You could say this is where it all started, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong. West Durham, Maine was the childhood home of Stephen King – the place where his mother brought him in 1958, when he was 11 years old. It’s not coincidental that the scenes in IT and The Body (Film called Stand by Me) that are about kids that are 11 or 12 years old take place in that time period.
King’s father had left when Stephen was only 2 years old. Donald King said he was going out for cigarettes, and never returned. After a few years living in Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Stratford, Connecticut, Stephen’s mother Ruth returned to Maine to care for her elderly parents, and her siblings provided a small house in West Durham, next to the Methodist Church.
King’s early years in West Durham were typical for young boys in a rural area at the time. Without the kinds of things that boys today do, or places close to home to go – like shops or a mall, the places close to home became the playground for Stephen.
In a lot of ways it reminds me of my own childhood. When I was young, I spent my whole summers exploring the forest and creek near my house. I rode my bicycle with friends everywhere, exploring train tracks and rivers, playing on dangerous bluffs by the lake, sleeping out in a small pup-tent with flashlights, telling ghost stories and reading adventure and mystery stories.
Sadly, much of this has been lost today, with air-conditioning, TV, the internet, smart phones and video games. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we had to make up our own adventures and our imagination was the spark that lit them.
As a writer, King tapped on his own childhood experiences – the people, the places and things that really happened to him. These became an integral part of his stories.
It was the life experiences and environment around West Durham that inspired stories like The Body, which became the film Stand By Me, as well as some of the scenes in the 1950’s in the novel IT.
It also inspired Jerusalem’s Lot (Salem’s Lot), and in his high school years attending Lisbon Falls High School, stories like Carrie, Graveyard Shift and 11-22-63.
We went seeking some of the real places that Stephen would have been familiar with and were clearly the inspiration for some of these stories. It took us a while to even find Methodist Corners and King’s childhood home, but eventually we did.
The Methodist Church next door still stands frozen in time, everything in its place but gathering dust, almost like some King story.
Right next door to King’s childhood home, we found a gravel quarry and immediately considered it as an inspiration for the quarry in the ‘Apocalyptic Rock Fight’ in the novel ‘IT’.
We found a couple more similar quarries close to where King spent some of his later life in Bangor and on the road to Orono where he went to college, and it’s important to say that sometimes it is not possible to pin an inspiration to a single place. At times, they may be places that King knew about and bits and pieces of each may have been used to create the scenes in the stories.
But there are places that we found that are clearly the real places that inspired King.
Places like Runaround Pond, close to his West Durham home, where he and his friends swam and got leeches on them, just like Gordie LaChance and his friends in ‘The Body / Stand by Me.’ See Runaround Pond.
We stood by the pond and it was like the stories came alive.
We also found the cemetery that was the inspiration for ‘Salem’s Lot’. Again, it took a while to find, but I just regressed into my 11 year old explorer mode, and we found it not far from Runaround Pond.
A childhood friend of King recalled that as kids they once camped overnight among the headstones.
The whole area near King’s home would have been a paradise for exploring 11 year old boys. Dotted with quarries, woods, rivers and railway tracks that he would have known well.
It was likely here that King walked along the railway tracks that paralleled the Royal River and probably crossed the railway trestle over the river, imagining what might happen if a train would come.
We would have liked to explore this area more, but it would have required a real ‘Stand By Me’ adventure of hiking and camping. Maybe next time!
In fact, the truth may be even more macabre. According to King himself:
I told a story that my mother had told me about myself – the event occurred when I was barely four, so perhaps I can be excused for remembering her story of it, but not the actual event.
“According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house – a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.
It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact.”
It’s hard to say if this story is true or not, but if, as King says, he was four years old at the time, he would have been living in Connecticut, Indiana or Wisconsin at the time.
In any event, there was a later incident, told to us by someone who was there at the time, in Lisbon Falls where a body was found on the railway tracks. See Lisbon Falls.
A third story, recounted by one of his childhood friends (the one who in real-life got a leech down his swimsuit – detailed almost exactly in ‘Stand By Me’), says that they saw a dead body at Runaround Pond, but King has never spoken about that incident.
The fact that King may have experienced seeing dead bodies three times as a kid is incredible, yet could explain a lot about his obsession with death at an early age.