THE KING OF HORROR : Author of ‘Incredibly Creepy Stuff’ Thrills ‘Em in Pasadena

Times Staff Writer

What do you do with a man who takes a perverse pleasure in scaring the living daylights out of you? You celebrate him, of course. You give him standing ovations, respond to his jokes with wall-shaking laughter and wave your fist in the air, shouting “Yeah!” when he mentions the titles of his books.

“Pet Sematary.” “Yeah!”

“The Shining.” “All right !”

“This is sort of like Stephen King’s greatest hits,” said the horror story writer during a jocular, confiding address to an audience of youthful King aficionados at the Pasadena Public Library on Wednesday.


For many of the 250 people packed into the little auditorium, some of whom had stood in line in front of the library all night Sunday to buy the last tickets for the sold-out speech, this was the literary event of the era. They hauled in crates of King novels to be autographed, jabbered excitedly about the latest King film (“Pet Sematary,” which opened last week) and exchanged notes on their idol’s diabolical literary powers.

“He can write some incredibly creepy stuff,” said one man. “Yeah, he can keep you up at night.”

King mesmerized them.

When the author appeared at a side door, a tall, slouching figure in jeans and a rumpled shirt, with glasses as thick as Coke bottles, audience members erupted into applause, jumping to their feet when he reached the stage.


Rare Trip

King had made a rare trip to California from his home in Maine not just to give a lecture to an adoring audience, he said. “The fact is that, in some odd way, this is a research trip,” said King, 41, whose novels are perennial entries on the best-seller list. His two dozen books--including “The Drawing of the Three,” currently on top of the New York Times’ Paperback Best Sellers list--have sold a combined total fast approaching 100 million.

“I’m working on a book called ‘The Library Police,’ whose central character is a woman vampire and sexual psychopath,” he said, launching into a riveting discussion of the sources of his ideas and the secrets of his success.

“The ideas can come from any place and no place at all,” King added.

Successful horror stories, King suggested, always have a kind of split personality. “As a writer, you’re talking with two voices,” he said. “At one level, you’re screaming at your audience about ghosts and vampires. At another level, you’re whispering to them about real fears.”

The “whispering” was obvious in the “thousand bad horror movies” of the 1950s, which provided the young Stephen King with a shaping influence. Take the early Japanese monster movies, with their references to nuclear holocaust, he said. “ ‘Godzilla,’ with his radioactive halitosis, stomps Tokyo flat and makes real the unspoken nightmare of the whole nation,” said King.

American movie thrillers of that period sometimes seemed to echo the communist scare of the 1950s, King added. “ ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ” with its pod people subtly replacing good Americans, really suggested that “there’s a Red under every bed,” said King.

Turned Into Movies


Half a dozen of King’s books have been turned into movies, with plans for more in the works. King shamelessly plugged the movie version of “Pet Sematary,” for which he wrote the screenplay and in which he played a small role.

King’s stories whisper of up-to-date fears: disease, mass murder, family pathology.

Television sitcoms never prepared him for the grinding stresses of raising a family, King said. “On ‘The Donna Reed Show,’ Dad was always cool,” he said. “He wore a tie at the dinner table and his hair was combed. The mother never said, ‘Get outa here. I’ve got PMS, and I’m gonna kill you.’ ”

The author came to realize, he said, that anyone can have the impulses of the murderous father in “The Shining.”

“When you get up in the middle of the night to give the baby his bottle,” King said, “out of some sewer back there (in one’s mind), there’s an alligator saying, ‘Kill it. Use the pillow.’ The whispering says, ‘Jack Torrance is you.’ ”

King’s latest theme came to him, the author said, from his 12-year-old son, Owen, who provided unwitting fodder for the prolific King horror machine. The boy had wanted his father to check a book out of the library for him, rather than putting it on his own card. Why? “I’m afraid of the library police,” Owen confessed to his father, saying that a family member had once told him that a corps of enforcers punished derelict library patrons.

It was one of those frivolous childhood fears that King has made so much of--half superstition, half kids’ scary game--and which is treated as hideously real by King’s characters.

“Immediately, my antennae went up,” said King, shooting his familiar grin. “What was this kid afraid of? There might be millions of dollars in this. (Appreciative applause from the audience) Suddenly, I’m a concerned parent. . . .”


Colorful Wonderings

The exchange with his son sent King’s imagination reeling. “I started to wonder what library police look like,” he said. “Look at all the unmarked doors in the library. They’re there, 10 feet tall, with silver eyes, trench coats and horrible weapons.”

All of his novels have sprung from such random intrusions into his life, King said. “The Shining,” a novel (turned into a movie by Stanley Kubrick), set in a deserted resort hotel, came from an actual trip to such a hotel in Colorado. “We got up there the day before the season ended,” he said. “We checked in while everybody else checked out. . . . In the restaurant, all the tables except ours were covered with plastic and there was a forest of upturned chair legs.”

“Cujo,” in which the villain is a mass murderer inhabiting the body of a rabid dog, came from a face-off between King and a dog at a mechanic’s garage. “There was this noise, like a motorboat at a low idle,” said King, exulting in the story, “and here was the biggest St. Bernard I’d ever seen in my life. He was dirty, he had his head down and his tail down, and he knew what he wanted. He wanted me. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Joe (the mechanic), ‘he always does that.’ ”

‘Ornamental Doodad’

King, describing Stephen King the author as “the ornamental doodad on the automobile of civilization,” also made these points:

What makes horror stories truly gripping is the human condition. “None of us are going to walk out alive,” he said. “We’re going to croak, folks. As Steve Martin once said, ‘We’re having a pretty good time tonight considering we’re all gonna die.’ ”

He saw a ghost five years ago, after a house party in Maine, while retrieving his wife’s coat from an upstairs bedroom. As King sorted through a pile of coats on a bed, “I realized there was a man sitting by a window across the room. He was about 70 years old, in a blue pinstripe suit, with a bald head and brown glasses.” The man’s head was “tanned and tough looking, with freckles.” But the apparition disappeared suddenly.

He expects to die in the month of February. “Everything bad in my life happens in February.”

His characters assume their own destinies. “The boy in ‘Cujo'--I was real sorry when he died. He literally died one day on the page. His mother gave him mouth-to-mouth, and I thought he’d come around. But he never did.”

Satisfied Audience

The audience floated out of the library in small groups, with freshly autographed copies of “The Stand” and “Carrie” and the rest. “It was more than satisfying,” said Norma Vega, a student at Cal State L.A. who had paid $30 for the library’s six-author lecture series just so she could see King. “I would have paid triple.”

Jessica Ackerburke, 15, said she had been hooked on King novels for several years. “It’s kind of like getting away from yourself,” said the John Muir High School sophomore. “You don’t have to worry about it. It’s in the book.”

Is there a word describing “Kingophiles”? Vega didn’t hesitate. “Obsessed,” she said.