Dale T. Phillips - Writer
My Teacher, Stephen King
(First Published in Parlour Papers, July/Aug 1994)
For an update on meeting him years later at his public talk at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, go here.
The University of Maine at Orono was a great place to be in the late 70’s. The turbulent activism of the 60’s had quieted down and the campus had yet to experience the horrors of the 80’s Yuppie greed and the 90’s politically correct agendas.
It was announced in my junior year that Stephen King would be returning to his alma mater to teach for a year as a writer-in-residence. He had had a few hits out and was well-known, but had yet to explode into the megastardom of later years.
It was easy to get into his literature course in horror/science fiction, but I needed his permission for the writing seminar. Off I went to his on-campus office to plead my case (and ask him to sign a few books).
Stephen King is not one of those celebrities who are told “I thought you would be taller” when people meet him for the first time. His height and his eyes are what keep him from going unnoticed. He doesn’t need capes, or fangs, or skeletons to illustrate what he does. He just looks at you (or the camera) and focuses those intense, slightly out-of-kilter eyes through thick glasses, and you get a little nervous. When he smiles, you shiver and go check the children to make sure they’re safe. He knows what effect he has and likes to ham it up a little when he’s in the mood. Nervous as I was, he soon put me at my ease and graciously consented to my requests.
The literature course was an excellent study of fiction that shaped the genre, and King provided a well-versed and enthusiastic instructor. As good as the literature course was, however, I was even happier having my writing critiqued by a writer whose work I enjoyed. King told us right from the start that we were going to write a lot, and we churned out an immense amount of work within a fairly brief time. All of this King read and commented on, and returned in short order, while keeping up with his other classes and writing his own works. This should give you some idea of why he has been so astonishingly prolific over the years.
I had never drilled so hard in writing, before or since. To produce enough work, I had to constantly think of new ideas, create new characters, and plot story after story. King was helpful without being condescending or handholding. He is not a subscriber (as are some writers) to the belief that constantly tearing apart someone’s work makes better writers. Rather, he told you in plain language when writing wasn’t working and why it wasn’t working. When you turned out something good, he was delighted and encouraged you to do more of the same. We made plenty of mistakes, but we learned a great deal. Not unsurprisingly, I wrote horror stories almost exclusively.
Why does someone choose to write horror? Because he or she has a way of looking at the world with a fascination for things macabre. A comedian looks at life and draws humor from situations; an artist may constantly seek the relationship of figures and color. The answer to the inane question ‘Where do you get your ideas?” is “All around.” A horror writer looks at a nasty machine in a laundry and imagines what it could do to human flesh. Then the idea comes of how the machine becomes alive, seeking victims to mangle. The frightening part is how easy it is to look at the world this way. Gahan Wilson turned life into funny macabre cartoons. Stephen King puts nightmares into stories.
The popularity of horror today illustrates just how many others share this same way of looking at the world. After scraping out a meager living at teaching and other odd jobs, King finally got a book published, and then another, and so on. He got very lucky and makes a good living writing whatever he wants, but he didn’t get there overnight. He hammered out dozens of stories while polishing his craft and sold them cheaply to whoever would publish them. In those days the usual buyers of horror fiction were “men’s” magazines.
Writing as he does, King makes the task look easy. Sure—just a matter of sitting down at the old Underwood (or computer terminal or Big Chief writing tablet) day after day, week after week, until the months and years roll by, spinning yarns that people want to read. Lots of people can do it, but the successful ones are those who give up that huge part of their lives to pound away at the keyboard. King has said it’s like weightlifting: if you do it properly and long enough, you’ll develop muscles. After say, 10,000 pages or so, you should be able to write something fairly decent. If not, maybe you should give up writing in favor of some other hobby, or something more rewarding.
