When Stephen King sat down with High Times in the summer of 1980 to talk about sex, politics and his inspiration for writing, he was already one of America’s most popular authors. With titles like Carrie, The Shining, The Stand and Firestarter under his belt, King could have simply put away his typewriter and enjoyed the vast royalties and licensing fees that his books were already generating.
Instead, Stephen King has spent the last 20 years continually scaring the bejeezus out of his fans around the world, and is now estimated to be raking in somewhere between $40 and $50 million per year. King’s novels since this interview was published include Cujo, Christine, Pet Sematary, It, Needful Things and Dolores Claiborne. Much of King’s writing has also been adapted for the big screen, including blockbuster films not normally associated with King, such as Stand By Me, The Running Man, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
In June 1999, Stephen King was struck by a van while walking along a road near his home in Maine. The accident lead to months of painful rehabilitation, recounted in his 2000 book, On Writing. Since that time, King has publicly floated the idea of retiring from writing, saying, “You have a choice. You can either continue to go on, or say ‘I left when I was still on top of my game. I left when I was still holding the ball, instead of it holding me.'”
Time was, if you were in the mood for a good bloodcurdling scare, you waited until it got nice and dark, climbed into bed with the covers tucked up snug under your chin, and opened up a Gothic horror story. Nowadays, you get the same thing in the broad light of day over the breakfast table, opening up any morning newspaper. This makes it tough for the average thriller author. Frankenstein today, when recombinant DNA technicians can blend the germ plasm of wolverines into scorpions, looks downright quaint and nostalgic. The Island of Dr. Moreau is Disneyland compared to Iran, Cambodia and Northern Ireland. To conjure up a suitable heart-stopper in this day and age, a thriller writer has to keep continuously abreast of current trends in real-life grotesquerie.
The Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley of the ’80s, then, is Stephen King. For his newest gut-wrencher, Firestarter, King has demoniacally blended ancient and modern true-life terrors — the phenomenon of pyrokinesis, in which human bodies spontaneously combust in a flash fire of living flesh, and the notorious predilection of American intelligence agencies for dosing innocent civilians unaware, by the thousands, with weird drugs and hideous disease agents nobody knows much about. The heroine of Firestarter, eight-year-old Charlie McGee, is the daughter of a couple who were unwitting experimental subjects, during the ’60s, for a top-security cabal known only as The Shop. As the child develops, her peculiar powers to set those she dislikes on fire leaving just a greasy scorch on the upholstery attracts The Shop’s curiosity; they murder her mother and pester her dreadfully on a cross-country chase, until finally they push her just a little too far…
Some King enthusiasts insist that it’s best to read his books before the inevitable movies come out while others insist that only after seeing the films can you truly appreciate his inimitable powers of character portrayal and tension building, and his sheer, simple trick of turning your whole head inside and out in the space between two paragraphs. Since Carrie in 1973, proceeding through Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Night Shift and The Dead Zone, King’s books have sold over 40 million copies. Carrie, of course, made Sissy Spacek a star, and what The Shining did for Jack Nicholson’s career, The Stand is doing now for George Romero. [Editor’s Note: At the time of this interview The Stand was on the verge of being made into a major motion picture. After numerous scripts were rejected as too lengthy, however, the project was placed on the backburner. The Stand was made into a six-hour multi-part television movie in 1994.]
King lives quietly and productively with his wife and kids in the wilds of Maine. He enjoys his three children and is pleased that his chosen profession allows him so much time to play with them. You won’t find him at Elaine’s, but you might run into him at the hardware store.
High Times: You mention documented incidents of pyrokinesis as a background for Firestarter. Did these people lose control of their power or is it accidental?
King: I’m not even sure the power exists. I just know that it’s one of these inexplicable things that happens. These people burned up, and it’s peculiar because around them the furnishings are left untouched, despite the fact that the amount of heat that must be generated to burn a human body to ash is tremendous. You cant do it in a crematorium. After you go through, and you come out the assembly line at the other end, there’s a guy with a rake to pound up your bones before they can put you in the little urn and give you to uncle.
