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Stephen King


  Let's talk, you and I. Let's talk about fear.

  The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside.

  It's night. Sometimes when the wind blows the way it's blowing now, we lose the

  power. But for now it's on, and so let's talk very honestly about fear. Let's

  talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness. . . and perhaps over

  the edge.

  My name is Stephen King. I am a grown man with a wife and three children. I love

  them, and I believe that the feeling is reciprocated. My job is writing, and

  it's a job I like very much. The stories - Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining

  - have been successful enough to allow me to write full-time, which is an

  agreeable thing to be able to do. At this point in my life I seem to be

  reasonably healthy. In the last year I have been able to reduce my cigarette

  habit from the unfiltered brand I had smoked since I was eighteen to a low

  nicotine and tar brand, and I still hope to be able to quit completely. My

  family and I live in a pleasant house beside a relatively unpolluted lake in

  Maine; last fall I awoke one morning and saw a deer standing on the back lawn by

  the picnic table. We have a good life.

  Still. . . let's talk about fear. We won't raise our voices and we won't scream;

  we'll talk rationally, you and I. We'll talk about the way the good fabric of

  things sometimes has a way of unravelling with shocking suddenness.

  At night, when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are

  under the blanket after the lights go out.

  I'm not a child any more but. . .I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking

  out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my

  ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing

  doesn't happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you

  will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing

  that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The

  thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also

  know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able

  to grab my ankle.

  Sometimes I speak before groups of people who are interested in writing or in

  literature, and before the question-and-answer period is over, someone always

  rises and asks this question: Why do you choose to write about such gruesome


  I usually answer this with another question: Why do you assume that I have a


  Writing is a catch-as-catch-can sort of Occupation. All of us seem to come

  equipped with filters on the floors of our minds, and all the filters having

  differing sizes and meshes. What catches in my filter may run right through

  yours. What catches in yours may pass through mine, no sweat. All of us seem to

  have a built-in obligation to sift through the sludge that gets caught in our

  respective mind-filters, and what we find there usually develops into some sort

  of sideline. The accountant may also be a photographer. The astronomer may

  collect coins. The schoolteacher may do gravestone rubbings in charcoal. The

  sludge caught in the mind's filter, the stuff that refuses to go through,

  frequently becomes each person's private obsession. In civilized society we have

  an unspoken agreement to call our obsessions 'hobbies.'

  Sometimes the hobby can become a full-time job. The accountant may discover that

  he can make enough money to support his family taking pictures; the

  schoolteacher may become enough of an expert on grave rubbings to go on the

  lecture circuit. And there are some professions which begin as hobbies and

  remain hobbies even after the practitioner is able to earn his living by

  pursuing his hobby; but because 'hobby' is such a bumpy, comon-sounding little

  word, we also have an unspoken agreement that we will call our professional

  hobbies 'the arts.'

  Painting. Sculpture. Composing. Singing. Acting. The playing of a musical

  instrument. Writing. Enough books have been written on these seven subjects

  alone to sink a fleet of luxury liners. And the only thing we seem to be able to

  agree upon about them is this: that those who practise these arts honestly would

  continue to practise them even if they were not paid for their efforts; even if

  their efforts were criticized or even reviled; even on pain of imprisonment or

  death. To me, that seems to be a pretty fair definition of obsessional

  behaviour. It applies to the plain hobbies as well as the fancy ones we call

  'the arts'; gun collectors sport bumper stickers reading you WILL TAKE MY GUN

  ONLY WHEN YOU PRY MY COLD DEAD FINGERS FROM IT, and in the suburbs of Boston,

  housewives who discovered political activism during the busing furore often

  sported similar stickers reading YOU'LL TAKE ME TO PRISON BEFORE YOU TAKE MY

  CHILDREN OUT OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD on the back bumpers of their station wagons.

  Similarly, if coin collecting were outlawed tomorrow, the astronomer very likely

  wouldn't turn in his steel pennies and buffalo nickels; he'd wrap them carefully

  in plastic, sink them to the bottom of his toilet tank, and gloat over them

  after midnight.

