Interview By Peter S. Perakos
If Ray Bradbury is the reigning King of the literature of the fantastic, then Stephen King is the heir apparent to the throne. Among King’s works are the immensely popular ’Salem’s Lot, Carrie, The Shining, and a collection of short stories entitled Night Shift. Carrie, of course, became Brian De Palma’s spectacular film, while Kubrick is currently filming The Shining. Several of the stories in Night Shift will soon be adapted to the screen in not one, but two separate productions. In this exclusive interview, Stephen King discusses his past work, his inspirations, his attitudes toward the genre, and his future projects.
How did your fascination with the horror genre come about?
My “fascination with the horror genre” began with the E.C. comics of the early ’50s—my generation’s National Enquirer—and with the horror movies of the ’50s, most notably The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (I look forward to the coming remake with an odd mixture of dread and anticipation), The Brain From Planet Arous (which starred John Agar and was, in some way I’ve never been able to figure out, the basis for my novel Carrie), and later the AIP creature features, which remain interesting to me because the best of them (although none of them was really very good) involved teenagers and took off into horror from such mundane settings.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
In terms of reading, the early Bradbury played a part (although I did not discover him until my teens), the early Bloch, and a number of ’40s paperback editions of Lovecraft that I found in an aunt’s attic. Lovecraft struck me with the most force, and I still think, that for all his shortcomings, he is the best writer of horror Fiction that America has yet produced.
I was also thinking of Poe, and perhaps Oscar Wilde?
Neither Poe nor Wilde have influenced me particularly. Other than the horror/supernatural writers I’ve already mentioned, I would say Thomas Hardy, John D. MacDonald, and most importantly James M. Cain.
Do commercial considerations play a part in your writing?
Sure, I’m a commercial writer. I’d like to get filthy rich and own a yacht. But I write only to please myself, and to entertain myself. For me, my books are home movies.
Would you say there is a statement, or a point of view, common to your work? By statement I mean, if you excuse the term, “message.”
The point of view in my works, the “pitch of concern,” to put it a slightly different way, has been fairly constant in everything I’ve written over the last ten years or so, and probably won’t change much in the future—it is the dead opposite of the writers most of us read in college, the ‘literary” writers, if you like (my definition of a “literary writer:” a novelist of whom no one ever asks, “Yes, but when are you going to do something serious?”) . . .People like Doris Lessing, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, people like that. They do books about extraordinary people in ordinary situations, while I’m more fetched by the exact opposite. . .ordinary people in a pressure-cooker, in a crunch situation. Preferably one where events have skewed from the unusual to the unnatural to the out-and-out unbelievable. It is, maybe, a Twilight Zone school of writing, but Serling and company weren’t there first. A guy named Jack Finney was.. .the guy who originally wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, on which Siegel’s film was based. I hope Finney makes a million dollars on the movie tie-in this fall; he deserves it. They should have paid him a royalty on all those Twilight Zone stories like “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.”
Religion, Christianity-for its embodiment you created Margaret White who is really the stereotypical religious fanatic. Are your feelings towards Christianity predominantly negative, or is your apparent anathema restricted to fundamentalism?
My feelings toward Christianity are neutral—I believe in God, but not necessarily in organized religion. . .although I will qualify this by saying that, as a kid brought up in the mostly-lukewarm atmosphere of Methodism, I was always fascinated by the trappings and solemnity of Catholicism. Coincidentally (or maybe not) the only girl I was ever serious about in college was a Catholic, and the woman that I married is a Catholic—of the lapsed variety. The power of the Catholic Church plays an important part in ’Salem’s Lot partly because it felt so natural and right.
Why is it in your work, and in most works of the supernatural, the greater power belongs to evil, or the demonic, or the devil, while good or God is more or less passive?
In my own books, the power of God doesn’t play a passive part at all. (Call it the power of White, if you prefer; sometimes I do, although the White concept is more pagan than Christian). . .Good wins out over evil in ’Salem’s Lot and The Shining, and at least ears a draw in Carrie. Anyhow, this whole question is very central to my new book, The Stand, and I direct your attention to that.
By the way, I also reject your contention that in most works of the supernatural, the power belongs to evil—short-run power, maybe, but check your Dracula, or (again) Finney’s Body Snatchers, and a good many others (M. R. James, Coleridge, William Hope Hodgeson, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. ..
Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?
I’m religious in terms of the White, but I don’t go to church. God and the devil-the White and Black forces—proceed from the inside—that’s where the power comes from. Churches make morals, which, I suppose, is useful. . .So is Tupperware, in its way.
How would you respond to the comment that the lack of spirituality in society is a turning away from God, and consequently any alternative, which might deal with evil or the devil, is necessarily popular?
