Monday, September 21, 2009

Notes For September 21st, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On September 21st, 1947, the legendary horror novelist Stephen King was born. He was born in Portland, Maine. When King was two years old, his father left the house, claiming that he was going to buy cigarettes. Instead, he walked out on the family, leaving King's mother Ruth to raise Stephen and his older brother David alone. She moved the family around several times, to several different states, before returning to live in Durham, Maine, where Ruth also cared for her ailing parents until they died.

As a young boy, Stephen King apparently witnessed the death of one of his friends, who had been struck and killed by a train. King has no memory of the incident, but that day, after he went out to play with his friend, he came home seemingly in shock and unable to speak. The King family then learned of his friend's death. Some have speculated that the roots of the dark and disturbing images in King's horror novels may lie within his repressed memory of witnessing the gruesome death of his childhood friend. King has rejected this idea.

King's interest in writing was awakened, when, as a boy, while exploring the attic with his brother, King found a collection of paperback books that had belonged to his father. The books included an anthology of stories published by Weird Tales magazine and a collection of short stories by horror master H.P. Lovecraft, whom King has credited as a major influence. By the time he started high school, King had become enamored with EC's popular line of horror comics, including Tales From The Crypt, which King later would pay tribute to in his screenplay for the original horror film Creepshow.

As a high school student, King began writing stories and contributed articles for Dave's Rag, a newspaper his brother published and printed with a mimeograph machine. He also sold copies of his stories to his classmates. King's first commercially published story, I Was A Teenage Grave Robber, was published in 1965, in a serialized format, by a fanzine called Comics Review. A revised version of the story would be published in 1966 by another fanzine, Stories Of Suspense, as In A Half-World Of Terror.

In 1966, Stephen King attended the University of Maine, where he studied English. He wrote a column for the student newspaper called Steve King's Garbage Truck and took part in a writing workshop. In order to pay for his tuition, King took odd jobs, including one at an industrial laundry that would inspire him to write his short story, The Mangler. King's first published story as a professional writer, The Glass Floor, was published in 1967 by Startling Mystery Stories.

After he graduated college in 1970, Stephen King obtained a teaching certificate, but was unable to find work as a teacher, so he continued doing odd jobs and supplemented his income by selling short stories to men's magazines such as Cavalier and Swank. (At the time, it was common for men's magazines, from high-paying markets like Playboy and Penthouse to smaller ones like Cavalier and Swank, to publish short stories as well as articles and pictorials.) Many of these early stories would appear in King's 1978 short story collection, Night Shift. In 1971, King married his college sweetheart, Tabitha Spruce, (who would go on to become a best selling novelist herself) who would bear him three children - Naomi, Joe, and Owen.

Joe Hillstrom King would become a best selling and award winning novelist, writing under the pseudonym Joe Hill - the name of the famous labor leader for whom he was named. Owen King would become a writer as well, and Naomi would become an ordained minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church.

While teaching at the Hampden Academy, Stephen King began working on his first novel while battling a drinking problem that would last a decade. After accruing numerous rejection slips for other writings, King became so discouraged that he threw an early draft of his novel in the trash. His wife rescued the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. To his surprise, Carrie was published. It told the story of Carrie White, a lonely, awkward, and unattractive teenage girl who is tormented by both her cruel classmates and her fanatically religious mother. Carrie discovers that she possesses telekinetic powers - the ability to move objects with her mind. When her classmates play a cruel joke and humiliate her at the prom, Carrie uses her powers to unleash horrific vengeance. Then she takes equally horrific revenge on her mother.

King received a $2,500 advance on the first edition hardcover publication of Carrie, which wasn't much, even then. Later, when King's agent called to tell him that the paperback rights to Carrie had been sold for $400,000 he couldn't believe it. Stunned and in shock, King later said that "The only thing I could think to do was go out and buy my wife a hair dryer." King moved his family to Southern Maine so he could be near his ailing mother, who was dying of uterine cancer. He began writing his second novel, Salem's Lot. Still in the grip of a severe drinking problem, King was drunk the day before he gave the eulogy at his mother's funeral.

Salem's Lot was published in 1975. It told the story of a small New England town infested with vampires. It would be adapted as an acclaimed TV miniseries in 1979 and remade in 2004. In 1976, the first feature film adaptation of Stephen King's works was released. Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, starred Sissy Spacek as the telekinetic teen, Piper Laurie as her demented mother, and, in early roles, William Katt as Carrie's prom date and John Travolta as the boyfriend of Carrie's archenemy. Amy Irving played Sue Snell, the remorseful classmate who befriends Carrie. The acclaim and success of the Carrie movie would make King's early career. A sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, would be released in 1999. It really had nothing to do with King's novel. It was about another teenage girl with telekinetic powers who had been sired by Carrie White's adulterous father. King's novel would be adapted as a Broadway musical in 1988 and a TV movie in 2o02.

