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Stephen King Is Sorry You Feel Like You're Stuck In A Stephen King Novel

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Life during the pandemic has been feeling like something Stephen King dreamed up. About 40 years ago, in his novel "The Stand," he wrote about a virus that's 99% lethal and wipes out most of the population. That virus was accidentally released by a lab developing biological weapons. "The Stand" was adapted into an ABC miniseries back in 1994. A new miniseries adapted from "The Stand" is now streaming on CBS All Access.

We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with King early in the pandemic, in April, the month that he published "If It Bleeds," a collection of novellas. The main character of the title story is a private eye, Holly Gibney, who was also a character in several other King books, including "The Outsider," which was adapted into an HBO series starring Cynthia Erivo as Holly. Like in "The Outsider," in "If It Bleeds," Holly is confronted by a force of evil.

Here's my interview with Stephen King from April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Stephen King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I am so glad that you are well. Is this pandemic the closest thing you've come to living in one of your own horror stories?

STEPHEN KING: (Laughter) Well, it is and it isn't. I had a lot of people get in touch with me after Donald Trump got elected and said...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: ...This is just like "The Dead Zone." There's a character in "The Dead Zone" named Greg Stillson, who is kind of an avatar of the common man. And he becomes a state representative, and then he rises to the presidency. So this is the second time. And now that Trump is actually president of the United States and there is a pandemic worldwide - I guess that's what pandemic means - that it seems almost like those two books have cross-pollinated somehow. It's not very comfortable to be me. I keep having people say, gee, it's like we're living in a Stephen King story. And my only response to that is, I'm sorry.

GROSS: You know, you write horror stories, and a virus is kind of perfect. You know, viruses are shape-shifters. They keep - like, the flu virus keeps changing every year or two. That's why we always need new vaccines. And viruses aren't exactly alive because they can't - they need some kind of living cell to inhabit in order to survive. So I think scientists say that viruses aren't really alive, or they're somewhere between alive and dead. That sounds kind of like a horror story.

And the fact that they live in us and, like, we are their hosts and then they make us sick and, in some cases, can kill us, that really - like, that's the kind of thing you could have invented from scratch. But viruses are real. Do you think of viruses as being just, like, the essence of a horror story in how they work in us?

KING: Yes, I do. You know, for years, I was...

GROSS: Oh, can I add one more thing?

KING: Yes.

GROSS: You can't see them. Like, you write sometimes about the kind of evil that - like, it can manifest itself in a presence. It can manifest itself in a person. But it exists as an entity. It exists just as pure evil, too. And with a virus, like, the entity, you can't see it unless it's in a body. I mean, you could put it under a microscope, but without a microscope, you can't see it. You don't know it's there, but it is. That's like a horror story, too.

KING: It is. And when you were talking about viruses not being alive or dead, this really is like one of those zombie movies. It's the - you know, the night - we're living in the "Night Of The Living Dead" in a sense because the virus is just what it is, which is something that's almost incomprehensible to us. And it's incomprehensible to science, too, which is one of the reasons why I think people have to watch out for quack cures.

The thing is, because it's invisible, because we can't see it, we hear these things on the news where they're saying, look - if you have to go out, make sure that you don't touch your face. When you come back in, make sure you wash your hands. Be careful about taking off your shoes, and when you take your shoes off, put them in a certain place, and then wash your hands because you can get the virus on your shoes. So that after a while, I think that a lot of people in America are living almost like Howard Hughes, who had this...

GROSS: Yes. Yes.

KING: ...Pathological cleanliness thing. We're all washing our hands. And it's easy to imagine - Terry, think of this. They could be on your hands right now - germs, viruses, like wagon wheels just they're in your hands, waiting to get inside the warmth of your body, where they can multiply and spread. And once you start thinking about that, it's very hard to unthink it. So it's easy to start to be paranoid about it. But on the other hand, what's the alternative?

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned Howard Hughes because I keep thinking about the scene in Martin Scorsese's film "The Aviator," where Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes...

KING: He's in the bathroom, isn't he?

GROSS: He's in the bathroom, exactly. And he's trying to get out of the bathroom, but because he's so compulsive about washing his hands and cleaning his hands, every time he washes his hands he has - he can't reach the door with a paper towel.

