|KEITH B. WALTERS
On the web: www.keithbwalters.com
On Twitter: @keithbwalters
Surely every one of us is that ‘Constant Reader’.
When asked if I could submit a piece of writing about Stephen King, by way of celebrating 40 years since the publication of Carrie, I’felt overwhelmed within minutes of responding to Matt with a definite ‘yes’.
Without Stephen King’s work, so many of the things I now think or react to would be completely different.
And, I guess, it’s really Tabitha King I should be very thankful to for that – if she hadn’t rescued Carrie from that famous waste paper basket the world for many of us would be a very different place indeed.
Hotels, bathrooms, kids on tricycles, driving in snowy conditions, suddenly losing weight, antique shops, clowns – all of those things and lots lots more make me think of classic King scenes in his books and the countless movie adaptations whenever I experience them. I’ve used his character names for passwords, stayed up far too late watching miniseries based on his books, even gone to the theatre to see Misery on stage (Julie T Wallace made a perfect Annie Wilkes).
I’ve watched enough interviews of the great man to ensure that it is always his voice I hear when I read his work and so, when the opportunity arose back in 1998 to see King on stage and hear him read, I booked my ticket without hesitation.
Here’s my run-down on the night Stephen King read to me (and several hundred others!)
An evening with Stephen King – At the Royal Festival Hall, London – August 25th 1998.
To celebrate the ‘return to the classic King’ release of the new hardback novel Bag of Bones, the Royal Festival Hall was chosen as the venue for the world’s most famous novelist to meet his UK readers for the first time in over twenty years.
In conjunction with his whistle-stop signing tour of selected British bookstores, Stephen King took to the London stage to a crescendo of applause of thanks and praise for millions of sleepless nights. The huge back projection of the cover artwork of his new novel was fronted by a small wooden pier, deck-chair and rowing boat to set the scene for what was to be, as the publicity flyer correctly stated, a ‘once in a lifetime’ event.
The author, dressed casually in red t-shirt and jeans, stepped across the platform and proceeded to give us some advice. He said that we all probably felt safe in the large hall surrounded by lots of other people, but that we should remember that, later that evening, many of us would be walking back to our cars alone, and that we should be sure to check our rear view mirrors and look over into the back seat to check we were alone and that no-one had snuck into the back of the car whilst we had been gone. Having set that little germ in place in our minds, he proceeded to ask whether we knew for sure if we’d left the shower curtain open or closed when we left home. If we thought we’d left it open and got home to discover it closed “Get outta there!”
I bet those two scare-‘em devices affected a large percentage of the audience for the journey home and sent more than a few imaginations racing.
It was then time to tell us what the evening would hold, as the event had been shrouded in mystery as to the format it would take up until that point – mind you, a mere ten pounds per ticket for such an evening out was well worth the gamble.
First off we were to be treated to a story time from King himself, our own Jackanory with the (at that time unpublished) short story ‘LT’s Theory of Pets’. Following this was to be a Q&A session with journalist and fellow horror author Muriel Gray reading a selection of questions posed from internet users across the globe. King admitted at this point that he’d peeked at the questions and knew that one of them related to why the writing of horror fiction appealed to him. In mentioning Muriel Gray, he was swift to point out his admiration for her fiction with particular reference to her second novel (after her excellent debut with The Trickster) Furnace, which he encouraged us all to rush out and buy, and buy a second copy for a friend. I bet the manager of Books etc at the Royal Festival Hall was kicking himself at this point at not preparing a table of signed Muriel Gray books to go alongside the swiftly selling signed King books. After all, such praise from Stephen King certainly didn’t do a certain Clive Barker any harm a few years back.
The lead-in to his short story was to say that it was based on the fact that many believe their pets often take on aspects of their owner’s personality and he thought about using a breaking marriage and the household’s pets taking sides as well as active roles in the dissolving relationship as the storyline. The more he considered the idea, the more he thought “That would be sort of funny!” – an expression or thought which he told the audience had led to writing more of his books than we might think. King took his position in his deck-chair and proceeded to read to the captivated audience for a little over an hour.
It’s hard to imagine any voice other than his describing the often hilarious, sometimes foul-mouthed and dark-underbellied stories that he writes, and this was no exception. The audience loved the tale of LT and LouLou DeWitt, their cat ScrewLucy and their dog, Frank. The story was peppered with the classic King traits: dark humour, great narrative and observations and characters we really enjoyed hearing about. The descriptive section relating to LouLou’s dog, Frank (bought for LT because he liked the dog on TV’s Frasier), puking in LT’s slipper or peeing on his underwear on a regular basis had the audience in hysterical unison. A similar knowing laughter echoed around the hall at his observation of an escalating row between the couple – going right up to “Red Alert. Fucking Def Con One! We’re talking scorched earth here!” – and the hilarious noting of the male population’s inability to put the toilet seat down after use or to aim straight (not being the “dead-eye-dicks” we think we are).