So there it is. In one of the cases that was reported in Look magazine around 1965 or something, a kid started to burn at the beach. His father hustled him into the water and literally dunked him under and he continued to burn underwater. The kid died and the father went to the hospital with massive burns all up his forearms. Nobody can explain it. There may be a perfectly rational explanation, but for now it’s just an idea that’s fun to play around with.
High Times: Why do you think that parapsychological investigation is not well regarded among mainstream scientists and medical researchers?
King: Because they can’t see it. They can’t wear it. It’s as simple as that. You’re dealing with empirical results from something that can’t be seen or weighed or felt or hefted or split in a cyclotron. You’re talking about people that might have twenty hits out of twenty-five on those Rhine cards at Duke, and what scientists are reduced to saying is, “Well, hey, he did it. But it was coincidence.” Even if the odds may be millions and millions to one.
They can’t say, “Well, we’ll investigate it,” because, for instance with telepathy, it’s a capricious phenomenon. People can hit twenty out of twenty-five, come back a week later, and hit twelve out of twenty-five.
High Times: Where do you think that research is going to go in the future?
King: Unless there’s some kind of significant breakthrough, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere. It will stay pretty much where it’s been. One of the things that Firestarter tried to say is it’s gotten to the point where people are saying, “Don’t think about it, just do it. If it works let’s use it and let’s never mind what causes it or anything else.” Which is a military and scientific philosophy this country has always pursued.
When we blew the first atomic bomb at White Sands near the end of the war, nobody knew what was going to happen. There was a theory that the chain reaction would continue forever. And we would have created a little tiny sun out there in the desert that would burn until the end of the universe. It wasn’t a widely held theory, but it was a theory that nobody had a way of disproving. There were people who thought it wouldn’t go off at all, that it would simply sit out there and melt and produce a great big dirty cloud of radioactivity. Nobody knew.
We’ve got appropriations in this country right now for psychic research. But when they say, “psychic research,” they’re not really interested in psychic research. They’re interested in producing experts who can read thoughts so they can chuck this guy over to Czechoslovakia or somewhere, where he can tell us where the silos are and that sort of thing, simply by reading thoughts.
The Russians are spending more than we are. They have an installation in Siberia where they test these guys. And it’s a matter of, “We don’t know what makes it work, but then we didn’t really know what made the atomic bomb work, either.”
High Times: Do you believe organizations like The Shop really exist?
King: I don’t think that they exist as one corporate entity, under one roof. But I think elements of The Shop exist in the CIA and probably in the DSA (Department of Scientific Activities) in this country. And I think that a lot of that stuff has gone on.
It comes and goes. Right now, there’s probably more sunlight than there’s been in ten years. I think there are a lot of projects, like the one that’s described in Firestarter, that go through the Senate with things that say, “This is for a study of the mating call of tsetse flies.” In reality, the money is being shunted aside, either to study telepathy or to study new and better ways of improving the neutron bomb, or chemical and biological warfare, or anything at all.
High Times: Do you think that drug research similar to what’s described in Firestarter is going on too?
King: I think what they’ve done with it primarily is to use it as a sort of arm lock on somebody when you need information, a kind of brainwashing technique.
I don’t know if there’s ever been any testing in the field to find out whether or not LSD or mescaline or any of those things can pop psychic talents. D.H. Lawrence claimed they did. He claimed he could communicate back and forth with friends when he was high.
I got a letter from a guy last week. I would have taken it to have been just another crazy letter except that the guy was very well spoken and very low key. He had known, supposedly, this guy who had visions. This fellow had predicted back in 1948 the end of the world in a cataclysm. Just this year he realized that what he’d actually seen was a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe that’s what Edgar Cayce saw all those years ago, just a piece of Star Wars. “That’s okay. Don’t worry, folks.”
