King of Horror

  • Pennywise, a brightly dressed clown, beguiles the young passers-by. The lucky ones elude the creature. The others are never seen again -- alive. This is obviously not your average Ringling Bros. fool with bulbous nose and orange sideburns. When it shucks off its costume, it resembles a spider. Or a crawling eye. Or a mummy. Its breath is foul, its eyes are mere holes, and its diet consists of human entrees. Pennywise's address is the sewers of Derry, Me., but the monster is only renting there. Its permanent home is a far stranger dwelling: the mind of Stephen Edwin King.

    In his new novel, It (Viking; $22.95), Stephen proves once again that he is the indisputable King of horror, a demon fabulist who raises gooseflesh for fun and profit. At 39, he seems to be the country's best-known writer. When he appeared on an American Express commercial to ask onlookers "Do you know me?," the answer was obvious: Of course, they did. His face, sometimes . bearded, now clean shaven, appears on most of the 20-odd books written under two names. More than 60 million of them have been in distribution worldwide, including two volumes -- Carrie and The Dead Zone -- that were presented by Nicholas Daniloff, minutes before his arrest, to Misha, his Soviet friend. Some dozen films have been based on King's fictions, and there are more on the way. He has earned over $20 million so far, including a $3 million advance for It, which fulfilled expectations by vaulting to the top of the best- seller list before official publication.

    Hurtling down two streams of time, the '50s and the '80s, the book displays all the author's patented tics and tropes. The Beautiful Losers: a black, a homosexual, and -- among others persecuted in adolescence and now called home to disinter a buried memory -- a stutterer and an abused girl. The Validated Nightmare: "At the last instant, as the ax slowed to its apogee and balanced there, Richie understood that this wasn't a dream at all . . ." The Disgusting Colloquialism: "She drew in a great, hitching breath and hocked a remarkably large looey onto the top of his head." The Brand-Name Maneuver: "Here sits a man with Bass Weejuns on his feet and Calvin Klein underwear to cover his ass." The Comic-Strip Effect: "Whack-whack-whack-whack -- And suddenly it was in his hands, a great living thing that pumped and pulsed against his palms, pushing them back and forth. (nonononononono)." The Burlesque Locution: " 'Good ahfternyoon, deah lady,' Richie said in his best Baron Butthole Voice. 'I am in diah need of three tickey-tickies to youah deah old American flicktoons.' " The Fancy Juxtaposition: epigraphs from Virgil and Mean Streets. The Self-Deflating Jape: "I am . . . the only survivor of a dying planet. I have come to rob all the women . . . rape all the men . . . and learn to do the Peppermint Twist!" And, most discouraging of all, the Unconscionable Length: 1,138 pages.

    The weight alone (3 lbs. 7 1/2 oz.) would seem the right heft for a doorstop and the wrong one for a best seller. But King has become a brand name himself, and his publishers ordered a supernatural first printing of 800,000 copies -- and then demanded five additional printings, for a current total of 1,025,000 copies. When an author receives that kind of recognition, two factors are at work: his skills and the vitality of his genre. King, who regards It as a "very badly constructed book," may be a little too hard on himself. But the frightful theme is what continues to make him the most successful horror writer in history.

    That history is almost as old as the night. In the Odyssey, Odysseus visited the land of the dead, where he reported that "pale fear got hold of me" as the spirits rose up to drink blood. Every ethnic group has spun folktales of the ungrateful dead. Even so, horror did not become a literary convention until the late 18th century, when the gothic novel described the exotic terrors of old feudal keeps. In the gaslight era, the supernatural took hold of the public imagination, and British authors quickly dominated the field. Their very names suggest creaking Victorian stairways, forbidden rooms and disembodied spirits: Montague Rhodes James, J.S. Le Fanu, Eden Phillpotts, Algernon Blackwood. In the U.S., an alcoholic and sickly journalist led readers down dark corridors that still echo in American and European fiction. Edgar Allan Poe was, wrote D.H. Lawrence, "an adventurer into the vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul." He told of disintegrating bodies (The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar), accusatory objects (The Purloined Letter) and doomed homes (The Fall of the House of Usher) -- all now standard props of horror. Once the genre was taken seriously, American writers as naturalistic as Jack London and as refined as Edith Wharton used those special effects and sojourned in those underground passages, and they have been accompanied by hundreds of others, perhaps none more influential than Henry James.

