A career written in blood

Profile: Stephen King: Vampire bats guard the thriller writer's gate. A ndy Beckett says don't be alarmed

Related Topics
STEPHEN KING cares about his readers. The foreword to his new novel takes the form of a letter to them: "Dear Constant Reader," he begins, then chatters warmly away about his idea for the book and his plans to publish it, Dickens-style, in monthly instalments between now and the end of the summer. The Green Mile may be a ghoulish thriller about an electric chair, but these pages read like a Californian cookery book.

Near the end, however, King drops in a strange paragraph. "We get dozens of angry letters each week, demanding the next book," he writes. "One of these contained a Polaroid of a teddy-bear in chains, with a message cut out of newspaper headlines and magazine covers: Release The Next Dark Tower Book At Once Or The Bear Dies ... I put it up in my office to remind myself both of my responsibility and of how wonderful it is to have people who actually care..."

Like many successful Americans, King can find self-affirmation in the unlikeliest places. But after publishing 40 lurid-jacketed volumes of horror fiction since 1974 - enough of them million-selling to make him one of the world's favourite authors in any genre - King's sang-froid has another, more particular source. He is rather familiar with the attentions of his "constant readers".

Five years ago one of them came to visit. Erik Keene had been reading King's tales of possessed teens and malign graveyards between shifts at a fast-food restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. In April 1991 he drove 2,000 miles north to King's tall wooden house in Bangor, Maine. Keene wanted King to co-author a book with him. King was out, at a baseball game with one of his sons. His wife Tabitha heard breaking glass, and found Keene in the attic, clutching what he said was a bomb. Police had to lay siege to the area. "Usually those people write, they don't turn up," King later said.

Such an incident could be put down to the perils of American celebrity. King is certainly famous enough: having dinner in a restaurant with Bruce Springsteen on one occasion, the anonymously slab-faced author was approached by a teenager who entirely failed to recognise the rock star opposite.

But King's books encourage obsession. They can be more than 1,000 pages long. At least two come out every year (a rate of publication matched only by books about King). And they are often about obsession: a victimised girl's revenge on her high school in Carrie, a pale, car-mad boy and his haunted '58 Plymouth in Christine. In King's stories, grudges are always pursued, threats never abate, and enemies never give up - until the burnings and stabbings of his characteristically drawn-out finales. One, Misery, concerns a writer held hostage in his home by a reader.

And all this occurs in just the kind of north-eastern small towns King and his readers inhabit. He uses local landmarks - a spooky church near his house; a favourite childhood pond, where a body was once discovered - as backdrops for his stories. This intertwining of nightmare and local reality and autobiography has its consequences: millions of readers buy the books; a few seem to think they are true.

KING himself is not that different. All his life he has slipped easily into fantasy. His childhood in Maine was hard: his family never ate desserts. In 1949, when King was two, his sailor father went out for some cigarettes and never came back. But his mother rallied, taking menial jobs and bringing home armfuls of what she called "cheap, sweet vacations" - secondhand paperbacks. She and her son devoured murder stories in particular.

By the age of seven, he was sneaking into drive-ins to watch horror films, too. At 11, already an awkward six-footer, he started a tiny local newspaper with his foster-brother, recommending films and trying out science fiction ideas. Within three years, he was submitting to professional magazines, his imagination boiling with Lord of the Flies and the macabre New England tales of H P Lovecraft.

But publication came grudgingly. He was at the University of Maine studying literature before he finally made the autumn 1967 issue of Startling Mystery Stories. Writing furiously, he took courses in creative writing and rural sociology (for research) and waited to acquire a reputation.

Again, it didn't happen. Married now to Tabitha, his college sweetheart, King graduated from university to a hillside caravan in a cold town called Hermon, "if not the asshole of the universe, then at least within farting distance of it", as he saw it. Struggling with two young children and a succession of low-paid labouring and teaching jobs, he nevertheless flung out five novels - and had five rejections flung back. The short stories he did publish couldn't pay the phone bill. King began "drinking too much".

