Stephen King: Who's afraid of the dark?

Stephen King has done it again: another novel, another investigation into fear, evil and the dark side of the mind. Matt Thorne finds out what gives the master storyteller his nightmares
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The Independent Culture

In the early 1980s, Stephen King was staying at Brown's Hotel in London and, unable to sleep, asked the concierge if there was a quiet place where he could write. The concierge showed him to Rudyard Kipling's old desk, and King wrote the beginning of a story that later became the novel Misery. When King thanked the concierge for letting him use the desk, the concierge told him that Kipling had died writing there. King and his editor Philippa Pride spent part of his first day in England on this latest trip looking for the desk, but couldn't find it. But the hotel is still working its magic.

"Last night I had a very vivid dream," he tells me when I enter his suite, "and I got up in the middle of the night and I remember being frightened of myself as I sat there on the edge of the bed, and thinking how could anybody have so much power in their heads to have a dream like that. It was too big and too powerful to come from a human head. It was staggeringly vivid and I thought I want to write a story centred around that dream."

I'm fully aware that for a dream to frighten Stephen King, it must be terrifying, and definitely worth hearing. Please, I ask him, tell me what happened.

He smiles. "No."

OK, I ask, I heard you're writing a novel called Duma Key, how's that going? "It's done." Knowing that King is often working on more than one project at once, I ask him if he's got anything else in the works. "Jesus, man," he says, "now you're starting to sound like Joseph Woodbody." Woodbody is one of the villains in Stephen King's latest, career-best novel, Lisey's Story, a psychological thriller of extraordinary sensitivity that takes the reader deep into the dark places in us all. When Scott Landon, a magic realist novelist, dies, Woodbody sends someone to menace his wife, desperate to add his uncompleted manuscripts to his collection.

Trying to escape the Woodbody tag, I ask King how important pop culture is to his writing. "It's the water I breathe in, I'm like a fish. And I've never felt the need to apologise for it or repudiate it. I'm just a creature of my culture, and there are people who've damned me for that. Harold Bloom is one of them. He's described me as desperately inadequate, but then there are people who see the culture itself as desperately inadequate. I think that if you love Stephen King you'll love the culture and if you hate Stephen King you probably hate the culture."

There are always at least half a dozen King television and film projects in development, but he also has a strong influence on popular television series that haven't been directly adapted from his books. In the past, he has written episodes for series such as The X-Files and in his column in Entertainment Weekly, the American magazine, he's shared his fondness for the hit television show Lost. That programme's writers have repaid the compliment with a scene in the third season premiere where a group of characters at a book group are reading Stephen King novels (I won't spoil the surprise of how a desert island has a book group). King was touched by the homage, but tells me there's another more subtle reference later in the series, involving a rabbit with the numeral "8" on its fur.

"There was something about it that was giving me déjà vu and I just didn't know what it was. Then I got a dozen emails from people saying it's a writing example from my book On Writing. The thing says, imagine a rabbit in a cage with the number '8' stencilled on its back and write a story about it, and, well, they did it."

The concept of a common pool of ideas and language that writers can access is an important part of Lisey's Story. Scott Landon's ideas come from an imaginary place called Boo'ya Moon. It's an inspiring place, but a dangerous one. "Boo'ya Moon has two faces," King explains, "like a sword with two edges, a coin with two sides. Boo'ya Moon is a place where it's alright to eat day food, but it's not safe to eat food at night. Everybody knows our imaginations turn dark at night. We have a tendency to think of things that are better left unsaid maybe, fantasies better left unfulfilled."

But don't King's best ideas come from this dark side? "Every now and again I will see somebody who's made a reference to my work and it's like finding out you've spread a plant by catching it on your coat and taking it with you somewhere else. It's a good feeling if it's a good plant and it's a sinking feeling if it's a weed. What I mean by that is when you find out that the kid in Colorado who shot a bunch of people at his school back when school shootings were a new fad had a copy of Rage in his locker, I got that sinking sensation."

Rage is one of the novels King published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. It's a great book, one of his best, and also one of the first long novels he completed, concerning a disaffected student who takes his class hostage. But it is an extremely dark work, and has clearly caused King some concern. "Then when the book was referenced in a couple of other school shootings, including a kid who shot a couple at a prom, an FBI agent doing deep profiling came to the office to ask me if I had any idea about what makes people like this tick and I said, only in my imagination, only when I look back to my days in high school when I wanted to shoot everything that moved sometimes. And I never did it. Most kids don't do it, but I think it's a fantasy that crosses their minds, girls and boys both at one time or another. I decided the time had come to pull that book from the stands. So you see what I mean about it being a two-edged sword."

I asked how much responsibility he felt about this. "I don't think you can feel a responsibility or you'd never pick up a pen or turn on a word processor at all if that were the case. You write a book, you're dancing in a thunderstorm, daring the lightning to hit you every time. So things happen, shit goes on. Think of all the times and places someone was reading one of my books and missed a bus and a decision didn't get made. With something like what happened with Rage, the case was a little closer."

King explains that he's not the first writer to censor his own work in this way, and that Arthur Hailey did something similar, changing the details of how to make a bomb in his novel Airport so no one could follow his directions and come up with a successful explosive. I tell him I saw Tom Clancy discuss the same subject on CNN and that he wasn't worried about this possibility and thought writers had a duty to be precise.

"Ah, but you see Tom Clancy is a Republican and I'm a bleeding heart. Tom Clancy is also a military wannabe. You have to differentiate. It's true that he goes to Baltimore Orioles games - he owns a piece of the team - in full dress US Navy Admiral Whites, but they were given to him. He never spent a day in the military, never a day. So he is the literary world's Dick Cheney and in that light he considers collateral damage part of the trade."

King smiles and then gives me a serious look. I've been asking him about the ambiguity in his more recent novels and he's explained that this has come with age and a newfound uncertainty about the true sources of fear. "I wanna say one other thing before you turn off your machine, we were talking about the rational motivations of horror. I've known from the very beginning that you really couldn't write honest horror stories if you said, this is where it came from, you banish it with Kryptonite. You understand what I mean? And the first time I was ever able to say that on the national stage was in a mini-series I did called Storm of the Century and I loved that. A man shows up on an island and says, 'Give me what I want and I'll go away', and it turns out that what he wants is a child and after a while when things get bad enough they give him one and he goes away. Case closed, end of story, deal is done, nobody knows why. Do you know?" I shake my head. "Do I know?" He shakes his head. "Does God know?"

He considers this, and then looks up at the ceiling. "Maybe."

* 'Lisey's Story' by Stephen King is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £17.99. To buy a copy for £16.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897