only the beginning. Then there was The Tavern. The Tavern is a bar next to the Greyhound station on Main Street which was used as a model for The Falcon, an important locale in the novel It. That night, it was teeming with young, intoxicated “rowdies” looking to get into a fight, yelling threats at long-gone rivals. We out-of-towners basically tried to avoid eye contact, or getting in the way. It’s a slice of Maine you don’t get to see everyday, and I, for one, am glad to have been a part of it.

Michelle and Jen finally did arrive, at around 1:30 in the morning. But lack of sleep wasn’t going to stop us from getting to Betts Bookstore first thing in the morning. As we stepped through the front door, we noticed a red-and-white banner that read “WELCOME SKEMERs.” It was kind of exhilarating to be announced like that – to be given formal declaration that you have arrived. It was one of the many ways Betts made us feel like family.

We were amazed as we walked through the doors. Not only were the normal Stephen King amazements readily available to us, but Stu and Penney had put out a “SKEMERs Specials” table. The prices on Insomnia tour T-shirts had been slashed in half, copies of the British Roadwork and George Beahm’s Demon-Driven, were on sale, plus assorted other goodies SKEMERs couldn’t wait to get their hands on. We were, once again, in collector’s heaven. DiAnne Vandevender scooped up a slightly damaged copy of Six Stories for an amazing price; Rich DeMars had his money set on the Scream/Press limited of Skeleton Crew; both Sarah Toll and Heather Myers walked out with a preview copy of Bag of Bones. Once again, the wonderful staff at Betts was amazingly accommodating. For a retail store, they have truly kept the spirit of family and friendship flowing through SKEMERs. Not visiting them when coming to Bangor would be like not visiting Mom and Dad on holiday.

One of our more famous SKEMERs, author George Beahm, took the opportunity of Friday’s “free day” to take some more pictures for his upcoming book on Bangor, Maine Haunts, from a slightly different perspective: the air. He and assistant Kevin Quigley (mostly what I did was hand George film) took to the Bangor skies in a floatplane from Luckey Landings, photographing the Standpipe (also a major landmark from It), the radio tower of WZON, which King owns, and the King house itself. The house is enormous, a great deal larger than it looks from the street, addition after addition spurting from the back, recalling a certain house in the short story “It Grows on You.” Circling and swooping in the air above Bangor was a magical, dizzying experience, a rare treat I never knew I wanted until I had it. The town spooled out below me like a vast Camelot – a world I was unfamiliar with and yet knew every inch of. It was Stephen King’s world down there, and I was viewing the landscape of imagination.

Several hours after I touched down, the SKEMERs set about to enjoy the official reception dinner at the restaurant at the Holiday Inn. I say “set out to enjoy” because no one really had a good time at the dinner. Regardless of preparation and extensive planning, the waitstaff at the restaurant deigned to know nothing of our coming, postponing the meals and dragging what should have been a forty-five minute event into two interminable hours. Other than getting to know our fellow SKEMERs, we all were extraordinarily peeved at the inconvenience, and will be taking our meal needs elsewhere next year (“Theah’s a Howaad Johnson’s just up t’road,” you might say.)

After the meal and before retiring to bed, we set about to repeat a tradition begun the year before: trash a really bad Stephen King movie, both loudly and joyfully, as we watched it. Last year we did a number on Kubrick’s The Shining (comments flung would have sent Shelley Duvall into therapy for years); this year’s choice was the exquisitely horrid Children of the Corn in room 219, the Room of the Two Debs. We were just getting into the film when Kelly Waterfil burst into the room announcing that we were making a midnight trip out to the Standpipe to see “The Big Lights.” It was a fun way to cap off our night – about forty SKEMERs running around in the dark, staring up at the illuminated Standpipe – our own Dark Tower with a halo of light at the top, beckoning us.

We entered into Sunday tired but excited. This year’s official Conference took place at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer, with the $15 conference fee buying us the room and an accompanying breakfast of coffee, doughnuts, and juice. It was fun to get everyone together in one room, finally meeting these people you only see in words painted on computer screens. Old friends were reacquainted, sharing in memories of last year’s Conference. New faces set about to make memories to share at next year’s conference. We proved again, as we did last year, SKEMERs is a family, and the Annual Conference is like coming home, like finding Derry, like … magic.

The speeches were far more informal than last year’s, with the speakers improvising and just having a good time. Michelle Rein spoke about the genesis of SKEMERs and gave an overview of this year’s con, George Beahm read a chapter from his upcoming book Maine Haunts, Rich DeMars (the First Edition Guy) gave some tips on collecting non-book King paraphernalia, and Stu Tinker discussed the Stephen King Tour, a once-in-a-lifetime event scheduled for the next day. Around this time, the press became interested in us, and a reporter from the Bangor Daily News sat down to interview several of us for an upcoming article. This, of course, was one of our most exciting moments – finally having the legitimate press taking notice of SKEMERs! Michelle just sat back and basked in the glow of semi-super-stardom. She deserved it.