Incidentally guys, it was also noted that we don’t often flush the toilet and, “no, contrary to popular belief, the ‘Urine-fairy’ does not come around to deal with that!”
When the tale was introduced by its title, I think many expected a revision or addendum to King’s earlier novel of family’s friends Pet Sematary – what we got instead was a refreshing new tale – like a mix of the best elements of the escalating craziness of the townsfolk in Needful Things crossed with the question of whether a murder has taken place during the spinning of the story like that in Dolores Claiborne.
Pausing only once to swig water from a bottle (for which he, unnecessarily, apologised) this hour in the company of the master storyteller was indeed ‘once in a lifetime’ stuff.
If you’re ever in town again, Mr King, and feel the urge to spin a story around the burning embers of a dying barbeque in my back yard in the small hours of a summer night, I’m sure I could assemble quite an audience to hear such a passionate and entertaining tale.
A twenty minute interval followed the grateful applause as the author left the stage and we were reminded, by a disembodied voice from above, that signed copies of Bag of Bones were still available in the Hall’s bookstore.
Returning to the stage, now set with a second deck-chair, King was joined by Muriel Gray – a long time self-confessed “No.1 Fan” and horror writer in her own right. Although the questions to be posed over the following thirty minutes or so were to be culled from those submitted over the internet, Gray kicked off the proceedings with one of her own. She was extremely concerned by the theme contained within Bag of Bones which seemed to be signifying ‘the death of writing!’. Apparently the last page in particular has the central character , Mike Noonan, at the point of giving up his writing career and is almost suicidal. As a lot of King’s books, particularly those with writing as their central theme (The Dark Half, Misery), the subject is often semi-autobiographical, Gray was clearly worried. “Please tell me you’re not retiring or contemplating suicide!” she pleaded. King reassured her, whilst stating that, having recently turned fifty, he was nearer to the end than to the beginning of his literary career, he still thought he had a few stories left to tell.
“I have to finish The Dark Tower series…” he began, to a spontaneous burst of applause “…before I descend into Alzheimer’s. The nice thing about Alzheimer’s is that you can hide your own Easter eggs!” he joked.
He commented that, earlier that same week he’d met up with another major institution (this time from the sporting world) in Cricket Umpire Dickie Bird. Dickie, who is retiring himself now, spent the day explaining the workings of the game to King at his first cricket match – his own game is, of course, baseball.
Muriel Gray then touched upon another major part of King’s latest novel, the subject of writer’s block, and asked if it was a problem he had ever suffered from and what exactly did he consider to be the secret of his success?
Taking the second part of the question first, King stated that his only ‘secret’ – if it could be called one – is that “I’ve stayed married and I’ve stayed healthy.”
With regards to writer’s block, it’s not something that really troubles him as he tries to keep his edge by doing new things and exploring different subjects and styles. He never shows anyone his work until the first draft is finished and then the first to read it is always his wife, Tabitha, who is also an author and who has him read her work first as well.
When he submitted the first draft of his latest work to Tabitha for her comments, she read the first 20-30 pages and said “Steve, this is another novel about a novelist writing a novel!” to which he replied “No, this one’s different – it’s about a novelist who can’t write his novel!”
At this point Muriel Gray commented on the set, with the pair of them on deck-chairs on a small pier which made her feel like she was “on a deck in Maine”, to which King responded “I feel like I’m on the Titanic!”
The emailed questions kicked off with one from somebody calling herself Carrie! She asked if King got upset at the fact that he was always categorised as a writer.
King’s reply was “I think we’re all pre-disposed to certain types of things and I often find myself drawn back to it. I like to scare people.” To which Muriel Gray asked if there was anything he was scared of.
“I’m afraid the cheques might bounce!” was his sarcastic reply.
Muriel Gray then asked another couple of questions of her own, kicking off with “Do you ever fear your own stories?”
“Only if they are crap!”
King then went on to say that the one piece he’s written that really affected him was the body in the bath scene in The Shining which he described as the ‘depth-charge effect’. He’d already sketched out the events in draft and, as each day approached, he feared writing the section when young Danny Torrance was to turn the door handle to the room and enter. He remembers thinking ‘five days until the body in the bath, four days until the body in the bath…’
It affected him so much that he even found himself pausing when he was about to turn the handle and walk into his own bedroom at night for fear that he would come face to face with the decomposed woman’s body he’d written for that scene – a voice inside his head telling him that he’d made her exist. He went on to say that after he’d written about the thumping noise within the insulation of the Summer house in his latest novel, he realized that the area he’d described was that of his own Summer house stairs.
Muriel Gray added to this that, once we’d all read Bag of Bones “You will want to remove your fridge magnets!”
The next question was with regards to the movie adaptations of King’s novels. The one he felt was the most faithful to the source material was Rob Reiner’s excellent Stand by Me based on King’s sort story ‘The Body’, but he also cites The Dead Zone, Cujo and The Shawshank Redemption as favourites.