In 1973 he started a book about a put-upon high school girl who could make objects move or burst into flames by mental effort alone. He threw it in the bin, but Tabitha picked Carrie out again; she was right: he sold the manuscript, first for $2,500 as a hardback, then, as publishers lunged, for $400,000 as a paperback, a figure so bewildering to King that all he could think to buy his wife as a thank-you was a $29 hair-drier.

He had his moment. After decades as a pulpy thrill for ill-adjusted teenagers, horror became mainstream with the success of films like The Exorcist and The Omen. But Carrie was skilful, too, slipping its premise on to page one, painting its protagonist more subtly than the genre usually allowed, and swelling to its apocalyptic finale, as she set her high school on fire on prom night, in a swift 200 pages.

King then made a success into a career by sheer output. Churning out 2,000 words a day - a quantity he maintains - he followed Carrie with Salem's Lot, an updated Maine vampire tale, and The Shining, a traditional haunted-house story moved to the top of the Rockies. All three became films; after thousands of nights at the drive-in and watching late-night television King instinctively saw the potential synergy between book and screen. "Stephen speaks to readers who aren't spoken to by much else," says his editor, Chuck Verrill.

The production line for what King calls his "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries" has run at peak capacity ever since. King writes enough words for seven normal-length novels a year. "Talent is cheaper than table salt," he said once. "What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

King makes sure his writing never gets too shocking, favouring eternal fears and happy endings in his reassuringly old-fashioned small towns rather than modern urban horrors. And his handful of fright-free vignettes have also become films, with Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption carrying his name far beyond horror circles. Unusually for his genre, half his readers are women.

All this diversification has had its disadvantages. A lack of quality control has seen some of his books - which tend to be more haunted than gory - crudely hacked up into bloody straight-to-video fare. The middle- aged spread of his writing into longer, more fantastical novels and Roald Dahl-style short stories has lost him some of his horror-writer's reputation. "The real fans think he's a bit passe," says Allan Bryce, editor of the horror magazine Darkside. "He's a mainstream writer who dabbles."

Yet King has created a fearsome appetite among the faithful. Between 1977 and 1984 he published five rather more conventional novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, complete with invented biography. So keen- eyed and hungry were some of King's fans that they soon grew suspicious; onesearched publishers' forms in the Library of Congress to reveal Bachman's identity.

He removed his phone number from public listing as early as 1976, and now writes in a rented bungalow several miles from his home. After the Keene break-in, he had the fence round his house extended, his gates padlocked, and a code-controlled entrance installed.

Yet behind his gates King retains an affable, relatively ordinary life. Although he writes nearly every day, except his birthday, Easter and Christmas (he is a Methodist), he fulfils his quota so quickly - before lunch - that he has plenty of time to play tennis with his children. He spends little of his income, said to be more than pounds 15m a year, preferring "to know my ass is going to be covered" - mindful of his draughty years in that hillside caravan.

Like the Midwestern adolescents he writes for and still resembles, he wears jeans and T-shirts and listens to old-fashioned hard rock as he works. When his local music station announced it was switching to something softer, he bought it and re-instituted the Rolling Stones. "He's a big jovial enthusiastic person," says Greil Marcus, a music critic who sings with King in a rusty writers' band. "He looks like a horror character, though."

And King does play the part. He once did an American Express advertisement, emerging gaunt from the shadows with a raven on his arm. He likes to haul his hulking axe-murderer's frame on to his Harley-Davidson and appear, unannounced, at remote bookshops. His house, moreover, does not hide its occupant's identity too hard: cast-iron vampire bats guard the drive. No one should take them too seriously.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£26000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This care provider provides hom...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Day In a Page

Read Next

My cancer diagnosis cost me my home

Deanne Wilson
Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel  

American Apparel has finally fired Dov Charney, but there's no reason to celebrate just yet

Alice Nutting
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum