Category Archives: Historical Context Essays

The Two Princes by Bev Vincent

By the age of thirteen, King’s daughter, Naomi, was an avid reader but hadn’t read any of his books[1], even though her younger brother, Joe, had already read two. Her mother pushed her to read some horror with the idea that it would be another way for her to know her father. However, she made it clear to him that she had “very little interest in my vampires, Ghoulies and slushy crawling things.” So, as he wrote in a letter for Viking Press[2], “I decided that if the mountain would not go to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain.”

The Eyes of the DragonHe asked her what she did like and she told him she liked dragons. He told Jo Fletcher, “I knew that she liked fantasy, she had read some of the Conan comic books and Piers Anthony and stuff like that and in the end I really got into it.” [3]

He started working on the story, originally called The Napkins, in their house in western Maine. He wrote on a yellow legal pad in front of a woodstove while a screaming northeaster blew snow across the frozen lake outside. King had recently been working on The Talisman with Peter Straub, so the fantasy land of the Territories was fresh in his mind. He wrote The Eyes of the Dragon at the same time as he was writing Misery, working on one in the morning and the other at night, completing the first draft in 1983.

Naomi, he admits, took hold of the manuscript with a marked lack of enthusiasm, but he was rewarded. The story kidnapped her and the only thing wrong with it, she told him later, was that she didn’t want it to end. » Read more

A Man’s Heart Is Stonier by Bev Vincent

In 1978, Stephen King was invited to be writer in residence at the English department of his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. He moved his family into a rented house on a major highway in Orrington. The heavy traffic included transports heading to and from a nearby chemical plant. A new neighbor warned the Kings to keep their pets and children away from this road, which had “used up a lot of animals.”[1] In support of this claim, the Kings discovered a burial ground not far from the house, with “Pets Sematary” written on a sign in a childish hand. Among its residents: dogs, cats, birds, and a goat.

Pet SemataryShortly after they moved in, daughter Naomi’s cat, Smucky, was found dead on the side of the road when they returned from a trip to town. King’s first impulse was to tell her that the cat had wandered away. Tabitha, however, believed this was an opportunity to teach a life lesson. They broke the news to their daughter and conducted a feline funeral, committing Smucky’s mortal remains to the pet cemetery. A few nights later, King discovered Naomi in the garage, jumping up and down on sheets of bubble wrap, indignant over the loss of her pet. “Let God have His own cat. I want my cat. I want my cat,” she was repeating.[2]

The road almost “used up” the Kings’ youngest son, too. Owen was about eighteen months old when he wandered dangerously close to the highway. To this day, King isn’t sure whether he knocked Owen down before he reached the highway as a tanker approached or if the boy tripped over his own feet. Owen had been born with an unusually large head, and the Kings had already agonized over the possibility of losing him to hydrocephalus. This near miss was an unwelcome reminder of the fragility of their children. » Read more

By the Light of the Silvery Moon by Bev Vincent

Stephen King freely admits that one of the reasons he agreed to the project that became Cycle of the Werewolf was because he was drunk when a young Michigan publisher named Christopher Zavisa approached him at the World Fantasy Convention in Providence, Rhode Island in 1979.

King also believes Silver Bullet is the only motion picture developed from something that started out as a calendar concept.

Cycle of the WerewolfZavisa’s pitch intrigued King. The publisher, who had established Land of Enchantment Press initially to promote Wrightson’s works, wanted King to come up with a set of twelve vignettes that would each be accompanied by a Berni Wrightson painting and a calendar grid. There would be some kind of continuity among the segments, as if it were all a larger story.

The concept of a story calendar appealed to King, as did the idea of working with a small press. At that point in his career, King was feeling a little guilty about his immense success compared to many other writers, especially those he had idolized as a kid. He mentions[1] as an example the fact that Frank Belknap Long had come to the World Fantasy Convention on a bus because he couldn’t afford to travel by train, let alone by airplane. He fully expected to be snubbed as a young whippersnapper at the con, although he was in fact treated generously and kindly by people he was astonished to think of as his colleagues. » Read more

Baby You Can Drive My Car by Bev Vincent

The roaring engine that became Christine rolled off the assembly line as a short story idea inspired by the old, decrepit red Cadillac Stephen King owned in 1978. “One night as I was turning into my driveway, I saw the odometer numbers on my car turn from 9999.9 to 10,000. I found myself wondering if there might not be a story in an odometer that ran backward.”

