By Joshua Ryan and Peter Hannon: On December 7th, Stephen King–the master of horror–held a master class and a formal event at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. I was lucky enough to attend both events.
King walked out and he looked great, better than he did a decade ago. He waved to the audience and looked genuinely pleased to be there. The tension was as strong as one of King’s own novels. He broke the tension in the room, by strangling the microphone and proclaiming, “I’ll fucking strangle this thing,” when the microphone was not cooperating with him, the audience laughed and felt more at ease. While I sat there I felt as if I met him before. He likes to call himself “Uncle Stevie” in his articles and introductions, and I couldn’t help but think of him as this, a long lost uncle, someone I recognized but still estranged. He began taking questions from the two-hundred English students that packed into the master class like sardines, just to get a glimpse of the King. I asked him about ”Doctor Sleep” and if his son Joe Hill was an influence for Danny in ”The Shining” and if grown up Joe Hill was an influence for grown up Danny in “Doctor Sleep,” a convoluted question now that I look back on it, and he answered with a simple “No” and I smiled knowing that I just spoke to Stephen King.
Stephen let us in on what he was working on, it is a novel and he is at the 400 to 500 page mark and it is called, ”Mr. Mercedes” or ”Mister Mercedes,” I don’t know how he is spelling it. It is about a soon to be retired detective trying to find a man who killed a bunch of people by running them over. King said he was influenced by a YouTube video he saw of a lady running over people standing in line for jobs at McDonalds. He even spoiled the ending and made fun of how people hate spoilers, but the ending from what he told us was, the killer sends a letter to the detective chasing him and tells him that he will never kill again because he got his fix, and he will never commit another crime and that the detective should just kill himself. The ending would have the detective reading the letter and placing a gun into his mouth, which King called blue suicide, which is when a retired detective kills himself after not being able to handle the time off the force. It sounded like a great thriller.
He also briefly talked about how he read the first ”Fifty Shades of Grey” book, and how he was staying away from the second book because he heard there is a scene involving a jet-ski and a butt plug. The audience was in hysterics and even King was laughing with us, we were experiencing something special. Someone in the audience asked him his favorite Lovecraft story, and he answered that it was “The Colour Out of Space,” which is also my favorite (Ahh!). He also said that returning to Lovecraft recently he has found him to be less invoking and not as satisfying as he used to believe his writing was, which was interesting.
I was also wondering how he traveled to Lowell, which is about three hours away from his home in Bangor, Me. Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog, Townie) teaches at my school and is a friend of King, and they kept joking that Andre was his ride home. So, Andre Dubus III and Stephen King drove in a car for three hours together and probably down old route 1 (which King’s character does in “The Road Virus Heads North”), the scenic route, from Maine to Mass, what I would give to be a fly in that car.
The Master Class was a great experience and was better than the actual event itself. The formal event was held at the Tsongas Arena, which was a little less personal but still fun.
King read a full story that he had written entitled “After Life.” It was a weird story and very King-esque. It was a about a man trapped in a repetitive hell, the story was text book King, but to hear him read it himself was a dream come true. On top of King premiering his new short-story, he spoke of his writing process, told stories from his career, and fielded questions from an eager audience. I haven’t heard many authors speak, but regardless, his writing process seemed so unique. He claims that he never goes into a story with an idea of characters, but rather they are born from the situations and plot of the novel. Honestly, it blew my mind to hear that, as I have always found his characters to be some of the most relatable and human characters in literature. It was surreal to hear King talk about his own career. To hear about his humble beginnings long before he became the literary giant that he is today. He recalled getting a call from his editor at a time when he and his wife were living in a dingy little apartment. His editor told him they sold the rights to ”Carrie,” King asked for how much, the answer, $400,000. He laughed as he said his first thought was that he need to buy his wife (she was the one who fished the manuscript for Carrie out of the trash, encouraging him to send it in) something, so he went to the only place in town and bought her a hair-drier. King also relayed the time he was asked to dinner with Bruce Springsteen. As they were having their meal a family of three entered the restaurant, a mother, a father, and a young girl, King pegged for around 16. He said it must have been her birthday as they were all dressed to the nines. The girl glanced around the joint and saw Springsteen and King sitting at one table, together. King said her eyes brightened, and she floated over to the table. Bruce began to take out his pen, ready to sign an autograph, but the girl, went right for King and asked, “Are you Stephen King? May I have your autograph?” Everyone in the audience laughed aloud, as King added, “She didn’t even fucking look at Bruce.” To end the night, two microphones were set up and audience members were encouraged to step up and ask the King whatever they liked. He listened to them all patiently and answered kindly, except for maybe one question that I’m not sure even the guy asking it knew what he was asking. During the Q&A he signed an old picture of himself for an ecstatic woman, gave his insight into the Red Sox, and spoke with an 11-year-old girl who sounded as if she just landed on cloud nine.
His stories, insight, and hints resulted in laughs, awe, and the kind of applause you would find at a sporting event, yet here, it was simply an author. A man who makes his living selling bits of his imagination. It gave me a hope that in a world where technology has become so prevalent in everyday life, that the tradition of storytelling is not dying, but is rather very much alive. Furthermore, it was a perfect night with my $7.00 beer, my bored girlfriend, and a smile stretched ear to ear, one of the best days of my life and I will remember it every time I crack open a book, new or old, with the four letters we all love printed across the cover, K-I-N-G. All hail the King!