Novelist Richard Bachman died of exposure early this year.
I helped kill him.
My involvement began while I read Bachman's five novels. Gradually it dawned on me that they could have been written only by one man, and it wasn't Richard Bachman. It had to be Stephen King, the self-described "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a side of fries" who had become one of America's most popular living writers.
My suspicions drove me to the Library of Congress for a look at Richard Bachman's copyrights. All but one were in the name of Kirby McCauley, who is King's agent. But the earliest of the Bachman books, "Rage," was in King's own name. I sent him a letter detailing what I had found, and waited for a dissembling reply. Instead, one day, the phone rang.
"Steve Brown? This is Steve King. Okay, you know I'm Bachman, I know I'm Bachman, what are we going to do about it? Let's talk."
The birth of Richard Bachman was much less dramatic than his death. "Rage," a paperback, was published in 1977 by New American Library and achieved obscurity almost immediately. But by Bachman's fifth book, "Thinner," published in hardback last November, a much bigger audience was beginning to form. The book now stands at No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list and No. 6 on The Washington Post's.
"Before 'Thinner,' " says King, "The Bachman books were dropping down a well. I get 50 or 60 fan letters a week, more if there's a movie or the paperback of something out. Bachman was getting two letters a month. I never thought much about working at keeping Bachman a secret. I didn't have to. But when 'Thinner' came out, it was like carrying your groceries home in a shopping bag in the rain. Gradually the bag softens and begins to tear. Things start falling out."
Gradually word began to leak out, from a number of places. King was besieged by reporters, fans and booksellers.
"I ducked calls from 'Good Morning America,' " King says. "My home-town paper has been on my case. Some big bug at Walden's, B. Dalton, one of the chains, called NAL and said, 'Look, we think he's King. If you tell us, we won't advertise it or anything, but we'll order another 30,000 copies.' But NAL kept saying no, he's not him. ABC News and 'Entertainment Tonight' have been bugging me every other day for the past two months. All of a sudden it began to pop up all over. It wasn't just from you, it was from everywhere, all at once. I'll keep denying it for a while, but I'm not in the same league as G. Gordon Liddy."
The beleaguered King released the basic information to his home-town paper, the Bangor Daily News, in February. From there the story spread until "Thinner's" first appearance March 3 on the best-seller lists. NAL immediately shipped fliers to booksellers stating: "Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman." Plans are being made for a one-volume reissue of the four out-of-print paperbacks. King is reluctantly allowing this to happen, but he is sensitive about the career of his spectral twin.
Because Stephen King didn't need Bachman for the money; he needed him to get his books published.
King throws off novels like sparks from a grinding wheel. He is spiritually kin to the great pulp writers of the century's beginning, writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who turned out novels with the regularity of the lunar cycle. But the sheer size of King's audience has put him into conflict with one of the paradoxes of modern publishing. The more popular he becomes, the less frequently his publishers are willing to publish him.
"Publishers have a superstition about publishing more than one book a year from a single author," says Kirby McCauley, Stephen King's agent. "There are very few bestselling writers who write more than one book a year, and few of them have as much quality in their books as Steve does. He doesn't need the money anymore, but he loves to write."
King's readers couldn't care less about the niceties of publishing. They just want more King.
"I know how they feel," sighs King. "It's something that has nagged at me constantly, throughout my career. I was aware, eight years ago, that the production of my fiction was out of control. I'm also aware that publishers are reluctant to publish more than one or two books a year, and I've always been three or four books ahead. I've been feeling the frustration of having this stuff pile up for a long time. Right now I'm in the process of constructing a deal. In either 1986 or 1987, I'm going to publish four novels. All under my own name. They're not going to sit around any more. I am wading against a tide of editors and publishers shaking their heads and saying: 'No, you can't do that.'
" 'Why can't I do that?' I say.
" 'There'll be a glut on the market. You'll cut the sales legs from under the books.'
"If there was gonna be a glut on the market, it would have been the year that five movies came out. The critics were laughing about it: the Stephen King Movie-of-the-Month. And all those paperback tie-ins . . . Then 'Pet Sematary' came out. The hardback sales of that book doubled anything I'd had before."
So, in 1977, Stephen King begat Richard Bachman.
During Bachman's eight-year career, King and the very few people who knew his true identity kept the secret. For years prior to the publication of "Thinner," King fended off the occasional query with the story that Richard Bachman was a New Hampshire chicken farmer; a man whose cancer-ravaged face made it impossible for him to meet or talk with anyone. "The poor guy was one ugly son of a bitch," says King.
King was, of course, already a household name. Brian De Palma's film of "Carrie" was out, with Sissy Spacek's performance pushing the movie into the national consciousness, and the name of Stephen King along with it. That year the paperback of "Salem's Lot" had gone straight to the top of the best-seller lists, and "The Shining" had just come out in hard-cover. King had already completed the first drafts of novels that wouldn't see print for years to come; books like "The Dead Zone," "Cujo" and "Firestarter." There were, as well, four other long-completed novels vying for a spot on King's ever-more-restrictive publishing schedule.