High Times: Your books describe parenting very effectively. Do you spend a lot of time at it?
King: I spend a lot of time parenting because I’m home. A friend of mine told me that the average father sees each kid an average of twenty-two minutes a week, which I found almost unbelievable. Mine are in my hip pocket all the time. And I like it that way.
When I knew I was going to be able to write full time, I wondered, “What’s going to happen to the relationships within my family?” Are they going to change? Is it going to be the kind of deal where you say, “I can’t take this! Get me out of here! I can’t stand these screaming kids!” The way it turned out was, I was able to change the diapers okay, after I stuck the pin through my fingers a few times. I had a dawning realization that children are not particularly hard to deal with. I think a lot of people say to themselves, “If I’m going to be a parent, I’ve got to be a perfect parent. It’s just too much responsibility. It’s too hard.” They’ve got an image that it’s going to be a twenty-four-hour-a-day security service kind of deal. And it’s not.
It’s a trip. It’s like being in a time machine, too. You go back. If you don’t have kids, a lot of things they experience, you never have a chance to re-experience: taking kids to Disney pictures and watching Bambi and saying, “Jeez, what schlocky shit this is.” And then you start to cry, ’cause it pushes the old buttons.
STEPHEN KING INTERVIEW [cont.]
High Times: Disney is known for his scary material.
King: Those cartoons are all rated G. It’s really funny. There are kids all over the world who still have complexes over Bambi’s father getting shot by the hunter and Bambi’s mother getting crisped. But that’s the way it’s always been. This is the sort of material that appeals to kids. Kids understand it instinctively. They grip it.
We live in a society now where the sexual taboo for children has really passed by the wayside. Any nineyear-old can go into a 7-11 and check out the Playmate of the Month, but you don’t want your kids to know about death. You don’t want your kids to know about disfigurement. You don’t want ’em to know about creepy things because it might warp their little minds.
Little kids’ minds are very, very strong. They bend. There’s a lot of tensile strength and they don’t break. We start our kids off on things like “Hansel and Gretel,” which features child abbandonment, kidnapping, attempted murder, forcible detention, cannibalism, and finally murder by cremation. And the kids love it.
High Times: Do you agree that scary tales are an important socializing force?
King: A lot of fairy tales are thinly disguised hostility raps against parents. Kids know that they can’t make it on their own, that if they were left alone, they would die.
I’ve always thought it would be fun to update “Hansel and Gretel.” I’d have these white parents in the suburbs with an income of fifty or sixty thousand dollars. Daddy loses his job, and the wicked stepmother says, “We could get along, we could keep our Mastercharge, if you’d just get rid of those shitty kids.” Finally the father hires a limo and tells the driver, “Drop ’em off on Lenox Avenue in Harlem at two in the morning.” These two little white kids land there. They’re menaced. And this supposedly nice black lady says, “Would you like some candy?”
Kids know they can’t make it alone, yet at the same time, built into each one of us, is a survival ethic. It says, “Nobody cares and you have to look out for yourself and if you don’t, you’ll die.” These two things work against each other. I think most kids are very frightened of their parents, and that’s what all fairy tales reflect: Parents will fail you and you’ll be left on your own. But, of course, everything comes out right in the end and the parents take you back.
High Times: In Firestarter the parents are the ones who are apprehensive about their child’s psychic powers. Do you feel that? Are you ever a little wary of your own children?
King: Well — not yet. The one thing about kids is that you never really know exactly what they’re thinking or how they’re seeing. Kids are bent. After writing about kids, which is a little bit like putting the experience under a magnifying glass, you realize you have no idea how you thought as a kid. You can remember things about your childhood, but I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the things that we remember about our childhood are lies. We can have dreams where we re-dream things that are truer than what we remember waking. We all have memories that stand out from when we were kids, but they’re really just snapshots. You can’t remember how you reacted because your whole head is different when you stand aside.
High Times: The experience of childhood is much more benevolent in The Shining than in Firestarter.
