He likes to jump out and go booga-booga at people. It's amusing, Stephen King says, also satisfying. And of course it's made him a millionaire. The only time the 31-year-old, best-selling novelist of the awful got spooked by his own stuff was when he had to do a rewrite of a scene in "The Shining," a couple of books ago.
Like his other work, "The Shining" deals with psychic phenomena, people who can will things, foretell, trigger the flint-charges of evil. Six weeks away from the scene, he began to get the light sweats. Then it was down to four days, three days, two days. The scene, he says, is of an old lady, dead 10 or 15 years, lying bloated and horrible in a bathtub. She comes alive, rises from the tub, while a child claws at the door to get out. He finally wrote it.
How did he sleep that night?
"Like a tom."
Stephen King writes horror fiction, which is not to be confused with horrible fiction, though he is aware of the pun. (Enough critics have made it.) In five years, he has yanked out six strange Gothic chillers, including "Carrie." His new book, "The Dead Zone," which is officially out today and has already undergone three printings and has 110,000 copies in circulation, is not nearly as horrible as "The Shining" or "Salem's Lot," he says.
"Now they were horrible books.And the one I'm working on right now is an extremely horrible book. In some ways, it's the most awful book I've written." He won't say what it's about: He's superstitious.
How can he keep on writing this stuff -- gigantic worms living under towns, man-size rats devouring people in basements, somewbody who kicks a dog to death in a salivating rage?
"Stop it," Dussault whispered. His face had gone a sick shade of gray. His eyes bulged and spittle shone like chrome on his lower lip.
That's from "The Dead Zone."
Stephen King answers this question by saying, 'Why do you assume I have a choice?" A while ago, he told an interviewer, "My obsession is with the macabre. I have a marketable obsession. There are madmen and women in padded cells the world over who are not so lucky."
He's getting paid to psychoanalyze himself, says King. "Which can be done. It's an old technique of therapists: Have the patient write out his demons." But Stephen King isn't insane. "I consider myself to be a fearful person, that's all."
To say King has tapped a mother lode out there is like saying "Psycho" is about homicide. Or "The Exorcist" takes place in the dark. King's books go off the paperback racks at Dart Drug and B. Dalton like maps to buried treasure which may be a clue to something.
"Most of the fan mail I get -- I get over 60 letters a week, and when I was at Doubleday I was second to the 'Roots' man, what's his name? Alex Haley -- are quite serious. They want to review the books. But every once in a while I get a letter from some guy who wants to come up to Maine and take my picture with a Polaroid because he thinks his grandfather will show up in the background."
Stephen King showed up in Washington this week from his home in the Maine woods where he lives on a placid two-mile lake with his three kids, his wife, Tabitha, and an unspecified number of spooks. "For a long time, the only other Tabitha we knew was the baby witch in 'Bewitched,' he says. "It's a witch's name, you know. There are seven in all."
He stayed at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and did an interview with the Voice of America, something that mildly amused him. The Japanese love him in translation, he says, though the Italians are more into hard-core, drive-in-movie horror: "Slaughter in High School" and "Deadly Mutilations." He doesn't do that sort of thing at all. He has a degree in education, used to teach highschool English.
He didn't come off the elevator looking ghoulish. He cam off looking nervous, a little shy. What he looks like is somebody who played bruising fullback in high school and found it was all downhill after that. Except in this case it was all uphill.
King's previous publisher (he recently switched from Doubleday to Viking) estimated there were 10 million copies of his oeuvre in print. Viking hasn't had time to count.
At his publication party in New York for "The Dead Zone" the other hight (Erica Jong and some Hollywood people were there), somebody from the New American Library, his paper house, told King that by next year he'd be an industry. Two of his books will be out at the same time in paper, plus a film version of "The Shining" and a TV movie of "Salem's Lot." "The Shining" is a Stanley Kubrick film starring Jack Nicholson.
King is a bulky, slack man, well over six feet, with bottle-thick glasses and small eyes that can narrow almost porcine-like, usually when he's yukking or expounding. When you study him sideways, it's a little like peering into a house of mirrors. He has scruffy zip-up boots and a canny was of making all this sound perfectly normal.
Maybe it is.When he goes to bed at night, Stephen King makes sure both of his feet are under the blanket. No sense taking chances with that stuff. Because if a clammy hand ever slid out from under the frame . . .
"When we were first married -- it was summer -- Tabby would be sleeping starkers and there I'd be with the sheet pulled up to my nose. 'Why are you sleeping like that?' she'd say. 'Oh, it's just safer this way,' I'd answer."
He won't walk under ladders. "It doesn't take that long to go around." He never turns in without first checking on the children. "I know there aren't really such things as bogeymen . . . ." He thinks he is not alone in this compulsion to check.
