King on King
Fra Mette Weisberg: Stephen King's American Nightmare, An Introduction, Forlaget lee, 1991 (pages 20 -21 )
The following section, King on King, consists of excerpts taken primarily from Stephen King's Danse Macabre (1981) and from Eric Norden's interview with King in Playboy, June 1983. The rest is from various interviews in Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller's collection of interviews Bare Bones (1988)].
Why Do You Write That Stuff?
KING: People also ask, "Why do you write that stuff?" That's one that always comes up. The first reason is because I'm warped, of course. A lot of people are afraid to say that, but I'm not. I have a friend named Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel Psycho, on which Hitchcock's film was based, and he would always say in answer to that question, "Actually, I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk."
Another reason that I've always written horror is because it's a kind of psychological protection. It's like drawing a magic circle around myself and my family. My mother always used to say, 'If you think the worst, it can't come true." I know that's only a superstition, but I've always believed that if you think the very worst, then, no matter how bad things get (and in my heart I've always been convinced that they can get pretty bad), they'll never get as bad as that. If you write a novel where the bogeyman gets somebody else's children, maybe they'll never get your own children (...)
The other thing is, I really like to scare people. I really enjoy that... The trick is to be able to get the reader's confidence. I'm not really interested in killing somebody in the first paragraph of a novel. I want to be your friend. I want to come up to you and put my arm around you and say, 'Hey, you want to see something? It's great! Wait till you see it! You'll really like this thing." Then I get them really interested and lead 5 them up the street and take 'em around the corner and into the alley where there's this awful thing, and keep them there until they're screaming! It's just fun. I know how sadistic that must sound, but you have to tell the truth.
PLAYBOY. Are you afraid of writer's block?
KING: Yes, it's one of my greatest fears. You know, earlier, we were discussing my childhood fear of death, but that's something with which
I've pretty much come to terms (...) On the other hand, the one thing I cannot comprehend or come to terms with is just drying up as a writer.
Writing is necessary for my sanity. As a writer, I can externalize my fears and insecurities and night terrors on paper, which is what people pay shrinks a small fortune to do. In my case, they pay me for psychoanalyzing myself in print. And in the process, I'm able to "Write myself sane," as that fine poet Anne Sexton put it. It's an old technique of therapists, you know: get the patient to write out his demons. A Freudian exorcism. But all the violent energies I have - and there are a lot of them-I can vomit out onto paper. All the rage and hate and frustration, all that's dangerous and sick and foul within me, I'm able to spew into my work. There are guys in padded cells all around the world who aren't so lucky.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever censored your own work because something was just too disgusting to publish?
KING: No. If I can get it down on paper without puking all over the word processor, then as far as I'm concerned, it's fit to see the light of day. I thought I'd made it dear that I'm not squeamish. I have no illusion about the horror genre, remember. It may be perfectly true that we're expanding the borders of wonder and nurturing a sense of awe about the mysteries of the universe and all that bullshit. But despite all the talk you'll hear from writers in this genre about horror's providing a socially and psychologically useful catharsis for people's fears and aggressions, the brutal fact of the matter is that we're still in the business of selling public executions.
Anyway, though I wouldn't censor myself, I was censored once. In the first draft of 'Salem's Lot. I had a scene in which Jimmy Cody, the local doctor, is devoured in a boarding house basement by a horde of rats summoned from the town dump by the leader of the vampires. They swarm all over him like a writhing, furry carpet, biting and clawing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companion upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms there as it gnaws out his tongue. I loved the scene, but my editor made it dear that no way would Doubleday publish something like that, and I came around eventually and impaled poor Jimmy on knives. But, shit, it just wasn't the same.
Fra Mette Weisberg: Stephen King's American Nightmare, An Introduction, Forlaget lee, 1991 (pages 24 - 33)
(Stephen King in Danse Macabre): My idea of growing up is that the process consists mainly of developing a good case of mental tunnel vision and a gradual ossification of the imaginative faculty. (...)Children see everything, consider everything; the typical expression of the baby which is full, dry, and awake is a wide-eyed goggle at everything. Hello, pleased to meet you, freaked to be here. A child has not yet developed the obsessional behavior patterns which we approvingly call "good work habits." He or she has not yet internalized the idea that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.
All of that comes later. Children believe in Santa Claus. It's no big deal; just a piece of stored information. They likewise believe in the boogeyman, the Trix Rabbit, McDonaldland (where hamburgers grow on trees and moderate thievery is approved behavior-witness the lovable Hamburgiar), the Tooth Fairy who takes ivory and leaves silver... all of these things are taken as a matter of course. These are some of the popular myths; there are others, which, while more specialized, seem just as outré. Grampa has gone to live with the angels. The stuff in the middle of the golf ball is the worst poison in the world. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. If you walk through holly bushes, your shadow can get caught and it will be left there forever, flapping on the sharp leaves.