When asked about Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining – a film King has expressed a dissatisfaction with – all he would utter was a long “Oooooh!”
He did elaborate a little, however, saying that when he wanted to have the story retold as a mini-series by director Mick Garris from his own screenplay, he’d had to ask Mr Kubrick’s permission as all rights for a sequel or remake were with him and Warner’s. Kubrick agreed to let King and Garris remake The Shining on the understanding that King would never speak on the subject of the earlier version.
Conversation went on then to King’s trip to Nottingham the previous Saturday to see his first cricket match. He’d long been a baseball fan and, as both games feature bats, balls and running, he chose to use his trip to Britain as a way of getting to see his first match. With regards to the rules, however, he was still clearly mystified. “Nobody seems to totally understand it!” He was given a book of Cricket jokes, which he thought was about as sensible as giving someone a book on Physics jokes – there’s only a handful of people who’d understand it. Dickie Bird told King that there hasn’t actually been any cricket played in hundreds of years – people just come along – it rains – and they go home.
Turning back to writing, Gray asked who were his major literary influences and were there any British writers he admired. Graham Greene was mentioned here, although Thomas Hardy was his particular favourite “When you open a Hardy novel, you just know that everything will go wrong!” King also cited the classics by HP Lovecraft and Poe as favourite reads when he was younger. The most influential story he’s read was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Matheson’s linking the classic horror and supernatural elements into locations and situations we all know and can relate to has clearly been the style which King has most obviously taken to heart through his own work.
“My job is to sew two pieces of cloth together. One piece is make-believe and the other is reality.”
The next question off the internet related to King’s health, with particular reference to a degenerative eye disease which he has, which will eventually render him blind.
Muriel Gray was, I think, as shocked as the rest of the audience to hear of this. King, however, dismissed it as something that wasn’t troubling him right now in any major way and joked it off in his usual fashion.
This led to the question of what he could see himself doing if he wasn’t writing.
“Maybe playing Cricket. But if I’m blind….!” He tailed off again to the sound of nervous laughter from the audience. King said what he enjoys doing is entertaining people and that, although another of his loves is playing the guitar and singing, he doubted that people would be too entertained with that for very long!
“I can’t imagine not writing. I can imagine not publishing. I’d do it for free! But, please buy the book – I have a kid in college and other kids who need stuff from time to time.” He jested.
Gray then asked him about his thoughts on sex on the page, commenting that Bag of Bones has some serious stuff within it. His reply was that he thought it was all hormonal, he’d recently turned fifty and this was his last chance to do it while he still remembered how to.
“I feel fine about sex if it advances the plot and fine about sex if it doesn’t!”
From sex we then moved into religion and whether Stephen King has any beliefs.
“I do believe in an afterlife.” He stated. “We’re too good to waste.”
He went on to tell of a phone call he received from Stanley Kubrick whilst he was in pre-production on The Shining. Firstly he cut himself shaving when the phone starting ringing early one morning and, when he answered it, Kubrick asked “Is this really Stephen King?”
When he replied that he was, he was then asked “Do you believe in the afterlife?”
Kubrick then went on to comment that he thought that every ghost story must be optimistic by its very nature as it suggests more than what we experience in our lives.
To this King asked “But, what about Hell?”
To which Kubrick snapped back “I don’t believe in Hell!”
Up next from King is a collection of short stories akin to his previous tomes like Different Seasons or Four Past Midnight and (at the time of the event was) likely to be titled Why We’re in Vietnam as it’s all set in the 60’s. Also he’s working on a book entitled On Writing which takes on a memoir-like view of his work over the years. Plus there’s the next three Dark Tower books to write, which he says he’ll complete next year.
So, the publishing machine that is Stephen King isn’t about to seize up just yet – so, hopefully, Muriel Gray’s fears were put to rest by the end of this entertaining and insightful half hour.
The event was certainly ‘once in a lifetime’, although I’m sure that everyone in that Hall wouldn’t think twice about buying a ticket should Stephen King return to our shores again some day.
Long live the King!
Keith B Walters is married and a father of two. He lives in Kent (the South East London bit). He doesn’t read or write anywhere near as much as he should or wants. He currently has a full time job he’d rather not mention.
He was blogger in residence for two years at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate.
His claims to fame are that he was longlisted once and shortlisted once for the FlashBangGang crime story prize, and longlisted for the British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction competition in 2013. Keith once appeared on the TV Book Club in a video clip that caused Dave Spikey to comment that he looked like he was trapped in his bedroom.
He has taken part in several World Book Night events and was interviewed by Radio 4 for their ‘One in a Million’ World Book Night show, in which it sounded like he was interviewed by Mariella Frostrup – he never was (but holds onto that dream).
A long time horror fan, back in the days before the internet, he produced photocopied film and book fanzines and interviewed authors and actors, including several from the cast of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser films.