When Stephen King Was King
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Stephen King 1980 (c) SeacoastNH.comLITERARY LIONS

According to the New York Times, Stephen King’s son lives in New Hampshire. That was no news here in the Seacoast, where people know how to keep a secret. At 34, with his first novel in print, Joe Hill is the same age his father was at the height of his game. But his dad is tough ax to follow.




Didn’t that Maine guy used to be Joe Hill’s dad?

One of my favorite places in the world used to be locked inside a Stephen King horror story, unable to escape until the final page. You’ve been there, I’m sure. When I took this photo of King on Ogunquit Beach in the summer of 1980, for my money, his best work was behind him. At the rate of one blockbuster book per year he had completed Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, the Night Shift stories, The Stand, The Dead zone and Firestarter. There was one good book left, a collection of novellas called Different Seasons from which came King’s best movie, Stand by Me, plus film adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil.

From that moment on, although I struggled through at least a dozen more of Stephen King’s next five dozen books, I never had another satisfying experience. Hardcore readers will argue themselves blue over the merits of King’s later works. That’s what groupies are for. But from the arrival of Pet Cemetery, this reader was jilted.

To this day I can’t say which of us failed the other. I blame King for taking the easy way out with killer dogs, killer cars, killer clowns. By 1980 King was already in bed with zombie-cannibal filmmaker George Romeros. (Their film Creepshow arrived two years later.) But it’s hard to blame a writer for copping out, when he defines his own work as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries". It had been for me, a brilliant steak dinner, like the best of HG Wells, Isaac Asimov or Jules Verne.

Perhaps it was my fault for loving too hard. In the photograph King is holding a record album in one hand. I don’t recall what it was, but it was a present from me. I heard on the radio that King was going to show up in Maine and that he loved a certain rock band, so I pulled into a mall, bought him a record and drove there in my battered Volkswagen bug. Or maybe it was my battered Chevy Nova, memory fails. I managed to ask King a couple of questions and squeeze out a story for the local newspaper. It was pretty pitiful stuff. "What are you doing next?" I asked. Duh. I wrote King a letter and he wrote back. Then suddenly, like a lopped off human head flushed down the toilet, the magic was gone.


JOE HILL'S DAD IN 1980 (continued)

STephen King in 1980 (c) J. Dennis Robinson / SeacoastNH.com

I blame it mostly on success. The richer and more famous my favorite author became, the less he seemed to care. The ideas went stale. The endings disappeared entirely. It was as if the millionaire author was on drugs, which apparently he was. New England’s best storyteller was just cranking it out, and worse, his readers were sucking it up. In retrospect, we should have done something. Like that woman played by Kathy Bates in the film version of Misery, we should have locked our hero up and let him catch his breath, regroup, start over, find his chi. Maybe if we had stopped buying millions of books or stayed away from all the bad movies, maybe we could have saved him, and he could have saved us, in return, from Dean Koontz and all the wannabee horror writers who followed.

This whole sordid affair came back to me the other day like a body that won’t stay buried. I was reading about Stephen King’s son who was "outed" recently in the New York Sunday Times. Joe Hill, aka Joe King, as you certainly know by now, lives right here in Seacoast, New Hampshire, along with Dan Brown and the rest of us great writers. I knew that secret years ago when one of his neighbors whispered it. He’s supposed to be a nice guy and nice guys have the right to live in peace and quiet. Now Joe Hill is a horror writer too, or at least he’s finally getting a book published after years of failed attempts.

I wish Joe Hill luck with his novel Heart Shaped Box. He is today about the age his father was in 1980. I would not want to be in his shoes. His dad is a tough ax to follow. But my own horror novel days are over. All I can find on TV now are hi-def rotting corpses, forensic exams, murdered children, bug-devoured bones. We can’t blame Stephen King for this any more than we can blame Poe, Shakespeare or whoever wrote Beowulf. Violence and gore have always been part of great literature – and part of the worst. One recent TV episode of Bones featured the very realistic decapitated head of a murdered woman that the detectives kept chopping up and cutting into throughout the show. I’m glad I don’t have little kids who are watching this junk. I was traumatized when Bambi’s mother died.

Funny thing is, back in 1980, it was Stephen King himself who condemned horror flicks like Friday the 13th as "immoral". "My feeling about horror," King told a group of us English teachers back then, "is that you ought to care about the people who are involved in whatever’s horrible, and they should have a fighting chance to get out."

Wise words from a great man. And I did get out. But sometimes, when the moon is full and the coyotes howl, I miss those great King novels and blood-stained days.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.