Once, he flew on Friday the 13th. "I didn't actually start screaming, 'Let me down off this thing.'" The key, he thinks, is knowing your own boiling level of terror and keeping yourself below it. "People find their own spike points," he says, chomping into a huge sandwich.
When he's out driving and sees blackbirds, he just can't stop himself from poking the evil-eye sign at them so they won't fly in through the grille and peck him to death. "I mean, what does it hurt, right?"
King did nothing unspeakable in his visit to Washington, though when he saw three people, who may have had too many martinis, mugging in the lobby, he was moved to say: "Mmm. I see the werewolves have come back to Paris."
What Stephen King may be doing, in fact, is just dishing up what America wants. They want blood, give 'em blood. The cover of "Salem's Lot" had a single drop of crimson drooling from the ice-blue lips of a child.
"The reader comes to you and says, 'Scare me.' When he picks up your book at the counter and it says 'CHILLING' across the cover, what he says to himself, I think, is , 'Oh, Yeah? Prove it.' It's sort of an arm-wrestle from then on."
Not that he could just as easily be writing about artichokes. "I do think a writer finds his material in ordained ways," he says. "There are things buried like roadstones in your past. I've been attracted to the fiction of terror ever since I was a kid. Why? Well, it's very complex. It goes into all this Freudian stuff I don't have much of a fix on."
He does have some fix on why people want to be scared, though. "Basically I think it's because the whole fright syndrome dredges up a lot of emotions we normally don't get to experience.The writer of the horror novel is asking: 'Do you want to risk getting scared? Come on, it may be good for you.' In a real way, the horror novelist is the agent of the norm. He's the Republican in a three-button suit. He's saying, 'Look at that over there -- isn't it yeech?'"
We're talking catharsis?
"We're talking catharsis. Of a very vital kind."
It also sounds like we're talking rationalization. "I realize the horror novel appeals to emotions that are taken as counterproductive in civilized society -- fear, hate, xenophobia. Because you hate what you fear."
Some would say he's feeding off the fears. "Well, I'm certainly feeding off them." (His mouth is full, he's enjoying this.) "They not only feed me, they feed the kids. But let me ask you this: Isn't a psychiatrist feeding off your fears? Isn't he paying off his car by talking to you?"
He's terrific at this sort of fencing. You get the idea a lot of talk-show hosts have sharpened him up. And in fact he's probably right: It doesn't necessarily follow that horror fiction causes horror, though he will admit "you can catch a real blast of it in a film and it will mess you up." That's why he thinks the ratings system is good.
Don't bring up kids' stories to him: It only fuels. "Hansel and Gretel,' now there's a real children's tale. You've got parental abandonment, kidnapping, imprisonment, and finally justifiable homicide." "Jack and the Beanstalk?" "The moral is, it's okay to steal if the other guy's bigger. Pretty anti-social stuff. But kids need it. It's a mean world out there."
King sounds genuinely devoted to his own kids, perhaps because his own early years were hard. His father was a merchant marine seaman and an Electrolux vacuum salesman through the Midwest; he abandoned the family when King was 2. King can't wait to get this irksome publicity business wrapped up so he can get back to the lake and watch the kids start school. Naomi, the oldest, is 9. She likes horse stories. Joe Hill, his second, is a chip off the block. The two went to see "Jaws" together.
His was a basically sane childhood, he thinks. Mad for mosters, devoured Fate magazine, worked in the wet wash of a laundry. (One of his stories has the machines coming alive and eating people). The night before he took his army draft physical, he did mescaline. Just before he went in, he chugged to wix-packs of Pepsi.
"The medic said, 'Listen, buddy, your blood pressure's pretty high. Have you seen a doctor?'" He got off. "I probably would have gone in, though. I'm patriotic."
People are always asking him if he believes in the psychic phenomena. "It just helps to tell the story. It's useful." Pause. Shrug. The devil's grin. "I don't know, maybe Uncle Harry did see his dead wife three weeks after she died."
He gets his ideas in all kinds of ways. Just the other day he was walking through the hallways at CBS when he saw an elevator door with an electric-eye develop a twitch. The thing yinged madly back and forth for a few seconds.
"I thought, 'Mmmm, there's an idea. Wonder if a guy was walking through the doors and the thing came alive and sliced him?' Ideas are like eggs. You put them away. That's a scene, not a story." ow does he get in the mood to be horrid? "Oh, I empty ash trays, get the ice water there beside me, put on some rock." First thing you know, he's positively revolting, writing about a man who put "his hand in something warm and slippery. He had looked around and had seen that he had put his hand into the maggoty remains of a woodchuck . . . "
What time of day does he write stuff like that?
"Mornings, always mornings. You think I want to write this stuff at night?"