By Michael DeCesaris – Over a thousand fans wait eagerly in the sold-out Lisner Auditorium Wednesday, November 12th at George Washington University, for Stephen King to speak on his tour for his newest book, Revival. (I am not working off a transcript of the event, so the following is not word-for-word accurate.)
Two jumper cables walk into a bar…
A din of voices, the empty stage looming, the speaker-less podium awaiting our attention…then applause starts up as a man walks onto stage. The crowd laughs when realizing it’s not Stephen King but the event’s host (it is hosted by Politics and Prose, a bookstore and coffeehouse in DC), who gives a very nice introduction. When the guest of honor finally does take the stage, the crowd stands, erupting into applause.
Now, maybe some people are here just to see a famous figure, but by the grateful, awed, excited faces around me, it appears the auditorium is full of true fans. Perhaps many, if not most, are even Constant Readers—a term often used by King to describe the readers of his books.
Dressed casually in a red T-shirt and jeans, the 67-year-old author tells us that he is not feeling too well, and if he coughs or pauses, it’s because of this. He assures us though that it is not Ebola, much to the crowd’s amusement.
He adds: “Or Captain Tripps.”
The crowd erupts into applause again. Tripps is the super-flu in his novel The Stand, and King explains how every time a new flu or virus pops up in the media, sales of The Stand spike, and right now they are off the charts.
Then, he gives a joke he said he looked up online (having searched for the dumbest jokes): “Two jumper cables walk into a bar…”
But, he informs us since he writes suspenseful stories, we will have to wait until the end of the presentation for the punchline.
He starts with how his ideas come about, and how some ideas come to fruition, while others do not. A story he had kicked around called “The Ladies Room” takes place at an airport where men waiting for their flight notice that women keep going into the ladies bathroom but never come out. King laughs, adding how he had some idea that dark rites or something supernatural was going on in there, and that the mystery eventually garners media attention. But, he never could figure out what was going on in that bathroom. The crowd laughs.
Contrasting that, he tells us how he once broke down on his motorcycle and walked up to a farm in the middle of nowhere where a huge 200-pound Saint Bernard ran up to him. The farmer came out and explained how nice the dog was, but when the dog snarled at King and made as if to pounce, the farmer hit the dog with a wrench.
The crowd gasps.
Laughingly, King comments about how people feel worse for dogs being hurt than children. Anyway, he tells us the encounter with this dog is where the idea for Cujo came from, and that idea, well, obviously came to completion. Some ideas work out, some don’t.
He continues by talking about how his stuff was perceived in the early days of his career. He says as the older generation of great “horror” writers and media figures died, the spotlight on him as the horror master grew and grew.
He got the reputation solely as a horror writer, and despite writing about a multitude of different elements unrelated to horror, he was fine with that. He believed that regardless of how he was perceived, what the readers really kept coming back for was not the trappings of blood and guts, but the voice of the stories. A voice that in his case, much to the surprise of people not familiar with him, mostly focuses on character and emotion rather than plot.
To underscore this, he recounts a tale of how a woman stopped him at a store, saying she recognized him (in pre-social media days).
“You write all that horror stuff,” she said. “I don’t like that. Why can’t you write something like that Shawshank Redemption?”
“I wrote that,” King said.
“No, you didn’t,” she told him.
He tells a story about how he had his young son (now novelist Joe Hill) help him with a logistical problem he had in his novel Gerald’s Game. He called his son up to the bedroom and said he wanted to tie him to the headboard of the bed and then see if he could escape by flipping backward over it. Then, the character in the book (who would be in the same predicament) would push the bed away from the wall and into a window, breaking it and fetching a shard of glass to cut herself free. In reply to King’s request, his son just said, sure, no problem.
During their experiment, King’s wife came upstairs and was shocked, to say the least, asking what the hell they were doing. Joe just responded, “Oh, it’s some of Dad’s shit.”
King goes on to mention that after he published Gerald’s Game, his wife told him he’s written a book about two people alone in a cabin (Misery), and now one about someone alone in a bedroom. Next, she said, he is going to write one called “Living Room Couch,” with no characters at all.
Throughout his talk, whenever he mentions another book of his, the crowd launches into resounding applause filled with much admiration. King is very humbled, very grateful each time. “Oh, you guys are great,” he responds one time, while another he says it is the fans who have put his kids through college. The crowd laughs, but he seems sincere.
Around the middle of the event, he reads from Revival, the book that has brought him on this recent tour. The excerpt is about the main character, Jaime Morton, recounting an event, which later leads to him discovering his musical talent. Specifically, Jaime’s brother and his brother’s friend are watching TV at the friend’s house, and the friend’s grandfather to their surprise fetches his guitar and plays for them. The brother and friend later share that guitar as they learn how to play. Later, Jaime tries his hand at guitar and finds it comes very naturally to him.