ChristineThe book was written in the late 70s (the same era during which the novel is set), before King spent time in the greater Pittsburgh area working on Creepshow, but its location is an homage to his friend, director George Romero, to whom the book is dedicated. King decided to use a 1958 Plymouth Fury because they were “the most mundane fifties car that I could remember,” he told Randy Lofficier.[1] He didn’t want to use a vehicle that had a legend already attached to it.[2]

He thought that the car (and perhaps the kid who owned it) would get younger. As he told Douglas E. Winter: “The kicker would be that, when the odometer returned to zero, the car, at the height of its beauty, would spontaneously fall into component parts. It would echo that Lewis Padgett story, ‘The Twonky’—really funny, but maybe a little sinister, too?” » Read more

Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall by Bev Vincent

Different Seasons is a collection that contains only four tales and, with the exception of “The Breathing Method,” there is nothing remotely supernatural in them. None of the stories had been previously published. That may not seem unusual now, but at the time it was something of a departure for King.

Different SeasonsThe publishing landscape was different in 1982. In his lengthy afterword to Different Seasons, King bemoans the sad state of the novella, that peculiar form of fiction that falls between longer short stories and shorter novels, tales in the 25-30,000 word range. This is a territory King called “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic.” Nowadays, there are more opportunities to publish novellas, especially in the small press. Even “The Mist,” a later novella, was published as a standalone book from one of the big houses as a movie tie-in.

He calls the stories in this collection his bedtime stories. The ideas came to him while he writing other novels. He couldn’t stop those books to tackle these ideas, so he got into the habit of telling the stories to himself while he was going to sleep at night instead of counting sheep. He says that he often has six or seven of these ideas going on at the same time and many of them never pan out. Either that or he ended up telling the entire story to himself, so there was no point in writing it down. In a later interview, King says he originally submitted only three novellas to his then-editor John Williams but, since he called them “seasons,” Williams felt there should be a fourth, so he wrote “The Breathing Method.” » Read more

Five Easy Pieces by Bev Vincent

When he was a student working in the University of Maine library, Stephen King inherited a ream (500 sheets) of oddly sized bright green paper, almost as thick as cardboard. (His future wife, Tabitha Spruce got one, too, except hers was robin’s egg blue.) This eccentric material seemed to invite him to write something special.

The Dark Tower - The GunslingerTwo years earlier, in a sophomore course on the romantic poets, he’d studied the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” He wanted to write something long that embodied the feel of that poem, if not its exact sense. Seeing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (while flying high on mescaline, he told an audience at Yale in April 2003) made him wonder if he could blend two different genres. He wanted to capture Tolkien’s sense of quest and magical fantasy set against Sergio Leone’s “almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.”

He started the book during his final year at university. In March 1970, he wrote the iconic first line and the rest of the sections ”The Gunslinger” and “The Way Station” while living alone in a cabin on the banks of the Stillwater River (his three roommates had flunked out one by one, a progression reminiscent of the novella “Hearts in Atlantis”). In that cabin, he experienced ghostly, unbroken silence that undoubtedly affected the mood of what he was writing—unbroken, that is, except for the music of Johnny Winter. He believed at the time he was embarking on the longest popular novel in history, something he estimated would approach 3000 pages[1]. » Read more

Can You See Me Running? by Bev Vincent

One of the interesting things about researching these historical context essays is that they demonstrate how unreliable memory can be. Contradictions abound. For example, depending on which account you believe, The Running Man was written either before Stephen King started Carrie or immediately after he completed that book’s first draft, which would make it either his fourth or his fifth finished novel manuscript.

The Running ManThe Running Man was written in the “winter of 1971,” which some sources assign to the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. King remembers writing it during February vacation, which would place it in February 1972.