    If Poe was the quirky father of modern horror, its uncle was the sobersided James, who was strongly influenced by the terrors that afflicted his family. His brother William, the pragmatic philosopher and investigator into the varieties of religious experience, recalled one of his most terrifying moments: "Suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient . . . a black-haired youth with greenish skin . . . That shape am I, I felt, potentially." This was the image of monstrosity that is only a chromosome away. Henry added another kind of apparition. In The Turn of the Screw he presented a governess and a ghostly valet who vie for the soul of a living boy.

    These twin terrors -- fear of the real and fear of the insubstantial -- are ! the subtexts of most stories designed to make the flesh creep. Yet it has been nearly a century since the brothers James recorded their visions. Surely horror should have become an outdated category by now. Surely science should have driven a stake through its heart. But, no, the genre is, in every sense, the home of the undead. In the '40s Critic Edmund Wilson mused about the persistence of ghost stories: "What is the reason, then -- in these days when a lonely country house is likely to be equipped with electric light, radio and telephone -- for our returning to these antiquated tales? . . . First, the longing for mystic experience which seems always to manifest itself in periods of social confusion . . . Second, the instinct to inoculate ourselves against panic at the real horrors loose on the earth . . ."

    Two generations later, the longings have grown more aggravated and the real horrors have metastasized. Terrorism and the Bomb, the breakdown of the ozone layer and the rise of crime -- almost any news item will serve to drive readers to distraction. Manhattan Psychiatrist Robert E. Gould finds that horror "is extremely distracting. That is one of the main purposes of its popularity. In difficult times, in the world outside and your own world, you reach out far from yourself. Also, you can control that horror. You can stop reading any time you want." His colleague Dr. Herbert Peyser agrees. In horror, he says, "we see an ordered world. We know it really isn't real, and we can master it. It's fantasy, and we can get out." It is no wonder then that videocassettes like I Dismember Mama and Halloween are favorites on the rental circuit, that Aliens and Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives were among the top movie grossers of the summer, and that, in paperback, Stephen King now outsells James Michener and Robert Ludlum.

    At his home in Bangor, Me., King recently took time away from the IBM Selectric to ponder his role as the Master of Pop Dread. In It he observes, "All writers have a pipeline which goes down into the subconscious. But the man or woman who writes horror stories has a pipeline that goes further, maybe . . . into the sub-subconscious, if you like." King's sub-subconscious started working overtime when he was scarcely out of infancy. In an eerie resemblance to his spiritual ancestor Poe, King was also deserted by his father in infancy. At the age of four the lonely boy walked home pale and unspeaking. A neighborhood friend had inexplicably vanished. "It turned out," King later recalled, "that the kid 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)." To this day the author has "no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it . . ." But at the age of eight he had a very accessible dream: "I saw the body of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. When the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face -- rotted and picked by the birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me." Permutations of both incidents would turn up in books two decades later.

    There were, almost from the start, two Kings. Mr. Outside grew up in Durham, Me., where his mother had moved to care for her aging parents. He was oversized and ungainly, with a thatch of unruly black hair, buck teeth and thick glasses, the one who was predictably chosen last in sandlot games. Mr. Inside was the fatherless boy who held a lot of "anger that has never been directed. In my inward life, I still boil a lot." So it is no surprise that many of King's books could be fairly called "The Revenge of the Nerds": the ursine kid with the bad eyes and the shambling gait would find a way to get his own back, even if it took him 20 years -- especially if it took him 20 years.

    Vengeance was novels away when Stephen scraped through the University of Maine at Orono, moonlighting as a dishwasher, Little League coach and gas- station attendant. He majored in English, minored in dramatics, marched for peace, voted Republican for the last time in 1968 ("I believed Nixon when he said he'd get us out of Viet Nam"), and met his future wife, a woman whose unlikely name, Tabitha Spruce, seems to have been plucked from a Stephen King coven. She remembers him as an imposing figure, a "campus institution" who wrote a weekly column called "King's Garbage Truck" for the school newspaper. Recalls Stephen: "Tabby looked like a waitress. She came across -- and still does -- as a tough broad." After graduation they married; when he was unable to find a teaching position, he labored in a launderette for $60 a week. "Budget was not exactly the word for whatever it was we were on," King later wrote. "It was more like a modified version of the Bataan Death March."