The changes come gradually, as logic and rationalism assert themselves. The child begins to wonder how Santa can be at the Value House, on a downtown corner ringing a bell over a Salvation Army pot, and up at the North Pole generaling his troop of elves all at the same time. The child maybe realizes that although he's stepped on a hell of a lot of cracks, his or her mother's back is yet all right. Age begins to settle into that child's face. 'Don't be a baby!" he or she is told impatiently. 'Your head is always in the clouds!" And the kicker, of course: "Aren't you ever going to grow up?"(...)
Kids are bent. They think around corners. But starting at roughly age eight, when childhood's second great era begins, the kinks begin to straighten out, one by one. The boundaries of thought and vision begin to close down to a tunnel as we gear up to get along (...)
The imagination is an eye, a marvelous third eye that floats free. As children, that eye sees with 20/20 clarity. As we grow older, its vision begins to .... and one day the guy at the door lets you into the bar without asking to see any ID and that's it for you, Cholly.
The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of that tunnel vision wide for a little while; to provide a single powerful spectacle for that third eye. The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, for a little while, a child again.
( ... )
Q: In 'Salem's Lot the teacher had a heart attack, and the kid went to sleep in ten minutes. It seemed like your were saying something about the qualities of childhood.
KING: (...)We understand what we understand by comparison and contrast. If we say Mark Petrie goes to sleep ten minutes after repulsing a vampire, while the teacher, Matt Burke, has a heart attack, then we're saying something about the ability to assimilate reality. It suggests something about the tunnel of perception that we see things in. If kids have wider tunnels of perception, well, then, why is that, and what happens to narrow it as we grow up, to make the strange and unusual so hard to take?
What is it about kids that they can look at the most outrageous thing and just see it and, unless there's a reaction they can play off, just deal with it? If a kid sees a guy that's dead in the street, who's been hit by a car, if he's by himself he'll just look at the dead guy and then maybe run off to find somebody - after he's had a good look to see what it was like. But if a lot of people are standing around crying, then the kid will cry too, because he's got a mirror reaction. Kids by themselves sort of interest me that way; they seem to me to be the place where you should start to explore wherever people come from.
( ... )
There's a story in Danse Macabre - it's Bing Crosby's story. When his kids were little, one of them had a pet turtle that died. The kid was just heartbroken. Bing said, "Well, let's have a funeral, and I'll sing a song for the turtle."
The kid didn't seem to be too comforted, but they painted a box black and put in aluminum foil with a little piece of satin over that. They put the turtle in the box in the hole, and Bing sang a song and the kid gave a little talk.
The kid's eyes were just sparkling with excitement, and Bing said, 'before we bury it, would you like to have one last look at your pet turtle?" The kid said yes, so they opened the box and the turtle started to move around.
The kid looked at Bing and said, 'Let's kill it."
( ... )
Q: 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. (...)If you don't have kids, a lot of things they experience, you never have a chance to reexperience: 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.
Q: 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. (...)
Little kids' minds are very, very strong. They bend. There's a lot of tensile strength and they don't break. We start kids off on things like 'Hansel and Gretel," which features child abandonment, kidnapping, attempted murder, forcible detention, cannibalism, and finally murder by cremation. And the kids love it.
Q: 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 $50,OOO or $60,OOO. Daddy loses his job, and the wicked stepmother says, "We could get along, we could keep our Master-Card, 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 your back.
What Scares People?
Q: What scares people?
KING: There are big things that scare people, like dying, which is the really big casino. Most people get scared anytime you venture into taboo territory. While we've become more explicit about things like sex, we've really tightened up on death and disfigurement. Those things scare people a lot because we put such a premium on being pretty and handsome and young.
Q: With all the horror of today's society, is it harder to scare people now?
KING: No. In Creepshow there's a segment in which this guy is overwhelmed by cockroaches. The guys who handled the bugs, the 'roach wranglers," work for the Museum of Natural History in New York, and they're used to handling bugs. We had about 3,000 cockroaches, and at first the roach wranglers were pretty cool. But each day they got a little more freaked out. During filming, these bugs were living in big garbage cans and eating dog chow and bananas - a mixture that just reeked. By the end of the film, the wranglers were so scared that if you'd slapped one on the back, he'd have gone straight to heaven.
The more frightened people become about the real world, the easier they are to scare. Sociologists report that people in cities are hardened to violence. It's possible to get casual about it - to say, "Oh dear, a woman is getting beaten up. What's for dinner?" But the quantum of fear grows, and that's why horror films are so popular. People have more fears to get rid of.
Q: What's the greatest horror that you think high school kids face today?
