If there is a trope about Stephen King novels, it would be this: A white, male novelist (or teacher) uncovers an otherworldly threat. The outside world is unable to help, so he surreptitiously fights it on his own. He’s joined by a slow-to-believe friend or two, perhaps with a potential romantic partner. There is a confederate in their midst, someone who will complicate their mission. And all of this happens in Maine. Always in Maine.
It’s not uncommon for an author to use a familiar location across the breadth of their body of work. John Steinbeck often set his novels in Salinas, California. Washington Irving set many of his short stories in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Most of James Ellroy’s crime tales take place in Los Angeles. The setting for William Faulkner’s novels is fictional Yoknapatwpha County. Who can begrudge King his Castle Rock, his Little Tall Island, his Derry?
But over a span of 50 years, 64 novels and more than 200 short stories, even Maine’s favorite literary son has spread it out. The more well-known locales would be an old hotel in the Rockies, a prison in Louisiana, an oasis for the righteous in Boulder, and a post-apocalyptic Gomorrah in Las Vegas.
Less recognized is that a considerable number of the tales in the King oeuvre are set in New Hampshire. It’s a slim slice in a very large pie, but Maine’s neighbor has not been ignored by the Master of Horror. In fact, King rivals John Irving for the number of major novels with scenes set in the Granite State.
New Hampshire isn’t just a pass-through state for the author, another toll booth to hit on his way from Bangor to Fenway Park. The King family has ties here. His late brother, David, was a longtime resident of Milton. His son, Joe Hill, is one of the industry’s hottest writers and lives in Exeter. In speeches and on Twitter, King has made light jokes at New Hampshire’s expense (every Lilliput needs its Blefuscu to war with).
When King began writing under a pen name — Richard Bachman — he created a whole backstory for his alter ego, which included Bachman moving to an imprecise location in central New Hampshire to run a dairy farm as his day job.
For a writer looking to widen his map, perhaps countervail his reputation as a Maine nativist, New Hampshire has allowed King to change the zip code without really changing the gothic setting he’s known for.
“When he talks about the small town in Maine, what he’s really talking about is the small town in New England,” says Dr. Anthony Magistrale, a professor at the University of Vermont who has written several books about Stephen King. He says the brick mill towns and rural communities in the states are visually and culturally interchangeable.
In an early short story entitled “Night Surf,” a crew of former college students leave behind a world decimated by a plague by catching some waves at New Hampshire’s Anson Beach. A J.D. Salinger-type author is kidnapped from his secluded New Hampshire home in the “Finders Keepers.” A serial killer victim in “A Good Marriage” hailed from a place called South Gansett. The Bullet, in the novella “Riding the Bullet,” is an attraction at Laconia’s imaginary Thrill Park from a weary hitchhiker’s past.
One of King’s most recognizable fictional Maine communities, Castle Rock, first made the page as a New Hampshire town. It appeared as a backwoods farm community in a short story “Weeds.” Largely overlooked, it was adapted in the 1982 anthology movie “Creepshow” as a segment called “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” King himself played the titular character on film, a dim backwoods farmer who discovers a meteor on his property. The space object gives off a rapidly spreading green fungus, which soon covers the farm and Jordy Verrill himself. (This causes King’s character to retreat to the bathroom and yell through the door, “No! Not there!”) The alien vegetation continues its sprawl from the farm, making its way to the unsuspecting Granite State village and beyond.
“Setting in a fiction story is really just another character,” says storytelling guide Lani Diane Rich of the “How Story Works” podcast and book of the same name. “In the same way that a character based on someone real becomes their own thing, so do the fictional settings an author creates, even when they’re based on real places. The reality shifts and shimmers, and a real place magically becomes something else.”
When not battening down in Derry or Little Tall Island, fighting the evil that has come to his heroes, King’s other protagonists venture on epic journeys that take them from the ordinary world of New England to the strange world beyond.
“So much of the first part of his career is map-based. He clearly has a map of interstate highways across the country,” Magistrale says, noting books like “The Stand,” “The Talisman” and “The Dark Tower” series. He says it shows the author had been considering the world beyond Maine and the narrative value of proceeding into it. “These characters are able to move from the highway into fantasy.”
Several of these westward journeys start in real and imagined communities in New Hampshire.
In “The Stand,” Glen Bateman was a sociology teacher at Woodsville Community College before the super flu wiped out the population. When Stu Redman asks Bateman to join him on a quest to find other survivors, he declines, preferring to stay in New Hampshire with Kojak, the only surviving dog in town. Eventually, he joins the journey. Nadine Cross, leaves her pre-plague life as an elementary school teacher in South Barnstead. In Epsom, she discovers a boy, Leo Rockway, and nurses him back to health. They also leave New England for the Boulder Free Zone, where she’ll betray the survivors with a bomb and head to Las Vegas to be the bride of Randall Flagg, the leading villain in King’s multiverse of novels.
In “The Talisman” (co-authored by Peter Straub), 12-year-old Jack Sawyer lives with his dying mother in the resort community of Arcadia Beach. One of its landmarks is the Alhambra Hotel, a substitute for Rye’s historical Wentworth by the Sea. Jack sets off in search of a talisman that will cure his mother’s cancer, then returns to New Hampshire. The Alhambra made a return appearance in “The Tommyknockers.”
Magistrale says, “I think he knows New Hampshire pretty well, but for crying out loud, you gotta go through New Hampshire to leave Maine.”