    In 1971 he finally landed a job as a prep-school English instructor at Hampden, Me. At night Tabitha put on her hot-pink uniform and went to work at Dunkin' Donuts. When she exited, King turned to the typewriter which was perched on a child's desk. As an adolescent, he had read Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man and other works that were adapted for The Twilight Zone. "The same year," he recalls, "I read Peyton Place and Kings Row. I understood instinctively that both authors were talking about the small-town caste society that I grew up in, the veil of hypocrisy, what people hide behind. I understood that I could write about my own milieu and combine it with Matheson's approach, and it worked like a bandit."

    So did King. He began to sell short stories to men's magazines such as Cavalier and Adam; the checks, he remembers, "always seemed to come just in time to buy antibiotics for the baby's ear infection or to keep the telephone in the apartment for another record-breaking month." One baby later, there was barely enough money for the kids and none at all for the phone. It was disconnected the month King turned in the manuscript of Carrie, a novel about an adolescent with telekinetic powers and a lethal resentment of her high school tormentors. The work was worth a $2,500 advance, more than enough to pay some bills. And a good thing too: on Mother's Day, 1973, a Doubleday editor called about the sale of paperback rights. "I thought he was going to tell me I was only getting $5,000 or something," King fondly remembers. "He said $400,000. The only thing I could think to do was go out and buy my wife a hair dryer. I stumbled across the street to get it and thought I would probably get greased by some car."

    He was not greased, Tabitha stopped smelling like an overgrown cruller, and the six-figure earnings soon became seven. "People think the muse is a literary character," says King, "some cute little pudgy devil who floats around the head of the creative person sprinkling fairy dust. Well, mine's a guy with a flattop in coveralls who looks like Jack Webb and says, 'All right, you son of a bitch, time to get to work.' " The ultimate workaholic obeyed the figure in coveralls every day, except for his birthday, the Fourth of July and Christmas. His work reflected more than the normal number of fears and superstitions. King was unnerved by spiders, elevators, closed-in places, the dark, sewers, funerals, the idea of being buried alive, cancer, heart attacks, the number 13, black cats and walking under ladders. In the process of merchandising his own terrors, he developed an infallible formula: "First you create people that you want to live, then you put them into the cooker." Carrie, the paranormal adolescent, was succeeded by the vampires of 'Salem's Lot (1975), the haunted hotel of The Shining (1977), the deadly superflu of The Stand (1978). The clairvoyant young man of The Dead Zone (1979) placed King on the best-seller list for more than six months, replaced by Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981), a nonfiction investigation of horror called Danse Macabre (1981), and a collection of novellas, Different Seasons (1982). In his spare time he turned out Christine and Pet Sematary (both 1983) by himself, and The Talisman (1984) in collaboration with Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story. Another collection of short stories appeared in 1985. And still that did not exhaust King. Because publishers were wary of overkill, he submitted five other novels under another name. When Richard Bachman's cover was blown, after Thinner climbed aboard the best-seller list, the pretense was shelved. "It should have been in TIME's Milestones," King grumbles. "Died. Richard Bachman, of cancer of the pseudonym."

    A great many of the King-Bachman books seem to have been written on a word processor by a word processor. The author often employs three exclamation points !!! where one would suffice, shows a blithe disregard for grammar ("My mother used to tell my brother David and I to 'hope for the best and expect the worst' "), and produces metaphors that obviously embarrass their creator: "He felt that he had unwittingly stuck his hand into the Great Wasps' Nest of Life. As an image it stank." But all along he displays one talent that never flags -- he is able to convince the reader that the unreal is actually occurring. Critic Jacques Barzun once analyzed the technique of the effective horror novelist: "Since terror descriptions must perpetually make the reader accept yet question the strange amid the familiar, the writer pursues the muse of ambiguity. He begins by establishing a solid outer shell of comfort -- the clergyman's study, the lawyer's book-lined room, the well-placed camping tent, or the cozy room at the inn or club, with fortifying drinks at hand. But soon a vague unease, a chill in the air, or else a strong shock undermines or shatters composure. No rhetorical onslaught . . . can equal it; the intrusion, fluid and elusive or sharp and violent, destroys all past security." King begins with all the reassuring American trappings: the 7-Eleven stores, the ribbons of superhighway, the town high schools that seem part of an ordered landscape. Then come the hints of malaise and, abruptly, what A.D. Hutter, a professor of English at UCLA, calls King's "brilliant creation of a shared nightmare." A marriage breaks up and a trusted dog suddenly turns on its owners; a teenager's love affair with his Plymouth Fury is totaled when the car is possessed by the vengeful ghost of a previous owner; the caretaker of a vast mountain resort hotel finds himself slowly overtaken by the malevolent spirits envisioned by his little boy; two college students volunteer for a government experiment and become parents of a daughter with a unique gift: she can make things burst into flame with the force of her will. All of these fantasies are built on an armature of moral order. The good suffer, but the malefactors perish. "Beneath its fangs and fright wig," the author confesses, the horror tale is "as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstripe suit."

