Secret Window: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing
By Stephen King
Secret Windows was a Book of the Month Club companion to Stephen King’s stellar memoir on his writing career, On Writing. It includes essays by and about the author that augment the text of On Writing.
Introduction by Peter Straub
Peter Straub heaps praise upon Stephen King as one of the great American storytellers. One thing that Straub points out is what attracted me to King more than any other writer is King’s narrative voice. Most writers will use a straightforward narrative, utilizing full sentences, properly punctuated. While slang and profanity may be found in the dialogue, but the narrator’s tongue is as pure as the driven snow. Not so with Stephen King. King writes stories, but he also tells them; he tells them to the reader the way he might tell them while sitting around the fire. His narrative voice is American common-speak. The critics hate that, but King never wrote for the critics.
Straub also lauds King for speaking directly to his audience – sometimes at the beginning of a book like in his short story collections, or at the end when the book is a novel like his latest, 11/22/63. This also appeals to me a great deal as someone who not only enjoys good fiction, but likes to know the source of stories and how they were written. Nobody knows how to treat his public quite a well as Stephen King.
Dave’s Rag was a neighborhood “newspaper” started by King’s older brother when they were kids. Young Stephen was asked to contribute a story a week. Here, we see some of the earliest products of that fertile imagination. It’s easy to ascertain why King chose writing as a career. He was doing it quite well at an exceptionally young age.
The Horror Writer Market and the Ten Bears
This is a how-to of selling horror stories in the adult magazine industry. By the time Stephen King was starting out as a writer, the avenue through which previous horror writers broke through – the pulps – was all but dead. Men’s magazines at that time were more than just whacking material. They actually published fiction.
To keep the budget down (after all, the money was in the photos), they relied un young and unproven talent like Stephen King. King published in several men’s magazines – primarily Cavalier – before breaking through with Carrie in 1974.
The chapter is dated because most of the men’s magazines have been replaced by the Internet. However, we get a glimpse into how the young Stephen King was making his way in the world in 1973 – the year the article was written for Writer's Digest.
Foreword to Night Shift
This is Stephen King introducing himself to his readers for the first time in his books. King’s “constant reader” knows that King often includes afterwords in his books to talk to the Constant Reader about where the idea of the story came from, about the writing process for the story or novel, and how he felt about it.
However, in this introduction, King seems a bit defensive. Well he should at that time. While giants of genre fiction like Bradbury and Asimov were starting to gain some legitimacy in the mainstream in the late 1970s, writers like Stephen King, Ira Levin, and Richard Matheson were still considered hacks writing dreck that no reputable connoisseur of literature would be caught dead reading.
King talks about how people apologize for liking his books, saying they must be a little ghoulish for enjoying works like The Shining. King is defensive of his chosen genre and defiant of his critics. As the years have passed since Night Shift was published 32 years ago, we now know that that young, defiant Stephen King was replaced by a writer that, even though he would not admit it, wanted to be accepted by the mainstream as a “legitimate” writer of fiction.
On Becoming a Brand Name
This autobiographical essay tells the story of how an English teacher who earned too little and drank too much became a household name and a millionaire.
King notes that if he’s atop the field in horror fiction, it is by default. At the time of this essay’s writing in 1980 that Ira Levin had not written horror since 1975’s Stepford Wives and William Blatty had not followed up on The Exorcist. Not much real horror writing was happening in the 1970s which left the door open for a hungry young talent like Stephen King to enter.
King describes how he wrote four novels prior to Carrie – none which he thought were any good. We know one of them was The Gunslinger which kicked off his magnum opus, the Dark Tower. We also know that one was Blaze – a novel a much more mature Stephen King would dust off for publication in 2007.
Then there was Carrie. It was a book that King wrote, but didn’t like. He, being a young man, was in uncharted territory writing about the trials and tribulations of an adolescent female. When completed, the book was a very short novel, or a very long short story, depending on the point of view. One night, in a fit of pique, he threw the novel in the trash.
Wife Tabitha rescued the novel from the rubbish and read it. She thought it worthy of submission. King rewrote the story, adding the sidebar material that appears as a break between most story transitions in the published version and sent it off to his agent. The book was eventually accepted for publication after the ending was rewritten and a brand name was born.
