This article was published in July 1987 for "The Highway Patrolman" magazine. I
interviewed Stephen King while I was a radio talk show host in Texas in the late
1970s. This article is based on a transcript of that radio program. Stephen is
still writing as of 2005. He is one of the best selling authors of all time.
I have added a few recent comments, which will appear in blue text.
"Stephen King in 2003"
"An Interview with Stephen King"
by Phil Konstantin
Click here for a link to Stephen
King's official website.
...and now, here is the article exactly as it appeared in 1987 (including the
Stephen King is the unabashed king of the terror tale. For the last 10 years,
his stories have consistantly appeared on every best seller list. On many
occasions, he has even had two books simultaniously on the prestigious New
York Times best seller list. His stories range from the ghastly and the
unworldly, to the realm of near truth and the terrifyingly possible.
He has scared the wits out of millions and has firmly established himself
in modern American literature. Some of his writings include: Carrie,
Salem's Lot, Night shift (a collection of short stories), The Stand,
The Shining, Firestarter, Cujo, Dead Zone, Creep Show, Christine and
Pet Sematary. Many of his novels have become major motion pictures,
with Dead Zone, Christine and Carrie being three of his
more popular cinematic offerings.
King lives in Maine with his wife and children. He enjoys the "life of
the back woods," as he calls it. King writes about what he knows,
consequently, many of his stories are set in his "own neck of the woods."
King is very frank and open, and displays a corny sense of humor.
(We share this sense of humor) He enjoys his work and takes a great
deal of pride in it. When asked if he was a storyteller, he said he didn't
think he could keep an audience spellbound just by telling them a story.
But, in his description of the facts behind one of his short stories, The
Mangler, as told below, you will see how well endowed he is with the
ability to raise the hackles on your neck with only a brief narration.
I understand you don't like to be asked why you write the kind of stories
you do. Is this correct?
I have always felt a little bit uncomfortable with that question. It's not
a question that you would ask a guy that writes detective stories or the
guy that writes mystery stories, or westerns, or whatever. But it is asked
of the writer of horror stories because it seems that there is something
nasty about our love for horror stories, or boogies, ghosts and goblins,
demons and devils.
When did you start writing?
I started writing seriously when I was about 12.
Do you have to be in a special mood to start writing?
I am always in the mood.
Do you have a certain method that you use when you write?
It usually is a set schedule. I write in the mornings, in the bright
daylight. But I get most of my good ideas after the sun has gone down
and the dark is on the land. (It is this type of
turn of a phrase that has made King's writing so poular)
Do you consider what you write "horror stories?"
There are times when I like to think of it as mainstream fiction or
literature. But in the back of my mind, in the closet where I keep
the truth, I think of them as horror stories. A lot of them I think
of as creep shows. (A few years after this interview,
Stephen wrote a script for a movie by George Romero. That movie was
titled "Creep Show.")
I once read that Salem's Lot is your favorite book. Why?
In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about
small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story
seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart
Is the town of Jerusalem's Lot (Salem's Lot) a real town?
Yes and no. It is based on a town in upstate Vermont, that I heard
about as an undergraduate in college, called Jeremiah's Lot. I was
going through Vermont with a friend and he pointed out the town,
just in passing, as we went by in the car. He said, "You know, they
say that everybody in that town just simply disappeared in 1098."
I said, "Aw, come on. What are you talking about?" He said, "That's
the story. Haven't you heard of the Marie Celest where everybody
supposedly disappeared? This is the same thing. One day they were
there and then one day a relative came over to look for someone
that they hadn't heard from in awhile; and all of the houses were
empty. Some of the houses had dinner set on the table. Some of the
stores still had money in them. It was covered in mold from the
summer damp and it was starting to rot, but nobody had stolen it.
The town was completely emptied out."
Is that how you get inspiration for your stories, or does it also
come from day-to-day events, a phrase you may hear, or even from
suggestions you get from fans?
I get inspiration, a lot of times, from very commonplace things that
just strike a chord and develop themselves in the subconscious.
Sometimes it's something a little bit more sensational than that.
As an example, there is a story in the book Night Shift, called
'The Mangler,' about a laundry machine that takes on a sort of
malignant life. I worked in a laundry for about a year and a half
after I got out of college. It was the only job I could find to
support my wife and our first child. There was a fellow there that
had no hands or forearms. He simply had hooks. This is one of the
things that they don't tell you about when you become management.
