At Home With Author Stephen King

From a Washington Post story by John Williams headlined “Book Tour: At home with Stephen King”:

Bangor, Maine — It was not possible to arrive alone in this city after dark on a quiet night in summer, knowing that I was there to meet Stephen King, and not feel a little creeped out. Or a lot.

But the fear-dispelling sunshine the next day was followed by a very genial King greeting me in the downstairs library of his former home, which is now the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation. (The nonprofit foundation awards grants for projects that address the causes and consequences of “social and environmental problems” in Maine communities. I met with King before the Oct. 25 mass shootings in Lewiston, Maine, which spurred King to speak out in multiple public forums against our culture of gun violence.)

“The house has been here since 1845; we’ve been here since 1976,” he said. “But we don’t really live here anymore, and it’s kind of a time capsule. The important thing to know about this whole room is that this used to be where the kids hung out when they were teenagers, and all their friends. They would play video games down here.”

The long room is lined on each side with books very neatly arranged: fiction along one wall, alphabetical by author, and nonfiction on the other, grouped by subject. Several people stood nearby as King, 76, browsed the library with me — members of his publishing team, local friends, foundation administrators. His relationships with everyone there were long-term, and those gathered felt far less like a retinue than a warm family reunited.

Weird fiction

Several shelves are taken up with themed series of books, many of them gifts to King from his wife of more than 50 years, Tabitha, whose own collection lives here, too. More than once while we talked, King paused to say, “I wish Tabby was here.” One such gift was a collection issued by Arkham House, a Wisconsin-based publisher of “weird fiction” founded in 1939, whose books meant a lot to King as a young reader.

“I grew up with these people,” he said. “They were all published in the pulps back in the day. A lot of them published at a penny a word or something like that, so they ground them out, and there’s a wide range. The originals were a [run of a] thousand copies or something, it wasn’t much. So these are reprints.”

“‘A Thousand Years a Minute,’ by Carl H. Claudy,” King said, intoning the book’s title with purposeful kidlike wonder. “1933. It’s about going back into the past and fighting dinosaurs and that kind of thing. The ‘Jurassic Park’ of its day.”

“Pleasant Dreams,” a collection of short stories by the horror and fantasy writer Robert Bloch (1917-1994), reminded King of a long conversation he once had with the writer at a convention. “It was probably about 1982, so I’d done ‘Carrie’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’ and some of the other ones, but not a lot,” he said. Bloch told him: “You’ve got a big future ahead of you; don’t let the publishers eat you up.”

Richard Matheson, author of “I Am Legend” and much else, gave King an even more specific piece of advice, after King sent him a copy of “Salem’s Lot.” “He used to type on these little notepapers, and he sent me a letter back on one of those,” King said. “He thanked me for the book, and then at the bottom he said, ‘I’m gonna tell you the most important thing that I know about writing.’ And I thought, Oh my God, I’m really gonna get something here. And I turned it over and it said: ‘Get a music stand.’ Then you don’t have to turn your head back and forth to the page, because it was in the days when you typed things.” Did he take the advice and get one? “No, I never did. And I never had neck problems either.”

Burroughs, hold the Tarzan

Inhabiting another several feet on one shelf, also a gift from Tabitha, were books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

“‘Pirates of Venus’ and the ones about Pellucidar — ‘At the Earth’s Core’ and stuff like that. I loved that,” King said. “I never really cared that much for the Tarzan books, all that jungle [stuff]. I never believed that swinging from vines and talking to the apes and things.”

The ‘Crypt’ and Cormac

King pulled a set of “Tales From the Crypt” off the shelf, solemnly recited its title and let out a cartoonishly evil cackle. “These twisted me as a kid,” he said. “I was 10 or 11. My aunt was concerned; my mother was not. They were about a nickel apiece. They didn’t have the covers on. In those days, they would tear off the covers and send the covers back and get credit for them. They were supposed to pulp them, but they kind of double-dipped.”

He noted that, like many of the books in his library, the “Crypt” copies were reprints. “I’m not a collector,” he said. “I have a few signed books, and they’re not shelved in a special place. They’re not prized possessions or anything like that. I have a ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ signed by Thomas Wolfe, and ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,’ by Horace McCoy. And I love that stuff, and it’s nice to have a signed book, but …”

Later, we came across a signed first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, “Outer Dark,” published in 1968. “I love Cormac McCarthy,” he said. Asked if he knew him, King said: “No. I mean, you didn’t know Cormac McCarthy, but I read everything. I read ‘The Passenger,’ and I thought, this guy is like 87, 88 years old, and he’s as good as he ever was. Just blew me away. I mean, I didn’t understand all of it. It made such an impression that I wrote this story called ‘The Dreamers’ that’s going to be in a new book. And it’s dedicated to him because I stole his style for that story; it made the story possible.”