King: Well, Charlie McGee’s a good kid, you know. It isn’t that Charlie McGee wants to hurt anybody. After Carrie, people would say, “Why do you want to write about evil children?”
Everybody wants to psychoanalyze horror. They don’t want to psychoanalyze a book like Gay Talese’s “Sex with Your Neighbor” [sic] or something like that. It’s pretty much accepted that Americans should be interested in who they’re diddling and how they’re doing it.
But this is a Popular Mechanics country. What’s really going on here is that they’re discussing the rocketry of sex and they’re saying, “You can do it, too.” The Talese book is a kind of Popular Mechanics guide. Instead of “How to Put on a New Garage Door,”
it’s “How You Can Get a Swingers Club in Your Town.”
But when it: comes to horror there’s this need to analyze. When this “evil children” fad happened, there was The Exorcist and The Other and The Omen. People would say, “What this really means is that Americans don’t want to have kids anymore. They feel hostility towards their own children. They feel they’re being tied down and dragged down.” In fact, in most cases, what those books are about is nice children who are beset by forces beyond their control.
Certainly Regan in The Exorcist was not to blame for what happened to her. In Carrie, it’s not really Carrie’s fault anything happens to her. She’s driven to it. And when she perpetuates destruction on her hometown, it’s because she’s crazy. She doesn’t want to make fires any more than she wants to wet her pants. That image is made in the book, that correlative. And she’s kind of driven to it after a while.
High Times: The person who makes that connection in the book is the assassin, Rainbird. He is an authority figure and seems to be pretty nasty. A lot of authoritarians in your books are pretty nasty Do you think authority is a malignant force?
King: I do. I think that the curse of civilization is its chumminess.
When we get together we have to have authority, or so we say. But, it’s like a cancer. Now, [Jimmy] Carter is pumping Presidential Directive 59, which is a new nuclear strategy that looks suspiciously like first strike capability. All he’s doing is playing Texas
Ranger, and saying, “We need to have a little authority around here.” Which is a lot of the problem.
Of course, if we just had chaos, nobody would have air conditioning and nobody would have Touch Tone phones. So you have to say to yourself, “Do you want to be out there planting your crops with a stick and then shitting on your corn to make it grow? Or do you want to have the sort of society that we have?” Believe me, we bought it.
A lot of authority figures want to be good. I sense that, and yet at the same time I sense that authority, after a while, always leads to some kind of oppression. When the minority report comes in, what you do is run the minority out of town with a flaming cross. It’s just the way things are.
But then again, that’s what we fought Vietnam for. I think we fought Vietnam for the benefits of civilization, and certainly we fought it to oppose authority. To show our authority, to show we weren’t weak. Isn’t that what Nixon kept saying? “We have to show the world that we’re not weak.” So of course what we ended up showing the world was that we were, yep, weak. ‘Cause we couldn’t beat these kids in black pajamas.
High Times: Are you saying that you can’t have good without evil, that you can’t perceive anything without its opposite?
King: I’m not sure that it has so much to do with good and evil as it has to do with the question of chaos versus order. We all have this tendency to want order in our lives. I got such a kick out of watching my wife pack for me. She didn’t want me to pack because I don’t know what goes with what. And I have the same need in my life. I had to be on national TV twice this morning and this is really the rattiest jacket I own. But it’s my lucky jacket. It brings order into my life.
All horror stories are really about this incursion of disorder on order. That moment in The Exorcist, the movie, where it starts in Georgetown, is total order. It’s civilization. It’s where people know what wine to order. Ellen Burstyn is upstairs in bed and she wakes up and she hears a noise that sounds like a lion.
You say, “Oh, dear, something’s getting out of order here” Order presupposes authority, and authority presupposes, sooner or later, that we’ll all need hooves. It’s going to happen sooner or later, isn’t it? You know it is.
High Times: Do we know? Why then do people carry on?
