STEPHEN KING The Man Who Won't Let You Sleep
by Betsy Thaggard
The combination was perfect: Dallas' irreverent Drive-In Movie Critic Joe Bob Briggs and Horror Maven Stephen King. The site for this first-time meeting was perfect, too: Briggs' Third Annual World Drive-In Movie Festival and Custom Car Rally, 1984.
"Big Steve's a drive-in kinda guy," quoth Briggs, to which King replied that he'd "been looking for something like this to kinda enhance my literary reputation."
Just the thing for Halloween weekend at Inwood Theatre of the Damned.
How appropriate that Briggs and King should finally meet face to face at this bizarre bazaar ... or would they? "Well, no, I haven't spoken with Joe Bob personally about this thing," said King a few days before the event. "He's not a public kinda guy. But we've been in correspondence."
And it has been well-chronicled correspondence, appearing in the Dallas Times Herald's nationally syndicated "Joe Bob Briggs Goes to the Drive-In" column. Readers noticed the two freak-fans were made for each other, a virtual publicist's delight: One makes up the stories that the other thrives and jives on. The two were so well-matched that, in at least one circle, speculation on the elusive Joe Bob's true identity shifted away from the incumbent, Times Herald columnist John Bloom, to Big Steve himself. Well, you've never seen Briggs and King together in the same place, have you? They even share the same writing style -- but King's a better speller.
Fantasy can be a wonderful thing, and Big Steve King will be the first to tell you so.
Stephen King (whose middle name is Edwin and not, as many believe, Horror) is your basic literary living legend. His books sell like crazy: His least successful softcover edition sold 1.4 million copies. Film versions of his writings -- Cujo is his favorite -- appear too quickly to keep count.
And the guy not only writes in the horror genre, he writes about it, too: 1981's Danse Macabre is a fantasy buff's delight, full of King's down-home explanations and insights on creepy creations.
The latest in King's string of spine-chillers is The Talisman, co-authored with another of horror's royalty, Peter Straub (Ghost Story). Much of the manuscript was telecommunicated between the writers' word processors, but long-distance correspondence didn't affect the final outcome.
"Peter came up here to Maine for the Fourth of July in 1982 and we polished that baby off," King says. "It's pretty seamless; at times I can't tell who wrote what."
For practical purposes, it doesn't matter. The Talisman, labeled "a quest novel" by publisher Viking, has broken industry records for first printing and authors' advances. It debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, and Steven Spielberg has bought the motion picture rights to The Talisman and is overseeing writing of the screenplay. By the time the movie hits theaters nationwide, it will probably be the eleventh of King's books on film.
In the meantime, fans may watch for numbers nine and ten. Cat's Eye, a Dino deLaurentiis production, should be out any month now. Filming just began on Silver Bullet, based on King's 1983 novella Cycle of the Wolf: "No Kung Fu, but heads roll and there are at least two breasts. Joe Bob will like this picture!" notes the author in Briggs-ese.
King gives a wonderful description of a scene from Cat's Eye: "It starts off with this little girl, she's nine years old, she's dead in bed, right? Her mother's convinced that the cat sat on the kid's chest, stole her breath and killed her. The father's a gun nut, and the mother goes downstairs and gets this machine gun out of his gun cabinet and tries to blow the cat away.
"She runs through the house, shooting at this cat and everything else, and she's sliding through all this goop from the kitchen table that's on the floor. It's hilarious! At the same time, the basic situation of the child being dead in bed with her eyes open and staring is really a terrible thing. And the two situations together, it's very uneasy... and I love it!"
For all of the shock and sizzle surrounding King and his writing, he's an all-around nice guy. King and his wife, novelist Tabitha Spruce King, share a couple of comfortable Maine homes with their children Naomi, Joe and Owen. King likes kids and seems to think of them even while he's creating his nightmares. He's quick to remember that while he found the 1950 sci-fi flick Creature from the Black Lagoon scary, it was nothing compared to selected scenes from Bambi and Fantasia that came closer to reality.
Mom and Pop King seem to be raising the youngsters in much the same way that other folks do ... only with greater exposure to the local literary scene and movies. "Remember the staccato violins during the Psycho shower scene? I'll be taking a shower, and one of my kids will pull back the shower curtain and go EE!EE!EE! like the violins. They love it!"
Movies are important to King; so are music ("I like Springsteen and the Ramones, and I love to write to disco because it's so mindless") and other elements of pop culture. One could read King's novels to bone up for the next round of Trivial Pursuit's Baby Boomer edition. Literary critics who want to avoid outright pans have been known to count brand-name references instead A line from his short story 'The Revelations of Becca Paulson' reads: "Strange, hearing Jesus Christ talk about Brylcreem." A-yuh, as they say in Maine.
This ability to combine the everyday with the extraordinary is King's stock-in-trade. "I've always been fascinated by those surrealistic pictures by Magritte, where you have trains coming out of fireplaces or gigantic eyes looking into windows. I like the combination of the really outrageous and the really mundane. It's like having anchovies in ice-cream -- it's so revolting that it's wonderful.
"Maybe I don't have the knack for making the strictly realistic interesting, so fantasy's just a hook to hang the story on. I'm not trying to downplay what I do, to suggest that I'm embarrassed by it; I'm not. I don't have enough taste to be embarrassed by what I do."
After such a statement, one wonders how seriously King takes his life, anyway.
"It depends on what the situation demands," he explains. "It's very difficult for me to be entirely serious because everything, when you get right down to it, is sorta funny. I mean, it's a world where everything wears out, including ourselves, and so it's kind of amusing to think of it. I don't know; maybe I'm just warped."
If so, he recognizes the company he keeps. One of his few regrets is that he and Alfred Hitchcock never worked together. "I think the greatest thing in the world would have been to have Hitchcock direct The Shining. Then it would have been good. [Director Stanley] Kubrick was like a very bright, intelligent, able kid who's trying to fly an F-111 before he learns how to fly a Piper Cub. He didn't know the genre, so he made this interesting mess. I think Hitchcock could have really gotten behind it."
We may have seen the last of Hitchcock, but for King, there's no end in sight. There aren't enough hours in the day, in spite of his purported 1,500-word-per-day output. One novel, It, is in rewrite; he's finishing a book, tentatively titled Misery, about a psychotic nurse; and Skeleton Crew, a short-story collection, will be out soon. All the while, his pet project, the seemingly endless saga The Dark Tower, sits by patiently waiting for its next installment.
In the words of Joe Bob Briggs, Big Steve says check 'em out.
Copyright 1999, Betsy Thaggard. This article ran in XTRA magazine in 1984.
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