Stephen King, 69, has sold more than 350 million books, and tries not to apologise for being working-class, or imaginative, or rich. The snobbery has ebbed a little, though; in 2003 he won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and now the BFI is screening a series of adaptations of his novels, which show how versatile he is. Why can’t you write stories like Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a woman asked him once. I did write it, he told her, but she did not believe him.
King has published 59 novels, but he is a recovering addict and can’t remember writing them all. Most of Cujo (1981), a story about a rabid dog and adultery, is news to him. Tabitha, his wife of 46 years, would sometimes find him asleep on a keyboard dotted with vomit, or blood, with cotton swabs stuck up his nose. ‘All that’s dangerous and sick and foul within me I’m able to spew into my work,’ he says. Or, as his grandfather said, ‘When Stephen opens his mouth all his guts fall out.’ As an adult, King treated that observation as a bet.
He says he fears insanity and that when he writes his nightmares stop. In his memoir On Writing (1999) he wonders if he might have become a mass murderer without fiction. I find this hard to believe but perhaps I am thinking of an older, slightly happier King, living calmly in a parody ‘monster mansion’ in Maine, New England. He didn’t even leave his wife when he became a multi-millionaire. I don’t think he would eat any heart but his own.
His father was a travelling salesman, who disappeared when Stephen was two: he went out to buy cigarettes and never returned.