In 1979, when he was already a best-selling author but still had to promote himself, Stephen King arrived in New York to appear on a late-night television talk show. Outside the studio, a gaggle of groupies was waiting.
"They were a little ... " and King's voice, hoarse from joining in at a recent rock concert, falters. Finally, he settles for: "Strange."
"You look in their eyes, and it's like looking into vacant houses. They don't know why they want autographs. They just want them. And then you realize, not only is this house vacant, but it's haunted."
There was one fan there, pale and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, who wanted something extra: a Polaroid snapshot of himself and King. The author was pressed for time, but he gave in to the youth's urgent plea.
"The guy was weird, man. He was like a quasar. He just wasn't there. But someone took the picture, and when it came out, I wrote, 'To Mark, best wishes, Stephen King.' " The full name the fan had given King: Mark Chapman.
Nearly eight years later, King isn't sure whether his persistent admirer was the same man who would soon shoot John Lennon -- several hours after getting an autograph from the ex-Beatle. But when a publicity aide who had been present at the impromptu photo-taking pointed out to King the similarity in names and appearance, he needed no further evidence.
"I would love to find out it was just someone who looked like him, but I'm pretty sure it was him. Chapman dug celebrities. He was into fame." And whoever the guy was, says King, he was insistent: " 'Oh, you got to take this photo.' It was horrible -- too close."
Chapman, now serving a 20-year-to-life sentence at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, said after his arrest that he had considered killing celebrities ranging from Jackie Onassis and Johnny Carson to George C. Scott and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1979, however, he was living in Hawaii, and his constrained financial circumstances make it unlikely he had come to New York.
Yet even if it wasn't the same man, the incident helped plant a seed in King's mind, the result of which will be unleashed a week from Monday. Misery is the name, and The Viking Press is sending a million copies into the bookstores.
The novel begins with a famous writer recovering from an auto accident in the Colorado Rockies. The woman who rescues him is his No. 1 fan. Instead of taking him to the hospital, she decides she'd much rather care for him herself. Indeed, what could be better than having your favorite writer as a captive audience?
Another event that captures some of the feelings in Misery happened during last year's tour for "Maximum Overdrive," a non-too-successful movie directed and written by King:
"There was a guy begging for an autograph, but we were running super-late. 'I'm your biggest fan!' he said. 'I've read all your books!' I jumped in a car and he started saying, '---- you, you stupid son of a bitch.' The line is so thin between 'I love you' and 'I hate you.' They love you, but part of them wants to see you fall as far as you can."
Everyone who knows him says Stephen King is one of the nicest guys around -- largely unaffected by the fact that last fall's blockbuster It, this past winter's fantasy The Eyes of the Dragon, the current Misery, and this fall's The Tommyknockers are being issued at an average rate of about a million hardbound copies each.
If all these copies end up on someone's night-table, the Bangor, Maine, writer will be responsible for, at a very rough estimate, 1 1/2 percent of adult trade hardbound books sold during these 15 months. "That's wild. It's remarkable, outstanding," says Tom Loven of the Center for Book Research in Scranton, Pa. Apparently, no one in the book business can remember something like this happening before; chances of a single author doing it again are minimal.
It's a margin of success that even King, 39, is beginning to find a bit burdensome. "The aggregate weight of fanship is overwhelming," says the writer, who has been gaining enough weight so he now looks like a pudgy chipmunk. "They want stuff from you. They want boxes of it.
"Dave Marsh, in his new book on Springsteen, says you get this idea stars are killed by their fans, while they actually die from drinking or drugs. What that neglects to say is that these people are driven to booze, to drugs, to pills, because of the constant, unremitting pressure. It's like a banquet. It's all free. The only thing they don't tell you is, you're the last course."
Lois White has a picture on her wall. In it, she is being choked by Stephen King. He is grinning. "I'm his No. 1 fan," she says. "I love him."
The photo was taken last year during a publicity appearance by King at a Dallas TV station. "Maybe," White speculates, "he was saying that this was what he would like to do to fans that get too close."