You have to wear a tie. It was this fellow's tie that did him in.
It was just after World War II and he was working around the machines.
The steam ironer and folder is the machine the workers call the
Mangler, because that is what it will do to you if you get too
close to it or get caught in it. This fellow bent down to pick
something up and his tie went into the machine. He reached down
with his left hand to pull his tie out and his hand went into the
machine. Then he put his right hand around his left wrist to try
to pull it out and his right hand got caught. As a result, he lost
both hands and forearms and was lucky not to have died. His hands
were replaced by hooks. (And people wonder why
I don't like ties!)
Thirty years later, when I worked there, he would go into the men's
room, during the summer and turn on the hot and cold water and
run it over the hooks. He would then come up behind you and lay
the hooks on the back of your neck. That's what gave me the inspiration
for that particular story. I always think of the machine at the
end of the story, which sort of becomes possessed by a demon and
escapes from the laundry and goes through the streets, as sort
of having escaped because it had "pressing business."
Since you mention Night Shift, how is it that John D.
MacDonald came to do the introduction? His field is so far from
When we were putting the book together for Doubleday, my editor
asked me who I would like to do the introduction if I could have
anyone in the world. I said that it was off the wall, but if I
could have anybody I would like to have John D. MacDonald because
I had cut my teeth on his stories. I still think that of all the
people doing top fiction today, he is the best. He was my model
as a kid. If there are people out there that want to write, all
you need to do is read 20 of his stories to get an idea what it
takes to make a story kick over.
Would you ever participate in a seance?
I would NOT participate in one under any circumstances. Not even
if my wife died and a medium said she had a message from my wife.
I cannot conceive of circumstances under which I would participate
in that sort of thing or stay overnight in a house that was
reputed to be haunted or any of those things. We are too close
as it is to a world that is incomprehensible. And the time comes
when you and I and everyone who walks the face of this earth
has to enter that world. We will know then, and I can wait.
Are you interested in psychics, ESP and similar areas?
I am interested in it and I think now in the latter half of the
twentieth century we have enough documentation so that anyone
that doubts the psychic experience is an actual empiric reality
is on the level with a person who continues to smoke two or
three packs of cigarettes a day and denies that there is a link
between smoking and lung cancer. The documentation is there.
It can barely be questioned any further. We have as much proof,
furthermore, barring some technological development that does
not exist now, as we are ever going to have. It is simply the
preponderance of evidence; it precludes the doubt almost entirely.
What is your personal feeling about reincarnation?
I don't believe in it. I don't like the idea that I am going
to come back as an ant or a sparrow if I don't get along in
the great karma of life. As far as where I go when I die, the
concept that I am simple going to flick out, like a light bulb,
to me is not only spiritually impossible to believe, but
logically it is laughable -- the idea that we simply die and
nothing happens. Now, as to what does go on, that is something
else. I am religious in the sense that I believe in God and
I believe that there is an abiding logical spirit that controls
what goes on to a certain extent. Now, there is the Watchmaker
Theory that God wound up the universe and let it tick. That
may be. or it may be that he takes a hand in things from time
to time. But whatever it is, I am sure that there is something
In your own experience have you ever come across any ghosts,
ghoulies or anything that goes bump in the night?
Do you get letters from people that say they have actually
experienced things like what you write about?
Yes, I got letters from people that have had peculiar psychic
experiences, experiences with the dead -- sometimes fairly
tranquil experiences and sometimes very terrifying experiences.
I do believe that a lot of them are sincere. I do believe,
also, that some of them may be misguided. But, I think the
majority of them have experienced something. This is something
that you and I may stumble over like a stone in our paths at
any time in our lives. I think everybody has experiences from
time to time they can't explain. They are peculiarities.
Usually we just dismiss them because they are uncomfortable
to think about.
As a child, did you read horror stories and go to see
Sometimes. Semi-facetiously, when people ask me why I write
these kinds of stories, I simply say that I was warped as a
child. And, there is some truth to that. The first movie I
can remember seeing was The Creature From The Black
Lagoon. And, I can remember hearing a radio play of Ray
Bradbury's Mars Is Heaven. And when I cut my teeth on
comic books, they were not the easy ones of today like
Spiderman, Superman and The Hulk. they were
Tales Of The Crypt, The Vaultkeeper, and that sort
What do you think of the new wave in horror films such
as Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The
Dead which deal with a great deal of violence?