King: Why don’t we all just go crazy when we know were going to croak? Because the mind’s a monkey. You put things in departments and you go ahead. You go on and plan for the future and assume that the future’s going to work out okay. Yet we know that sooner or later we’re all going to be eating worms, whether it’s fifty years or sixty. It might be tomorrow. It might happen today.
I always think about this when I go on a talk show, particularly when it’s live. When J.R Rodale was on the Dick Cavett show, and Cavett said, “You eat all these health foods, how do you feel?” And Rodale said, “I never felt better in my life.” A little while later, he keeled over. This is the sort of thing that should drive anybody crazy. Yet we’re sane. We go on. We have our little neuroses but we continue.
And that’s why we can continue in the face of knowing that by 1985 there will be terrorist groups with homemade atomic weapons and sooner or later somebody will use one to impose their own idea of order on the West Bank or on Northern Ireland or wherever it happens to be. It’s gonna happen. I don’t think there’s any question about it But what can you do, except compartmentalize, and hope that things will go on a little while longer?
What do you do about the fact that Reagan’s going to be president? [This interview was conducted in August 1980.] What do you do about that? Do you go crazy? The man strikes me as extremely dangerous, and yet he will probably be president. But I can’t go hide under my bed.
I got a boy who’s eight, Joe Hill, and he puked during the Iranian crisis. We used to watch the news at dinner time, and he started to vomit about the news. I mean literally. He grew pale and left the table and then vomited. Finally I said, “It’s the news. It’s bumming you out, isn’t it?” He said, “Yeah. Every time I hear it my stomach’s like a fist.” So, what we did was watch the news late at night. I don’t know what else to do.
He hasn’t learned to compartmentalize. When you’re eight, the tunnel vision isn’t developed yet and you have a tendency to see everything. If we saw the consequences of where we are now, if we raised our heads more often from the job we have to do and the next thing that’s going on, it would be very, very frightening.
High Times: Is the repression of drugs a good idea? Gore Vidal has been quoted to the effect that no drugs need be illegal because, after all, no one eats Drano.
King: That can’t happen because that’s the antithesis of order, to say we don’t have the authority to regulate these things. Theres a constant struggle going on about how much will be illegal and how much you will be free to take. Can we open the pharmacies? Can we put Valium and Percodan and those sorts of things out on the shelves? I wouldn’t take it. I don’t know.
I thought it was very funny when McDonald’s discontinued the very tiny coffee spoons that people could snort coke with. The last time I went to McDonald’s I got a great big spoon, and you could snort a lot with that!
For some reason California’s always been where the struggle is about how much authority you can impose on people’s private lives. It seems to show up there most clearly. They had a helmet law for motorcycles in California and the bikies were saying things like, “It restricts my vision. I can’t hear what my bike’s doing. If it was on fire I wouldn’t know it until my ass caught.” And at the bottom line what the bikies were saying was, “Look, it’s my goddamn head and if I want to splatter my brains all over the guardrails on the Coast Highway, super for me.”
They kept the helmet law and then the dentists decided that they ought to have a mouth-guard law. Because they were repairing all these shattered jaws and teeth. They said, “Football players wear mouth guards, and prizefighters wear mouth guards. We’ll make the bikies wear mouth guards.” It was the final straw and the bikies came into Sacramento asking, “What happens next? Will I have to wear a jock when I get on my bike?” And they repealed the helmet law.
This is a dreadful thing to say, but I have wondered in my darker hours that, if everything were legal, wouldn’t it be kind of a Darwinian solution to a lot of problems? Who are the bikies that you see who are cruisin’ around with no helmet or with a hat turned around like that yoyo in Cheap Trick? They’re dummies, and if they splatter their brains all over the sidewalk, they’re not going to be collecting food stamps.
The one thing I could never swallow in the ‘60s was this idea that Nixon and the Republicans of that time were totalitarian, fascistic, faceless things that wanted to take over and destroy the resistance movement and everything else. Yet they were saying, “Don’t stone out your head with drugs. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t do the other thing.”