KING: Not being able to interact, to get along and establish lines of communication. It's the fear I had, the fear of not being able to make friends, the fear of being afraid and not being able to tell anyone you're afraid. The feelings of inadequacy and of not having anybody to turn ~ teacher, a counselor, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, the guy at the next locker - and say, "1'm afraid I can't make it on this level," whether you mean getting a date for the prom or passing Algebra II. There's a constant fear that I am alone. Mentally, you feel you're running a fever. That's when people need a close relationship, especially outside the family. Inside the family things are often very tense: people say little more than "')lease pass the butter" or "Give me the rolls." And all the time kids are deathly afraid that they won't be able to get along.
( ... )
Q: What about machines? Do they hold some fascination for you?
KING: I'm scared by machines. Machines frighten me because I don't know how they work in a lot of cases. And I'm fascinated by them because they do so much of my work. I was the kind of kid who had a bad year when I was four because I couldn't figure out if that light in the refrigerator was still on when the door was shut. I had to get that into my head.
Machines frighten me, and of course on a turnpike you get one of those ten-wheelers in front of you, and one behind you, and one that's going by in the passing lane, and you say your rosary. They look big and you can't see who's in them. I'm always convinced that the flatbed trucks, the big ones that have these tarpaulins over whatever's on the back of them could be alien communicators or disruptors. For a long time I've been curious whether or not there are outbreaks of violence wherever a lot of these things are seen, because maybe aliens turn these things on and make people ~
Machines make me nervous. They just make me nervous. Because I live in a world that's surrounded by them. It's impossible to get away from them.
( ... )
Q: What do you think is the cause for the present fascination with both the science fiction and horror mediums?
KING: We live in a science fiction world and we live in a world that's full of horrible implications. We now have a disease called AIDS that causes a total immunological breakdown. It's a blood disease that sounds like something out of The Stand. A lot of people retreat into fantasy worlds because the real world is kind of a gruesome place.
People pick up 'Salem's Lot and read about vampires. Vampires seem optimistic compared to Ronald Reagan, who is our American version of a vampire, of the living dead. I mean Reagan's real, he's a real person, but vampires look good next to him because you know that you can at least dismiss the vampires when the movie's over or when you dose the book.
( ... )
Q: Is "the end" oblivion - something you've personally come to terms with?
KING: I think that this idea about the end of the world is very liberating. It was for me, and I think most people feel the same way. It's the end of all the shit, and you don't have to be afraid anymore, because the worst has already happened.
Q: That makes horror an escape mechanism to sublimate our primal fear.
KING: I think that's very true.
Q: Then why does this generation seem obsessed with terrifying itself? KING: We're the first generation to have grown up completely in the shadow of the atomic bomb. It seems to me that we are the first generation forced to live almost entirely without romance and forced to find some kind of supernatural outlet for the romantic impulses that are in all of us. This is really sad in a way. Everybody goes out to horror movies, reads horror novels - and it's almost as though we're trying to preview the end.
Q: You're saying our ultimate attraction to horror stems from a creeping paranoia?
KING: I think we are more paranoid, but I don't think that's necessarily an outgrowth of the bomb. I think we have a pretty good reason to be paranoid because of the information flow. More information washes over us than washed over any other generation in history - except for the generation we're raising. In college I became aware that a lot of people are paranoid, and I used to think: "Jesus Christ theyre all crazy!" And then the thing about Nixon came out; the man was making tapes in his goddamned office. We find out that Agnew was apparently taking bribes right in the vice-presidential mansion-money being passed across the desk. Jimmy Hoffa is inhabiting a bridge pylon somewhere in New Jersey. And then you say, "Well, we really do need to be paranoid." This flow of information-it makes you very nervous about everything.
Q: Is there a fine line where horror and reality become indistinguishable? KING: Yes. It's when I'm sitting there with the TV on, reading a book or putting something together, and this voice will say, "We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin from CBS News." My pulse rate immediately doubles or triples. Whatever I'm doing is completely forgotten, and I wait to see if Walter Cronkite is going to come on and say, "Well, DEW line reports nuclear ICBMs over the North Pole. Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye."
Q: Isn't that carrying it to extremes?
KING: Yes, it is. But even so, you think of the times that didn't happen, when you got some other piece of news: when that bulletin came on that Robert Kennedy had been killed in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King had been assassinated, the president shot in Dallas. It changed everything.
( ... )
Q: You once mentioned that you write about people caught in a crunch. KING: I'm interested in what people do when they can't get out of a
situation, particularly when the whole thing seems to slip out of control. I maintain that my novels, taken together, form an allegory for a nation that feels it's in a crunch and things are out of control. We're in that situation flow, in terms of our world posture and the economy and oil. How do we cope? What do we do?
