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 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, 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
Unlike most rabid King fans and purists, I came to Cujo rather late. I was barely into double-digit age when I first snuck my mother’s copy of Pet Sematary into my room and read it under the covers (a book that is largely responsible/to blame for the path my life and career took in later years), and after devouring it over the course of a few nights, I promptly took my library card and, using the excuse that I was getting the books for my mother, read almost everything King had released to that point.
To this day I can’t explain why I skipped that one title in King’s oeuvre. His name on the cover alone was enough to draw me in. But perhaps it was the cover itself that put me off. Back in those days, the European covers—British, specifically—of King’s paperbacks tended to run from gruesomely effective to just plain silly. And if memory serves, the cover of Cujo was just an illustration of a drooling muzzle, which resembled a cross section of a corned beef sandwich. Or perhaps it was the movie adaptation, which despite winning performances by the actors (including the dog) and some effective moments, doesn’t hold a candle to the book. Usually if I see a movie before I’ve read the book, I don’t bother with the latter. The reverse, however, does not hold true. » Read more
First, let me say that I agree with the estimable Mr. Chizmar that Danse Macabre is truly one of Stephen King’s most underrated books. Of all of King’s canon, it’s the one book I have read, and reread, with the most pleasure over the ensuing decades. I always take something new away from it, whether it be a renewed interest in an old favorite story, a new book to pursue and add to my hoard, or just a simple human insight.
Danse Macabre came to me at an opportune time; given the vantage point I now have, it feels almost inevitable that I would stumble across it. I had just come off the most difficult summer of my young life, having been hospitalized in April of 1981 with what was later diagnosed as compartment syndrome, in my right calf. I had internal bleeding, and my calf was filling up like a balloon with deoxygenated blood, threatening to suffocate my muscles. After emergency surgery, I spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, recovering. I emerged battered, but still able to walk. I spent the summer rehabbing and reading, ravenously devouring whatever I could score from my local library. I remember, among other books, reading Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, and Dad, by William Wharton. Mostly “literature,” not the genre stuff that I enjoyed so much as a kid. » Read more
THAT WAS THEN…
I don’t remember a lot about my first reading of CUJO. Not sure how old I was or where I was or even where I got my copy (I recall it was a paperback, but that’s about it).
I remember liking the book quite a bit, but thinking it was dark and depressing. Everything about it. The people. The town. The dog. Even the damn weather.
Oddly enough, I also remember really disliking the lack of chapter breaks — don’t ask me why because I don’t have an answer — and thinking that I knew a couple guys who were well on their way to growing up to become Steve Kemps.
I don’t recall being that surprised or upset by the death of young Tad Trenton. I figured if King could kill off Susan Norton in ‘SALEM’S LOT, no one was safe.
One thing I do remember about that initial reading of CUJO, and with great clarity, is Tad’s Monster Words. You see, although I never had any pre-planned, written down, magic words to shield me from monsters when I was young, I did have my very own monster.
As mentioned before, I was the youngest of five children growing up in a military family that moved around quite a bit (we were Air Force brats; two of my sisters were born in Spain; I was born in Venezuela). When I was five years old, we moved to Edgewood, Maryland to be close to Edgewood Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where my soon-to-be-retired father would eventually work at the airfields. » Read more
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.
Cujo (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
THAT WAS THEN…
I bought my first copy of DANSE MACABRE — a beat-up paperback from a used bookstore, of course — sometime early on in college. I remember taking it home, along with three or four other books, and being disappointed when I discovered it wasn’t a novel or a new collection of stories.
I skipped around a lot the first time I picked it up. Chapters with scholarly titles such as “Radio and the Set of Reality” and “The Modern American Horror Movie–Text and Subtext” were blown by without a second glance. In truth, I was probably intimidated, but I never would have admitted that. Instead, I’m sure my take on it was something along the lines of: I get enough teaching in school, and I’m not much interested in taking a home course right now.
But, in a way, that’s exactly what ended up happening.
Because while I remember skipping over certain chapters altogether and liking — but not loving — certain other chapters, the sections of DANSE MACABRE that did capture my interest did so in such a significant way that they helped shape the direction of my life. » Read more
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. Since it would be a work of non-fiction, King wouldn’t have to offer it to his fiction publisher, NAL.
At 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
THAT WAS THEN…
This one is easy, folks.
Because, for ROADWORK, there simply wasn’t a “That Was Then…”
That’s right. ROADWORK is one of two Stephen King novels I had never read before. (And, nope, I’m not going to tell you the other one, but you are all welcome to guess, of course.)
So…why didn’t I read ROADWORK when news first hit many moons ago that Richard Bachman was actually Stephen King? After all, I gobbled up the other Bachman books — THE LONG WALK, RAGE, THE RUNNING MAN, THINNER — and enjoyed them all to varying degrees.
So, what was the deal with ROADWORK?
I promised myself I would remain honest at all times while taking this journey, so my answer here is a simple one: I tried to read ROADWORK. Several times. But it just didn’t take.
There was something about the book’s voice that failed to reach me. Something about the character of George Bart Dawes himself that failed to reach me. And I wasn’t crazy about the storyline of the book either — “A Novel of the First Energy Crisis”? No, thanks.
Was I simply too young or naive to connect with and enjoy the book? Perhaps. But then again King was only 25 years old himself when he wrote the darn thing.
Whatever the reasons, ROADWORK eventually slipped through the cracks for me and was largely forgotten. » Read more
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.
Her 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.
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
I remember when I read Firestarter for the first time. I was in high school, in the early ‘90s, and had started thinking that I’d maybe like to be a writer myself one day.
There are two reasons why Firestarter stuck in my head long after I finished reading it. For one, it’s an excellent story about the burden of psychic powers on ordinary people and the government machine that wants to use them for their own nefarious purposes. The other reason it stuck with me is because it was my first real lesson in the marketing side of the publishing business.
By the time Firestarter was published in 1980, Stephen King was already well on his way to becoming established as the King of Horror. Part of this was because he was indeed a powerhouse of a writer, but part of it was also due to the fact he was becoming a brand. My understanding of this came quite naturally, mainly by the simple fact that several of his books, published up to that time, didn’t really strike me as horror novels.
Of course it could be said that horror, like any other genre label, is in the eye of the beholder, but I think it’s fair to say it would take more than a bit of a stretch to describe books like The Dead Zone and Carrie as horror novels. Scary things happen, sure, but I feel, at least in those two cases, that the books belong more in the thriller genre, or even science fiction. Same goes for Firestarter. » Read more