KNOWING STEPHEN KING
It's difficult to explain what I do.
I don't get too complicated. I try to tell people I write about horror and horror writers, that I review horror books and interview people who write horror. Sometimes a tiny glint of perception gleams in an otherwise befuddled gaze. With the weight of complete incomprehension suddenly lifted from a shadowed mien the phrase containing the Two High Holy and Magic Words of Public Perception of Horror is invariably uttered: "Ah!" they say, "Do you know Stephen King?"
Well, no. I don't, I answer truthfully, and try to at least mention, hey, I know Peter Straub and, uh...but the glimmer is gone. The moment has passed. I am reduced back to just being someone who claims, perhaps falsely, to do somethingerother with that creepy horror stuff, but since I don't even know Stephen King, well, what does it matter anyway?
I understand. Really. Stephen King totally dominates the public's perception of who a horror writer is and what horror is. And why not? He is undoubtedly one of the most widely read writers in the history of literature --not just the best known horror writer in the world, but one of the best known writers the world has ever known.
And we horror types are grateful to him. For better or worse (and there is considerable debate about it), it is the popularity of Stephen King that established horror as the marketing niche it is today. King helped fuel the fabled boom of the eighties and it wasn't his fault the boom went bust. He is respected: he is a fine, amazingly prolific writer dedicated to his craft, perhaps a genius, and, from all reports, he is an all around wonderful, generous human being as well. He even plays some pretty good garage band level rock and roll guitar when he performs for charity with the Rockbottom Remainders. (My friend, the writer Tananarive Due, can testify to that. She's played in the band and sang backup. I know Tananarive, she's met Stephen King -- does this count?)
But, no, I don't know Stephen King. I don't even know him in the way that people like Doug Winter, who wrote the seminal Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, says you can know King: By reading all of King's writings and thus getting a summation of the man and his personal world view. (Doug Winter knows Stephen King. I know Winter...) I've read King, I have an appreciation, but have nowhere near either a scholar's or avid fan's knowledge.
And, as yet, I've never even interviewed King via email, in person, or on the phone like ace interviewer Stanley Wiater often does. Stanley even goes up to Bangor to hang out with Stephen King occasionally. (Hey, I know Stan!)
Look, I talked to King's secretary once. I have his fax number! But, let's face it, by no definition we can come up with, no stretch of the imagination can we possibly say I know Stephen King.
But, I do know this -- and so does Stephen King because he has said as much in interviews -- people who read Stephen King are not, in particular, horror readers. A great many of them read nothing close to the gothic other than King. They read "Stephen King," not "horror." Horror readers often read Stephen King, Stephen King often (I understand from people I know who know...oh never mind...) reads horror. But the vast majority of SK-readers never read other horror.
So that, really, explains a great deal of what I do: I'm one of the people who is ever-ready to present you with alternatives to Stephen King in case you are so inclined. Maybe even convince you there's more out there to read than all those books by the admittedly remarkable Mr. King. That's why you find me reviewing books written by people other than Stephen King, interviewing authors other than Stephen King, and, generally, writing about almost everything and anybody in the world of horror EXCEPT Stephen King. I mean really, he's done quite well for a very long time without me. Whereas other good horror writers -- some of whom Stephen King has said he enjoys -- can probably use whatever attention they can get.
I think, if I ever do get to chat with Stephen King, that we can probably have a fine time talking maybe about baseball, motorcycles, rock and roll, books, kids, and other horror writers. We might talk about just about anything...except Stephen King.
Maybe he can help me figure out what to tell people when they ask me what I do. Or maybe just knowing Stephen King will be an answer to it all.