We could write a long introduction here, but let’s face it: you’re reading this because you want to know what Stephen King has to say. And he has a lot to say. So let’s get on with it…
Brown’s Hotel, London – Friday 13th May 1983Do people read horror to see that their fears can be rationalised in supernatural terms?
Yes; I think that whenever we read a horror story, whether it’s about vampires or ghosts, or cars – like in Christine, cars that run by themselves – it’s telling us all this stuff that we don’t believe in one ear, in a very loud voice, but in the other ear, in a very quiet voice, it’s whispering about things we really are afraid of.That’s why I tell people that I think a lot of the horror movies of the last three or four years are riddled – no pun intended – with cancer; the alien, the thing, the chestburster, the thing that incubates inside this guy is a tumour image; the same thing is true of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing – it’s more like John Campbell’s original story, but informed with our present interests and things like that; it’s full of this kind of cancer imagery that has to do with our bodies in revolt. The same thing is true of the Cronenberg films where there are parasites inside, like kind of sexual cancer or in Scanners where the guy’s head explodes – pretty vivid tumour image.
And the thing is, we’re afraid of cancer, y’know, your generation, my generation, same thing. We live in a world where the informational inflow to us, probably in one day exceeds what our grandfathers would have gotten in a year, y’know, in terms of hard information in every day’s paper. Every day there’s something else about ‘This causes cancer’, ‘That causes cancer’, ‘cancer is a virus’, or it isn’t a virus – whatever. And so consequently we live in a world where we’re afraid that if we smoke, we get lung cancer, eat too much beef, you get cancer in your intestines… the air in London supposedly causes sinus cancer; ultra violet; if we spend too much time on the Costa Del Sol, Miami Beach or wherever, you get skin cancer – it seems now to be an unescapable disease. It’s all around us, and there’s no cure for it, and this is just like, one example. The cancer of living – it kills you sooner or later. And so I don’t think it’s surprising to see these kind of images of horrible mutations actually incubating inside the human body; I mean, that’s not all horror movies, but those images have been in a lot, and I just named some: there’s Humanoids From The Deep, same thing, there’s Embryo…
Is writing it off in supernatural terms avoiding the issue?
Avoiding the issue is one way to put it – another way to put it might be, we were told as school-children that if you looked at an eclipse of the sun dead-on the corona or the edge of the sun could blind you; but we were told to turn our backs to it, take a piece of paper and poke a hole through it with a needle, and hold another bright piece of cardboard and then focus, and that you could see it with your back turned to it, and that you could view something that would put your eyes out if you looked at it directly, obliquely.
In a lot of cases that’s what the horror story is, it’s like if you ever play pool, it’s like when you kiss it off into the opposite pocket by banging it in a different direction. It doesn’t solve anything, and people who think that it does are wrong, they say ‘Well you can confront your fears’, but as you pointed out, it’s not exactly like that; to read a story about vampires is not really to confront one’s fears, I believe, unless you’re a superstitious peasant from the Carpathian mountains, who believes that there really are, seriously, beings who can live thousands and thousands of years by sucking blood.
I don’t believe that a bit, but on the other hand there’s a story in the British papers about this guy who apparently cut up about 27 people, and put ’em down his drain, and if that isn’t a vampire, I don’t know what it is. So if you look at one, maybe it’s a way of looking obliquely at the other, and symbolically facing fears. I don’t know if you accept the Freudian interpretation of dreams. I don’t, exactly, but I do think when we have bad dreams or good dreams, that it’s concretisation, images which express real fears, but they just happen to be a little bit more elegant because those images always are.Do you think Freud unnecessarily complicated our way of perceiving good and evil?
Yes, because Freud is the beginning, isn’t he, of our ability to say that nothing is anybody’s fault. That’s what’s the matter with the judicial system in the United States right now, and it’s also what’s the matter with the ability to govern of most European governments, and I think the communists are finding this out now too, in places like Poland and East Germany, and those are just the ones that we know about, those are the European ones that we can get in touch with. ‘Nothing is anybody’s fault’; ‘there are reasons for everything that stretch beyond absolute good and absolute evil’ – it takes away the idea of free will and makes us less divine beings than we were before. It even takes away some of the glory of doing something really nasty; let’s say…I have a fairly puritanical upbringing, so let’s say that I take my trenchcoat that I have upstairs and take a pair of pants and I cut off just the bottoms of the legs and wrap rubber bands around them and go out and find a nice-looking girl and I stand in front of her and just throw my trenchcoat wide open, totally naked underneath and I flash her and run away cackling madly. Well, in a Calvinistic world where you have Biblical precepts of good and evil, I have therefore performed an evil act, and that has its own twisted nobility because I decided to do evil; to go out and risk the cops and public exposure – not to coin a pun – but evil worse for me, because the headlines would say ‘Famous Horror Writer Performs..’ what? Flashing, exhibitionistic act in Hyde Park or something like that, so it would be a really brave thing to do in a twisted sort of a way.
But no, the Freudians make it so that you just say, ‘Well probably he was toilet-trained too early’ or something, and as a result he has these things… it takes it away. It just becomes the equivalent to an ants trundling around a piece of bread or something.
Are you still exorcising the Monster In The Closet?
My grandfather used to call it amamaguzalan, a red-Indian word, and the old Britishers used to tell their children that Jack Ketch was in the house – the executioner. He’s there. I think he’s there. I can’t get rid of that guy. Y’know, cos he’s in my closet – he’s up here (indicates head). The boogeyman in the closet is the guy that’s gonna come out of the crowd at Lauderdale airport in Jerusalem with an Uzi and plug about 40 spectators; my supernatural boogeyman is much more comforting, I think. It’s a rehearsal for our own death. But it’s fun, too. There’s an imaginative aspect to the fiction that takes people away.
When we talk about horror fiction we are always concentrating on certain outlaw elements of the genre; I think a lot of guys who write this stuff and direct the films – and I’m one of them, God knows – will try to pretty it up from time to time, in an effort to say to people in the press, ‘Look – I’m not anti-social, I’m not anti-society or anything like that’, but it’s…maybe it’s a little bit easier to admit it to a guy like you, because you’re younger than the last people that I saw, but we’re in the business of selling public executions here. People come by the droves. The same way that they used to come to Tower Hill to watch the executioner chop off people’s heads – they want to see blood flow.
But the other side of that coin is that people also want somebody who can make them fly, and can put on that magic dust – Tinkerbell – and make ‘em see something different or take them away to a world where there is vampires, monsters, or something like that. People need that, man, they gotta have it. Without a little imagination, it’s just like…salt; don’t eat enough salt, you get this goitre neck, y’know. And people who don’t dream, who don’t have any kind of imaginative life, they must… they must go nuts. I can’t imagine that. What would you do in doctors’ offices? You’d just sit there.