Like the villain in Misery, White is a hospital nurse. She hasn't read the book yet, but she knows what it's about. She isn't offended.
"There are very obviously a number of people unable to control their emotions, and who get too involved with celebrity life styles," she says. "They're so wrapped up with their awe, their inspiration ... that they can cross over that thin border and become fanatical."
In spite of her devotion to King, the 52-year-old White knows which side of the line to stay on. But she doesn't quite agree with the author about what a fan is entitled to.
"I do believe celebrities should have their private lives, but I also believe that they belong to the public," she says. "This is not fair or right, but this is the way it's always been. It's because we appreciate them so much that we want a little more -- more, perhaps, than they are willing to give."
Meanwhile, she has her photo and her books. And her dreams. "I would love to have him for dinner. Oh man, would I." Then she laughs and adds: "Not literally."
In the past year, Stephen King has passed beyond bestsellerdom into a special sort of nirvana reserved for him alone. Not since James Hilton scored with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon 50 years ago has a writer had two novels on the hardcover bestseller list at the same time. King did that earlier this year, but it's nothing compared with the record he will undoubtedly have by the end of November: Four hardcover novels on the list in a seven-month period. Even he thinks it's bizarre. "I should have peaked," he says, "four or five years ago."
There are many other records being set here. The Book-of-the-Month Club chose It as a main selection, and they're doing the same with Misery. Eyes of the Dragon was a lead alternate, and they're planning to do something with The Tommyknockers. Such an achievement in a little over a year is "unprecedented in the club's history, and it's a feat that will not be repeated soon," says Robert Riger, BOMC general manager.
Mass popularity is one thing, and it's a situation King shares with authors like Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and James Michener. But what King also has -- and what Collins and the others lack -- is the truly devout.
"It's a white-hot center," says Alan Williams, one of King's editors. "He's someone who can appeal to the horror market at its core, and also reach the mainstream. That's the real phenomenon."
That's also the heart of Misery. The novel is dedicated to "Stephanie and Jim Leonard, who know why. Boy, do they." Jim is the caretaker for King's house; Stephanie is King's assistant.
The dedication, Stephanie says, is kind of a tease. "It's relatively farfetched that something would happen in real life like what happens in the book. The minor details struck me as his nightmares coming true."
Generally, of course, the fans are only looking for a quick connection -- an autograph, a chance to say "I'm happy to meet you." And they dissipate some of their voracious appetite for all things King by acquiring the limited editions, galley proofs and first editions of his books.
A look at Castle Rock, the King fanzine edited by Stephanie Leonard, reveals some of this consuming interest: Collectors offer a signed first edition of the early collection Night Shift ($400), a limited edition of Skeleton Crew ($395), a deluxe Eyes of the Dragon ($675), an extremely exclusive version of The Talisman ($1,200). (Castle Rock itself is available for $15 a year from P.O. Box 8183, Bangor, Maine 04401.) Some King rarities are even more expensive.
"The bottom line is, collecting is to a certain extent about owning a piece of someone," says Doug Winter, a Washington lawyer who has written the standard book on King. "That's what Misery is all about, and it's an element that frightens me about collecting. It's an attitude certainly present in letters I've received from people, and their phone calls. I had a guy who called and asked me what the security was like on King's house. Did he have big fences? Guard dogs? It's peculiar ..."
King's own opinion is that the whole collecting phenomenon is a bubble about to break. "Would you pay $1,200 for a signed, limited edition of The Godfather? Or Jackie Collins? It's the same thing. The quality of my stuff might be a little better -- I like to think it is -- but these people are still being robbed. Their present for discovering someone they actually like is to have someone pick their pockets. It's like buying the Brooklyn Bridge."
And even if you have one of these limited, specially signed, deluxely illustrated books, you don't have a piece of Stephen King.
"You just have a book I once had in my hand, and which I signed my name to. So what? I do it on checks."