    Oddly enough, King's unsettling plots rarely work on film, perhaps because occult scenarios are best played in the Skull Cinema. On a real screen his lethally gifted children often turn out to be amateurish performers; the floodlighted hotel is about as frightening as the set of a Fred Astaire musical; and the rabid Saint Bernard seems only a benign cartoon of the Hound of the Baskervilles. King professes to be satisfied with many of the movie adaptations, except for The Shining ("Stanley Kubrick's stated purpose was to make a horror picture, and I don't think he understood the genre") and the summer's Maximum Overdrive ("a stiff"), which King directed. But privately he derives consolation from a James M. Cain anecdote. An interviewer commiserated with the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice because Hollywood had ruined all his books. "Cain looked over at his shelf and said, 'No, they are all still right there.' " Besides, King's work has inspired a bona fide hit in 1986: Rob Reiner's Stand by Me, an adaptation of The Body, a 1982 novella that focuses on a group of twelve-year-olds searching for the body of a boy who was struck by a train.

    It is easy to understand King's fondness for clothbound versions. After all, it is paper more than celluloid that allows him to live in the style of a Down East grand seigneur. The family occupies a 23-room, 129-year-old house ! surrounded by a black iron fence with interwoven designs of bats and spider webs, installed in an excess of whimsy by the owners. The place is within a mile of the down-at-the-heels section of town where the Kings began their odyssey. It has an eccentric charm appropriate to the tenants: one cupola is conical, the other square. Tabitha, 37, works in a spacious front room of the main house; there she has written three published novels. Each book explored a different genre. One book was, in her view, a "political romance," another concerned a Maine woman attacked by ruffians, and the third was an old- fashioned love story. King's sun-washed study, set in a remodeled stable loft, has a hidden stairway leading down to a toy-cluttered indoor swimming pool with a vaulted gothic-style ceiling. Tabitha calls it the Church of the Poisoned Mind. The children drift in and out frequently. Naomi, 16, comes by dressed in a Mickey Mouse T shirt and shorts, a departure from the standard King uniform of work shirt and jeans. She complains that the boys were hogging the pool. Joe, 14, prowls through the study shelves in search of the videocassette of Day of the Dead, but his father suggests the boy screen some Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. "Watch the Hitcher," King advises. "He's scary." When Joe wanders off with Capricorn One instead, King digs out one of the unsolicited horror films he constantly receives by fourth-class mail. The cassette is still wrapped in cellophane. "I can't bear to throw them away," he admits. "But I won't let the kids watch them." Meantime, Owen, 9, is down in the kitchen with a group of friends, hunched over a consumer magazine for children. The King children earn their allowances by taping books for Dad to hear while he drives. For the going steno rate of $9.10 an hour, Owen records detective novels. Naomi is currently reading the stories of John Steinbeck into a microphone.

    The five Kings could set their castle anywhere, but Stephen refuses to leave familiar turf; even the family's lakeside summer place is in the state. "Maine is far and away better for a couple of hicks like us," he maintains. "And it's better for the kids." King enjoys the role of paterfamilias, scrubbing the indoor grill over the sink so that Tabby and the children can have an outing at the local shopping mall. Dinner is a family affair with everybody present. The conversation ranges from Little League to books and movies to local gossip. King can drive to New York City for meetings with his publishers in one of two Mercedes, or in a red Cadillac convertible or in a Chevy van, but once or twice a year he prefers to vroom south on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Neither of the Kings likes to fill up any of their vehicles. A brother-in-law who acts as handyman and caretaker attends to the cars and van, but rarely rides the Harley. So King has, on occasion, found himself stranded and called home for a pickup, just like a character in a movie. Conferences with editors frequently take place not in offices or restaurants but in the stands at Yankee Stadium. There King can talk between pitches, and hot dogs and beer.