King goes on to tell how he followed up with ‘Salem’s Lot as his second book. It was submitted to the publisher along with Blaze which is a kidnap story inspired by the Patty Hearst kidnapping. The publisher went with ‘Salem’s Lot and Blaze was relegated to the trunk for more than three decades.
‘Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula, which King had taught to high school students. He thought it would be interesting to transport Stoker’s lore to the modern United States. He decided to inflict an entire Maine town with the vampire disease after a friend described how some Maine communities were so isolated and insular that they could disappear and no one would know or care.
After writing ‘Salem’s Lot, King did not want to publish another story set in Maine. So, he uprooted the family and moved them to Colorado. On their way to their new home, they stayed at a resort hotel. They were the only guests that evening because the hotel was shutting down for the season the next day. The Shining – or "The Shine" as it was originally entitled – was inspired.
His agent feared that the story too closely resembled Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings which was a bestseller and destined to be made into a movie. King knew and respected the novel, but was confident that the two were different enough that they would not be confused.
King wraps up by relating an anecdote about being overcome by the urge to head to the men’s room during an author’s conference. Whilst sitting on the commode, he was approached by a fan, book in hand, asking for an autograph.
With so much literature available today with the Internet and the advent of the E-reader, I don’t think a person could establish themselves as a brand after just three books. Granted, King’s first three books were made into movies or teleplays almost upon publication, which would give him six very public creative endeavors.
Myself, I had seen Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining by 1980. But I was not really aware of Stephen King as a branded horror master until Christine was released in 1983 because all of my friends were talking about the movie. I’d skipped Firestarter and The Dead Zone as movies and wasn’t even aware of them as books. I’d never heard of The Stand. It would be two years later, in 1985, while working at Cedar Point Amusement Park, that I would pick up Pet Semetary to see if the man’s books were as good as his movies.
Horror Fiction from Danse Macabre
King dedicates about one third of Danse Macabre to naming and analyzing what he thinks are the great books written between 1950 and 1980. Some of them I’ve read, some I’ve not.
The first book he lists as great is Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I must admit, I’ve never read this, but have heard from others that it is an excellent book. I’ve seen the movie and it was enjoyable enough. But, as one can tell from my blog, I spend a great deal of time comparing books and the movies based on them and know too well a so so movie can be made from a great book.
I’ve read only two Straub novels: Shadowland, which was ok, and Koko which I thought was dreadful.
King claims that it was Ghost Story that created the American gothic tale as the old men of the Chowder Society did battle with the ghost that inhabited their town as well as the guilt from a horrible past wrong they committed in their youth.
He also dedicates a great deal of words in a divergent summary and analysis of Straub’s first published book, Julia.
For the great haunted house books of that era, King nominates Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rivers Siddon’s The House Next Door. To King, these are the archetypes of what he calls, “The Bad Place” of horror. A less modest man (and King is not a particularly modest man) would have included King’s The Shining. But maybe Mr. King was more modest in the late 1970s.
Jackson’s novel about psychic experiments inside the dark and foreboding Hill House still stands at the pinnacle of the sub-genre of haunted house books. Written in the 1950s, Hollywood is still cranking out movies based on it (although none as good as the 1961 version called The Haunting). King himself took a crack at retelling Jackson’s story in an uneven – and sometimes dreadfully bad -- three part miniseries entitled Rose Red.
Siddon’s book, King says, transplants the haunted castle of European literature to American suburbia. I’ve never read Siddons’ book and to my knowledge, there was never a movie made about it. The story is told by observers watching as several successive residents who inhabit the home next door to them go insane.
As King describes it, The House Next Door is the stuff of Hammer Horror set in suburban Atlanta. His advocacy for the book has encouraged me to seek it out and take it in at some later date.
To his list of great horror novels of 1950-1980, he adds Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. He credits it, along with The Exorcist, for bringing horror novels back into vogue in the 1970s. I don’t know if I would rank Rosemary’s Baby in my top 10 novels of all time, but it would rank high. Before I discovered Stephen King, I discovered Ira Levin. As a pre-adolescent, I took in Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the Boys from Brazil, all of which I found on my mother’s bookshelf. They, along with Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, were my introduction to adult horror literature.