At the least, Henry Gershman says, "I'm one of his biggest fans in the area." Gershman, 36, lives in Columbia, Md., where he's a manager for the Texas Cattle Corp. barbecue chain. He's got every book King has written, and some of the limited editions, too. He's planning to buy The Eyes of the Dragon as soon as it slips below $500.
Of course, he's heard about Misery. "This famous author of a series of books is captured by this nurse. She's a really big fan. In the end, he dies, and she uses his skin as a cover for one of his books."
Don't worry; that's not what actually happens. It captures some of the mood, though. "Wherever he goes -- he's like a rock star, a cult hero. I think he's writing from stuff that happens to him," says Gershman. "Some fans are so sick they'd do anything to keep their hero part of them forever."
What drives Gershman's interest is King's work, not necessarily the man himself. "If he came to Columbia, or Baltimore, I wouldn't mind seeing him. But to drive to Bangor, Maine -- that's not my thing."
He has an arrangement with a local bookstore to get their King promotional material after they're done with it -- calendars, cut-outs and so on. And what does his wife think of a house filled with horror ephemera?
"As long as it keeps me off the street and I don't get into the Gary Hart activities," says Gershman, "it's fine."
Shirley Sonderegger has been handling the King fan mail for about four years. Three-quarters of it is pretty routine, she says. "But that other 25 percent -- wow!" And all the letters, every last one, are signed: "I'm your No. 1 fan."
That last quarter includes the prison inmate who is locked up for robbery. He wanted King to sign the book he stole off the kitchen table in a house he was burglarizing. (King returned it unsigned.) Then there's the box Sonderegger picked up at the post office, with the fur and bones from a couple of kittens inside. And there was the group who sent a scorpion.
"We had to go out and buy mealybugs to feed it," the secretary says. "We were very glad to see that he was in his cage every morning, and we were very glad when he died."
The pressure from fans, of course, isn't usually malevolent.
"It's on your time, your conscience, your heart," says King. "A guy comes up and says, 'My son loves your stuff, and he's got bone cancer. He doesn't know it yet, but he's going to die. One thing he would like is to meet you.' What are you going to do?"
King wrote the guy a letter, telling him to bring the boy up on a certain day. "Some things you just can't say no to ... But they pile up."
He's lavish with his praise for new authors, and he's terribly loyal to people who helped him in his struggling days. He provides 25 signed books a week for celebrity auctions. And he still doesn't comprehend what's going on.
"You know how many Time magazine covers I've signed? People send you photographs of their dens. They're lined with these things! Hundreds of Time magazine covers! Just because someone touched them with their pen. I don't completely understand it -- other than it's not normal."
All a writer owes his fans is this: "Something to read. It's a 50-50 trade-off. I want you to read my book; you want to read my book. We get off even. They don't have a right to my life, but they take pieces of it just the same. When I went to look for videotapes this afternoon, there were a bunch outside my house."
To be sure, that's not quite his full attitude. "I love these people. I don't hate them. I get very few crazy letters. I do autographs because the fans support me and I owe a debt."
The source of this enormous appeal, biographer Winter says, is that the subject King deals with is more important than people like to admit.
"If you sit around the office, it's easy to talk about sports and weather, but it's awfully tough to get a serious conversation going about terminal cancer. In horror fiction, you can confront some of the things that are troubling you without really confronting them.
"You can negotiate them, experience them, laugh at them, and hopefully walk away with a little better understanding of yourself, and a little better ability to accept the world we're living in -- where buildings under construction do fall, and men you've never heard of walk into shopping malls and start shooting people."
There are lots of guns out there, King moodily notes. Nevertheless, he doesn't worry about a deranged, passionate fan coming after him.
"I've had a lot of my life amputated already. It's like you're a Delco battery and someone's got a pair of jumpers on you all the time. I don't know how long I've got. But I will not retreat. I will not become Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes. I will not forget people are wonderful. I bowl in a league. Sure, I get hit on. But I'm not going to stop."