I don’t think there’s any lack of spirituality in today’s society; I think there is a lack of focus because so many of the organized religions have begun to crumble in the latter half of the 20th Century. . .the Catholics are the most extreme case in point, of course, but the same is true all the way from Islam to Methodism. To some degree you can blame this on technology, but the other focus for spirituality these days is the fact that technology is gradually making itself obsolete—witness the wounded, what-did-we-ever-do-to-any- body attitude of many hard-core SF fans and writers. (The defense Niven and Pournelle make of nuclear reactors in Lucifer’s Hammer is bitterly laughable.) The same splendid technology that has pushed back the frontiers of “God’s province” so rapidly since 1900 is also the technology that has given us the fluorocarbon spray can, CBW, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Besides, people’s spiritual lives always seem to fall into turmoil and the literature of the supernatural always becomes more prevalent (and more interesting) as the end of the century approaches. I don’t know why it’s so, but it is. . .you find your rationalists in the middle of the century, and your real good wars. This is a pretty wandering answer to your question, but it’s the best I can do.
A major source of evil, indeed the primary source in Carrie, is human, not supernatural—her psychotic mother, sadistic teenagers. Even the Overlook’s terror in The Shining has a human origin, the monsters who lived and died in the hotel. What is your definition of evil?
Stanley Kubrick films The Shining at EMI Elstree Studios in England.
My definition of evil is “the conscious will to do harm.”
Then, do you feel that you are creating allegory in your novels?
Yes, my novels are sometimes allegorical in nature (or in effect), but—and I think Ray Bradbury would agree with this— for some reason I don’t understand (although he may), almost all long-form horror fiction has a tendency to reverberate and to become allegorical. I think that’s the main reason that neither horror novels nor films have ever been placed in a “genre” ghetto.
What did you think of Brian De Palma’s Carrie?
I liked De Palma’s film of Carrie quite a bit. The attitude of the film was different from my book; I tended to view the events straight-on, humorlessly, in a straight point-to-point progression (you have to remember that the genesis of Carrie was no more than a short story idea), while I think De Palma saw a chance to make a movie that was a satirical view of high school life in general and high school peer-groups in particular. A perfectly viable point of view. Sissy Spacek was excellent, but right behind her—in a smaller part than it should have been was John Travolta. He played the part of Billy Nolan the way I wish I’d written it, half-funny and half-crazy.
Also, in the book, Carrie destroyed the entire town on the way home; that didn’t happen in the movie, mostly because the budget was too small. I wish they could have had that, but otherwise, I don’t have any real quibbles. I think that De Palma is a worthy pretender to Hitchcock’s throne . . .certainly he is as peculiar as Hitchcock.
In a review of Carrie (and perhaps applicable to your book as well) Janet Maslin comments in Newsweek: “Combining gothic horror,offhand misogyny, and an air of studied triviality, Carrie is De Palma’s most enjoyable movie and also his silliest . . .alternating between the elegant and the asinine. . . ”
I think that Ms. Maslin’s comments on the film in her review are off the mark-or, to be a bit irreverent, I think she’s full of shit. The movie-and the book—is not about “triviality” or “misogyny” but in-groups and out-groups, The Wheels and The Outcasts. The gothic horror part is okay, but that, of course, is De Palma’s homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which seems a bit studied and overdone for my taste (Bates High School, for instance).
You might be consoled by the knowledge that Ms. Maslin no longer writes for Newsweek. The Shining—is it your most ambitious work?
I think The Shining is the most ambitious novel I’ve published to date, but the one which follows this October, The Stand, is a bit more ambitious. . .certainly I worked harder on it, although to whatever ultimate critical result yet remains to be seen.
Kubrick has a unique view, ostensibly Freudian, of the relationship of man to society. Are your views compatible?
Please believe me: no body has a Freudian view of the relationship of man to his society. Not you, not me, not Kubrick, nobody. The whole concept is abysmally silly. And as a movie-goer, I don’t give a tin whistle what a director thinks; I want to know what he sees. Most directors have good visual and dramatic instincts (most good directors, anyway), but in intellectual terms, they arc pinheads, by and large. Nothing wrong in that; who wants a film director who’s a utility infielder? Let them do their job, enjoy their work, but for Christ’s sake, let’s not sec Freudianisms in the work of any film director. The only director who seems to have any psychological point of view’ at all is Ingmar Bergman, and his is Jungian, which is the next thing to saying “instinctual.” Can you imagine Bergman doing The Shining? That would be interesting.
Despite your assertion that Kubrick does not have a Freudian viewpoint, it is rumored that he attempted to write and modify the script under the guidance of a psychiatrist. Kubrick has changed several elements of the novel, including your apocalyptic ending.
From the beginning, when I first talked to Kubrick some months ago, he wanted to change the ending. He asked me for my opinion on Halloran becoming possessed, and then finishing the job that Torrance started, killing Danny, Wendy, and lastly himself. Then, the scene would shift to the spring, with a new caretaker and his family arriving. However, the audience would see Jack, Wendy, and Danny in an idyllic family scene—as ghosts—sitting together, laughing and talking. And I saw a parallel between this peaceful setting at the end of the picture and the end of 2001 where the astronaut is transported to the Louis XIV bedroom. To me, the two endings seemed to tie together.
The ending of 2001 is a cosmic rebirth. Your description of Kubrick’s proposed ending for The Shining seems to show that what is after-or-beyond life is something which is neither terrifying nor horrible, but pastoral, mystical.