If you were a real fascistic society and you had a vocal minority that was shouting, “Stop this, stop that, stop the other thing,” what you would say is, “Let’s give them all the drugs they want.” In a lot of states, something very much like that happened. They lowered the drinking age to eighteen and said, “Get juiced.”
High Times: There’s a theory that the reason marijuana is now so popular is that it’s the perfect drug to keep the young people quiet. And you have to say, “Don’t do it,” so they’ll do it.
King: “Don’t throw me in that briar patch!” That’s kind of interesting. I’ve never really thought of that.
High Times: Maine is a decriminalized state. Do you think that’s a good idea?
King: I do approve of that. I think that marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry. It would be wonderful for the state of Maine. There’s some pretty good homegrown dope. I’m sure it would be even better if you could grow it with fertilizers and have greenhouses.
What we’ve got up there are lobsters and potatoes. And a lot of poor people. My wife says, and I agree with her, that what would be really great for Maine would be to legalize dope completely and set up dope stores the way that there are state-run liquor stores. You could get your Acapulco gold or your whatever it happened to be — your Augusta gold or your Bangor gold. And people would come from all the other states to buy it, and there could be a state tax on it. Then everybody in Maine could have a Cadillac.
I don’t smoke very much marijuana at all anymore, because I’m afraid of additives, which come from decontrol and deregulation. Anybody can squirt anything into it that they want to. And that scares me. I don’t like the idea. My idea of what dope is supposed to be is to just get mellow. And what I do, if I smoke it anymore, is when I’m driving to the movies, to smoke a couple real quick so I can sit there in the first row. It’s kind of interesting and they have all that good munchie food, too, you don’t have to make yourself.
High Times: [Composer and song writer] Randy Newman once told an interviewer that wanting to be mellow is like wanting to be senile.
King: I’ve known people who were so laid back that they just weren’t there. They might as well be dead.
I drink a lot of beer, and that’s the drug of choice. You find the drug that works for you. I know, for instance, this guy named Harlan Ellison — and he’s not alone — who’s very proud of the fact that he doesn’t put dope into his body. He tries not to put additives into his body, or anything like that. But he can afford to do that because Harlan’s drug of choice is Harlan.
High Times: You’re working on a book about horror called “Dance Macabre?”
King: I’m looking at the horror phenomenon and the horror genre from about 1950. The guy that’s editing the book is the guy who edited all my books at Doubleday — from Carrie through The Stand. He said, “Why don’t you do a big history of horror and try to cover everything.” And I said, “That book will take forty years to write.” And he said, “Why don’t you concentrate on the ‘50s through 1980.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never written a nonfiction book, and the idea is sort of attractive, but why would I want to?” He said, “How many times have you been asked, ‘Why do you write this? Why do people read this?'” And I said, “It goes beyond counting.” And he said, “If you write the book, then when you’re asked that you can say, ‘Read this book I wrote. It’s in there.'”
High Times: Why do you start in the ‘50s?
King: There were no horror movies or horror books to speak of in the ‘40s. I picked the ‘50s because that pretty well spans my life as an appreciator — as somebody who’s been involved with this mass cult of horror, from radio and movies and Saturday matinees and books. In the ‘40s there really wasn’t that much. People don’t want to read about horrible things in horrible times. So, in the ‘40s, there was Val Lutin with The Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People and there wasn’t much else.
High Times: Are you going to begin with any particular event or work?
King: It starts in 1957 with the news. I was in a movie theater watching a nominally science fiction, actually a horror fiction, called Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and the picture stopped and we just sat there in the dark. Kids started to clap and hoot the way they do when the film breaks. Then the lights went on, which is unheard of, and it stunned everybody to silence. And the theater manager walked out and said, “I just heard that the Russians launched an earth satellite and it’s called Sputnik.” Except he said it “Spootnik.”
