Stephen King has earned his reputation as the “King of Horror.” Since penning coming-of-age terror novel Carrie in 1974, he has published over 50 novels and several volumes of short fiction. His books have sold over 350 million copies worldwide, and this year, you can find at least two of his properties — It and The Dark Tower — on-screen in major movie adaptations.
Such has always been the case for the prolific author. But even with all we know about the man, there’s still plenty that remains…in the shadows. Here is a list of 13 (bwahahahaha!) facts that you may not know about Stephen King. Enjoy.
13. King has Daddy Issues
Stephen King’s father skipped out the family when the future “King of Horror” was just two years old. The two never made contact, and it doesn’t seem that King minds all that much. Here’s his response to a question during a Rolling Stone interview about whether or not he was ever tempted to meet Donald Edwin King:
I was curious when I was a kid. I used to think, “I’d like to find him and knock his fucking head off.” And then later on, I thought to myself, “I’d like to find him and hear his side of the story and then knock his fucking head off.” Because there’s no excuse for it. It wasn’t just that he walked out and left us – he left her holding a whole bunch of bills, which she worked to pay off.
12. He Almost Didn’t Write His Breakout Novel
Carrie wasn’t Stephen King’s first novel, but it was definitely the one that placed him head and shoulders above the horror writers of his day — and yet, the book almost never saw the light of day. In 1973, King was balancing several jobs — gas station attendant, industrial laundry cleaner, English teacher — when he got the idea for a novel. He began to fashion the story after two girls he knew in high school, combined with an article he’d read recently about telekinesis.
But, alas, he didn’t see much potential in the story, so he threw it away. He puts it more succinctly in his memoir On Writing: “After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?”
Luckily for him, his wife, Tabitha, did see potential in the book and encouraged him to soldier on with it. The weirdest part of all is that she found the novel literally in the trash can. Three balled-up pieces of paper, on which were written the beginnings of the Carrie story, eventually became the worldwide sensation we know it to be today. So, the moral of that story is, Always trust your wife’s instincts. Always.
11. He Directed a Really Bad Horror Movie
As we will see in a few of these list items, the 1980s proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Stephen King. It was arguably his most productive period — he published four novels in 1987 alone — but it was also his most self-indulgent and chaotic. He was horribly addicted to alcohol and cocaine, both of which perhaps boosted his sense of self-perception. Not to mention the fact that he was a HUGE fan of movies. He’d appeared in two George Romero movies — Creephshow and Knight Riders — but saw fatal flaw in most horror movies: he wasn’t directing them.
The result, sadly, is the film Maximum Overdrive. As a piece of pure 80s schlock, it’s one hell of a picture. It’s full of mindless gore, terrible dialogue, and Emilio Estevez. What could be more 80s?
More to the point, the movie isn’t so good, and yet, the most damning criticism comes from King himself: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing.” No truer words have been spoken about Maximum Overdrive, I’m afraid.
10. He was a Spokesman for American Express
This one doesn’t require a ton of explication. In all the excesses of the 1980s, Stephen King thought it would be a good idea to hock the card you can’t leave home without. The video pretty much speaks for itself, but even if it is kind of gross, the idea of a Stephen King American Express commercial is pretty neat.
9. He Owns 3 Radio Stations in Maine
King and his wife, Tabitha, own three radio stations in their home state of Maine. Under “The Zone Corporation,” they’ve compiled the following three audio outlets: WZLO, Maine’s Adult Alternative; 620 The Pulse, News Talk Sports, and WKIT, nicknamed “Stephen King’s Rock-n-Roll Station,” are all available on your FM Dial and at zoneradio.com.
8. He’s a Part-Time Rock Star
When he’s not working on New York Times bestsellers or pissing off his governor, Stephen King has an occasional role in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of famous novelists playing live gigs on a volunteer basis. The Remainders’ self-deprecating selling point is: Over 350 million books sold. Forty NYT #1 Bestsellers. One lousy band.
Stephen King, in his capacity, is the sometimes guitarist and sometimes singer for the band. Here is a sample of King’s vocal abilities, singing Dee Clark’s 1959 song “Hey Little Girl” with the Remainders in 2012.
7. He Doesn’t Remember Writing Cujo
As it’s been made seemingly sufficiently clear here, the 80s were a rough time for Stephen King. We, as readers, get about as much of an autobiography out of the author in his 1999 memoir, On Writing. He describes snot-and-blood covered coke spoons and drinking Listerine when all the booze was taken from the house.
It was definitely an eye-opening moment for those of us who had put the author on a pedestal for so many years. Turns out, like many writers, he’s a tragically sensitive soul, and he relates how he treated his body for a good chunk of the 70s and 80s: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
One of the more memorable admissions is that he doesn’t even remember writing 1981’s Cujo, his horror novel about a rabies-infected dog terrorizing a mother and son pair in their broken down car. It’s not his best book, but it’s probably one of the most horrifying and quickly-paced in his entire canon.
Here’s an excerpt from On Writing:
At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.
6. He Hates ‘The Shining.’ Stanly Kubrick’s, That Is
The contempt Stephen King holds for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is a secret about as well-kept about the fact that Joe Hill is his son, but it nevertheless deserves mention here.