Sources generally say that King wrote the novel in a weekend or, more specifically, over a period of 72 hours. In a 2013 interview in The Guardian[1], King says he wrote it in a week. “I was white hot, I was burning. That was quite a week, because Tabby was trying to get back and forth to Dunkin’ Donuts and I had the kids. I wrote when they napped or I would stick them in front of the TV. Joe was in a playpen. It seemed like it snowed the whole week, and I wrote the book.” As with the other novels from that time, King says it was written “by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing” in a “Bachman state of mind: low rage and simmering despair.” » Read more

A brick heaved through a window by Bev Vincent

King has said that most of his books start with a situation and an opening scene. If he can figure out where the situation might go or see a progression toward an end—even if that’s not how it actually does end—then he will start working on the book.

CujoCujo (September 1977 – March 1981) had its genesis in an encounter King had in the spring of 1977. His motorcycle wasn’t working properly and he wasn’t having any luck gapping the plugs, so he took it to a mechanic who lived on a farm out in the middle of nowhere on the recommendation of a friend, who told him the man had a strange habit of estimating a price and then charging that exact amount. King rode the bike several miles out into the country and barely made it before the vehicle quit on him.

Two memorable things greeted him: a man who looked like a character from Deliverance and “the biggest dog in the world.” The Saint Bernard growled at King, but the man assured him that “he don’t bite.” King reached out to pet the dog and it went for him. The man walked over to the dog and gave him a whack with a socket wrench. The dog yelped and sat down. It had never done anything like that before, the man said. “He must not have liked your face.” King had no place to hide if the dog decided to attack him. The motorcycle wouldn’t run and he couldn’t outrun the dog, which probably outweighed him. » Read more

What We Talk About When We Talk About Horror by Bev Vincent

After losing his job at Doubleday, Bill Thompson moved to Everest House, but he and King remained good friends, going to lunch and attending baseball games together. In November 1978, Thompson approached King about the possibility of doing a book about horror in movies, television and radio over the previous thirty years.

Danse MacabreAt the time, King was living in Orrington, Maine and teaching creative writing and literature courses as a writer-in-residence at the University of Maine, his first experience teaching at the university level. In the evenings, he was finishing work on Firestarter.

The concept intrigued King, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about the project at first. It intimidated him. It was easier to tell lies in fiction than write the truth in non-fiction, he thought. It wouldn’t be his first time writing about the nature of fear and why people want to be scared by something entertaining, though. He’d prepared a long forward on the subject in Night Shift, for example.

Thompson was persistent and persuasive. He asked King how often he had been asked why he wrote horror and why people read horror. If he wrote this book, King would never have to answer those kinds of questions again, Thompson argued. All he’d have to do is say, “I wrote this book.” It would be his “Final Statement” on the matter. » Read more

The First Energy Crisis by Bev Vincent

We have to go back in time again to discuss the genesis of King’s tenth published novel, his third under the Richard Bachman pen name. In 1973, he finished the first draft of ‘Salem’s Lot (known as Second Coming at the time). Carrie was slated for publication the following spring. However, his mother, Ruth, died in December of that year after a long and painful illness. She knew her son would be published, but never got to see it happen.

Roadwork by Richard BachmanHer death left King grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of how cancer had tormented her. In an effort to work through his thoughts and feelings about this loss, he started writing Roadwork. The book has a number of autobiographical aspects. The protagonist, Barton George Dawes, has recently lost a family member to cancer. Like King, who memorialized the experience in his short story “The Mangler,” Dawes worked at an industrial laundry. In fact, the company has the same name in both stories: The Blue Ribbon Laundry, and the ironing machine in Roadwork is nicknamed “the mangler.” Anyone who suspected that Bachman was really King would have their smoking gun from these details alone[1].

Roadwork was also an effort to write a straight novel, i.e. one that would not be classified as horror or science fiction. In the essay “Why I was Bachman,” King says he was young enough at the time to worry about the “casual cocktail-party question” about when he was going to write something “serious.” » Read more

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