King sees Rosemary’s Baby as a novel that was simply a product of the times. It was penned during that era when Time magazine displayed its controversial cover bearing the headline, “Is God dead?” With God dead or dying, (he wasn’t, but leave it to the media moguls of New York to try to slay him), the birth of Satan’s child in New York to a middle class couple fit right in with the times.
Rosemary’s Baby is also a rare instance where the movie is a straight retelling of the novel. Roman Polanski, who had his run-in with pure evil when his lovely wife was murdered by Charles Manson, and committed great evil when he raped a 13 year old girl, made a masterful movie and Mia Farrow who would go on to encounter evil when she married a pedophile, was exceptional in her portrayal of Rosemary Woodhouse.
King provides some great insight into Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers which is next on his list. According to King, Finney says he had no political ideology, no allegory, no metaphor in mind when he wrote The Body Snatchers. Like most great story tellers, he simply wanted to write a good story.
This is another book I read as a child and have not picked up since. My recollection of it is hazy, but I’ve watched both movies based on it recently. The 1955 Kevin McCarthy version is close to a straight retelling as I recall. King says the story works so well because of its setting in a small town, where everybody knows everybody else. Small towns tend to be insular. Everybody knows everybody’s business, but they don’t share it with outsiders. What better place for aliens to stake their claim in our world?
Next on King’s list is Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. While he includes it on the list of great novels, he’s critical of Bradbury’s writing style, saying parts of it are over written. This comes from a man who practically invented over writing.
I think King misses what Bradbury was going for in his tale of a haunted carnival coming to the now mythical Greentown, Illinois. It is an adult novel told in a child’s voice from a child’s point of view. What do children do once they start to put together sentences? They talk too much. Is there too much narrative in Something Wicked. . .? Perhaps, but Bradbury does make us feel like it is a child telling us the story and there is something special in that.
Where King criticizes Bradbury on one hand, he offers high praise on the other. He says many writers are defined as horror writers, science fiction, writers, adventure writers, fantasy writers. To King, Bradbury is simply Bradbury – all things to all readers. High praise indeed – and true!
At the time of King’s writing, Disney had not yet made its entertaining, but not overly great movie based on the second of Bradbury’s Greentown trilogy.
Next on King’s list of the pantheon of horror fiction is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Why he chose this instead of Matheson’s I am Legend is beyond me. I have read both and while I think Shrinking Man is a good book, I think I am Legend is a GREAT book that has inspired three direct retellings and redefined the whole genre of zombie stories.
King does not say it in this book, but has said in other writings that it was Matheson more than anyone else who inspired him to write horror fiction. He calls The Shrinking Man, “. . .another case of a fantasy novel packaged as science fiction in a rationalistic decade when even dreams had to have some sort of basis in reality.”
As King points out, Matheson, like Bradbury, eschews hard science fiction in favor of telling a good story. If you want to know how things work, King tells us, read Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven. If you want to read a good story, take in Matheson or Bradbury.
Matheson’s shrinking man is affected by radiation, just like the big bugs of the 1950s movies. Matheson has given us our foundation in rationalism to tell a great adventure tale of a small man conquering large obstacles inside his own home – doing battle with his cat and later, in the cellar, with a black widow spider.
In its time, King postulates, it tells of man’s shrinking importance in a society becoming increasingly dominated by machines.
King adds Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother to the list. I’ve reviewed on collection of Ramsey Campbell stories and, looking back on it I was too harsh on Campbell for those stories, more than a year later, still resonate with me. I’ve never read a Campell novel.
Campbell’s novel is about a supernatural cannibal who eats a man’s arm shortly after it is amputated. King says that Campbell provides a new take on the horror archetype Dracula as the three main characters hunt down the creature.
The most obscure entry into King’s list of legendary books is James Herbert’s The Fog which King points out bears no connection to the John Carpenter film of the same name. In Herbert’s novel, a strange fog is released from a canister lost by the government. That fog invades an small English town and causes the people to commit maniacal murder upon each other.
What sets Herbert’s writing apart, King tells us, is how “he seizes our lapels and begins to scream in our faces!” in his story.
King brings his list of 10 important novels to a close by including Harlan Ellison’s collection of short stories, Strange Wine. It is clear that King is an astute admirer of Ellison’s. Those in the writing trade either hate or love Ellison just as Ellison either hates or loves them. A caustic personality is Harlan Ellison.