In 1977, Stephen King would publish his third novel. This book, and the 1980 feature film adaptation of it (which King hated) would make him a household name and establish him as the master of horror. The Shining was set in Colorado, (where the King family was living while Stephen worked on the novel) and was inspired by King's visit to the Stanley Hotel, a resort hotel located near Estes Park, Colorado. The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who takes a job as winter caretaker at the huge and world famous Overlook Hotel in Colorado.

Torrance was a prep school teacher, but his alcoholism cost him his job and nearly ended his marriage. In the same year, Jack accidentally broke his son's arm and deliberately assaulted an obnoxious student while in a drunken rage. He sees his caretaker's job as a means of providing for his family and rebuilding his life. Now sober, he plans to write during his downtime. Excited to begin his new life, Jack packs up his wife Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny and moves them to the Overlook. The fact that the hotel's previous caretaker went insane and murdered his family before killing himself doesn't dissuade Jack from the taking the job.

Little Danny, however, is terrified. He possesses formidable psychic powers and senses that something bad is going to happen at the Overlook. When they arrive at the hotel, Danny meets head chef Dick Hallorann. Dick possesses the same psychic powers as Danny, which he calls "shining." He tells Danny that the horrifying images he sees can't hurt him, but warns him to stay out of room 217. (Room 217 was the room that the Kings stayed in at the Stanley Hotel) Jack Torrance uncovers information about the Overlook's past. Many murders and suicides took place in the hotel, which seems to have been haunted from the day it was built - on an Indian burial ground. Nevertheless, Jack intends to stay and do his job. As Danny struggles to deal with his horrific psychic visions, an evil presence begins to erode Jack's sanity until it possesses him completely.

In 1980, legendary film maker Stanley Kubrick directed a feature film adaptation of The Shining. The movie starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, Shelly Duvall as Wendy, Danny Lloyd as Danny, and Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann. The combination of Kubrick's tight direction, the claustrophobic cinematography, the foreboding soundtrack, and Jack Nicholson's bravura performance made it a cult classic horror film that remains hugely popular to this day. However, Stephen King hated the movie, as Kubrick's screenplay was markedly different than King's novel and changed the ending.

In 1997, The Shining was adapted as a TV miniseries. It featured a teleplay written by Stephen King himself, and solid performances by Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay as Jack and Wendy Torrance, Courtland Mead as Danny, and a wonderful Melvin Van Peebles as Dick Hallorann. The miniseries also a had great technical hook - it was filmed on location at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado - the hotel where King and his family stayed, which inspired him to write the novel. While competently directed by Mick Garris, the miniseries suffers from its low budget, bland cinematography, and the stifling censorship restrictions of the commercial TV medium. Although faithful to the novel, the miniseries lacks the atmosphere and intensity of Kubrick's movie, which is far more frightening.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Stephen King continued to write prolifically, authoring dozens of horror novels, most of which were adapted for the screen. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, King published a series of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. He did this as an experiment to answer a nagging question: Was his success an accident of fate? The Bachman novels included Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979) Roadwork (1981), and The Running Man (1982), which were early, unpublished novels written before Carrie.

After the last Bachman novel, Thinner, was published in 1984, Steve Brown, a bookstore clerk from Washington D.C., noticed many similarities between Bachman's writing style and Stephen King's. Determined to uncover the truth, Brown looked up the publisher's records in the Library of Congress and confirmed that Richard Bachman was in fact Stephen King. After his pseudonym was exposed, King issued a press release announcing the death of Richard Bachman from "cancer of the pseudonym." He would later resurrect Bachman in 1996, publishing The Regulators under Bachman's name. The novel was a companion piece to King's novel, Desperation, which was released at the same time. In 2006, King published Blaze, a rewrite of an unpublished Bachman novel that had been written in 1973. He had found the original manuscript in a trunk.

After King's pseudonym was outed, the first four Richard Bachman novels were republished in one large volume, The Bachman Books. They were also published separately. After three school shooting incidents (in 1989, 1996, and 1997) occurred, where the shooters were later found to have copies of Rage in their lockers, Stephen King pulled his first Bachman novel out of circulation. Rage, which had been first published in 1977, told the story of Charlie Decker, a mentally disturbed high school student who finally snaps.