Not all of his journeys through New Hampshire are westward. In the pre-“Hunger Game” YA dystopian novel “The Long Walk,” published under the Bachman nom de plume, 100 boys compete to the death in a hike south from the Canadian border through Maine, across New Hampshire and into Massachusetts. In another Bachman publication, “The Running Man,” Ben Richards flees from New York to Manchester, disguising himself as a priest, hoping to evade the hunters who’ll kill him as part of a television game show. In “Cell,” after a strange pulse turns cell phone users into (literal) zombies, a group of people travel north from Boston along Route 28 and stop at Gaiten Academy, Derry’s Pinkerton Academy in disguise.
A journey into New Hampshire with no discernible compass occurs throughout “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.” Nine-year-old Trisha is separated from her family when she wanders off the Appalachian Trail. Thinking she’s heading for North Conway, she makes her way deeper through the White Mountain National Forest, past the fictitious Kezar Notch, all while listening to Red Sox games on her Walkman.
There are two other King novels placed firmly in New Hampshire’s North Country. “The Dead Zone” utilizes several factual and fabricated municipalities. Growing up in Durham, Johnny Smith suffered a head injury playing hockey on Runaround Pond, leading to a premonition of calamity for one of the boys. Johnny spends five years in a coma after a car crash. When he awakes, his powers of clairvoyance have sharpened. When he takes someone’s hand, he can see visions of their past or future. He helps a sheriff identify the Castle Rock Strangler. He warns a student to skip a graduation party at Cathy’s Roadhouse in Somersworth — the restaurant is struck by lightning and the fire kills 81 people.
Johnny’s attention is turned to Greg Stillson, the former mayor of Ridgeway and congressman for New Hampshire’s (nonexistent in reality) Third District. When shaking his hand at a rally in Trimbull, Johnny gets a vision of Stillson becoming president and starting a nuclear war. At a campaign event, Johnny takes a sniper position atop Jackson Town Hall to assassinate Stillson. He misses his target and Johnny is mortally wounded in an exchange of gunfire. Before Johnny dies, his final vision of Stillson, who used a child as a human shield during the gunfire, tells him his political career is through.
King’s most New Hampshire-centric novel may be “Doctor Sleep.” In a later-discarded prologue to “The Shining” (later published as “Before the Play”), we learn Jack Torrance grew up in Berlin and his abusive alcoholic father worked at Berlin Community Hospital. This trivium will later find relevance in this 2013 sequel.
Now an adult, Danny Torrance has hit rock bottom as an addict and lost his “shine.” Determined to start fresh and stay sober, he gets off a bus in the quiet tourist town of Fraizer, New Hampshire. He makes new friends, like Billy Freeman who runs the Teeny Town miniature train, and gets a job as an orderly at a local hospice. He uses his preternatural powers to help the patients slide into a peaceful death.
In the nearby town of Anniston, young Abra Stone has her own shine and the child can detect Dan’s. The two strangers communicate spectrally, hoping to navigate these powers. But no sooner can you say “redrum,” than Abra is being hunted by a group of psychic vampires who are on their way to New Hampshire to drink in her life force. While the action must predictably bring Dan back to the remains of Colorado’s Overlook Hotel (unlike in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, the hotel in the novel burned down after Jack Torrance forgot to maintain the boiler), this Stephen King novel is firmly placed in New Hampshire.
In Stephen King’s multiverse, Maine is filled with towns with killer clowns, towns with rabid dogs, towns covered in mist and covered in glass domes, towns with pet cemeteries where sometimes “dead is better.” But that Maine is pressed against the sea and cut off from the rest of the natural world by New Hampshire (no offense, Québec). All the evils that roam there, the ones those writers and teachers and
average citizens are trying to contain, if those evils escape Castle Rock or Jerusalem’s Lot or Little Tall Island, they are coming here. On any of these maps, New Hampshire is the Rubicon where the supernatural must not cross. If the devil cannot be restrained there, its passing into New Hampshire means it’s too late for the rest of the world. And that means the Granite State’s red line indirectly plays an important role in King’s lore (even if the author doesn’t know it).
But does it matter if we’re only horror-adjacent? You can move “Cannery Row” to Portsmouth, but it wouldn’t be the same. The Knickerbocker tales don’t neatly fit into the Connecticut River Valley. “Get Shorty” doesn’t work in the Queen City. “The Sound and the Fury” would not resonate if set in Keene. But you could ctrl+F and replace most of King’s locations with a real or fictional New Hampshire town and maintain that same sense of New England gothic. Pennywise in our Derry, vampires in our Salem. A Castle Rock that looks and feels like Claremont or Franklin but is filled with the same Yankee protagonists who respond the same way when called to action.
Magistrale says not to fret if the setting of the latest King story is again Maine. The fictional towns inspired by real locations in the Pine Tree State are similar enough to real locations in the Granite State that they are practically colored by the same brush. Diane Rich believes, for all intents and purposes, the settings of these great stories are just a name.
“For King, all of those fictional story places may be set in Maine or New Hampshire, but they generate from the author’s head. So, in a sense, they are all the same place, and that place isn’t New Hampshire or Maine or Florida or anywhere else — it’s the state of Stephen King’s imagination.”
Though, if we’re being completely honest, if there are killer cars, zombie cats, and trans-dimensional entities roaming a town — it may be best to live in a different area code.