  We seem to be wandering away from the subject of fear, but we really haven't

  wandered very far. The sludge that catches in the mesh of my drain is often the

  stuff of fear. My obsession is with the macabre. I didn't write any of the

  stories which follow for money, although some of them were sold to magazines

  before they appeared here and I never once returned a cheque uncashed. I may be

  obsessional but I'm not crazy. Yet I repeat: I didn't write them for money; I

  wrote them because it occurred to me to write them. I have a marketable

  obsession. There are madmen and madwomen in padded cells the world over who are

  not SO lucky

  I am not a great artist, but I have always felt impelled to write. So each day I

  sift the sludge anew, going through the cast-off bits and pieces of observation,

  of memory, of speculation, trying to make something out of the stuff that didn't

  go through the filter and down the drain into the subconscious.

  Louis L'Amour, the Western writer, and I might both stand at the edge of a small

  pond in Colorado, and we both might have an idea at exactly the same time. We

  might both feel the urge to sit down and try to work it out in words. His story

  might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about

  some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep .

  . . and horses . . . and finally people. Louis L'Amour's 'obsession' centres on

  the history of the Amen-can West; I tend more towards things that slither by

  starlight. He writes Westerns; I write fearsomes. We're both a little bit nuts.

  The arts are obsessional, and obsession is dangerous. It's like a knife in the

  mind. In some cases - Dylan Thomas comes to mind, and Ross Lockridge and Hart

  Craine a
nd Sylvia Plath - the knife can turn savagely upon the person wielding

  it. Art is a localized illness, usually benign -creative people tend to live a

  long time - sometimes terribly malignant. You use the knife carefully, because

  you know it doesn't care who it cuts. And if you are wise you sift the sludge

  carefully. . . because some of that stuff may not be dead.

  After the why do you write that stuff question has been disposed of, the

  companion question comes up: Why do people read that stuff? What makes it sell?

  This question carries a hidden assumption with it, and the assumption is that

  the story about fear, the story about horror, is an unhealthy taste. People who

  write me often begin by saying, 'I suppose you will think I'm strange, but I

  really liked 'Salem's Lot,' or 'Probably I'm morbid, but I enjoyed every page of

  The Shining . .

  I think the key to this may lie in a line of movie criticism from Newsweek

  magazine. The review was of a horror film, not a very good one, and it went

  something like this:'. . . a wonderful movie for people who like to slow down

  and look at car accidents.' It's a good snappy line, but when you stop and think

  about it, it applies to all horror films and stories. The Night of the Living

  Dead, with its gruesome scenes of human Cannibalism and matricide, was certainly

  a film for people who like to slow down and look at car accidents; and how about

  that little girl puking pea soup all over the priest in The Exorcist? Bram

  Stoker's Dracula, often a basis of comparison for the modern horror story (as it

  should be; it is the first with unabashedly psycho-Freudian overtones), features

  a maniac named Renfeld who gobbles flies, spiders, and finally a bird. He

  regurgitates the bird, having eaten it feathers and all. The novel also features

  the impalement - the ritual penetration, one could say - of a young and lovely

  female vampire and the murder of a baby and the baby's mother.

  The great literature of the supernatural often contains the same 'let's slow

  down and look at the accident' syndrome: Beowulf slaughtering Grendel's mother;

  the narrator of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' dismembering his cataract-stricken

  benefactor and putting the pieces under the floorboards; the Hobbit Sam's grim

  battle with Shelob the spider in the final book of Tolkien's Rings trilogy.

  There will be some who will object strenuously to this line of thought, saying

  that Henry James is not showing us a car accident in The Turn of the Screw; they

  will claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories of the macabre, such as 'Young

  Goodman Brown' and 'The Minister's Black Veil', are also rather more tasteful

  than Dracula. It's a nonsensical idea. They are still showing us the car

  accident; the bodies have been removed but we can still see the twisted wreckage

  and observe the blood on the upholstery. In some ways the delicacy, the lack of

  melodrama, the low and studied tone of rationality that pervades a story like

  'The Minister's Black Veil' is even more terrible than Lovecraft's batrachian

  monstrosities or the auto-da-fe of Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum'.