The impression I got from our conversation is that Kubrick does not believe in life after death. Yet, he thought that any vein of the supernatural story (whether it is horrifying, or whether it is pleasant) is inherently optimistic because it points towards the possible survival of the spirit. And I told him that’s all very good as a philosophy, but when an audience is brought face to face with the slaughter of characters that they care about, then they will cry for your head once they go out of the theatre. But Kubrick has modified his original ideas extensively, so I don’t expect to see this ending in the final film.
I also want to comment on the omission of the topiary animals. [7:3/7:4:74]. It’s very funny to me that he chose a hedge maze, because my original concept zuas to create a hedge maze. And the reason that I rejected the idea in favor of the topiary animals was because of an old Richard Carlson film, The Maze. The story was about a maze, of course, but in the middle of the maze was a pond. And in the middle of the pond, on a lily pad, was grandfather who was a frog. Every night, grandpa turned into a frog and so they had to put him into the pond. To me, that was ludicrous. So I abandoned the idea of a hedge.
It is disappointing-the alleged effects problems notwithstanding-that the hedge animals have been dropped.
I never really thought that the topiary animals would make it to the film, anyway. The director would face a dual risk, the first being that the effect would not look real. The second risk is that even if the effect does look real, the audience might laugh. These are problems facing the filmmaker, problems I didn’t have to contend with writing the novel.
There is a great deal of graphic horror in The Shining—actually in all your works. Do you feel this makes them difficult to adapt as films?
Yes, violence is dynamite. It’s a dangerous package to handle. It is all too easy to let violence dominate. A lot of good directors have floundered on that particular rock. And that’s one of the reasons I like Don Siegel, because he handles violence well. I would have preferred Siegel to direct The Shining, or perhaps ’Salem’s Lot. I believe he would be very successful directing ’Salem’s Lot.
What do you think of the casting for The Shining? Does it fit with the characteristic of your work: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances?
I’m a little afraid of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in that context because he is not an ordinary’ man. So far as I know, he’s never played an ordinary man and I’m not sure that he can. I would have rather seen Michael Moriarty or Martin Sheen portray Torrance. But these actors are not supposed to be “bankable”—Hollywood loves the word.
What do you think about Shelley Duvall cast in the part of Wendy Torrance?
That’s an example of absolutely grotesque casting. . .But Kubrick is certainly an inventive, thinking director. He is one of the three or four greatest directors of our day, maybe of all time. However, I think he is indulgent, terribly indulgent. Clockwork Orange just doesn’t hold up today. Some of his other films do. (It’s amazing that any film does. A statement of genius is the ability of a film to hold up ten years from now.) I think Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey do. And Barry Lyndon will. But even if his film of The Shining is an artistic failure, it will probably be a commercial success. . . And even if it’s a failure, it will be an interesting failure. . . Anyway, you have to realize I’m only talking as ail interested observer. I’m not a participant.
What about the possibility of you directing several of the stories in Night Shift for Milton Subotsky?
Subotsky has six of the stories in Night Shift*; he offered me both the chance to screenwrite and to direct. I’d like to direct very much, but I’m scared of that-not the conceptualization or visualization, but trying to control a big crew, all of whom have forgotten more about movie-making than I’ll ever know’. Also, I’m primarily a writer. I declined the chance to direct-reluctantly and just for now.
What is the status of bringing ’Salem’s Lot to the screen?
CBS is interested in adapting ’Salem’s Lot as a “Novel For Television,” but the Standards and Practices people, the censorship bureau, have raised fifty or sixty objections, creating a problem which I feel is insurmountable. But, that’s okay. Warner Bros bought it; they paid for it. So, in a way, it’s the best of both possible worlds, as I’d rather not sec it made at all.
Can you tell us anything about your script for 20th Century-Fox and NBC?
I’ve adapted three of the stories in Night Shift. Those are “I Know What You Need,” “Battleground,” and “Strawberry Spring.” The film is being produced by a production company which is called, appropriately, The Production Company. The producers are Mike Wise and Frank Leavy. They like the screenplay. And if it were five years ago, I could confidently say that the movie would be immediately produced and on the air by next March. But I can’t say that because the climate of TV production is now so tight towards anything that has to do with horror or violence. “Straw’berry Spring,” which is a latter day Jack The Ripper story, is of course violent. NBC Standards and Practices called me and said, “We can’t have this lunatic running around stabbing people to death.” And I said, “Well, that kind of shoots the story down, doesn’t it?” And NBC replied, “Oh, no! Stabbing is out, but he can strangle them.” So, either they’re afraid of showing blood or alluding to ritual penetration.
What is the possibility of your new novel. The Stand, being developed for filming?
The Stand will be shown around Hollywood. And if the book is very, very successful, it might be sold. But I don’t think, because of its complexity, that it will ever be sold.
Finally, how do you feel about your novels and stories being transformed, by others of varying capabilities, into films?
I am pleased that all the people involved are very good in what they’re doing. But, ultimately, they can’t mutilate anything that I wrote because the writing will stand on its own, one way of another.
Cinefantastique, Volume 8 Number 1, 1978; pp. 12-15