The Night Of The Living Dead is an interesting case
because it was an unrated movie when it came out. At that
time there were only two ratings: GP, which is the same as
PG now, and the unrated movies. I was still in college when
Night Of The Living Dead came out, and when I went
to see it the first time, I went in the afternoon. The
place was full of kids, mostly from five to eleven. I have
never in my life, from the time I was a kid until now, been
in an audience where children were so quiet. They were
sitting gape-mouthed; they were simply stunned. Total
silence. It was the best argument for the rating system
that I have ever seen. I don't have anything against either
of the Dead movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
none of those movies. If it scares somebody, I think that
it is serving a valid purpose. It is doing what the filmmaker
intended. But, it is not something that you hand to kids.
You just don't do it. You have to be old enough to take it.
Kids are just not prepared for it. I think most of us can
remember from our own childhood, just in the Disney cartoons,
things that frightened us profoundly. For me it was Bambi,
the scene when the forest was on fire. That was something I
had nightmares about. I can't imagine being a little kid of
eight and seeing Night Of The Living Dead with living
corpses eating the flesh of living people.
How faithfully have your stories been transferred to the screen?
Well, let's take Carrie for example. Brian De Palma, who
directed the film, did an excellent job on a fairly low budget.
It was made for about $2.3 million, which is peanuts for the movie
industry. But, for instance, when Stanley Kubrick made The
Shining, they wound up spending about $14 million, which IS
big money (1970s dollars). In the book
Carrie, Carrie ends up destroying her entire town on the
way home from her senior prom. She blows up gas stations, and
the entire town goes up in flames. That wasn't in the movie, and
that was mainly because the cost from the special effects was
too high for their budget.
Do you have much control of your material when it comes
to supervising movies?
No. And I wouldn't want it because I'm a person that writes
books. I don't make movies. I don't feel that I have to have
artistic control. Part of this comes from the fact that the
book lives on no matter what Hollywood does to your novel
in terms of a film. Now, you try to be careful who you
allow to do your film because nobody wants their novel to
become a turkey movie. But, on the other hand, it is a
crapshot anyway, because even the best people can make a
bad film. (In 1986, Stephen would change
his mind. He wrote and directed the movie Maximum
Overdrive. It was far from a critical success, but
remains a cult favorite.
Do you actually believe in the things you write about?
I believe them when I write about them. Whether or not I
believe them when I an not writing them is something else.
I think that a good part of me must or I couldn't do it
with any kind of conviction.
Quite a few of your stories deal with average people
beset by great difficulties, and, in essence, you are
dealing with human nature. Are you trying to be philosophical?
I don't really get philosophical, but I believe that nice
people are strong and usually in my horror stories, I don't
like to write about the old standard where some rotten guy
gets chased by a mean spirit that gets him in the end. I'd
rather write about nice people that are menaced from outside
by some sort of evil power and who sort of slug it out like
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (former
heavyweight champion boxers). And I like to think
that good people win. But even good people have other sides.
Most people will slow down to get a good look at an accident,
even though they won't admit it (I joke
that this was why I was a CHP officer). I think most
of us are fascinated by the macabre and by the weird and even
the nastiness that comes along.
Do you really end your stories or do you just stop them
at some point in time?
I've never been asked that before. Well, sometimes there is
a place where you can tie the story up with a neat twist.
And then there are other stories, like a story of mine called
Truck. You come to a place where you can end the story,
but in the back of your mind, you're convinced that there are
other things to tell but the time is not right to tie things off.
Do you think it is important to keep your readers guessing?
Yes. This is a form that has become probably less critically
popular as time has gone by. I like to end stories where the
readers have a little room to run. They can resolve things as
they like in their own mind.
Which do you like better, short stories or novels?
I like to write short stories more because I never met a writer
who wasn't lazy. And a short story is, by its very definition,
short. It is something that generally you can turn out in a week
to two weeks depending on how well it goes for you. But, at the
same time, it gives the same satisfaction of creating a complete world.
