Entertainment Books

Wednesday 19 June 2019

The King of horror who lives in fear

He's scared of everything from snakes to flying, and a new biography suggests Stephen King's career is driven by childhood terrors. Margaret Carragher reports

A new biography suggests that Stephen King's career is driven by childhood terrors.
A new biography suggests that Stephen King's career is driven by childhood terrors.

Margaret Carragher

When Stephen King's wife salvaged the opening chapters of his first novel from the waste paper basket, neither she nor her husband could possibly have imagined what lay ahead.

Published in 1974, Carrie went on to sell millions, propelling its young author to pole position on bestseller lists worldwide, and securing forever his place in the annals of horror fiction.

Since then, King has produced over 60 critically acclaimed novels, all still in print and many successfully adapted for stage and screen.

Now in his seventh decade, and rich beyond the wildest dreams of his impoverished youth in Maine, this undisputed king of the macabre could be forgiven for chilling out on his throne. But no.

Because the very force that first propelled him into the genre of horror is still at work: Stephen King is driven by fear.

In a new biography based on first-hand interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues, Haunted Heart by Lisa Rogak reveals how events in King's childhood led to him becoming one of the greatest horror writers of all time.

The local Bookmobile provided him with classics by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, and his mother encouraged his nascent talent by giving him a nickel for every story he wrote -- but ultimately it was terror that drove him onwards.

A self-confessed resident of "The People's Republic of Paranoia," King's long list of fears include the dark, snakes, rats, spiders, squishy things, psychotherapy, deformity, closed-in spaces, choking, death, flying, and writer's block.

He reveals that part of the reason he writes is to drown them out. Because once he's on a roll, weaving his deepest, darkest fears into tales to chill the very marrow of the bone, those fears disappear.

But only while he works: the moment he leaves his keyboard, they're back.

Without fear, where would Stephen King be? It's almost as if he is hooked on anxiety, just another thing for him to mainline, like the booze and drugs to which he was addicted for decades.

"All those addictive substances are part of the bad side of what we do," he says. "Writing is an addiction for me. Even when it's not going well, if I don't do it, the fact that I'm not doing it nags at me."

One of the most remarkable aspects of King's life is that his once legendary substance abuse, including cocaine and Valium, never affected either the quantity or the quality of his writing. Only when, after many years of putting up and shutting up, his wife Tabitha blitzed his office and publicly confronted him with his secret stash of substances, did King finally acknowledge the extent of his addictions and address them. He's been sober since the late '80s.

Though initially fearful that his muse was inextricably linked to the booze, once sober, King became even more prolific.

And while he claims to write mostly for himself, he has occasionally provided a glimpse of another shadowy figure, one he can barely remember: his father, who walked out of the family home one evening for a pack of cigarettes and kept on going, leaving his wife and two young sons to fend for themselves in a time of wrenching poverty and great uncertainty.

Back then, for a husband to leave his wife, or to get a divorce, was the ultimate shame. And so King's mother taught her boys how to respond whenever anyone asked after their father: "Tell them he's in the navy."

'We were ashamed not to have a father," King recalls.

In due course, these feelings of shame and abandonment, like his myriad fears, served to fuel even further King's prodigious output of horror.

While he's long been an admirer of everything mainstream -- he refers to himself as the Big Mac of authors -- King isn't always comfortable on the pedestal of popular fiction.

But after over 30 years in the business, he still chats with journalists, gives public talks, attends his beloved Red Sox games and does book signings.

Then, of course, there's the flip side. "When you get into this business, they don't tell you that you'll get cat bones in the mail, or letters from crazy people, or that the people on tour buses will be gathered at your fence snapping pictures."

Having famously remarked that "you have to be a little nuts to be a writer," one might well ask: Is he? Not so, say those closest to him. "He's a brilliant, funny and generous man whose character is made up of layer upon layer," says long-time friend and co-author Peter Straub.

"Steve still sees himself as a small-town guy who has done a few interesting things but doesn't think his personal life would interest anyone," says friend and colleague Bev Vincent.

But perhaps most surprising of all is King's own self assessment.

"I am a romantic," he admits. "I believe all those sappy, romantic things: that children are good, that good wins out over evil, that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I really believe all that sh*t."

Which, from someone for whom the stuff of nightmares is all in a day's work, is quite a revelation.

Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, Lisa, Rogak, £16.99

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