Stephen King has written over 50 books, terrifying millions. As he publishes his latest fiction, in which a time traveller tries to stop the killing of JFK, the novelist tells STEPHEN MCGINTY what scares him – and the answer is rather close to home
IT IS just after 8am on a warm autumn morning in Maine and behind the ornamental bat-shaped railings of the 1858 clapboard mansion where he has lived with his wife for more than 25 years, Stephen King is settling down at the desk in the upstairs study. This isn’t where he writes the epic novels that have earned him the reputation as both the “bogeyman of American letters” and a latter-day Charles Dickens. He has an office out by Bangor airport where he works each morning; however, today is a rare day off and he’s talking to me about his new book on time travel and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 11.22.63.
On his desk is a photograph of his wife Tabitha, a box of toothpicks, which he jokes are anti-smoking aids, and a collection of Harley Davidson memorabilia. He likes to ride his “hog” and recently appeared in a cameo in Hell’s Angels TV drama Sons of Anarchy. The walls are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of almost 2,000 volumes, and on one wall hangs a poster of Gilda, the old Rita Hayworth movie, a gift from Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption which was based on his novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
Our hour-long conversation was the successful conclusion of a decade’s worth of interview requests. A “Constant Reader”, as the author dubs his fans, I’d met him briefly in New York in 2003 when he left his sickbed to collect The National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, just before he tumbled back into it and almost died from pneumonia. “I was a pretty sick guy,” he laughs before adding: “How’s The Scotsman?” A newspaper fan, he likes to keep tabs on their health. “I’m an old dog, I still go out and get the papers.”
His new novel follows Jake Epping, an English teacher in modern day Maine, whose friend Al owns a diner whose storeroom is a portal to 1958. Like many of King’s novels, all it takes is a fantasy twist and soon the story is grounded in an evocative recreation of the late Fifties and early Sixties as Epping finds himself torn between tracking down and stopping Lee Harvey Oswald and falling in love with Sadie Dunhill, the high school librarian. So where was he when he first heard about the shots that rang out in Dealey Plaza?
“I was in a converted hearse Stephen, yes I was,” he says, laughing at the irony. “I lived in a little tiny town, think of a little tiny town in Scotland with all dirt roads, and there was no high school. There was a grammar school but it was just four rooms. We had to pick a high school that was nearby and there was no bus. So a bunch of parents clubbed together and hired this guy who converted a hearse into a half-ass limousine and there were nine or ten of us who went back and forth about 14 miles to the nearest high school.
“He was this real quiet guy who never played the radio. We hated that because we all loved rock’n’roll, it was the early Sixties and the only two times that radio was ever on was during the Cuban missile crisis and then when we got out of school one day. We got in the car and the radio was on and we were grab-assing around the way that kids at the end of the school day did and the guy came on and said ‘the President is dead’ and there was just total silence.
“And what I remember best is that Mike, the driver who never said anything, he wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful, he said: ‘They will kill the son of a bitch who did it, if they catch him.’ And they caught him and somebody killed him, sure enough.”
At home, King’s mother, a life-long Republican, was crying. He remembers the wild rumours that even then began to swirl around the assassination, especially after Jack Ruby shot Oswald once the gunman had been arrested. “The whole country came to a stop. It was like 9/11 and it was shock after shock. You would have to imagine what it would have been like if those planes had hit the World Trade Center and then two days later another plane had hit the Stock Exchange, because that is what it was like when Oswald was killed.”
While researching the novel, King read yards of books on the subject and visited Dallas and the book depository, but came down firmly on the side of the lone gunman theory. During the novel Jake Epping tails Oswald to discover if he had co-conspirators and King understands why people wish it were so.
“Nobody really wanted to accept the idea that it was just a lone nut, everybody wanted it to be a conspiracy and believe me, Stephen, I’ve got my jockstrap on, I’m ready for what is going to happen when this book is published. The conspiracy people are still out there and they are so wedded to their ideas.”