KING: He can't - yes.

GROSS: And so he can't get out because every time he touches something, he has to go back and wash his hands again, and the scene keeps going on. And that's the world I feel like I'm living in right now. I'm not sure I have any skin left on my hands (laughter) from washing so much.

KING: Yeah. Oh, that's the...

GROSS: Do you like that scene? I know you...

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

KING: I was thinking about that scene, just as you were and as I'm - I'm sure a lot of people who've seen that movie can relate to that immediately, you know, to the idea of - these things are all over our hands. We're making complexes in our children that are going to last a generation. You know, for me, as a guy who is in his 70s now, I can remember my mother talking about the Great Depression. It made a scar. It left trauma behind.

And I think that for our children, when they grow up - or let's put it this way - my grandchildren, when they grow up, my granddaughter who can't see her friends, can only Skype them once in a while. She's stuck in the house. She can go out in the yard. When her children say, oh, my God, I'm so bored, I can't go out, that little girl who becomes a woman is going to say, well, you should have been around in 2020 because we were stuck in the house for months at a time. We couldn't go out. We were scared of germs. You see what I'm saying?

GROSS: I think you're absolutely right. I completely - I feel exactly the same way.

The character in the title story of your new collection, Holly Gibney, is also in "The Outsider" and several other of your novels. So Holly Gibney, she runs a detective agency. Do you consider her to have a obsessive compulsive disorder or to be on the autism spectrum or to have just, like, a little bit of psychic ability? How would you describe what her...

KING: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Makeup is that gives her a kind of special power, a special insight?

KING: Well, first of all, can I say that I just love Holly, and I wish she were a real person and that she were my friend because I'm so crazy about her. She just walked on in the first book that she was in, "Mr. Mercedes," and she more or less stole the book (laughter). And she stole my heart.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: But the short answer to your question is, I see the Holly of the books as an obsessive compulsive with a huge inferiority complex. The character, the Holly that Richard created, was more of a, I would say, on the autism spectrum, kind of a - what do you call a person who is just very capable in one area, you know, somebody who can do numbers in their head, boom? Holly - that Holly, Richard Price's Holly of the HBO series is that kind of person, where she can remember who did every rock song for 35 years, but she's never listened to a record.

GROSS: Do you believe that some people have special powers of perception?

KING: Oh, yeah. I've seen it. I know that - I used to be good friends with Stephen Jay Gould. We shared seats at Fenway Park. And he would bring his son along. And his son was on the spectrum. But he would say to you, tell me what your birthday was and how old you are. And if you did that, he would immediately tell you the day you were born on. He just had that particular talent in his head. There are kids who can suddenly sit down and play the piano. They just hear the music in their heads and - or there are kids who are 7 or 8 years old who are chess prodigies. That's the word I was looking for - prodigies.

And so, yeah, there are people who have those special powers. And one of the things that fascinates me about this whole spectrum that I write in, which is a pretty wide - people can call me a horror writer if they want to. And that's fine. As long as the checks don't bounce, I'm happy with that. But I think that I do a lot more. And I'm interested in the mystery of what we are and what we're capable of doing.

GROSS: You know, in the opening to the Holly Gibney story in "If It Bleeds," your new book, you mentioned that the detective who worked with Holly in the book "The Outsider," that his perception of reality was totally changed by that incident because he's dealing with something beyond our perception. He's dealing with something that doesn't seem rational or scientific, which is just this entity of evil.

Do you feel like you live in a different reality than other people? (Laughter) You know what I mean? Because you're always writing about things that are outside of our perception and that are outside of what we consider to be, you know, the real, visible, perceivable world.

KING: Yeah. I hear your question. And I think the answer is that, 20 hours a day, I live in the same reality that everybody else lives in.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: But for four hours a day, things change. And if you ever ask me how that happens or why it happens, I'd have to tell you, it's as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. All I know is that when I sit down in front of the - well, it's a word processor now. It used to be a typewriter. Well, it's actually a computer now. Things change.

And in all the years that I've been doing this since I discovered the talent when I was 7 or 8 years old, I still feel much the same as I did in the early days, which is - I'm going to leave the ordinary world for my own world. And it's a wonderful, exhilarating experience. I'm very grateful to be able to have it.

