Does he read them out of professional interest?
"I read Twilight and didn't feel any urge to go on with her. I read The Hunger Games and didn't feel an urge to go on. It's not unlike The Running Man, which is about a game where people are actually killed and people are watching: a satire on reality TV. I read Fifty Shades Of Grey and felt no urge to go on. They call it mommy porn, but it's not really mommy porn. It is highly charged, sexually driven fiction for women who are, say, between 18 and 25. But a golden age of horror? I wouldn't say it is. I can't think of any books right now that would be comparable to The Exorcist."
When his children were little, King didn't stop them from reading his own books, or watching the film versions. (In fact, when his oldest son Joe was 12, he overheard him explaining to a friend that his seven-year-old brother Owen was allowed to read and watch these things. "Joe said very seriously, 'You have to understand, my father writes scary stories. Owen has lived with horror his whole life.' " King laughs uproariously.)
In 1982, during an air traffic control strike, King was making a film called Creepshow and, unable to fly, drove 600 miles every week back and forth to Pittsburgh from Maine. To pass the time, he asked his daughter Naomi to record audio books for him of titles that didn't exist in that format - Wilbur Smith novels, for example; he would pay her $700 per cassette. "She was all over that like white on rice. She did it and then Joe got on board, and finally Owen, too."
They are a close family. Both boys are now writers and Naomi, who also writes, is a Unitarian minister. They have come a long way since the bad old days when Tabitha threatened to leave him if he didn't stop boozing and taking cocaine. Owen, his youngest, was 10 then and Naomi 17. It is better to be frank about these things, King believes, since people always find out about them anyway. But memories of the intervention are still painful.
"There's a thing in AA, something they read in a lot of meetings, The Promises. Most of those promises have come true in my life: we'll come to know a new freedom and new happiness, that's true. But it also says in there: we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. And I have no wish to shut the door on the past. I have been pretty upfront about my past. But do I regret? I do. I do. I regret the necessity."
Still, he feels pretty lucky, not least after a near-death experience in 1999. King was walking down a road near his house when he was hit by a truck and thrown 14ft in the air. There were no white lights, but it did get him thinking seriously about death. "Our body knows things, and our brain knows things that don't have anything to do with conscious thought. And I think that it's possible, when you die, that there is a final exit programme that goes into effect. And that's what people are seeing when they see their relatives or a white light or whatever it is. In that sense, there may really be a heaven if you believe there's a heaven, and a hell if you believe there is one. But there's some kind of transitional moment. That idea that your whole life flashes before your eyes." He smiles. "Of course, they say about co-dependents - people who grow up around alcoholics - that somebody else's life does."
It is this moment of transition that Doctor Sleep deals with and the idea, like so many of King's, came from an incidental story in a newspaper. This one was about "a cat in a hospice that knows when people are going to die. He would go into that patient's room and curl up next to them. And I thought, that's a good advertisement for death, for the emissary of death. I thought, 'I can make Dan the human equivalent of that cat, and call him Doctor Sleep.' There was the book."
When King wakes in the night, he is not preoccupied with thoughts of death. He worries about his grandchildren, or turns over new ideas. His writing habits have changed over the years. "As you get older, you lose some of the velocity off your fast ball. Then you resort more to craft: to the curve, to the slider, to the change-up. To things other than that raw force."
He is as successful as ever, with a hit TV show, Under The Dome, about a town cut off from the world by the sudden descent of a large, overturned fish bowl, a clever twist on the locked room scenario. He has also just had the earliest peckings of a new book idea. It came from a news story that was big in the US last year, about a Brooklyn woman who drove the wrong way down a motorway with a car full of children, killing them all. It wasn't the horror of the incident that interested King, but the unanswered questions. "I have stories that ask to be written. And the thing that interested me about that crash on I-95 was that her husband swears up and down that she wasn't a big drinker, and that she wasn't drunk when she left with them. But there was a bottle of vodka in the car. She was high as a kite. So I'm saying to myself, there's a real mystery here." A pause. "It's the kind of mystery that only fiction can unravel." And so it begins *
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Shine on: It's more than 30 years since Stephen King first terrified readers with The Shining...
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