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To get the chance to meet her favorite author, Sally DeWitt had to overcome more obstacles than, well, a character in a Stephen King novel.

The 60-year-old woman woke up at 3 a.m. Wednesday so she could drive from her home in Aberdeen to Dundalk, where the best-selling novelist was scheduled to appear that evening. And it really was a dark and stormy night.

"I'm an avid horror fan," she says. "My boyfriend woke up, and it was raining, so he thinks I'm totally nuts."

DeWitt secured her wrist band - number 116 of the 400 who were guaranteed signed books - but her adventures had barely begun. After she left, there was the punctured tire that forced her to pull over to the curb and await roadside assistance. There was the boss who really, really, really wanted DeWitt to work late, which would have kept her from returning in time to see King. Not to mention the house fire in 2006 that destroyed DeWitt's cherished collection of all of King's novels.

"It was devastating," she says of the fire. "But I'm rebuilding my collection. A lot of people think he doesn't know what he's doing or that he's sick in the head, but he's really a very deep, intelligent writer."

The novelist paid a rare, two-hour visit to the Baltimore area yesterday when he stopped off at the Walmart on North Point Boulevard to meet his fans and sign copies of his newest novel, "Under the Dome," about a small town that is suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world behind an invisible force field.

Other authors may prefer to hold book signings in more upscale, traditional venues such as Borders or Barnes & Noble, but unlike them, King's characters tend to frequent mini-marts, dollar stores and mass merchandisers. Before stopping in Baltimore, King read at a Walmart in New York, and his next stop will be at one of the chain stores near Atlanta.

At the Dundalk store, a stage had been erected in the children's clothing area, so the novelist was flanked incongruously by a display of candy-colored training bras.

About half a dozen Baltimore County police officers were on hand, including two stationed at the front corners of the stage, and at times, the proceedings took on an almost ritualized aspect.

To approach King, fans had to traverse 10 alleys cordoned off by ropes. Three Walmart employees handled each book before it was placed in front of the author for his autograph. The first employee greeted the customer and took his or her previously purchased copy. The second flipped the book open to the title page, and the third shoved it down the table and in front of the novelist. Six seconds, tops, and it was on to the next customer.

A female fan kissed King's hand. A man asked him for a hug, while children routinely received high-fives. But only Sylvia Sikora, 42, of Baltimore was invited behind the table to pose for a photo with her arm around King's shoulders.

"I have every one of your books in English and in German," she told King. Sikora, who came to the U.S. in 1990 from her native land, first read the German-language version of "Firestarter" shortly after it was published in the early 1980s.

"I absolutely loved it, and I've been hooked ever since," she said.

Though King attracts perhaps an unusual level of devotion from his fans, he isn't the first big-name author Walmart has hosted.

Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have autographed their books at Walmart, as has blockbuster author John Grisham.

"Walmart is one of the three largest booksellers in the country," spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien. "And because of where our stores are located, we can provide our customers with access to authors of Stephen King's stature in places he might not normally visit."

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