King was in town Tuesday night for a sold-out, Bookworm-hosted event at Kaneko. Read more.
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Stephen King’s home state and geographical muse is Maine, of course. But the king of horror has a habit of visiting Nebraska every so often.
Since at least 1977, King has used Nebraska towns real and imagined as settings in his novels and short stories.
His most frequented Nebraska creation is Hemingford Home, a fictional version of Hemingford, a real town located in the western part of the state. Hemingford Home is where the messianic Mother Abagail lives in "The Stand."
So why Nebraska?
King answered the question in a 2010 USA Today article: "Because I wanted to put Mother Abagail in the American heartland. That’s Nebraska. Hemingford was in the right place. ... I love Nebraska and keep going back to it in my fiction — when I’m not in Maine, that is."
King might have been drawn to the heartland for its wholesomeness. But he’s also clearly intrigued by its status as a place of mystery for many people. H.P. Lovecraft said "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," and for a lot of readers, it doesn’t get much more unknown than the small towns of flyover country.
In his 1981 nonfiction book "Danse Macabre," King observed that "what’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself. ... You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time."
And so he has. Here’s a rundown of King’s literary relationship with the state.
The Starkweather scrapbook
When King was 10, he was fascinated by media coverage of the Charles Starkweather murders, so much so that he kept a scrapbook of the serial killer’s spree across Wyoming and Nebraska.
"My mother was ready to have me placed in analysis," King said in an interview in the book "The Art of Darkness."
In a 2000 interview, King told The Guardian why he made the scrapbook: "Well, it was never like, ‘Yeah go, Charlie, kill some more.’ It was more like ‘Charlie, if I ever see anyone like you, I’ll be able to get the hell away.’ And I do think that the very first time I saw a picture of him, I knew I was looking at the future. His eyes were a double zero. There was just nothing there."
King would later use Starkweather as the basis for the psychotic The Kid in "The Stand."
"Children of the Corn"
Vicky was fanning herself with her scarf even though the T-Bird was air-conditioned. "Where are we, anyway?"
She gave him a cold, neutral look. "Yes, Burt. I know we’re in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?"
With this bickering couple, King made his first trip to Nebraska. The short story "Children of the Corn" was originally published in the March 1977 issue of Penthouse and later collected in King’s 1978 collection, "Night Shift." It was also adapted into a 1984 film that spawned several sequels.
Where Vicky and Burt were exactly was Gatlin, Nebraska, a made-up town not too far from Hemingford Home.
King’s descriptions of Gatlin are both haunting and homey. You could see why the setting held such appeal for him.
He could smell corn, dusty roses and fertilizer — of course. For the first time they were off the turnpike and in a town. A town in a state he had never been in before (although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right. Somewhere up ahead there would be a drugstore with a soda fountain, a movie house named the Bijou, a school named after JFK.
And going even starker:
The children of the corn stood in the clearing at midday, looking at the two crucified skeletons and the two bodies ... the bodies were not skeletons yet, but they would be. In time. And here, in the heartland of Nebraska, in the corn, there was nothing but time.
"The Last Rung on the Ladder"
This story, also published in "Night Shift," is partly about a brother and sister growing up on a farm in Hemingford Home — this was King’s first mention of the town.
The narrator recalls his childhood:
We grew up 80 miles west of Omaha in a town called Hemingford Home … I guess you could say we grew up hicks. My dad had 300 acres of flat, rich land, and he grew feed corn and raised cattle. In those days all the roads were dirt except Interstate 80 and Nebraska Route 96, and a trip to town was something you waited three days for.
Note: The real Hemingford is about 465 miles west of Omaha, via I-80.
King’s 1978 book is one of his undisputed masterpieces and gives us one of his best characters, the saintly 108-year-old Mother Abagail. Abagail lives in Hemingford Home and awaits the arrival of several plague survivors. How Abagail introduces herself:
"Mother Abagail is what they call me. I’m the oldest woman in eastern Nebraska, I guess, and I still make my own biscuits."
Abagail’s house sat in a clearing, "and the corn stretched away in all four directions as far as the eye could see."
The pyromaniac Trashcan Man knows to stay out of Nebraska, it being Abagail’s domain and a place of good. Trashcan ponders:
There was something wrong about Nebraska, something dreadfully wrong. Something that made him afraid. It looked the same as Iowa ... but it wasn’t.
King would return briefly to Hemingford Home in 1986’s "It." The character Ben Hanscom at one point lives in Nebraska, and he frequents Hemingford Home’s bar, the Red Wheel.
A description of the town:
The business district consisted of eight buildings, five on one side and three on the other. There was the Kleen Kut barber shop (propped in the window a yellowing hand-lettered sign fully fifteen years old read IF YOUR A "HIPPY" GET YOUR HAIR CUT SOMEWHERES ELSE), the second-run movie house, the five-and-dime. There was a branch of the Nebraska Homeowners’ Bank, a 76 gas station, a Rexall Drug, and the National Farmstead & Hardware Supply — which was the only business in town that looked halfway prosperous.
This novella was included in King’s 2010 collection, "Full Dark, No Stars," and it’s his most thoroughly Nebraska work.
The story has a disturbed Omahan named Wilfred James confessing to the murder of his wife, writing it from a room at the Magnolia Hotel.
Wilfred killed his wife about eight years prior, when they were living on a farm near Hemingford Home. Arlette wanted to sell the land and open a dress shop in Omaha. Wilfred couldn’t abide such a nonsense notion. "I will never live in Omaha," he tells Arlette. "Cities are for fools."
Wilfred sees the irony in this, as he ended up in Omaha even after killing the woman who wanted him to move there.
But I will not live here for long. I know that as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls. And I know where I shall find myself after this earthly life is done. I wonder if Hell can be worse than the City of Omaha. Perhaps it IS the City of Omaha, but with no good country surrounding it; only a smoking, brimstone-stinking emptiness full of lost souls like myself.
When Arlette was still alive, Wilfred suggested she go live with her mother in Lincoln. Arlette’s response was a little harsh: "I will never live in Lincoln. ’Tis not a city but only a village with more churches than houses."
The novella ends with an April 14, 1930, clipping from the Omaha World-Herald.
The body of Wilfred James, a librarian with the Omaha Public Library, was found in a local hotel on Sunday when efforts by hotel staff to contact him met with no response. The resident of a nearby room had complained of "a smell like bad meat."
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