    The brew tends to be of the lite variety these days. In the past the author could do a pretty fair imitation of a character in Animal House, and remembers writing Cujo under the influence of malt and hops. Then two years ago, physicians picked up symptoms of heart arrhythmia, and these days King tends to watch his solids and liquids and waistline. But he still pays very little attention to externals. Two lawn chairs on the driveway is about as much luxury as he likes to display to the neighbors. "I guard against success," he says, "because you start to expect things, preferential treatment at hotels or concerts. I don't want that. I'm not any better than anyone else."

    Well, maybe not at the well-wrought sentence or the lapidary essay. But that has never been his aim or his claim. Random House Editor Sam Vaughan accurately notes that "King is one of those rare writers with both a cult and a mass audience." And Barnes & Noble Buyer Ronda Wanderman ungrammatically observes, "King goes beyond horror like Danielle Steel goes beyond romantic fiction." Columbia English Professor George Stade probes further. The King novels, he maintains, "are not so different from the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dracula or Tarzan. We need these guys around, and we tend to read them more than we read James Joyce." The author cherishes few illusions. He likes to be compared with "Jack London, who said, in effect, 'I'm not much of a writer but I'm one hell of an elaborator.' That's me." King barely gives himself a passing grade in freshness: "I've had about three original ideas in my life. The rest of them were bounces. I sense the limitations of where my talents are." Some of this sudden vote of no confidence may come from the realization that a new talent is howling at the door. The British horror writer Clive Barker (The Inhuman Condition) has been gaining in reputation and sales, and King has become something of a cheerleader: "You read him with a book in one hand and an airsick bag in the other. That man is not fooling around. He's got a sense of humor, and he's not a dullard. He's better than I am now. He's a lot more energetic." So King is not merely posing at poolside when he promises that It will be his last horror novel: "For now, as far as the Stephen King Book-of-the-Month Club goes, this is the clearance-sale time. Everything must go."

    And so it went -- into It. Before he began the book, Stephen thought about a favorite image: the entire cast of the Bugs Bunny Show coming on at the beginning, Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang. In a surge of adolescent enthusiasm, King burbled, "Wouldn't it be great to bring on all the monsters one last time? Bring them all on -- Dracula, Frankenstein, Jaws, The Werewolf, The Crawling Eye, Rodan, It Came from Outer Space, and call it It." But how could he combine them all in one book? Simple. Use a Tulpa -- the Tibetan word for a creature created by the mind.

    Now that It is out, can King change himself? In the next 14 months he will make three attempts by publishing novels outside the Pop Dread belfry. The Eyes of the Dragon, just completed, is an Arthurian sword-and-sorcery epic written for Naomi, who read Carrie and has since refused to venture into any of her father's other books. Tommyknockers, still being revised, is a sci-fi epic set in the post-Chernobyl era. "It's about how our ability to make gadgets outraces the moral ability" is all King is willing to disclose. Misery, just about completed, is a psychological novel "about a crazy nurse who captures her pet writer and hooks him on drugs after a car crash. He writes bodice-ripper novels about a character called Misery Chastain. She wants him to write a book about Misery just for her, not knowing -- because she waits for the paperback -- that in the latest hard-cover he's killed Misery."

    These projects barely begin to tap the King energy. An image arises in the morning mists, a tableau so powerful and intimidating that only a publisher can contemplate it without blenching. Every day at 9 a.m., except for his birthday, the Fourth of July and Christmas, a 6-ft. 4-in., 198-lb. creature climbs into a T shirt and jeans, swallows a vitamin pill, drinks a glass of Maine tap water and turns on some hard rock on WZON. He is never dissatisfied with what he hears: after all, he owns the station. With a few breaks, he will type until what he calls "beer o'clock" -- about 5 p.m. He has been known to work into the night. The output is some ten pages a day, although with a Wang computer, "the sky's the limit." Before him lies a handful of works in progress. There is the second installment of a five-story science-fantasy cycle, The Dark Tower, featuring Roland, the Last Gunslinger, on the track of his grail. Then there is the uncut version of The Stand. Then there are plans to study French in order to finish Livre Noir, a detective story in French, "the language that turns dirt into romance." And there is a project to turn Carrie into a Broadway musical, with choreography by Debbie Allen. Plus an original story for TV, an 875-page screenplay that will run over 14 episodes. "All right, you son-of-a-bitch, get to work," says the muse in flattop and coveralls. And the giant meekly obeys, preparing to flood the market with millions of words. "The horror!" says the muse. "The horror!" But just now, no one can tell whether he is speaking with nostalgia or anticipation.