  The fact is - and most of us know this in our hearts - that very few of us can

  forgo an uneasy peek at the wreckage bracketed by police cars and road flares on

  the turnpike at night. Senior citizens pick up the paper in the morning and

  immediately turn to the obituary column so they can see who they outlived. All

  of us are uneasily transfixed for a moment when we hear that a Dan Blocker has

  died, a Freddy Prinze, a Janis Joplin. We feel terror mixed with an odd sort of

  glee when we hear Paul Harvey on the radio telling us that a woman walked into a

  propeller blade during a rain squall at a small country airport or that a man in

  a giant industrial blender was vaporized immediately when a co-worker stumbled

  against the controls. No need to belabour the obvious; life is full of horrors

  small and large, but because the small ones are the ones we can comprehend, they

  are the ones that smack home with all the force of mortality.

  Our interest in these pocket horrors is undeniable, but so is our own revulsion.

  The two of them mix uneasily, and the by-product of the mix seems to be guilt. .

  . a guilt which seems not much different from the guilt that used to accompany

  sexual awakening.

  It is not my business to tell you not to feel guilty, any more than it is my

  business to justify my novels or the short stories which follow. But an

  interesting parallel between sex and fear can be observed. As we become capable

  of having sexual relationships, our interest in those relationships awakens; the

  interest, unless perverted some-how, tends naturally towards copulation and the

  continuance of the species. As we become aware unavoidable termination, we

  become aware of the fear-emotion. And I think that, as copulation tends towards

  self-preservation, all fear tends towards a comprehension of the final ending.

  There is an old fable about seven blind men who grabbed seven different parts of

  an elephant. One of them thought he had a snake, one of them thought he had a

  giant palm leaf, one of them thought he was touching a stone pillar. When they

  got together, they decided they had an elephant.

  Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We're

  afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a

  knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it

  first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is

  over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in mid-air. We're

  afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water,

  the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now

  quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we

  sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute

  telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a

  stealthy ruin of the thinking process.

  The infant is a fearless creature only until the first time the mother isn't

  there to pop the nipple into his mouth when he cries. The toddler quickly

  discovers the blunt and painful truths of the slamming door, the hot burner, the

  fever that goes with the croup or the measles. Children learn fear quickly; they

  pick it up off the mother's or father's face when the parent comes into the

  bathroom and sees them with the bottle of pills or the safety razor.

  Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiosity of

  self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hudred parts, like the blind men

  with their elephant.

  We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn as adults.

  The shape is there, and most of us come to realise what it is sooner or later:

  it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear,

  all our fears are part of that great fear - an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear.

  We're afraid of the body under the sheet. It's our body. And the great appeal of

  horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own


  The field has never been highly regard
ed; for a long time the only friends that

  Poe and Lovecraft had were the French, who have somehow come to an arrangement

  with both sex and death, an arrangement that Poe and Love-craft's fellow

  Americans certainly had no patience with. The Americans were busy building

  railroads, and Poe and Lovecraft died broke. Tolkien's Middle-Earth fantasy went

  kicking around for twenty years before it became an aboveground success, and

  Kurt Vonnegut, whose books so often deal with the death-rehearsal idea, has

  faced a steady wind of criticism, much of it mounting to hysterical pitch.

  It may be because the horror writer always brings bad news: you're going to die,

  he says; he's telling you to never mind Oral Roberts and his 'something good is

  going to happen to you', because something bad is also going to happen to you,

  and it may be cancer and it may be a stroke, and it may be a car accident, but

  it's going to happen. And he takes your hand and he enfolds it in his own and he

  takes you into the room and he puts your hands on the shape under the sheet. . .

  and tells you to touch it here. . . here ... and here...

  Of course, the subjects of death and fear are not the horror writer's exclusive

  province. Plenty of so-called 'mainstream' writers have dealt with these themes,

  and in a variety of different ways - from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and

  Punishment to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Ross MacDonald's

  Lew Archer stories. Fear has always been big. Death has always been big. They

  are two of the human constants. But only the writer of horror and the

  supernatural gives the reader such an opportunity for total identification and

  catharsis. Those working in the gentre with even the faintest understanding of

  what they are doing know that the entire field of horror and the supernatural is

  a kind of filter screen between the conscious and the subconscious; horror

  fiction is like a central subway station in the human psyche between the blue

  line of what we can safely internalize and the red line of what we need to get

  rid of in some way or another.

  When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe

  in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The

  horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and