Why Do We Need Horror?
(Stephen King in Danse Macabre): Horror in real life is an emotion that one grapples with-as I grappled with the realization that the Russians had beaten us into space - all alone. It is a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart.
I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more nor less than a necessary illusion-but at least the feelings which we think of as "positive" and "constructive" are a reaching-out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication. Feelings of love and kindness, the ability to care and empathize, are all we know of the light. They are efforts to link and integrate; they are the emotions which brings us together, if not in fact then at least in a comforting illusion that makes the burden of mortality a little easier to bear.
Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone. It is paradoxical that feelings and emotions we associate with the "mob instinct" should do this, but crowds are lonely places to be, we're told, a fellowship with no love in it. The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and dis-integration... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again. Ask any psychiatrist what his patient is doing when he lies there on the couch and talks about what keeps him awake and what he sees in his dreams. What do you see when you turn out the light? the Beatles asked; their answer: I can't tell you, but I know that it's mine.
The genre we're talking about, whether it be in terms of books, film, or TV, is really all one: make-believe horrors. And one of the questions that frequently comes up, asked by people who have grasped the paradox (but perhaps not fully articulated it in their own minds) is: Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are 50 divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools - to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is as old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather too glibly by some practitioners in my field to justify what they do, but it still has its limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing... and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes become a nationwide analyst's couch.
KING: Horror fiction is really as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit. The story is always the same in terms of its development. There's an incursion into taboo lands, there's a place where you shouldn't go, but you do, the same way that your mother would tell you that the freak tent is a place you shouldn't go, but you do. And the same thing happens inside: you look at the guy with three eyes, or you look at the fat lady, or you look at the skeleton man or Mr. Electrical or whoever it happens to be. And when you come out, well, you say, "Hey, I'm not so bad. Im all right. A lot better than I thought." It has that effect of reconfirming values, of reconfirming self-image and our good feelings about ourselves. Of course, much of the movie audience, much of the impact audience, are teenagers who don't feel good about themselves a lot of the time, who feel confused, who look in the mirror and instead of seeing somebody who's perhaps better than they really are (which we tend to do as we get older, I think), they see somebody who's much, much worse. They think, "How can I go to school? I look awful. I've got zits on my face. I'm ugly. I don't have any friends. Nobody likes me." 50 for them, the horror movie or the horror story has a reconfirming value, where they can see themselves again in a valuable way, as part of the mainstream, part of what we call the norm. They feel better about themselves, and for that reason the experience is probably valuable. It's also reactionary, it resists any kind of change. In these movies things should never change. Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester are never allowed to get married because, well, think of the kids. You wouldn't want them on your street. So they always end up getting burned to death or they end up going around and around on a windmill, or something terrible happens to them. An electrocution, anything, just get rid of them.
Last reason for reading horror: it's a rehearsal for death. It's a way to get ready. People say there's nothing sure but death and taxes. But that's not really true. There's really only death, you know. Death is the biggie.
(...) The horror story or the horror movie is a little bit like the amusement park ride. When there's a double bill at the drive-in, it turns into an amusement park for teenagers - and sometimes the amusement is not always on the screen. (...)Teenagers feel healthy and they can cope with, let's say, the rides in the amusement park that mimic violent death, things like the parachute drop where you get to experience your own plane crash, the bumper cars where you get to have a harmless head-on collision, and 50 on.
The same thing is true of the horror movie. You very rarely see old
people on their golden-agers passes lurching out of theaters playing Zombie and I Eat Your Skin, because they don't need that experience. They know. They don't need to rehearse death. They've seen their friends go (...) and they don't need to rehearse it because it's there. The rest of us sometimes do.
(Stephen King in Danse Macabre): The horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized... and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For these reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films. For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of them-Dawn of the Dead, for instance - as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.
Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here. It was Lennon and MCcartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that. As long as you keep the gators fed (...).
Here is the final truth of horror movies: They do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity but by dwelling on deformity, they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. They are the barber's leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but ....... for a little while, anyway.
The horror movie asks you if you want to take a good dose look at the dead cat (or the shape under the sheet, to use a metaphor from the introduction to my short story collection)... but not as an adult would look at it. Never mind the philosophical implications of death or the religious possibilities inherent in the idea of survival; the horror film suggests we just have a good dose look at the physical artifact of death. Let us be children masquerading as pathologists. We will, perhaps, link hands like children in a circle, and sing the song we all know in our hearts: time is short, no one is really okay, life is quick and dead is dead.
Omega, the horror film. sings in those children's voices. Here is the end. Yet the ultimate subtext that underlies all good horror films is, But not yet. Not this time. Because in the final sense, the horror movie is the celebration of those who feel they can examine death because it does not yet live in their own hearts.