That night, we were afforded a special treat: an advance screening of the new movie Apt Pupil, directed by Bryan Singer and provided by our friends Keith and Rhonda of The Gargadillo, a genre book distributor and part of the SKEMERs family. For two hours, we sat entranced, knowing that we were the first group of regular people to see this piece of film, and loving it. Whether or not the movie was any good was really beside the point (although it was very good; Different Seasons is blessed): we were taking part in another one of those magic moments, one of those times when you felt singled out and kind of special to just be where you were and doing what you were doing. The few, the proud, the SKEMERs.

The so-called Stephen King Tour commenced the next morning promptly at nine. The previous year’s caravan confusion was remedied by a bus rental provided by Stu and Penney Tinker (told you they were great.) Not only was the ride more comfortable, but the extent of Maine traveled was far greater than before. Stu and Penney have lived in Maine for a long time, and they are familiar with Stephen King’s version of it. We were able to visit the University of Maine at Orono (where King went to college, and where SKEMERs climbed all over the statue of UMO’s black bear mascot, Bananas), the Bangor International Airport (a central location of “The Langoliers”), Mount Hope Cemetery (where a portion of the film Pet Sematary was filmed), and the New Franklin Laundry (where King worked for some time, giving him the inspiration for “The Mangler” and providing a backdrop for the novels Carrie and Roadwork.) We drove by several locations important to King’s work: Route 2 (where the Long Walkers began their journey), the Orono Police Barracks (used in The Dark Half; King originally listed the Barracks’ real phone number in the novel, but in later editions changed it to a generic number due to the onslaught of curious callers), The Bangor Mall, including the Oriental Jade restaurant (changed to The Jade of the Orient for the reunion scenes in It), and the Bangor Rite Aid (a major locale in the upcoming Bag of Bones). Stu didn’t forget the Kings’ real world philanthropic efforts either, in some ways more important: we saw the Eastern Maine Medical Center, to which Stephen and Tabitha donated $750, 000 for a children’s wing; the new Tabitha Spruce King Wing (doesn’t come with fries) at the Old Town Library in Old Town; and the Shawn Trevor Mansfield Little League park, inevitably dubbed the “Field of Screams”, funded entirely by the Kings.

The bus trip lasted six hours, followed by a closing dinner at Pat’s Pizza, a college hangout frequented by King in his UMO days (he also was a regular at the Old Shamrock Bar across the street, which, in those days was a haven for folk musicians; SKEMERs stuck to Pat’s.) The dinner was faster, cheaper, and better than the one at Holiday Inn, leaving all in fine spirits. The dinner was, though, bittersweet: many would begin the exodus from Bangor that night or the next morning, and we were all sorry to see our friends go. Deb Seapaugh was crying as she said goodbye to me and Michelle, whom she aptly dubbed Mother Abagail. That tenebrous magic that had held us together throughout the weekend was waning as the circle broke. It’s sad to say goodbye.

Several of us stayed on a couple more days, to tour the state, visit the Bangor Public Library, or hang out at the playground across from the Mansfield Park. At the playground, some of us put on a “Stephen King Revue,” acting out scenes from Misery, Rose Madder, and The Stand (all of us started coughing, then we collapsed in limp sprawls. Maybe you had to be there.) In Bass Park, we reenacted the “gazebo” scene from The Dead Zone, in which I, of course, got to play Frank Dodd, Sarah played the dead girl, and Rich played the watching psychic Johnny Smith. Before returning to the van, we continued our tradition of mounting the gigantic plastic Paul Bunyan statue (Rich, who stands at 6’ 6”, couldn’t hold a candle to the towering lumberjack.)

We visited King’s house one last time – still gorgeous and relatively spooky, but now I was viewing it differently. There’s a funny thing about perspective: you spend your life thinking something is huge and unreachable. When you see it from a different angle (like from a plane 800 feet above the ground), you can gain some objectivity. The relative size changes. Suddenly, I was looking at a house that a man I admire lives in, not the Castle of the Godlike King. And, despite the fact that I almost “stepped in dog feces” (to quote the Bangor Daily News) to see The Mangler, perhaps a bit of my “fanboy” reverence was slipping away. Maybe I was just simply getting used to the magic.

On Tuesday morning, my group packed itself into the maroon minivan and headed out of town. It was early enough that many of the business had not yet opened, and the town was still relatively quiet. We slipped out of Bangor like the wind, with only some Howard Johnson’s breakfast plates left as our mark upon the day. A mirror to the night we arrived, Bangor, Maine took no notice of us. We were outlanders – pilgrims from afar. And now it was time to go home.

It’s a gray day here in Bangor, and the cold does a number on these old joints. But what’s this? That minivan again, heading out of town. I hear the Daily News wrote a little story on those kids. Oh, ayuh, stepping in dog mess, they were. Ain’t that just a corker? What’s that you say? Will they be back again next year? Why, I’d just about bet on it. Yes, I would.