GROSS: Why did you leave your - you know, the actual, you know, world for your world, but make your world such a frightening world?

KING: Well, I am interested in frightening people, actually. I'm like the little boy in the Charles Dickens story - I just want to make your flesh creep. And that's OK. But what I'm really interested in as a writer that I come back to time and time again is the intrusion of the unexpected and the strange into our everyday life. And I think that that's a kind of - an honorable theme because we all face unexpected things. We're going through one now as a society. So I like to explore that world where something strange happens to ordinary people.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last April with Stephen King. We'll hear more of it after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with Stephen King, after the publication of his collection of novellas called "If It Bleeds." The main character in the title story, Holly Gibney, is also a main character in the HBO adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Outsider," in which she was portrayed by Cynthia Erivo. In "The Outsider," Holly is investigating a case that she believes involves a supernatural entity that is the personification of evil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: In "The Outsider" - and this is also mentioned in "If It Bleeds" - you refer to the story of El Coco, which is a kind of mythical story that has its origins in various, you know, Spanish, Hispanic cultures. Why don't you describe El Coco and why you're interested in that story.

KING: I found El Coco after I had started to work on "If It Bleeds." I knew that there was an outsider because that's what the book was about. I'm interested in exploring the idea of outside evil. I find it comforting to think that there can be evil that doesn't necessarily come from the hearts and minds of men. And once I had set up this situation where there was a creature that could take the face and the form of someone else - who could become that person's doppelganger, I looked around for myths that would play into that. And the one that I found in a children's book, actually, was El Coco.

GROSS: So describe El Coco.

KING: Well, El Coco is a creature that lives on the fear and the pain of other people. In the myths, he takes bad children. He's a very thin man in a black coat with a white face. And what you tell the children - because we save our scariest stories for the children - is that if you're a bad kid, you will probably see El Coco crawling on your ceiling. I just love that image because it's spiderlike - the tall, thin man in the black coat. And he carries a bag with him. And if you're a bad child, he will pop you into his bag and take you away to his lair, which is supposedly a cave. And at that point, he will kill you and rub that child's fat on his body and regenerate and be a young person again.

GROSS: Wow. That's a lot (laughter) - there's a lot in that story. But the idea of this El Coco feeding on fear and on grief - I mean, that's when you're at your most vulnerable.

KING: Yeah, it is. And one of the things that I found extremely powerful that I wanted to use was that El Coco only starts by getting someone - it's Terry Maitland in "The Outsider" - to take the rap, if you will, for his crime. But then that creature hangs around and feeds on the grief and the pain and the hurt of all the people that are left behind. The whole family, the whole Frankie Peterson family, ends up destroyed because of El Coco. And El Coco tries to do the same thing to Terry Maitland's family, starting with the kids, who are the most vulnerable.

So - but I liked that idea. I used the cave idea at the - for the conclusion of the book and the miniseries, too, where I was able to put El Coco actually in a cave. So I stuck to the legend as much as I could.

GROSS: You grew up in the Methodist church. You went to church as a child. Given your bent as a writer, were you especially interested in stories about Satan?

KING: No, I wouldn't say I was especially interested in stories about Satan. I was more interested in the idea that Satan causes us to do terrible, terrible things. And the story, I would say, that fired my imagination the most was the story of Job. And I loved the language in that, the Old Testament - the King James language, where the story starts by saying that God says to the devil, what have you been up to, Satan? And Satan says, oh, I've been going up and down upon the earth to see what misery I could cause.

And so then they make a bet about Job, who basically is this sort of schmoo (ph) who's not doing anything wrong, and God says, do everything to him you want to do - just don't harm a hair of his head - and we'll see what happens. So the guy's crops die. The guy's livestock dies, then all his kids die. And after all that - this is where it kind of lost me - it actually has a happy ending (laughter). Job remarries and has more kids.

GROSS: So tell me more about why you find that story so interesting.

KING: Well, I think mostly because the idea that the devil can meddle in human lives, which goes back to the whole idea of whether or not - this is a question that's fascinated me all my life. Is there such a thing as outside evil? Are there demons, devils, ghosts, possessions, horrible things that come to us from outside, or is it all built into our DNA?