After returning to school following a suspension for assaulting a teacher with a heavy wrench, Charlie brings a gun to class and holds his teacher and classmates hostage, forcing them to play a version of "truth or dare" where they must expose their deepest secrets and fears. The hostage situation turns into a kind of group therapy session that proves beneficial for some of the hostages. As the police surround the school, they find that they are dealing with an intelligent, cunning, and dangerous psychotic. And they are about to make a bad situation even worse.

King pulled Rage out of print because he feared that it might inspire more troubled teens to try and recreate his main character's rampage. In 2007, after troubled Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-Hui went on a shooting rampage, it was revealed that Cho's professors, as well as the university's administrators and mental health staff, were aware of Cho's disturbing writings, but did nothing about them. In an article about this, written by King for Entertainment Weekly magazine, King said that "Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing - including a short story called Cain Rose Up and the novel Rage - would have raised red flags, and I'm certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them..."

Although he is affectionately known as the "master of horror," King has occasionally ventured into other genres. In 1982, he published an anthology of novellas called Different Seasons which featured a coming of age story called The Body, later adapted as a popular movie called Stand By Me, and a moving prison drama, Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, which was filmed as the acclaimed movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Another novella, Apt Pupil, a psychological thriller, would also be filmed, but the movie omits the novella's shocking ending. King's most popular non-horror venture would prove to be his magnum opus. The Dark Tower series of novels, which began with The Gunslinger (1982), was an epic fantasy set in an alternate reality, on a parallel world similar to Earth, that is dying.

The Gunslinger opens with gunfighter Roland of Gilead chasing "the man in black," an evil sorcerer, across the desert. The land is a nightmarish, surreal wasteland reminiscent of the 19th century American Old West. Through the series of seven novels, Roland pursues his quarry while on a quest to reach the Dark Tower. The Dark Tower series is Stephen King at his best, displaying his formidable skill as a storyteller. Meticulously detailed and masterfully plotted, the Dark Tower novels are immensely popular with King fans, many of whom claim the series as their favorites of King's novels.

On June 19th, 1999, Stephen King's incredible and prolific literary career - and his life - nearly came to a sudden end. While out for his daily walk in Center Lovell, Maine, King was struck from behind by a minivan. The force of impact threw King's body some 14 feet off the road. When a Deputy Sheriff arrived on the scene, King was conscious enough to give out his emergency contact information, though he had suffered a collapsed right lung, multiple fractures of his right leg, a lacerated scalp, and a broken hip. After enduring five operations in five days, and beginning the agonies of physical therapy, King started to write again. He needed to write, if only to distract him from the pain. He resumed work on a non-fiction book, On Writing, and also during his recovery, he wrote Dreamcatcher, (2001) which would prove to be one of his most viscerally graphic horror novels. At first, he was in too much pain and discomfort to write with a computer, so he wrote longhand, with a fountain pen.

Bryan Smith, the driver who had struck Stephen King, claimed to have been distracted by his dog, but he had nearly a dozen drunk driving offenses on his record. King was outraged when the local prosecutor allowed Smith to cop a plea. In exchange for his guilty plea, Smith's driver's license was suspended for a year and he received a six-month jail sentence - which was also suspended. In a strange and scary coincidence, on September 21st, 2000 - Stephen King's 53rd birthday - Bryan Smith was found dead in his trailer at the age of 42. Although the official cause of death was listed as an accidental overdose of the prescription painkiller fentanyl, rumors began to fly that either King had Smith killed or one of the horror master's fans took revenge, and made Smith's death look like an accident.

After Smith died, King's lawyer and two others bought his minivan for $1,500 to prevent it from being auctioned off on eBay. After King smashed up the minivan with a baseball bat, he had it crushed in a junkyard.

In 2002, King announced his retirement from writing, frustrated by his injuries, which made sitting for long periods of time uncomfortable. His retirement would prove to be short-lived, as he continued to recover. However, he no longer writes at the same pace that had made him so prolific in the past. He still produces great novels. His latest, Under The Dome, is due for release on November 10th, 2009. At 1,088 pages, it's his longest novel since his 1,142 page horror epic It was published in 1986. King's 1978 classic, The Stand, originally published in an edited 823-page format, would be republished in 1990 in its original uncut version at 1,168 pages.

While literary critics haven't always been kind to Stephen King, he has proven himself as one of our greatest modern novelists, and he remains a huge and powerful influence for aspiring writers everywhere.

Quote Of The Day

"People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy... and I keep it in a jar on my desk." - Stephen King

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a rare Stephen King TV interview from 2001. In this appearance on CBS' The Early Show to promote his novel Dreamcatcher, King discusses the horrific car accident that almost ended his life. Enjoy!

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