King said he originally thought of writing the novel in the early 1970s, but felt it was too soon. “We have got to remember here that we are talking about a pop novel. People will read and hopefully they will like the story and they will think about this guy being slowly seduced by the time…There are things about Oswald that are interesting: the mother complex and the fact that he was a beater. I didn’t know that he was a wifebeater until I started to research the book. All the events that Jake observes are documented. Oswald beating his wife because the zipper on her skirt wouldn’t close.”
There is a line in 11.22.63 where King writes: “He was not a man, he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.” I had always been curious about King’s opinion on the existence of evil. Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall, once described a childhood encounter in her garden one sunny summer’s morning when she felt the presence of pitch darkness. Had he? “I think we see evil all around us. The question is, where does evil come from? On that I’m pretty agnostic.” He remembers Hunter S Thompson’s description of Lyndon Johnson when he announced that he would not stand for a second term: “Hunter Thompson said: ‘I was watching the TV and I saw the Devil leave his face at that moment’. That is one side of it.”
In the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, it was anger that drove him, an emotion King can well understand. The night before the assassination Oswald had been rejected by his estranged wife. “She said, in effect, no it’s over and if she had said, ‘yes, we’ll give it one more try’, then I don’t think he is in the window with the gun the next day. If you are a good old-time Catholic you will say that this is the Devil at work. If you are not you say, that is the way the dice rolls.”
AN interest in the dark side of life was sparked in Stephen King by two incidents. When he was four he and a friend went to play by the railroad tracks and, according to his mother’s later account, he returned after an hour, chalk white and mute. His friend had been run over by a freight train and although he has no memory of the incident, he would write in Danse Macabre, a non-fiction exploration of horror in film and literature: “Years later my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket”.
He was just two when his father, Donald King, went out to buy a packet of cigarettes and never came back, (decades later King learned that he had bigamously remarried and had a new family) but at the age of 12, the son found the father’s old yellow paperbacks, the novels of HP Lovecraft and Frank Belknap and, as he later wrote: “I was on my way.”
Although poor, his mother saved up enough to buy him a second-hand typewriter, albeit one missing the letter ‘n’ and it was on that clickity word machine that he poured out his teenage angst. By the time he won a scholarship to the University of Maine, he had already written two unpublished novels, one of which, Rage, was about an 18-year-old who shoots two teachers and takes fellow students hostage. Published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, it is the only one of King’s works no longer in print. Deliberately so.
“There was a school shooting in Oregon where a kid brought a gun to school, this was back before 9/11 when there wasn’t the same security. This kid just opened up and killed two or three. He did not kill himself. He was taken alive and I think he is in jail now or in a psychiatric institution. They found Rage in his locker and I said: ‘That’s it. I’m not going to wear this one and I’m going to try not to feel responsible’.
“The book came out of a time in my life. I was 18 when I started it and I was in touch with a lot of those feelings, from 18 until 24, 25. Until around the time I was married and starting to find my feet in the world, I felt a lot of that rage. The book came out of that and it seemed to me then, and it still seems to be now, that book and others like Long Walk and Road Work are really honest books and efforts to express what was going on with me and put it in terms of stories that people would want to read.
“I have always rejected the idea that reading books causes somebody to do something that they otherwise would not have done. I think that those people find their trigger. It is like adding an accelerant to something that is already dangerous, but I didn’t want to be a part of that, I felt like I had a responsibility to take that book out of print and that is what I did.”
For many years King tranquilised his demons with cocaine and alcohol – he has little memory of writing one novel, The Tommyknockers – but cleaned up after Tabitha organised a family intervention which resulted in a rubbish bin filled with beer cans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and coke spoons caked in blood, Valium, Xanax and NyQuil cold medicine all being dumped on the floor in front of him. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has now been sober for 24 years, during which time his faith has been rekindled. “Over the course of the years I have developed a deeper spiritual understanding of things, but is there an actual God who listens to those prayers? I don’t know. But I’m an optimist, so why not? What does it hurt if you go ahead and believe that there is a force out there that is working for good? It is an immensely comforting idea.”