The Bible likes to have it both ways. There's this story of Job, where the devil kind of - the devil and God, in concert, cause all these things to happen. And then there's the story of the tree of good and evil, where you sort of get it all blamed on Eve, who just - man, she couldn't stop looking at that apple and saying, that must really be good - or the stories of Moses and all the people who built the golden calf because that's human failings - that it's human weakness. So I like to - I think it's actually comforting to think that there's an outside evil that's not our fault.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen King last April, after the publication of his collection of novellas, "If It Bleeds." We'll hear more of the interview - and we'll hear from Patrick Stewart - after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen King. His novel about a pandemic, "The Stand," has been adapted into a new TV miniseries that's streaming on CBS All Access. We spoke early in the pandemic, in April, the month he published "If It Bleeds," a collection of novellas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to read something that you recently tweeted - if you think that artists are useless, try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies and paintings. What led you to write that? Do you think people think of artists as useless?

KING: I didn't write it. I saw it on Twitter myself and reposted it. I didn't make a comment or anything. I just put it up. I never thought anybody would assume that I had written that. But it got an awful lot of retweets. And what struck me about it when I put it up was that we all need escape hatches, even in the most ordinary times, when we can go out and we can have social intercourse with people, we can meet on the street, we can gab, we can go to a movie - oh, my God, Terry, how I miss going to the movies...

GROSS: Me, too.

KING: ...You know, just sitting there with a - oh, yeah. I miss being with people. I miss going out to a restaurant and sitting, you know, and talking with somebody and having fun. Can't do that. I'm in the house. And I think that if I didn't have a good book to escape into - I'm reading this wonderful book now called "Dare Me" by Megan Abbott. Wonderful story. I've got Netflix. Thank God for Netflix. I'm watching this wonderful series called "Babylon Berlin."

So I can leave coronavirus. I can leave the self-quarantine and go back to Berlin in 1929. It's an escape hatch. It's a way to use your imagination as a force for good, where you can actually - by making believe, you can increase your serenity. You can take a little vacation from everything that's going on. That's the purpose of art. And it doesn't have to be a TV show, and it doesn't have to be a movie. It can be a poem. It can be going outside and looking at the spring that's just starting to come.

I think - every day, I like to take a few minutes to say, this is my life; I'm present in my life at this moment, and this is what I see, and this is what I feel. I think that you can't spend your whole day doing that. You'd go right out of your ever-loving mind. But once in a while, it's a good thing, and the imagination is a good thing. It's not always so good in the middle of the night, you know, when you wake up and you think, I think I heard something under my bed. That's maybe not such a good thing. But it's a double-edged sword. There's a good side. There's a bright side to the imagination, and there's a dark side to it. And I'm sure that we've all been there. And I hope that tonight, Terry, when you go to bed...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: ...That you'll keep your feet under the covers because it would be awful, and I wouldn't want you to think about this after the lights go out. It would be - please don't think about a hand creeping out from under your bed...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: ...A cold hand and then lightly gripping your ankle. I mean, you won't think about that, will you?

GROSS: No, I won't because that's not what's going to be scaring me in the middle of the night. And you know what is going to be scaring me in the middle of the night. But - which makes me wonder, like, how do you feel about your stories in a time like this? And what I mean is, your stories are about human nature and human vulnerabilities and the things beyond our perception, and they're also intended in part to scare people. You like scaring people. Part of your stories have to do with the world of horror. And we're surrounded by such - we're living in a horror story now. So what do you see as the role of, you know, horror fiction or horror movies in a period when the world itself is so frightening?

KING: Well, they're like dreams, aren't they? You're able to go into a world that you know is not real. But if the artist is good - the filmmaker or the novelist, maybe even the painter - for a little while, you're able to believe that world because the picture of it and the depiction of it is so real that you can go in there. And yet there's always a part of your mind that understands that it's not real, that it's make believe.

GROSS: Stephen King, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for your books. And I wish you and your family good health. And be well. Thank you.

KING: Thank you. And right back at you - be healthy and be safe.

GROSS: My interview with Stephen King was recorded in April, the month his collection of novellas "If It Bleeds" was published. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Patrick Stewart, who returned this year to his role as Captain Picard in his series "Star Trek: Picard." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.