Stephen King has discovered the South Carolina Lowcountry.
His brand new book, “The Institute,” opens in Hardeeville and Yemassee and focuses on points in between.
Surely, you may be thinking, King can find enough horror in these parts to fuel another 60 books, selling another 350 million copies.
We could tell him about the slow, toxic burn of a 50-foot mountain of trash in Okatie, but he’d never believe it.
The headline on The New York Times review says “The Institute” might be King’s scariest novel yet.
But in fairness to King’s “Constant Readers,” I must say that most of that takes place back home in the deep woods of Maine, where it belongs.
And the novel has a noble end, with The Washington Post review praising it for calling out, as one headline put it, “the inhumane treatment of children and the loss of a moral compass for those who inflict it.”
But here in the Lowcountry, the horror cited in the book is something we’re all familiar with: the piece of junk known as Interstate 95.
A main character in the book has just lost his job as a cop in Florida, and finds himself hitchhiking up I-95 to New York, where he may find a job as a security guard.
But the character, Tim Jamieson, gets no farther than our own Hardeeville.
He had gotten a lift from the Brunswick, Georgia, librarian, of all people, who needed his help in loading and unloading books. They were delivering to the Yemassee Public Library, which last time I checked was holding up the jukebox at Harold’s Country Club.
Then comes our own peculiar Lowcountry horror. It’s not like “The Shining,” but it’s enough to make you scream.
All traffic on I-95 came to an abrupt halt somewhere between Exit 5 in Hardeeville and Exit 8, the one to Bluffton and Hilton Head Island.
“Oh, I hate it when this happens,” says dear librarian Marjorie Kellerman, “and it always seems to be in South Carolina, where they’re too cheap to widen the highway. There’s been a wreck somewhere up ahead, and with only two lanes, nobody can get by. I’ll be here half a day. Mr. Jamieson, you may be excused from further duty. If I were you, I would exit my vehicle, walk back to the Hardeeville exit, and try your luck on Highway 17.”
From there, Tim Jamieson gets a job as a “night knocker” with the sheriff’s office in a nearby fictional town called DuPray.
“All in all,” King writes, “it looked to Tim like a town out of a country ballad, one of those nostalgia pieces sung by Alan Jackson or George Strait.”
As I’m scouring for secret clues for which Lowcountry town DuPray might actually be, the spell-binding author throws in this zinger:
“Great events turn on small hinges.”
You’ll have to buy the book, or wait for the movie, to devour the great events.
The Lowcountry witnessed one earlier when Stephen King’s “Mr. Mercedes” TV series was filmed in Charleston.
And at least one person is not at all surprised to see Hardeeville turn up in one of his novels.
Danielle Scott Cain makes people look beautiful at the Glam Squad of the Lowcountry salon in Hardeeville.
But for 22 years, her mother owned and operated the Cripple Crab restaurant on U.S. 17 in Hardeeville. Becky Scott was the original owner, and the parking lot was always full.
And on a number of occasions, that crowd enjoying crab, flounder and shrimp would have included Stephen King.
“He would come in about twice a year,” Cain said. “It would be him and some friends. He would always call ahead and reserve a table under Mr. King.”
The star writer was nice, but did not want to be bothered by autograph and selfie hounds. His group would sit in a private dining room off to the side, Cain said.
“It was a good two-year streak where we’d see him a lot,” she said. It was her impression he made the Cripple Crab a regular stop while traveling I-95.
King’s website says he lives in Maine, but that he and his wife, Tabitha, winter in Florida.
The Cripple Crab had a couple of other owners after Becky Scott retired, but it’s gone now.
Meanwhile, cheap old South Carolina is inching toward widening I-95, or a piece of it that made it into the novel.
SCDOT has said it would cost up to $4 billion to widen I-95 statewide from two lanes to three, like Georgia has right across the Savannah River bridge.
Traffic can sometimes back up 30 miles in that vicinity. It’s an embarrassment.
Stephen King may be glad to hear that this year the state allocated $1 million to plan widening a 33-mile stretch of I-95 from Yemassee south to the Savannah River.
That job would cost more than $1 billion. It has not been approved, funded, or scheduled.
But that’s a promising timeline for a Lowcountry horror plot. Still, I’ll take the liberty to say that the quirky folks of DuPray, South Carolina, ain’t holding their breath.