King goes on for several pages and more than a thousand words about Ellison and his short stories before telling us that Strange Wine is a great collection of fables packaged as fantasy and science fiction.
King wraps up by informing us that horror literature is a booming industry filled with garbage to be avoided. As garbage, he points out two writers whose works I have enjoyed: John Saul and Frank DeFelitta. While neither Saul nor DeFelitta (who wrote Audrey Rose) never wrote anything with the epic feel of The Stand or the sheer terror of The Shining, they never wrote anything so bad as Gerald’s Game or Lisey’s Story.
An Evening at the Billerica Library
In a speech delivered in 1983, Stephen King lectures on the subtext that lies between the lines of horror novels. It sound very much like the chapter on text and subtext in his book, Danse Macabre. He talks of the rise of the atomic age begetting the giant bug movies, The age of McCarthy begetting the hidden monster subgenre typified by Who Goes There and the movie, The Thing from Another World which spawned from that movie up to The Exorcist which King relates to the rise of the hippy culture and how parents found the children who had been so nice in the 1950s were rebellious monsters in the 1960s.
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet
An old and retired publisher tells a writer, his wife, and agent a story about a writer who submitted a short story to a magazine that told a humorous tale about going insane. The editor, an alcoholic at the time, accidentally feeds into the writer’s growing paranoia about the nature of his muse. That indulgence in the writer’s paranoid delusions leads to disaster.
This story is interesting because it is about something that very few writers discuss: their muse. Do I have a muse? Yes, but he’s a rather blue collar type. More utilitarian than creative, the little bastard. I don’t think my muse went to college. If he did, he didn’t take creative writing.
This story was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1984. It was later published in King's 1984 short story collection, Skeleton Crew.
How IT Happened
This article from Book of the Month News describes how King conjured up the idea for his prolific novel, IT. He was living in Colorado at the time, having completed The Shining. One day, the transmission in his AMC Matador literally fell out of the car. The car was towed to an AMC dealership.
A few days later, he received a call telling him his car was fixed. He decided to walk to the dealership. On his way, he crossed a wooden bridge. He was quite conscious of the sound his hard-soled cowboy boots made on the bridge and began thinking about the troll that might live beneath. The bridge crossed a wooded area with a stream running through it.
The idea stayed in his head for a long time and he began imagining his troll living in storm sewers, terrorizing the children of a peculiar Maine town. The rest is in the book.
When IT was published, it was the first time the literary community took a serious look at Stephen King. IT is a horror story with one of King’s most horrifying creatures in Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But it is also a retrospective on the culture of the late 1950s. Some literary critics thought that, perhaps, lurking behind all that rubbish about monsters, was a serious cultural examination of America at mid century. But there were always effete goobers like Harold Bloom who dismiss King and all writers of genre fiction or fiction that that garners a mainstream audience. That is becoming less and less the case.
Banned Books and Other Concerns
This was a short lecture delivered by King at the Virginia Beach library. King is one of the most banned authors in history – right up there with Judy Blume. He is an authority on the subject of banned books. He has dedicated a great deal of his time and resources to fight book banning.
He opens his lecture by telling the story of an appearance he made before an audience of readers. One lady remarked that she enjoyed Carrie, but didn’t care for all of the bad words that were in the book. King replied that those bad words are the truth. People use bad words. Even the saintly among us are not above screaming something as mild as, “Damn!” when we hit our fingers with a hammer.
He then goes on to describe how one Pittsburgh mother made it her mission to ban a book called, Working which was about steelworkers and their after hour conversations in a local pub. I grew up among blue collar men and blue collar men often use blue language. Author Studs Terkel didn’t censor the subject of his book. When this mother saw her son had read this book full of colorful language, she worked with the school board to ban the book from the school’s library. King noted that the book was in the library for three years before the young man checked it out for his book report. Not one person had read it. By the time the school board pulled it from its shelves, 36 young people had looked inside that tome to see what it was that they weren’t supposed to see.
King ascribes book banning and censorship to political and social conservatives. We all know that that is not entirely the case. The efforts of people to ban books like To Kill an Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tend to come from the cultural elite of the left.
While I’m certain that King abhors book banning of all sorts, I’ve never seen or read of King, a dedicated liberal himself, decry book banning from the left.
