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.” 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.
Shortly 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.
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
The end of the 1970s saw a change in direction for Stephen King. He switched publishers and, for the first time, had a literary agent. He met Kirby McCauley at a publishing party in 1976, but didn’t sign up with him right away. When he and Doubleday reached an impasse on a contract for his next few books, despite internal support from Bill Thompson, he consulted McCauley, who suggested offering the books to NAL, his paperback publisher. NAL met his demands and sold the hardcover rights to Viking. The deal was big news, reported in Publishers Weekly.
His first book at Viking was a change of pace, too. King considers The Dead Zone to be science fiction, unlike the fantasy/horror of his previous books. The Stand was meant to be a “summing up” of what he’d done to date, and it was time to move on to something different. » Read more
After Stephen King finished The Shining, he wrote the novella “Apt Pupil” before going back to work on his Patty Hearst novel, The House on Value Street. After six weeks, he once again felt the book wasn’t coming together for him.
A few incidents in the news caught his attention. The first was an accident in Utah where canisters of a deadly chemical fell from a truck, split open, and killed some sheep. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, many people might have died. He still had the Symbionese Liberation Army on his mind, so he wondered what would happen if a disease got loose and destroyed most of the world’s population—as in the George R. Stewart novel Earth Abides, which he had read in high school, and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud—but members of the SLA were immune for some reason. Then he read about the first-ever outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the American Legion Convention in Philadelphia in 1976. When he heard a radio preacher utter the phrase “once in every generation the plague will fall among them,” he liked it enough to write it down and post it on his desk.
He had written about the survivors of a viral epidemic before, in the short story “Night Surf,” which was first published in Ubris in 1969 and reworked for subsequent publication in Cavalier in 1974. Though that virus was called A6, the survivors referred to it as Captain Trips. At that earlier time, he wanted to write more about the world after the apocalypse, but he didn’t feel ready to tackle such an enormous project.
He was also inspired to try to write an epic fantasy on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, but with a familiar setting. The problem with so much of high fantasy, he felt, was that readers had to learn a new language and geography to enjoy those books, whereas his would be set in contemporary America. » Read more
Stephen King wrote the first forty pages of the novel that would later be published as Rage in 1966, when he was a senior in high school. One source claims the original title Getting It On was inspired by the T. Rex song “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” The timing is right: In 1970, King found the incomplete manuscript of Getting It On “moldering away” in a box in the cellar of the house where he grew up, and he finished the novel in 1971, when that song was a hit.
In his essay “My High School Horrors,” King discusses his constant fear of being alone and not being able to connect with people or make friends while in high school, and of being afraid but not being able to tell people he was afraid. Rage arose from the same sense of being an outsider as did Carrie.
Getting It On was almost his first published novel. Rather than submit it to the slush pile at Doubleday, he found a current novel that was similar in tone and sent it to “the editor of The Parallax View,” hoping that would get him a step farther up the submission ladder. As it happened, that editor wasn’t available so the manuscript was passed on to Bill Thompson, who remembers the book as “a masterful study in character and suspense, but it was quiet, deliberately claustrophobic and it proved a tough sell within the house.” Thompson requested three rounds of revision, but ultimately Doubleday passed on it. In his formal rejection letter, Thompson offered to send it around to other publishers.
After he had a few books out and had developed some name recognition, King asked Doubleday if they would release some of his earlier books. However, Doubleday didn’t want to saturate the market by issuing more than one new book a year. There was a belief in publishing at the time that there was a limit to how many books by an author readers were willing to buy in any given year. New books cannibalized the sales of recent ones, and everything suffered. That was the theory, anyway, and Doubleday wasn’t willing to test it.
» Read more
Now free to write full time, and having produced two books set in Maine, Stephen King decided to move so he could absorb a new setting. According to one version of the story, their destination was left up to chance—a blind finger-stab at a US roadmap.
In 1974, after King finished “The Body,” the family moved to a rented house in Boulder where King planned to write The House on Value Street, a novel loosely based on Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the SLA. He struggled with it for several weeks and abandoned it after he and his wife spent a getaway weekend at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park.
They arrived on the night before the Stanley closed for the winter, and were its only guests. The mostly empty hotel struck King as the perfect setting for a ghost story. Only one entrée was being served in the dining room. The chairs were stacked atop every table except theirs. The tuxedo-clad orchestra played for them and them alone. A person could get lost in the endless hallways he wandered after Tabitha went to bed. The hotel bartender was named Grady. The clawfoot bathtub in their room was so deep someone might drown in it. That night, he dreamed of their son, Joe, screaming as a fire hose chased him. Soon, King had the framework of the story in his head. » Read more
After Doubleday accepted Carrie for publication, Stephen King’s editor, Bill Thompson, asked what they should consider for his follow-up. King had two books in mind, Roadwork ¹ and ‘Salem’s Lot (originally titled Second Coming ²). Thompson warned King that if they went with the vampire novel, King ran the risk of being branded a horror writer. King said that as long as the checks didn’t bounce, he didn’t care what people called him.
He’d started ‘Salem’s Lot in 1972, when life was still difficult for the family. He was writing in the furnace room of their trailer with a fourth-grade desk propped on his knees to support his wife’s Olivetti typewriter, while Tabitha tried to figure out which bills had to be paid now and which could be put off. Fighting vampires was a form of escape for King. They seemed more benign than the creditors harassing them. » Read more
By 1973, Stephen King had been writing for twenty years and had been publishing short stories for over a decade. He had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower. However, he had yet to crack into print with a novel, even though he had written over half a dozen.
King had established contact with an editor at Doubleday named Bill Thompson who saw promise in his writing. Getting It On (aka Rage) and The Long Walk had piqued Thompson’s interest, but even after extensive rewrites the editor couldn’t justify acquiring either, and he showed little interest in The Running Man.
King was living with his wife, Tabitha, and two kids in a doublewide trailer in Hermon, Maine, just outside Bangor. He had recently given up his $1.60 an hour job at a commercial laundry (immortalized in “The Mangler”) for a $6400 a year position teaching high school at the Hampden Academy, a job that left him with little spare time or energy. Tabitha was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and he moonlighted at the New Franklin Laundry during summer vacation. If not for his wife’s support and encouragement, he might have given up on writing. » Read more