King decided he had to do something with "Getting It On," one of those completed novels he was fond of. It was different from his usual work, and he was afraid it "would become a book the parade had passed." He contacted editor Elaine Koster at New American Library (King's paperback publisher from the beginning). Koster and NAL agreed to publish the book under an assumed name.
"I was emphatic about not wanting the book to be publicized," King says. "I wanted it to go out there and either find an audience or just disappear quietly. The idea was not to just publish a book that I thought "I felt very strongly the difference between selling commercially and selling because I loved what I was doing. I allowed the Bachmans to be published because I felt that nobody was going to get cheated. I thought that the books were very much alive, and that's not true of everything in my trunk." -- Stephen King was good, but to honestly try to create another name that wouldn't be associated with my name. It was like having a Swiss bank account."
The manuscript for "Getting It On" circulated around NAL's editorial offices under the name Guy Pillsbury, King's grandfather. But it leaked out that Pillsbury was Stephen King. King withdrew, retitled and quickly resubmitted the manuscript as "Rage."
"Then they called me up," King says. "They asked me what name I wanted on it. There was a Richard Stark book on my desk, and the Bachman-Turner Overdrive on the stereo. So I told them to call him Richard Bachman."
In the ensuing eight years, NAL published three other Bachman paperbacks: "The Long Walk," "Roadwork" and "The Running Man."
Hardly anyone noticed.
In 1982 King finished a new supernatural thriller. It ran 300 pages, fairly short when compared with the 500-page reader-saturation novels he is known for. That same year Richard Bachman's fourth novel, "The Running Man," was published. That was the last of the original four pre-"Carrie" books. But there were many other books waiting to be published under King's name, so he decided to make "Thinner" a Bachman novel.
It was the beginning of the end of Richard Bachman's career. "Thinner" was too obviously a Stephen King novel.
Published in hard-cover, with heavy advertising, it lacked the anonymity of the previous four books' paperback publication. There was even an enthusiastic letter sent to booksellers by editor Koster: "As the publisher of some of the finest horror novels ever written, it takes a lot to get me excited about a new horror writer. Such a writer has now appeared."
"I had been put under a lot of pressure for a long time," says King. "NAL wanted me to come on over and do NAL hard-covers, which I had been reluctant to do. But, I thought, "Thinner" is a strong book. It's not like the other Bachmans. It's more like a Stephen King novel, and it has a chance to be commercial. I asked NAL if they wanted to do this book in hard-cover, and they were very enthusiastic. People at NAL who didn't know who the hell Bachman was were enthusiastic. They pushed it hard, partially, I think, because they wanted to show me what they could do with a hard-cover.
"I originally went to New American Library full time because they published the Bachman books . . . It was through the Bachman books that I actually got to know people over there, real people . . . I was able to go to Doubleday and negotiate with the sure knowledge that if they passed on the deal I was offering them, that I would be able to go to NAL as Stephen King, because they'd been so good to my friend Richard Bachman." (Doubleday was King's first hard-cover publisher; most recently his novels have published by Viking Press.)
King is famous (or infamous, depending on which critic you listen to) for his use of the brand-name detritus of modern culture. Throughout his work he invokes the names of the most familiar household products to deepen the intense realism of his best fiction. In a wry acknowledgment of his own omnipresence in our daily lives, King uses his own brand name in "Thinner:" "You were starting to sound like a Stephen King novel for a while there . . ."
That New American Library managed to keep Richard Bachman's identity secret for eight years was a remarkable feat, considering the intense scrutiny Stephen King's every utterance is given by his legions of fans.
"I wanted to jump up and down and say, 'This is Stephen King!' " Elaine Koster remembers. "But I couldn't. We had many questions over the years, but we never led anyone to believe that it was Steve. We just stonewalled it, even though it would be to our advantage not to. It became a mission for me to respect Steve's privacy. We were so secretive that our chief executive officer, Bob Diforio, didn't even know."
One piece of subterfuge was the placement of a stranger's picture on "Thinner's" dust jacket. The face, staring at the reader with amused detachment, is that of Richard Manuel, an old friend of Kirby McCauley's. Manuel lives in Roseville, Minn., a St. Paul suburb, where he works as a builder of energy-efficient homes. "I didn't tell anybody," says Manuel. "I was sworn to secrecy. Some friends called and said 'Hey, Dick, there's a guy that looks like you who's writing books in New Hampshire.' Even my sister called and said that."
McCauley said he and King picked Manuel because "we had to find someone who lived a long way away from New York. There would have been a chance that someone in New York would recognize Richard Bachman walking down the street."
"I think the Bachman books are pretty lively," King says. "I felt very ambivalent about my life and my writing at the time. Partly because I went to college, which is never really a good thing for guys like me. I felt very strongly the difference between selling commercially and selling because I loved what I was doing. I allowed the Bachmans to be published because I felt that nobody was going to get cheated. I thought that the books were very much alive, and that's not true of everything in my trunk. For example, there's a very long unpublished novel that is pretty bad. But if I thought the Bachmans were bad books, or if I was publishing out of a sense of vanity, then I wouldn't allow them to go out under any circumstances . . .