“So what’s he like?” This is a common question from people when they hear I took classes from him. He’s very laid-back, self-deprecating, witty, and plain-spoken. He dresses comfortably and casually, with no eye to fashion, much like most of the people in Maine. He likes watching the Red Sox and popping a brewski (at least in those days) now and then. He loves the crusty old downhome sayings that abound in Maine and elsewhere, and uses them in his writings. He likes movies, especially the bad old stuff of the 1950’s, with monsters and aliens threatening our American way of life (and of course, the local teen beach party). He reads a lot—as good writers do—and can discuss horror and many other subjects with a depth and breadth of knowledge that is astounding. He has been married to the same woman for years, and has raised children. So what is it about him that attracts people’s attention?
The first is fame. When a person reaches celebrity status, people want to know what it is that makes them special, sets them apart. But more importantly is his subject matter. He revels in the stuff many people don’t want to think about. He’s the one telling the scary tale by the campfire, the one who turns over the rock and peers beneath, the one who pokes the dead animal with a stick. He is an explorer into the dark and terrifying chthonic world. He makes you face the shadowy fears of our unconscious.
The first thing I read by King was Salem’s Lot, recommended by a librarian, and to my mind, one of his best works. The vampire story was great (admittedly owing much to Dracula and Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but better for me was the dead-on rendering of small-town life in Maine. Having had that background, I felt a real connection to the setting. King created ordinary characters, made us care about them, and put them into extraordinary situations. King’s first book, Carrie, was more than a teen revenge fantasy, it was a scathing indictment of the brutality and pettiness of high school hierarchies. After that, the books came so fast it was hard to keep up with them.
Even high school kids, who read little, read Stephen King. He suffers the sin of being popular, and of having a “non-serious” genre. But his success and output continue to amaze everyone, including himself. Not bad for a writer who admits his work is the literary equivalent of junk food. He does, however, pay homage to the masters, and has now become the standard by which others are gauged.
There are many imitators riding his coattails. Most of them dispense with character, and plot, and originality, and spend their time describing various dismemberments of human forms. I once received an unsolicited tape in the mail from some of these “Grand Guignol” writers reading their works and requesting I purchase some of the same. The only horror I discovered was that someone thought this hack garbage was worth money. With cardboard characters, bad plots, developments you could see coming like a slow-moving train, and dialogue that alternated between filth and the level of a not-too-bright 12-year-old, it was repulsive. I threw it away in disgust, wondering if these people actually thought they could make a living writing this way. Is it too much to ask for a modicum of effort and imagination? Lazy writers looking for a quick buck shouldn’t get your money. Demand and seek out quality work.
The way Stephen King writes, you think that the movies made from his horror books would be blockbusters. The scenes he presents should look great on film, but many turn out to be simply embarrassing. The most awful ones have characters attempting and failing a Maine accent. They end up sounding like deranged Englishmen with a speech impediment. Most of the directors with a King horror vehicle don’t seem to know what to do with it. After watching maniacs with weapons chop up teens by the score, maybe it’s time for something different.
Stephen King’s writing has brought him fame, which has proven at times an annoyance, or worse. He used to be amused at the fan mail he received, strange as it was. Many people wanted to know where Salem’s Lot was, and insisted that it exists. Guess they wanted to sign up for the Undead Foreign Legion. King bought a house pretty far up in Maine, whimsically decorated with bat-wing gates. Hordes of fans would troop around, hoping for a glimpse (“I actually saw him MOWING HIS LAWN!”) King has found out that real loonies can get into your house and need to have the authorities take them away.
If you’re a celebrity like King, you can never relax in public. Autograph hounds will shove books in your face whether you’re trying to have a meal, watch a ball game, or even go to the bathroom. Heaven help you if you don’t smile and be charming, because the offended one will go whine to the tabloids about what a nasty person you really are. And the press is always waiting for a quick hatchet job, justified or not.
King does actually manage to be nice to people most of the time. I ran into him several years after college, and he remembered me from class. He was so well- known that he could not teach again, as he did for that one glorious year. I think back on that time, remembering the lessons, and working for the day when a book of mine is published. King has demonstrated just how far someone can go with a lot of hard work and some luck. He has also proven that success doesn’t have to spoil you, and you don’t have to step on people on the way up. In his example are lessons for us all.