"Stu Redman, who was perhaps the quietest man in Arnette, was sitting in one of the cracked plastic Woolco chairs, a can of Pabst in his hand, looking out the big service station window at 93. Stu knew about poor. He had grown up that way right here in town, the son of a dentist who had died when Stu was seven, leaving hiswife and two other children besides Stu.
"His mother had gotten work at the Redball Truck Stop just outside of Arnette--Stu could have seen it from where he sat right now if it hadn't burned down in 1969. It had been enough to keep the four of them eating, but that was all. At the age of nine, Stu had gone to work, first for Rog Tucker, who owned the Red Ball, helping to unload trucks after school for thirty-five cents and hour, and then at the stockyards in the neighboring town of Braintree, lying about his age to get twenty backbreaking hours of labor a week at the minimum wage.
"Now, listening to Hap and Vic Palfrey argue on about money and the mysterious way it had of drying up, he thought about the way his hands had bled at first from the endless handtrucks of hides and guts. He had tried to keep that from his mother, but she had seen, less than a week after he started. She wept over them a little, and she hadn't been a woman who wept easily. But she hadn't asked him to quit the job. She knew what the situation was. She was a realist."
The first time I met Steve was at a party during a library convention in San Francisco. Pocket Books threw the bash to celebrate their "Timescape" science fiction line, now gone the way of the dodo and $2.95 paperbacks. I was talking to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, who, if you've met her, you'll know is not what we commonly refer to as a "tall" person. Fun, witty, no doubt kind to small animals. Not tall.
A tall guy walked up to us wearing a white silk shirt. He enveloped Quinn in a big hug--one of those tall guy bent over, not-so-tall woman reaching up things. Heartfelt. Then she introduced me to King. We retired to the bar where, quickly deducing my interest in comic books, he told me all about Creepshow and how cool it was to work with Bernie Wrightson. All these years later, I haven't yet had the chance to work with Bernie, so I can still only imagine that Steve was right. Cool indeed.
The next time we ran into each other was at a World Fantasy Convention in New Haven, during which Creepshow, the movie, premiered. I went, and Steve was in the audience watching his own film and the reactions of the crowd. Which loved it, for the most part. I haven't seen it in years, and maybe it's just a mediocre movie, but this was a biased group, remember. Anyway, Steve inspires that kind of loyalty among his fans, partly because he is so clearly one of us. Not a fan of his own work, necessarily (although he probably is) but a fan of the sort of thing that he does so well, and the stuff surrounding it. It doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine him watching horror movies and building those old Aurora monster model kits and flipping enthusiastically through copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland on a friend's bedroom floor.
As in the passage quoted above, in which King shows us how he can make a character seem real with only a few well chosen sentences, we get the sense that King is real, too. I think that's one of the reasons for his enduring popularity. Just one or many, although a big one. Because he is of us, he can describe us, talk about us to ourselves. He's an American literary treasure, and that's why.
"When the scratching started, Howard Mitla was sitting alone in the Queens apartment where he lived with his wife. Howard was one of New York's lesser-known certified public accountants. Violet Mitla, one of New York's lesser-known dental assistants, had waited until the news was over before going down to the store on the corner to get a pint of ice cream. Jeopardy was on after the news, and she didn't care for that show. She said it was because Alex Trebek looked like a crooked evangelist, but Howard knew the truth: Jeopardy made her feel dumb."
"The Moving Finger"
At yet another World Fantasy Convention, this one at the wonderful Claremont resort in Berkeley, I was sitting in the bar when Steve came in for a six-pack of beer to take up to his room. Had he tried to drink one or two in the bar, he knew, he'd have been mobbed. As it was, he was mobbed anyway--by the time he got the six and started back toward the elevator, word had spread that he was there, and a crowd had gathered. People pelted him with questions, which he gracefully answered.
About forty-five minutes passed. I left the bar for the men's room, which happens when spending too much time in bars. While I was in there, Steve came in, still lugging his warming, sweating six-pack. A fan followed him in, saying, "I just have one more question!"
"I just have to take a piss!" Steve answered.
The guy got the message and left Steve to his privacy. When I emerged a minute later, the crowd had dissipated. When Steve emerged, he headed for the elevator and his long-delayed beer.
Before he got there, though, he was waylaid again. A woman who knew him stopped him and said that she wanted to introduce him to someone. He consented, and she led him to a bench, on which sat a young blind woman. "Christine, this is Stephen King," his friend said.
"Christine?" Steve replied. "I have to tell you about this book I'm working on..."
He sat next to Christine and launched into a discussion of Christine, which was still going on when I left the area. The beer sat by his feet, completely forgotten.
To me, that's Steve. He likes a cold beer, but he likes telling stories more. Even when it's telling stories about stories he's telling. Fortunately for the reading public, he's really, really good at it. I'm sure there would be a horror genre even if there hadn't been a Stephen King. What's impossible to tell is what it would look like. He has been, for horror literature, a kind of tsunami of influence and power, and when you look at the field's real mileposts (not trends or fads, but the enduring elements) it's things like Poe and the pulp magazines and King that you see. He's also enthusiastic and generous about new writers, and a guy who has put a lot of thought into what writing is and how it works (see this Washington Post piece from a few weeks ago, for instance, or his book On Writing, which is not a nuts-and-bolts how-to guide, but a meditation/autobiography).
Although I haven't yet read it, it sounds as if Lisey's Story will offer more of the same. I'm looking forward to it. Not many writers do it better than Steve, or more successfully.
You could learn from worse.
"Most of us don't say much about those years now, not because we don't remember them but because the language which we spoke back then has been lost. When I try to talk about the sixties--when I even try to think about them--I am overcome by horror and hilarity. I see bell-bottom pants and Earth Shoes. I smell pot and patchouli, incense and peppermints. And I hear Donovan Leitch singing his sweet and stupid song about the continent of Atlantis, lyrics that still seem profound to me in the watches of the night, when I can't sleep. The older I get, the harder it is to let go of that song's stupidity and hold onto its sweetness. I have to remind myself that we were smaller then, small enough to live our brightly hued lives under the mushrooms, all the time believing them to be trees, shelter from the sheltering sky. I know that doesn't make any real sense, but it's the best I can do: hail Atlantis."
Hearts in Atlantis