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King of the Thrill

Stephen King Reflects on His Literary Aspirations, the Nature of Evil and the Relentless Voices Inside His Head

October 09, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stephen King is getting the royal treatment. As midmorning descends upon Los Angeles, he's being ushered through a sound stage at Warner Hollywood Studios, where his 1996 serial novel, "The Green Mile," is in production, starring Tom Hanks as a prison guard for whom justice is about to take a supernatural turn.

Although the film is already more than a week behind schedule, King's appearance precipitates a low-level buzzing that abates only when director Frank Darabont begins shooting Hanks in the corridor of what looks like a 1930s Southern jailhouse, where much of the story's action takes place. Even then, people keep throwing surreptitious glances at the 51-year-old author, and when the scene is finished, Hanks himself drifts out to say hello. Together, they wander to another part of the set, where King gleefully allows himself to be strapped into "Old Sparky," an astonishingly realistic electric chair, after which he and Hanks pose together for a few publicity stills.

Even without the electric chair, King looks like a character in one of his novels. Six-foot-3 and skeletally thin, he has the pale, bluish coloring of a cadaver, and the skin of his jaw is stretched so tight it gives his face the quality of a grinning skull.

Unlike most of the haunts that inhabit his imagination, however, he is friendly and open, stopping to talk with each person who comes to shake his hand.

This morning, that includes nearly everybody.

As he slowly negotiates the tangle of wires and electric cables at the sound stage's perimeter, members of the cast and crew appear, in ones and twos, bearing a steady stream of books for him to sign. One actor asks for advice about his character, while another introduces King to a friend who's visiting that day.

For a few minutes, King strolls slowly through the prison set, examining the worn brick walls and vintage props, each so detailed, so vividly re-created, that standing here is like taking a journey back in time. When someone asks whether all this looks the way he imagined, he smiles and says, "Exactly. It's like walking inside my own head."

Freeing the Creatures Inside His Brain

For the last 24 years, the inside of King's head has been among the most fertile locations on the literary landscape, the source of an apparently unending series of novels, short stories and films. From his first book, 'Carrie," which appeared in 1974, to his most recent, the newly issued "Bag of Bones" (Scribner), King has produced at a rate that seems almost compulsive, sometimes cranking out two or three titles in a year. In 1988, he astonished even himself by publishing five books, and as recently as 1996, he followed the six monthly installments of "The Green Mile" with the one-two punch of 'Desperation" and "The Regulators," a pair of simultaneously released novels that reflect off each other like fun house mirrors, using a common set of themes and characters to very different ends.

It's a daunting degree of prolificacy, but through it all, King has always seemed less like a workaholic than someone for whom writing is simply fun.

As Mike Noonan, the writer protagonist of "Bag of Bones" explains, in what could stand as King's own epitaph, "Work had always been my drug of choice, even better than booze or the Mellaril I still kept in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Or maybe work was only the delivery system, the hypo with all the dreamy dreams inside." Either way, King admits, ideas come to him like water through an open faucet--even when he's not trying to write them down.

"I've taken off two months, three months at a time," he recalls, "and, by the end, I get really squirrelly. My night life, my dream life, gets extremely populated and crazed. It's as though something in there is running all the time. And if it doesn't get an outlet on the page, it comes out in the dreams."

"Bag of Bones" is not the first King book to revolve around a writer. As early as 1977, with "The Shining," he was invoking the literary life as peculiarly suited to the exigencies of horror fiction, since, as he suggests in the new novel, "a writer is a man who has taught his mind to misbehave." In King's universe, however, writers are often beset as much by personal as supernatural demons, tortured by self-doubt, worried over how their work will be perceived. 'Misery," for instance--perhaps King's finest effort--deals with a romance novelist who wants nothing more than to pursue literary aspirations, while 'The Dark Half" features another writer hunted down by a pseudonym who has horrifically, psychotically, come to life.

King's standard explanation is that writing is an easy subject; "I write about writers," he notes, "for the same reason Dick Francis writes about jockeys--because I know the playing field." Yet when pressed, he acknowledges another agenda, which has to do with his sense of having been overlooked by the critical establishment, and his own issues about the nature of what he does.

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