Since many of your stories deal with the supernatural, have
you ever felt in any physical or spiritual peril from such beings?
To my soul, I'm not so sure about. As far as my physical being is
concerned, so far so good. I simply think that there are things
in this world that are relics. We have unsettling remnants of
Atlantis. They have found things off Bermuda, great walls and
things of that sort. This seems to indicate that there were races
and cultures that went before us. And to me, that's an unsettling idea.
Some people say that horror stories are just cheap shots.
All you have to do is write a very simple story, put in a lot
of blood and guts, and have somebody do something nasty to someone
else; and that's it. What do you think?
It doesn't work like that. Scaring people, especially in our day
and time, is one of the hardest things on earth, as far as I am
concerned. You and I and everyone else in this world live in what
is probably the most difficult times that have ever been. We are
facing total thermonuclear destruction; and, if you can make
someone believe in a ghost or a demon or a vampire in the face
of that, you are doing well. From my own personal point of view,
I don't think just blood and guts is enough. At least, it isn't
for me. Maybe it will turn someone's stomach; but, I'm not sure
that is literature or even entertainment.
A friend once told me that she actually had to put one of
your stories down because the imagery that she had built up in
her mind "grossed her out." Would you consider that a compliment?
Yeah, I would. I'm not a purist in this field. My feeling of
the whole genre, of the terror tale, is this: The best thing
that you can do for the readers in this field is to terrify
them. That's a head reaction. It is something that is
intellectual, it happens in your mind. It is the sort of effect
that Edgar Allen Poe gets in his story, The Telltale Heart,
when he starts talking about a quick beating sound, like a
watch. There is something about that that appeals to the mind
more than anything else. The fact that this fellow is hearing
the heart, the dismembered heart under the floorboard beating
and beating, and the police are there and nobody can hear it
but him. It goes on and on and it gets louder and louder.
And then there is horror, that's the next step on the ladder.
It is a physical sort of reaction. It is the reaction you have
to the idea that a machine could literally, physically come
alive and want to suck people in and grind them up. That is a
horrible thought. And then you finally get down to the literal,
physical "gross out," which is probably the basest human emotion
that we know. But still, it is valid and we have a need for
it. If I can't get terror, and I can't get horror, I'll be happy
with a "gross out."
Do you enjoy reading other people's horror stories?
Oh, yes. There are a lot of people in the field that I do read.
There is a lot of stuff that is written in this field, though,
that is not very good. You just have to look for the good stuff.
Which is harder to write, a story that appeals to the
intellect or one that hits you at the gut level?
I think it is harder to write a story that appeals to the
intellect. But, when you tie onto one, you can do it quite
deeply. It really depends on the type of idea you have to begin with.
You have written several stories about rats. Do you have a
certain fascination with them?
I write about things that scare me. I've never written a snake
story in my life. I rwad a good one called Mountain King
awhile back; but, I myself have never written a story about snakes
because they don't scare me. I write about rats because they
scare the hell out of me. I think we tend to write out our phobias.
Have you had a subject that you have wanted to write about
but have never been able to do it?
Spiders! I want to write about spiders. To me, this is the one
theme that cuts right across and scares just about everybody.
Spiders, to me, are just about the most horrible, awful things
that I can think about. I think everyone is afraid of spiders.
I have also wanted to write a really good elevator story about
the fear of heights. A stuck-in-the-elevator story can combine
a fear of heights and also claustrophobia.
With the tremendous explosion of technological advances,
do you see a time when fact will far surpass any kind of fiction
you can conceive?
Yes. I think we are getting into that situation now. One of the
examples I use is abortion on demand. The Supreme Court has said
that abortion on demand is legal up until the third month of term.
Which means for the first twelve or fourteen weeks of a woman's
pregnancy, she can abort her fetus. That is her determination.
The Supreme Court has said that that is not a human being with
its own right to life. The problem is this, we're approaching a
point where a fetus of three months, two months or even one month
can be kept alive. Which is to say that you have to question
the mother's ability to say, "It's my property; it's a part of
me. It isn't a living thing on its own." Science is beginning
to encroach on every level of our volition. And to me, that is
a frightening social concept. It doesn't have anything to do
with the right to have an abortion verses the right to life.
It has to do with the ability of science to keep things alive
and the ability of science to really control our lives.
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