The Modern Master of Horror Visits Santa Cruz, CA

By Michael Berry

The first motorcyclist is too old, his handlbar mustache too real-looking. The second to ride past seems a decade too young, and by that time, the crowd in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz is getting antsy. When the third cyclist arrives, mounted on a burgundy-and-cream Harley-Davidson with spiderweb trim, the pack of fans and journalists surges forward, jockeying for a closer look at America's premier novelist of terror.

"Must be a full moon today," says Stephen King, having reached the terminus of a 4690-mile journey from his home in Bangor, Maine.

King has been absent from the touring circuit for a decade. His books sell in the millions without his having to flog them in person. And although the Santa Cruz crowd is mostly well-behaved, there are still hints here of the less appealing aspects of American celebrityhood.

As King enters the store, a young man outfitted with buzz-cut, skateboard and tattoos yells, "Stephen King eats meat. He's a murderer!" Someone else shouts, "Misery! Misery!," a reference to the novel in which an author is kidnapped and crippled by an obsessed fan. By the curb sits a black-and-white van, its side emblazoned with "STEPHEN KING SHOT JOHN LENNON. Govt. Media Pushing Look-Alike; Chapman."

But this cross-country excursion serves a dual purpose for King. Not only is he intent upon selling "Insomnia," his latest door-stop of a novel about an elderly Mainer bedeviled by chronic sleeplessness and visions of spectral presences, but he's using his phenomenal popularity in the service of a worthy enterprise, the promotion of independent bookstores.

Although he could handily fill any Waldenbooks or Dalton's past the legal maximum capacity, King has chosen to visit ten small stores in cities outside the usual publishing publicity loop. Since October 4, he has stopped in places like Manchester Center, VT, Lexington, KY, Manhattan, KS and Sun Valley, ID. His visit in Santa Cruz is his only West Coast appearance. After tonight, the Harley gets packed in a moving van, and King flies back to Maine.

Clad in denims, tall and relatively trim for a man of forty-seven, King settles down in a corner of the store for a press conference. In a thick Down East accent, he delivers earthy one-liners and an earnest endorsement for independent bookstores.

"I came out because my career began in independent bookstores," King says. "But from about the time of 'Firestarter,' it's become more and more difficult for independent bookstores to sell my books."

According to King, the chain stores and the deep discounters, such as Costco and Price Club, have become increasingly competitive during the past fifteen years. By following a "buy narrow-stock deep" retail strategy, they offer huge savings on a few titles, while limiting the number of alternatives available to the mass audience.

"It's not right. It's bad for diversity," King says. "It's bad for American thought when American fiction is represented only by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy and Stephen King. That's not the way it's supposed to be, and it's a dangerous philosophy."

While his concern about the erosion of free speech seems unabated, King says that three weeks on the road taught him that "common goodness is a lot more common than the press gives credit for." During a snowfall in Wyoming, strangers gave him a set of thermal "hot hands" to warm his gloves and boots. On a rainy night at a Ramada Inn without adequate shelter for his bike, the desk clerk let him park the Harley in her own garage. King says he re-discovered that "people are pretty decent."

Even in support of a good cause, however, King isn't about to leave himself wide open to his adoring public. After the press conference, King retires to the staff offices, where he signs 200 copies of "Insomnia." These will be sold at cover price by lottery, and nine additional copies will be auctioned at tonight's sold-out reading/speech/q&a session at the Civic Auditorium, the proceeds of which benefit the Friends of the Santa Cruz Library.

The main event itself possesses more the atmosphere of a rock concert than that of a literary tea. "Insomnia" tee-shirts, one size fits all, are for sale in the lobby. Two thousand spectactors, mostly white and between the ages of 18 and 45, sit expectantly in folding chairs around the auditorium, attention focused on a lectern decorated with sunflowers, pumpkins and a beady-eyed raven. After a round of introductions of various civic leaders, King finally ambles onstage, and the audience whoops and rises to its feet.

"M-O-O-N," says King in the brain-damaged drawl of Tom Cullen, a character from "The Stand." "That spells, 'thank you very much.'"

When the applause subsides, King says, "I want to wish you all a Happy Halloween." He waits a beat, then, "I f-ing hate it. I've turned into America's version of the Great Pumpkin. It used to be Alfred Hitchcock, but he's dead. On Halloween Night, six thousand kids show up at my house in their little Freddie Krueger and Jason outfits." King jokes that this year he's wired the doorstep with enough voltage to turn trick-or-treaters into charcoal briquets.

For the next half hour, King charts the progress of his early career and how independent booksellers supported it through "hand-selling," recommending his work to customers in lieu of the pre-sold best-sellers everyone else was reading. In 1974, "Carrie" had an initial hardcover printing of 2500 copies and sold for $5.95. Two years later,"Salem's Lot" did better, selling 15,000 copies and paving the way for "The Shining," his first genuine best-seller with 44,000. By the time of "The Dead Zone," which went to the Number One slot on the New York Times list and sold 440,000 copies, the independent bookstores were ready to reap what they had sown, ordering enough copies to satisfy the pent-up demand and catching the chainstores off-guard. King says this was the last time in his career that happened. Each time King mentions a specific work, he is interrupted by a spontaneous burst of loud applause. "This is so weird," he mutters. Later, he says, "I'll just say book titles and you can clap. If this is Monday, I'd like to see you guys on Friday."

His speech finished, King moves on to a reading from "Insomnia." He chooses a chapter in which the elderly protagonist and his girlfriend explore the villain's underground lair. Speaking the words of a seventy-year-old confronting a subterranean horror, King is in his element, and the audience listens raptly to his performance.

The reading over, it's time for one-on-one interaction with the fans. The house lights come up and two dozen or so brave souls make their ways to the microphones at the front of the hall. A few have little more to say than "I love all your books" or "I'm your number one fan," but some arrive armed with questions that display a measure of forethought.

Right away, someone wants to know when the long-anticipated fourth volume of the "Dark Tower" series will appear. King says, "I'm going to sit down next summer or fall and do four more books in the cycle, starting with one called 'Wizard and Glass.' I'll write them all, publish them all. You can read them if you want to, and you won't have that to bitch about anymore."

Also on the slate are a new novel called "Rose Madder" ("I can give you a sneak preview and tell you what it's about. It's about 450 pages long."), a television miniseries based on the novella "The Langoliers," and a film version of "Dolores Claiborne," starring Kathy Bates.

A woman wants to know whether King's dreams ever influence his writing. He replies that the central situation of "Gerald's Game," that of a woman handcuffed alone to a bed, came to him while napping aboard an airplane. What didn't appear with the dream was the way to get her out of them. It took an at-home experiment with his son Joe to prove that someone shackled to a four-poster could not actually lift her feet over her head, push off against the wall, move the bed a sufficient distance to drop over the other side without shattering her wrists and going into convulsions.

The last interlocutor of the evening comments on King's fondness for planting not-so-subtle cross-references in his various novels. He admits to a particular fondness for resurrecting Randall Flagg, the apocalyptic antagonist of "The Stand, who also appears in "The Eye of the Dragon" and at the end of "The Waste Lands."

"I think he personifies a brand of evil we see a lot of in modern society," King says. "He's the guy who always laughs as he does it, and he's out there."

King grins maniacally. "And on that note, I want to remind you to check your backseat before you drive away."

With that, he sends his cheering fans into the dark, October night.

(c) 1994 by Michael Berry