After the Hardy Boys

“I started reading Ed McBain when I was probably 11 or 12,” King said, looking at his row of several novels by the prolific author of crime procedurals. “The bookmobile would come by. We lived out in the country. The first thing I remember is, I’m reading one of these books, and [detectives] Carella and Kling go to interview a woman about some crime. And she’s sitting there in her slip and she’s drunk, and she grabs her breast and squeezes and says, ‘In your eye, copper.’ And I thought to myself: This is not the Hardy Boys. Okay? It made an impression. It felt more real.”

The family tree

Two full sets of vertical shelves are filled with King’s own books and those of his family — Tabitha and the couple’s two sons, Owen and Joe (who writes as Joe Hill), have each published several novels. King’s daughter, Naomi, is a minister. When asked to survey those King-centric shelves, the author immediately began pointing out the work of his family members. “Joe’s books are here, Tab’s books up there,” he noted. “Where’s Owen’s stuff? Here’s his book ‘The Curator.’ ‘Save Yourself,’ that’s Kelly’s book. Kelly [Braffet] is Owen’s wife; she’s terrific.”

Despite the great number of his own books on the shelves, King wasn’t talking about them.

He said the books by the family had been curated and shelved by someone who works for him, someone who’s “sort of interested in my, what would you call it, my …?” “Legacy?” I offered. “Legacy, maybe that,” he said.

A few minutes later, I asked whether he considered his legacy himself. “I don’t think about legacy very much,” he said. “I don’t understand why there would possibly be one. When you’re a popular novelist — I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do the best job that I can, and I always try to find something to say. If you’re not saying something that you cared about, why bother?

“There are very few popular novelists who have a life after death. Agatha Christie, for one. I can’t think of anybody else who’s a popular novelist, really. People like John D. MacDonald, he was a terrifically popular novelist in his day, but when he died, his books disappeared off the racks. They were ultimately disposable. I think that a couple of the horror novels might last. They might be read 50 or a hundred years from now, ‘The Shining’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘It.’ If you ask people, ‘What vampire do you know?,’ they’d say, ‘Dracula.’ ‘Well, who invented Dracula?’ ‘I don’t [expletive] know.’ So, 50 or a hundred years from now, people will say: ‘Oh, Pennywise, the clown. Yeah, sure.’ ‘Who is Stephen King?’ They won’t know.”

Epics and hardcovers

Pointing at the shelves of fiction, King said: “That’s everything that I’ve read or that Tabby’s read. These are all read books and loved books. We can’t throw a book away, none of us can.”

Though he described himself as not a very fast reader, he stopped to recommend some quite time-consuming books, including John Galsworthy’s epic “The Forsyte Saga” (“I listened to it and read it on my iPad because the print’s too small for me now”) and Anthony Powell’s 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

I remarked on the fact that all of the books on the fiction shelves — or very nearly all — were hardcovers. King said that was to make up for not having them growing up. “When I was a kid and I was poor,” King said, “the idea that you could buy a hardcover for the astronomical price of $6, when you could get a paperback for 35 cents? No.” The first hardcover he ever bought, when he was in college, was William Manchester’s “Death of a President,” about the Kennedy assassination, which he gave to his mother for her birthday.

Toward the end of my visit, King enthusiastically pulled a last exhibit from the shelves: “This is an interesting book: Dan Simmons, ‘Carrion Comfort.’ It’s long; very long. This is one of the few books everybody in my family has read. He dedicated it to me, after I got hit by a van. It’s a book about people who get into stupid accidents.” On this note, King turned to the room and loudly asked: “Are we having fun yet?”

Soon everyone present was gathered around a copy of “Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King.” It would be hard to overstate the dimensions of this oversize, limited-edition book, which sat on a table on one end of the room and seemed more like an additional piece of furniture. “I’m not even gonna try to lift it,” King said. Its pages included at least one playful touch: an illustration of King’s face on a classically cheesy romance cover for the novel “Misery’s Return,” an imagined work that plays a role in King’s “Misery.”

But “Knowing Darkness” was otherwise stuffed with darker images that have adorned his work. After looking at it for a while, King said with mock innocence: “I must have kind of a twisted mind.” There was laughter all around.

John Williams oversees books coverage for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2022, he spent 11 years on the books desk of the New York Times, where he edited the paper’s staff book critics and frequently wrote literary reviews and features.

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