The reading ends there. Afterward, King comments on how he had always wanted to write about rock and roll as he loves it so much and as it has had such an effect on his own life, but he never had the chance to do so until now.
In case you’re wondering, Revival is about the relationship over the years between musician and drug-addict Jaime Morton and faithless preacher/healer Charlie Jacobs.
The Lisner staff places microphones between the aisles in the audience as the last part of the event is a Q&A. A hushed excitement passes through the crowd as fans realize they are able to talk with their favorite author.
“Ask me anything,” Stephen King says.
And when the lucky few do speak with him, their excitement mixes with much gratitude as they thank him for how he has affected their lives (one young man tells how King’s books brought him and his grandmother closer together before she passed).
Q: Have you considered writing a sequel to Danse Macbre (a nonfiction book of King’s about the genre of horror in general)?
A: King says he would possibly write a long essay, even focusing on the found footage genre as that’s had a lot of influence on the horror genre, but since he is not as in touch with the newer horror works out there, he might not be the right person to write a full-on sequel.
He elaborates how after his accident (he was struck by a van in 1999), when he was laid up in the hospital, his son Joe came in with The Blair Witch Project. Halfway through it though, King told him to turn it off.
At this point in the story, there is a little snicker in the audience, and I get the feeling that no one knows whether King is going to say the movie was awful or really scary.
“It scared the shit out of me,” he says. He explains how rare it is to get that feeling as an adult, how we become case-hardened over time and no longer get that overwhelming jolt of fear we would get as children. But this movie did it for him. The image at the end in the basement still lingers for him, as I think it does for everyone who found the movie scary.
Q: One question/demand shouted out from somewhere in the audience is: “The future of the Dark Tower!”
A: To which King hesitates, sighs, then says how he thinks often on that world. That there is an unelaborated part of Roland’s (the main character of his Dark Tower series) younger days concerning the battle of Jericho Hill, and that he has a firm idea of it and would like to one day write it.
Q: One confident and good-spirited audience member asks who his favorite character to write is?
“Gun to your head,” she says, “You have to pick one. I can see you about to say there are too many.”
A: He leans against the podium. “Alright, I have to pick one.” He names Annie Wilkes from Misery, but it is followed up with other names: Richie from It, and Lisey from Lisey’s Story. I imagine there probably are too many, but it is nice to hear some specific names.
He asks the audience member who her favorite character is, to which the young woman replies, “Roland.” A good pick.
Q: What was your craziest/wildest encounter with a fan?
A: He ponders on it a moment. “Well, I don’t know if this person was a fan. You might call him an anti-fan.” He tells us how a man showed up at his house holding a box that this man claimed contained a bomb.
“But I wasn’t there,” King said, “which was smart on my part.” Unfortunately, his wife was there, but she took off, running out of the house. The disturbed man was found later in their attic, and the bomb was a bunch of pencils wired together.
Q: What about another Talisman book?
A: He tells us how he just recently met with Peter Straub (the co-author of The Talisman and its sequel Black House). King says if they can find time next year, they hope to finish the trilogy.
Two jumper cables walk into a bar…
“So, two jumper cables walk into a bar,” King tells us again. Everyone laughs, awaiting the punchline but not wanting the night to end.
“The bartender says, ‘I’ll serve you, just don’t start anything.'”
Laughter and more laughter all around.
King then thanks everyone for coming out, his sincere gratitude showing again. Before he walks off stage, he adds, “And, don’t forget your damn book.”
The house lights come on, and the din of the crowd picks up again, an enthralled satisfaction having replaced the earlier anticipation, but the same general excitement permeating underneath. Everyone is smiling and instantly recounting the proceedings. We wait to exit the auditorium, then proceed downstairs where large piles of books sit on a series of tables where we present our tickets for a copy of Revival.
As I near the front of one of the lines, the person in front of me asks the staff member handing books out if he can get one from each pile (he had 3 or 4 tickets). I have no clue why he asks this, but then after I get my book I notice everyone flipping over the cover. King had signed some of the books.
I eagerly flip open the cover of mine, but the beginning pages are blank. Regardless, it is fun to watch everyone excitedly flipping their covers over as if playing a game, and great to see the overjoyed reactions of those who find a signature.
As we exit the building, it is awe-inspiring to see hundreds of other fans, chatting enthusiastically, recapping the night, with hardcover books in hand, as we scatter throughout the DC streets. I think I enjoyed being a part of this crowd tonight just as much as I enjoyed hearing Stephen King talk.
When fans love the same thing with such intensity, such sincerity, they are not just connected to the thing they love, but to each other as well. Although we head back to our individual lives, we all remain Constant Readers.
What a night.