Turning the Thumbscrews on the Reader
In a short piece for the Book of the Month Club, King discusses Misery and how he’d written about writers before, but had never written about writing before in his fiction. He recounts how James Joyce was often tortured about his writing and finding the right words. King says, being completely without a fixed style, the words come easy for him.
“Ever Et Raw Meat?” and Other Strange Questions
King discusses the strange questions he is often asked by mail and in person. The most common one is where do you get your ideas. He always replies, “Utica.” He once received an ounce of weed from a woman who said she got her inspiration from it and hoped it helped him. He covers a litany of questions such as, “why aren’t you reading one of your own books?” (I know how it ends), and “Don’t you wish you had a rubber stamp?” which he frequently hears at the books signings that he loathes so much.
A New Introduction to John Fowles’ The Collector
King penned a literary criticism of John Fowles’ novel about imprisoning a woman in his basement and trying to convince her to love her. The piece served as an introduction the the 25th anniversary of the book’s initial publication in 1963. As one might imagine, King loved the book and based on his description of it, it sounds as if Thomas Harris drew on it for inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs.
What Stephen King Does for Love
In this article for Seventeen Magazine, King posits why the fiction assigned to teenagers to read in school is often loathed by them and if it is loathed by them, why is it assigned. He draws on his own experience of being forced to read Moby Dick, the works of Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe when he hated them. He goes on to discuss how, as he matured, his views on some of those books and stories changed over the years, while he still loathes Moby Dick. Ultimately, he tells teens read what you like and endure what you must.
Two Past Midnight: A Note on Secret Window, Secret Garden
One of Stephen King’s most endearing traits is that he talks to his readers (“talks” is the apt verb) about where the idea for a particular book or story came from. Here, he tells us that Secret Window, Secret Garden, came to him while delivering a load of laundry to his washing machine. It’s a great story of how a story came to be.
Introduction to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
As the recognized master of horror, King is often invited to write the introduction to re-issues of great horror novels and offer literary criticism of that novel. For Ketchum’s book, King talks about how this disturbing story of torture and people without conscience alter our popular conception of 1950s society.
Great Hookers I Have Known
In this undated essay, Stephen King discusses the importance of a first sentence in a short story and how it must grab the reader’s attention. Oddly, the essay turns semi-autobiographical when he talks of his father’s writing, his wife’ s writing, and that of his children. He goes on to analyze the first sentences of his novels rather than his short stories and concludes that there is nothing special in any of the first sentences in his novels. His favorite first sentence in his own work came from ‘Salem’s Lot.
A Night at the Royal Festival Hall: An Interview with Muriel Gray
This interview, done in England, came shortly after the publication of Bag of Bones. King answers approximately a dozen pre-selected questions. One interesting question is about sex and the lack of it in his novels. It is pertinent because Bag of Bones is the first novel where King writes a sex scene. He jokes that, in a conversation one evening about writing and what they wrote, Peter Straub said of King, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex.” He discovered it in a Bag of Bones. To his credit, it only adds to the story and is not a pornographic pause as is often found in modern horror.
An Evening with Stephen King: March 30, 1999
In the text of this speech, we read many of the anecdotes that have been told in this collection of essays about where King gets his ideas (the transmission of the AMC Matador) and the inspiration for IT. This speech was delivered just as the Frank Darabont movie, The Green Mile was to be released and just before King’s newest book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, was published.
What is remarkable from this speech is King states his unqualified belief in God. I had always thought King to be an agnostic who fell away from his Methodist upbringing. Not only is his belief strong, but so is his faith. King recounts the many near disasters and the many potential for disasters that lurk in the world as proof that a good and just God looks out for humanity.
In the Deathroom
At the time this book was published, this was an unpublished short story. It would eventually be published in King’s fourth short story collection, Everything’s Eventual in 2002. It paled in comparison to superior works in the book such as The Road Virus Heads North and 1408 which is some of the most disconcerting writing King has ever done.
The story centers around a New York Times reporter held captive in a torture room of a South American country, being interrogated about his ties to communist insurgents. He is tortured some before he manages to escape. The story’s not-at-all veiled subtext is how we hear and grasp what we want to believe, even when it flies in the face off all circumstances presented before us. Among King’s short works, it ranks as average.