"I never felt any urge to let Bachman be anything but Bachman," King says. He had kept careful control to make sure the publisher wouldn't go wild promoting the book if Bachman's true identity came out. " 'Thinner' will go on selling as Richard Bachman," says King. "I'd like to see 'Thinner' sold aggressively, because I'd want that for Dick's last book."
"Thinner" marked a change in King's attitude toward his alter ego. No longer was Bachman the repository for unpublished early works, books that didn't fit well into King's career. Had the secret remained hidden, there were plans for the New Hampshire chicken farmer.
"There is a book that I had thought would become the next Bachman novel," says King. "It's a novel called 'Misery,' and it's got that Bachman feel to it. So I thought: Let's say that Bachman sells 30,000 copies of 'Thinner' in hard-cover. Let's say that it doesn't become a best seller, but it does pretty well. If I could come back with another hard-cover, I think I could have made the guy a best seller in two or three years, completely on his own. Then a lot of people would have complained, saying: 'Hell! He writes just like Stephen King. He must just be another imitator.' The Literary Guild took 'Thinner' and I heard a comment from one of their readers that: 'This is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write.' "
Of course, King has several other projects in the works. His 600-page-plus short-story collection, "Skeleton Crew," will be published in June by Putnam. There will be an original movie, "Cat's Eye," which he expects to be on the screen soon.
This fall, there is scheduled to be another movie, "Silver Bullet." This is a year in the life of a werewolf, told in 12 small pieces, each set during a different full moon. It is based on "Cycle of the Werewolf," a novella published in 1983 by Land of Enchantment Press, in a profusely illustrated limited edition. NAL will soon be bringing out a trade paperback edition.
One of the odder projects under development is a stage musical version of "Carrie."
"It's being done by Larry Cohen, who did the 'Carrie' screenplay," says King. "Sometimes I think Larry's turning 'Carrie' into his life's work. I don't know what it's going to be like. We just keep renewing the option, because, after all, there aren't that many people who want to make a musical out of 'Carrie.' "
Even Richard Bachman has film deals in the works.
" 'The Long Walk' and 'The Running Man' are both scheduled to become films," says King. "Now that the Bachman story is coming out, the happiest people in the entertainment business are a little production group out in L.A. that optioned 'The Running Man' a couple of years ago. Their option was about to run out, it had just a few days left, when they heard the rumors. They came to Kirby and said, 'We're going to lose the option, aren't we?' Kirby called them up and extended their options as though it were still Richard Bachman that they were playing with. It's an odd parallel with my own career. "Carrie" was turned into a film right away, and it was a lucky hit. It shortened the whole business of becoming a success and having my work come to people's attention."
One long-awaited project that doesn't look as if it will happen is the publication of the complete "Stand." Several hundred pages were cut from the published version, and rumors of a restored edition have been circulating for years. But King says no, the legal complications are too great. "It won't be coming out," he laments.
Nearing completion is another book that long has been the source of rumor. It is a Bible-length manuscript titled "It" that is reportedly King's magnum opus. It may well prove to be the definitive horror novel. But, as has always been the case with King's books, "It" is only structurally a horror novel.
" 'It' is about kids," King says. "It's like a gigantic mad overexposition of 'The Body' from 'Different Seasons.' I've been working on the rewrite, and I'm surrounded by this huge manuscript. 'It' has had me obsessed for years. There are times when I think I just ought to burn it. But 'It' is going to be pretty good. You'll like it."
It would be easy to say that Richard Bachman was simply a vehicle for King to move his earliest work out of his trunk. To a certain extent, that is true. Although he speaks of a "Bachman feel" to a novel, King does not acknowledge Bachman as a separate persona.
"I only wrote one of those books, "Thinner," with Bachman in mind," King says. "It was never a case like Donald Westlake used to say, that he wrote as Westlake on sunny days, and as Richard Stark on days when it rained."
But that chicken farmer with the ruined face has written four novels that are unlike King's own work. They are novels of simple stress, without the artificially high drama of the supernatural. Stephen King in a minor key.
"All of the Bachman books are sad books," says King. "They all have downbeat endings. I don't think the ending of a novel is particularly important, though a lot of people do. I'm more interested in how people react along the way. As far as we're concerned, we're all going to come to an unhappy ending."
"They didn't fit into his career very well," says Kirby McCauley. "He was known for his supernatural horror novels, and his fear was that he would lead his audience astray. Steve KING 3R1,,LI,ADV,thought of "Cujo" as more of a Bachman book. There was nothing supernatural about it, and it certainly had a downbeat ending. 'Thinner,' retrospectively, should have been a Stephen King novel."
Viewed against the background of King's more famous work, the Bachman novels seem thin and unpolished, with the exception of "Roadwork," a fine, thoughtful novel by any standard. Yet they all have the classic Stephen King quality about them, the page-flipping narrative drive, the inability to tell a boring story. Readers love it.
"I don't know why that is," muses King. "Sometimes I read the stuff aloud, and it's not there. Whatever it is that people like, it's not there to me. It's there when I write it, but it's not there when I pick it up. I've read in reviews for years that I don't have any style. With my kind of prose, I could be starving . . .