We just sat there thunderstruck, because we had all grown up sort of rocked in the cradle of America’s technological superiority. We got the phone first and the cotton gin and the reaper. It was the end of everything that you dreamed as a kid, when you read the Combat Casey comic books and found out that we won all the wars and that nothing ever went wrong for us because God chose it to be that way. This guy coming out and saying this was, to me, the transition into the real world from a fantasy world. It was also the first time that I ever realized that horror was not something that can be confined to a book or to a movie screen.
High Times: What do you think is the difference between a scary book and a scary movie?
King: A scary movie puts a lot of people, a mob, in one place. There are advantages to that because the panic runs through the audience. If it’s a good movie, the fear jumps from one person to the next. You can find yourself screaming just because everybody around you is screaming. There’s a real atmosphere of terror. It’s also visual, which means that you can’t look away from this thing — it’s happening. You’re in the dark. It’s like a nightmare. It’s like a dream. It’s very, very visual. It works on all those levels.
The advantage to books is to take the reader and cut him out of the pack and work on him one on one. It has its advantages because the people that are there in the movie theater really are a mob. If you get one guy alone you can do a more efficient job of scaring him.
High Times: One review said you use the technique of cataloging — setting up a complete, mundane, comfortable world with name-brand products and familiar language.
King: That’s my world. On a larger scale any world will do as long as the reader can touch it. The reader is like a guy in space. You create this world and the ideas must get him down there. Then, if you’re writing this kind of novel, you take his spaceship away so he can’t get out. Then you stick it to him as well as you can. But the first thing you have to do is create any kind of environment that the reader can identify with totally. That doesn’t mean that it has to be something that everybody knows about, or that you have to say Triscuit or Colgate in every book. There are certain things that run through society. Anywhere in New York, anywhere in the country, somewhere there’s going to be a Coke sign. People identify with Coke. You can write a novel about New York and people from the country will read it if they feel that you’ve made them familiar with New York.
That’s why I’ve never written a book using the city as a setting, because I don’t know it well enough yet. God knows there are opportunities. Somewhere in Central Park there’s a deserted subway tunnel that’s just sort of sitting there.
High Times: Hitchcock has said he was performing a service, that there was too much order and he injected some needed chaos into our lives.
King: Part of us really responds to that. By writing a horror novel where this inexplicable disorder takes over in our ordered lives, you make order look better by comparison. But below that, there’s a part of us that responds to the Who bashing their instruments to pieces on the stage. There’s a very primitive part that says, “Do it some more.” There was a game on TV a while ago called “Supermarket Sweep.” You ran around and got everything. I never really wanted to win that show. This was when I was much younger. I never wanted to go and grab things. What I wanted was for them to let me loose in there for an hour with a sledgehammer. Or imagine it in Tiffany’s. With a sledgehammer. They would say, “For an hour, do what you want.” If I got the chance to do that — I wouldn’t do it, but I would want to do it.
At a lot of county fairs you see this. Somebody will get a moderately good used car and put it up on a pedestal. Then, for a quarter or fifty cents you can have three whacks at it, with a sledgehammer. They always make money.
High Times: In Firestarter you set up The Shop as a model of diabolical authority, and then it’s revealed to be less powerful than we thought.
King: The thing about The Shop is that you see it first as a monolithic authority and when you get down to the bottom you just see a bunch of hairy bureaucrats doing their job. The thing that worries me more than monolithic authority is that there may be no such thing, and that if you could meet Hitler, at the end you would just find this hairy little bureaucrat saying, “Where are my maps?. Where are my armies? Gee whiz, gang, what happened?”
A lot of people were disappointed in Flagg at the end of The Stand because he turns out to be a straw man. But that’s always been my view. I have a friend who claims that the devil was in Lyndon Johnson. “The devil entered Lyndon Johnson when he became president, and forced him to do all those awful things in Vietnam.” And this guy says that when Johnson went on TV after the New Hampshire primary and wouldn’t stand for reelection, that he actually saw the devil leave Johnson’s face. I wonder if there isn’t a lot of truth in that.