The more important facts here come down to why he is seemingly so bitter about the 1980 film. #1. Stanley Kubrick dismissed Stephen King’s script for the film version. Kubrick was purportedly deciding between The Shining and Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows, and though he chose The Shining, he picked Johnson to write the screenplay. Weird. #2. King didn’t think Jack Nicholson made a good Jack Torrance. Now, for me, Jack Nicholson does a FANTASTIC job as the alcoholic-writer-cum-psychopath he portrays as Jack Torrance, but Stephen King disagrees. Here is a snippet of why:
The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.
I suspect there’s also a little anger at the direction of Torrance’s on-screen character, too, because King has often described The Shining as his most autobiographical novel. To then bring in a character Kubrick thinks is utterly batshit crazy reduces the struggle King felt with his own addiction to simple monstrosity.
5. He Did Not Serve In Vietnam
It’s not just that Stephen King did not serve, but he was found physically unfit to do so. His eyesight alone would probably have prevented him from fighting abroad in the jungles of Vietnam. He was deemed “4F” in his military physical for his eyesight, flat feet, high blood pressure, and punctured eardrums. King also suffers from macular degeneration, which explains his ever-thickening glasses over the past forty years. At some point, we may have a blind, James Joyce-ian version of our favorite author, dictating his novels to Joe or Tabitha to record for the sake of posterity.
4. He pulled ‘Rage’ from the Shelves…Permanently
It used to be that novelists were only allowed to publish one book a year, according to the rules of the traditional publishing industry, lest the public gets wary of that person. But Stephen King, in all his productivity, just couldn’t stand to be the guy who publishes one book a year, so he came up with the pseudonym Richard Bachman, and he published several novels under that name. That is, until he became famous and was outed by uberfan Steve Brown in 1985.
One of the Bachman novels, Rage, holds the distinction of being the one that King had pulled from the shelves permanently. Here’s an excerpt from a talk King gave at the Vermont Library Conference’s Annual Meeting:
By the end of the speech, though, he’s talking about his decision to censor himself. There had already been three school shootings that strongly resembled the events in Stephen King’s early novel, Rage, which was published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. After the fourth troubled boy turned his anger on his classmates, King asked his publishers to pull the book from publication in future editions. He said that while he didn’t want to draw a direct connection between the book and the shooter’s motives, “…the point is that I don’t want to be part of it. Once I knew what had happened, I pulled the ejection-seat lever on that particular piece of work. I withdrew Rage, and I did it with relief, rather than regret.” But he never suggests he shouldn’t have written Rage.
This was in 1999, just after the Columbine shooting. Even nearly 20 years later, King hasn’t slowed his thoughtful meditations on a culture which produces school shooters.
He doesn’t blame video games, much in the way the contemporaneous culture gate-keepers did. He did then and does now cite America’s obsession with guns as the catalyst for such catastrophic events. In 2013, he published a long essay on the subject, cleverly titled “Guns.” Oh, and if you’re still intrigued by the concept of Rage, you can pick up a copy for about fifteen bucks used on Amazon.
3. Richard Bachman is Not His Only Pseudonym
One might think Stephen King’s dalliance with alternative pen names ends with the tragic death of Richard Bachman via “cancer of the pseudonym,” but it’s not the only one.
King started his career by publishing short stories, and not in overly respectable magazines. He sold whenever and wherever he could, and that included “men’s magazines.” We’re not talking Playboy, necessarily, either. Writing under the name John Swithen, Stephen King published the pulp story “The Fifth Quarter” in Cavalier in April of 1972. (It was later collected for Nightmares & Dreamscapes in 1993.)
2. As a Child, He Witnessed Death Firsthand
Coming home from playing with a friend one day, Stephen King was speechless and in shock. According to what is known, he witnessed a friend get struck by a train. Here’s an account from the horror maestro himself:
The event occurred when I was barely four. According to mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house — a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left, I came back, she said, ‘as white as a ghost.’ I would not speak for the rest of the day. I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I’d wanted to come home. I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back, but had allowed me to come home alone. It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks…My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened. But I have no memory of the incident at all, only of having been told about it some years after the fact.
Inspiration for Stand by Me, maybe?
1. He Wrote the Script for a Michael Jackson Video
Okay, so this is the one even I was shocked to discover. I’d heard of the rock opera he co-wrote with John Mellencamp — Ghost Brothers of Darkland County — but nothing about a collaboration with the King of Pop was anywhere on my radar.
If Thriller is Return (or Night or Dawn) of the Living Dead, then Michael Jackson’s Ghosts is Frankenstein — or maybe Dracula — complete with pitchfork-and-torch-wielding residents.
In retrospect, it’s a cringeworthy bit of commentary on Jackson’s relationship with the public and reality. He plays a reclusive “maestro,” who’s known to play magic tricks for the local children. In fact, it’s the children who defend the maestro to the adults, and the adults, in turn, completely dismiss them.
Sounds weird, huh?
I mean, this is only a few years after the initial trial Jackson suffered through, so even the suggestion of him being affable towards children feels…icky.
However, due to the wonderful technology of YouTube, you can watch and judge the entire thing for yourself.
There’s plenty more to be plumbed about Stephen King, but I think the above list represents both some things the average Stephen King either does not know or only knows the basic details about. There will be more posts about the King Himself coming up, and I’m also looking into doing an episode about “the van incident” for the Principled Uncertainty Podcast.