I want to mess with your life

In a rare public appearance, the master of horror denounces censorship and crows about warping young minds

By Kate Osborne

Published October 15, 1996 10:39AM (EDT)

Stephen King, the master of the macabre, has unleashed more novels in 1996 than any other American writer. This year alone, King has three new titles out -- "Desperation," "The Regulators" (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) and the serialized "The Green Book." With 32 novels, five story collections and nine screenplays so far, he is the best-selling horror writer ever. Yet the reclusive 49-year-old writer rarely stirs from his home in Bangor, Maine to dissect his horrible fun face-to-face with ordinary people. King has lived in Bangor for almost 20 years, but it is said that except for informal talks to small groups, he has only once given a public speech.

On October 11th, however, King ventured into the limelight -- albeit a rather dim one -- at a modestly attended academic conference, which bore the lugubrious title "Reading Stephen King: Issues of Censorship, Student Choice and the Place of Popular Literature in the Canon," at King's alma mater, the University of Maine, in Orono, near Bangor.

The night of King's keynote address, a chill winter wind was sweeping down from Canada and leaves swirled to the ground as the town readied, appropriately, for Halloween. The king of carnage strode on stage, an imposing six-foot-four figure in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. "There are people out there who ate airline food to get here. I'm flattered," he said, bowing to the man who had introduced him, one of his former English professors. And he proceeded to hold forth for more than an hour, as exuberant, funny and devilish in the flesh as in print. King is obviously a man who loves his work, loves writing, and isn't in the least bit defensive about his place, or lack of same, in the "canon."

King started by promising to read an excerpt from the first draft of his latest book, part of the "Dark Tower" series. Applause erupted from the approximately 300 people in attendance, some of whom had traveled across the country for the event. Most of his speech, however, concerned censorship -- an issue he feels strongly about -- his writing and his politics. King is known in Bangor for supporting liberal causes, but it might not be a good idea to call him a "bleeding heart" -- it might recall that ghastly moment in "Desperation" when the evil cop starts to exsanguinate from every pore.

King cracked wise about life in Bangor -- "no good restaurants, but the massage parlors ..." and the peculiarities of fame. Taking his dog out once, King realized a tour bus was in front of his house, a large Victorian with a distinctive gate of wrought-iron gargoyles and spiders' webs. "There were 50 people lined up at the fence taking pictures of my dog taking a dump. That's celebrity life in Bangor."

King derided would-be censors who wrap themselves in the cloak of virtue, asserting that censorship is really about control, not so-called "family values." True family values consist of trusting your kids to judge for themselves, said King, a father of three. He acknowledged that parents should have a say, but groups that pressure for censorship should be "relegated to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's gold-plated dog-house." As for the much-ballyhooed V-chip, "if you want to put one in my remote control, you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hand."

King's own books have been banned in schools in the U.S. and Canada, though they are often a rite of passage for grade-schoolers. "What I tell the kids is, don't get mad, get even," he said. "Run, don't walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes because that is exactly what you need to know."

On his writing's popularity amongst kids, he gleefully hissed into the microphone, "I'll warp their little minds and they will stampede to me!" Readable books such as his own begin with a desire to please, not teach, he said. And he scoffed at the idea prompted by conference organizers that his books can be used to lure kids into reading literature. "If your main goal is to get them reading, why not use Soldier of Fortune or Cosmopolitan?" he said. "Or 'The Horse Whisperer,' he added mockingly, "which is impossible to read without shedding copious tears of laughter. Is that going to lead to 'The Merchant of Venice,' or 'The Mill on the Floss'? I'm happy if my books mean you leave the TV off for a whole evening," he snorted.

Moments later King pounced again on his not-so-unsuspecting audience. "I don't want to mess with your head, I want to mess with your life!" he said in a tone of exaggerated wickedness. "I want to wish you'd never started the book ... I want you to be sweating bullets. Compulsive reading is a sickness, and I've always wanted to be Typhoid Steve."

King usually writes two drafts, he said -- the first to get the story down in an emotional form, the second to add depths that satisfy his "intellectual curiosity." He said the blood imagery in "Carrie," his first hit book, can be seen as alluding to family ties, womanhood and religion. In "The Shining," he first described the dead wasps returning to sting the boy for suspense, then rewrote that part to indicate how child abuse is passed down through generations.

But King warned against over-analyzing. A sometime guitarist for the writers' band the Rock Bottom Remainders, he pointed out that you can study the lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen number until you're blue in the face, but if the song didn't have "that absolutely bitchin' E flat to G chord progression it wouldn't work."

As the evening concluded, he issued a final warning with malevolent relish. "Oh, and when you go home tonight, check under your bed... check in the back seat of the car... check in the cupboards. At every college conference there's at least one dangerous lunatic."

Kate Osborne

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