The irony is that for all his reputation as an author of horror novels, King has, over the years, crafted some of the most moving and life-enhancing novels of his generation. The voiceover narration of The Shawshank Redemption, recently voted by the readers of Empire magazine as their favourite film of all time, is lifted right off the page. “Hope”, as Red explains “can set you free”. He admits: “For someone who writes horror a lot of my books are kinda sunny.” Yet if ever his readers doubted he still possessed the nerve to write a truly disturbing story, it was set straight with A Good Marriage, a recent novella which documented a wife’s reaction to finding that her husband is a serial killer. He is also nursing another darker novel, to be published once again under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman.
“There are guys that work on the edge. James Ellroy is one that I can think of and there was another guy, Charles Willeford. I would like to write a Bachman novel that had some of that Charles Willeford feel. The dark side of American life … I would like to start a book about a crazy private eye, a guy who is really on the dark side. I see the scene: this guy sitting in his office in an unnamed American city, the sky grey, the rain grey and hitting the window. That is it … But I know the rest of it would follow pretty nicely with that hard-boiled voice like Raymond Chandler. Think of Philip Marlowe, only a total f***ing degenerate.”
Over the years King has talked of slowing down, or possibly retiring, but at 64 with over 50 books published and sales of more than 300 million, his need to tell stories remains undiminished. The day before we spoke, he finished going through the proofs of his next novel, The Wind Through The Keyhole, to be published next spring, and tomorrow he will return to the manuscript of Dr Sleep, a sequel to The Shining. He now feels bad if he doesn’t write each and every day: “You become habituated. If you stop there is withdrawal and it brings bad stuff: insomnia, irritability with my family. I still like stories and stories take me away and I write the ones that I can’t find in the bookstores.”
While he is no longer the most popular novelist in the world, as he was in the Eighties, he has great respect for the woman who now holds that title, JK Rowling. A fan of the Harry Potter novels, King first met her when they both took part in a charity event with John Irving in New York billed as An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp. “She is a wonderful person and was very generous to do that,” he says.
“She became like Dickens for a while there, like when people would line up on the docks in Baltimore to get the latest instalment of Great Expectations, so in the midst of all this she comes to finish her book on Long Island and she was doing this reading with me and we had a soundcheck at Radio City music hall and there were a lot of people there. The usual hangers on. The people who are associated with successful people, the publishers I think were there and we were talking about the sound and acoustics and where the seats were going to be and all the other stuff. Her publishing people wanted to see her. She was dressed casually, a red top and white Capri pants, and she went over and talked to them a while and she came back to me and she was fuming. She said to me: “They don’t understand, do they?” And I said: “No, they don’t.”
“Because we do this and nobody really knows what it is we do or why we need the time to do it, even in the minds of people who are participating in our good fortune. They don’t seem to have the understanding that you need time and tranquillity to work and that anything on top of that is a diversion from the main job. She was terrific. She sailed right through.”
As King’s family was Scots-Irish, I ask if he had ever made it over to Scotland, which elicits the surprising revelation that one thing the author has come to fear is the Scottish weather. He laughs: “Yes. We were in Edinburgh for about a week when we lived in England. My daughter was eight and it was a school holiday and we decided that we were going to go up to Edinburgh and then we planned to drive up to Loch Ness. We did set out but the weather just turned horrible and blew a gale and the countryside was really wild and empty and it was not tourist season by any means and we kind of looked at each other and we had rented this tiny little car, it was like an Opal and so we said: ‘OK, we can keep going and we can get blown off the road and end up in a Stephen King story.’ So we went back.”
So would he consider one day coming over to the Edinburgh International Book Festival? “You know what. I ought to do that. I really ought to do that. I almost went to Ireland this year, they were going to give me some kind of an award or something, but finally I decided it was too far to go, I would have had to spend too long in pubs, so I said no. But I would go to Scotland, sure.”
So, until then, Mr King.
• 11.22.63 by Stephen King is published by Hodder & Stoughton on Tuesday at £19.99.