David Berkowitz, for instance — Son of Sam – if they fried him in the chair, strapped him in and threw the switch, would they be getting whatever did it? That’s the question. Because he’s just sort of a guy that’s getting a little bit fat now, who sits around and writes letters to the papers and that sort of thing. Manson is a bald gardener in California in a sort of middle-security prison. He doesn’t want to get out. He’s afraid somebody will kill him if he gets out.
High Times: In lieu of punishing the criminal, what could society do? Regulate television more closely? Take the billboards off the highway?
King: I don’t think any of that stuff will work. I think that these things are inbred and you can’t get them out, any more than you can get an egg out of a shell without making some kind of hole in it. We’re stuck with it. Human beings have got a lot, of good, noble impulses inside them, and most people want to be good and do more good than they do evil. Hell, we’ve had nuclear weapons now for thirty or thirty-five years and nothing’s happened yet. That in itself seems to be a miracle. If Reagan pushes the button, or somebody pushes the button in Russia, or somebody pushes it in Costa Rica, they can put a big tombstone in outer space that says, “We gave it a good try.” Because we have.
There’s two kinds of evil that horror fiction always deals with. One kind is the sort of evil that comes from inside people, like in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Jekyll makes this potion because he wants to go out and rampage at night and doesn’t want anybody to know. The other kind of evil is predestined evil. It falls on you like a stroke of lightning. That’s the scary stuff, but, in a way, it’s the stuff you don’t have to worry about. I mean, if we went out and worried about getting hit by lightning, that’s too much. I gotta worry whether or not I’m getting cavities. I gotta worry about whether these cigarettes are giving me cancer. Those are things I can change. Don’t give me lightning out of a clear sky. If that hits me I just say, “That’s probably the way God meant it to be.”
But that’s the thing in Dracula, too. There are a lot of people in Dracula who are wiped out who are good people and you ask, “What did they do to deserve this?” In most cases, they didn’t do anything.
High Times: How did you hook up with [director, screenwrite and actor] George Romero?
King: He came by one day. He was on his way through Maine and he was going to speak at a college in New Hampshire. He called and said, “How about if I drop by?” He said, “Can we do anything together?” At the end of the afternoon, because I admired his work and everything, I ended up saying, “These are the things that are not optioned.” I just sort of put everything out, and said, “Take what you want.” And he said, “Let’s do The Stand.” He and I actually have two projects. We’ve got one called Creep Show which is just an out-and-out horror movie, and then The Stand. It’s a question of what he wants to do next and when he wants to do it, what his own schedule is.
High Times: Is Creep Show new stuff?
King: They’re all new stories. There’s only one that’s been previously published, and that’s “The Crate.” It’s set on this college campus where these people find a crate that’s been under the stairs for a hundred years or so in which there’s something that likes to eat people. It’s sort of a Tasmanian devil. We sent it to Playboy when it was done, and the fiction editor there said, “I really like this story, but the thing in the box reminded me of the Tasmanian devil in those Warner Brothers cartoons.” I said, “It’s supposed to.” She said, “Well, it’s not for us.” So it finally ended up going to Gallery where they could cope with that concept a little better. One thing about Creep Show is that it’s sort of an Animal House of horror pictures. I think it’s very funny. Scary, but very funny.
High Times: Is there a relationship between humor and fear?
King: You bet there is. Think of all the gags you ever heard that have to do with dismemberment, or something that’s horrible in one way or another, even if it’s just horrible in the sense that somebody’s being embarrassed. What do kids laugh at? Kids laugh if your fly’s down. That’s hilarious. For the kid whose fly is down, it’s a horrible situation. The funniest cartoon I ever saw has this little schmo in a French restaurant with this waiter bearing down on him with this maniacal expression on his face. He’s got a tray in one hand, with this awful smoking charred thing on it and he’s screaming at the poor customer, “It’s a fried telephone book, and you ordered it.”