For anyone wanting to write a good horror novel, what could be better than hearing straight from the master? The video below features a thirty-five minute interview with Stephen King, the undisputed Lord of the Macabre!
It’s quite fascinating, not least because it isn’t all about novel structure and technique, but it’s packed with tips about his writing habits and style.
Where does his inspiration come from? What was his childhood like? All these questions, and more give a great idea how a master author approaches his novels. I also added a transcript of the complete interview below the video. I hope you enjoy it – I did!
How To Write a Horror Novel Like Stephen King – The Interview
We begin with Stephen King. He is a national treasure since the publication of his first book Carrie in 1974. Stephen King has written 27 novels that have sold a hundred and fifty million copies worldwide and made him very rich. His work ,including The Shining and Misery, has been adapted into 24 feature films and six television productions.
His latest book ‘Nightmares & Dreamscapes’ is a retrospective of King’s phenomenal career, including many hard-to-find stories and several that are being published for the first time. We’re very pleased to have him with us this time. Welcome.
Thank you, Charlie, it’s nice to be here.
It is really good to have you here. We wanted to do this for a while. Tell me what what kind of books do you write?
Well if you ask the ordinary run-of-the-mill reader if there is such a guy or such a gal. When I was a kid used to say, Stephen your taste is all in your mouth and that’s true but it has made me relatively wealthy, not even relatively very, but I have a lot of relatives.
Though do you know where it all comes from? I mean it comes out of your imagination but why this for you, why not other kinds of novels?
No I don’t know where it all comes from and that’s the the literal unvarnished truth. I don’t know where it comes from anymore then I know where the color of my eyes comes from. Well, all right that comes, that’s genetically inherited from your mother and your father . My mother used to enjoy writing and my father wrote a lot of stories and mailed them to the pulp magazines of the 40s and 50s, like Argosy and that sort of thing.
I guess some of them were pretty good but I’ve never seen any of them so I have a little of that from my parents and my children have only one with it from me.
You wanted to write from an early age.
Yeah, it was what it was, what there was for me. I always did it. I always took great pleasure in it. I still take great pleasure in it the actual act of composition. For me, the part that I don’t like starts when you turn a manuscript in to the publisher. That’s like you have your own private field that’s full of snow in the in the backyard and nobody’s tracked in it but you give it to them and then they open it to the public.
I mean, that whole creation is only your’s and only you know those characters. Our editor must not forget that you were the only person who’s live with them, know them, know where they’re going what they think, how they conflict, what’s going to happen to them and I’m the only one that has an opinion on them, and then an editor comes along and says well, we’ll change this and that.
In his new book nightmares & dreamscapes, a lot of the stories go back half my lifetime actually and so some of them were written by a very young man, and then the editor comes up and says, “well maybe if you change this or tweak that and it’s not that they’re wrong, that’s not what I’m saying”.
And you say ‘well that was mine for a long time now. I’m from Maine, I’m a Yankee, maybe that’s a Yankee reaction, you know leave my backyard alone.
Do you create characters you like?
Usually I do, but I don’t always create characters that I like. Sometimes I create the same sort of characters that I’m I’m afraid of when I was a kid. Right, oh yeah, when I was a kid there was a guy who was maybe the first of the modern serial killers. A guy named Charlie Starkweather . Starkweather was in Nebraska and it was in the 50s, and I had a scrapbook I cut out all these clippings of him and my mother found this scrapbook.
It was 1957, so I would have been about 10 years old and I think she decided right then and there that not all my wheels were on the road anymore. Your elevator was not going to the cell floor. She said “why are you interested in this guy?” and because I was only 10, and what articulation I had then went into the stories and it really still does. I’m a much better writer than I am a talker.
What I was not able to tell her was there was one picture of this young man who killed these people and what was in his eyes was nothing at all. I mean, vacant rooms, depopulated planets with nothing, and what I was not able to tell her was I need to look out for this guy. I need to know everything about him so that if I ever meet him or anybody like him I can go around him.
And in my fiction when I’ve created characters like John Raindurdon in Firestarter or George Stark in The Dark, half some of the real bad guys, I’m telling myself, reminding myself “look out for these guys, these guys are dangerous and they’re really out there”.
Did you try to write anything then, when you were 9 and 10?
Oh yeah, yeah and a lot of it was the sort of stuff that I write now. There were horror stories, fantasy stories. See, I grew up on a diet o,f let’s say, the sort of comic books that kids weren’t really supposed to read, like Tales from the Crypt and the vault of horror and that sort of thing.
One of the earliest stories that I remember my mother reading to my brother and I, was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So you see I was warped from an early age. Somebody will sort of want to discuss your books if you write what I write, and they’ll sort of sidle up to you and say “by the way, what was your childhood like?” Course they do, but mine was perfectly normal, in general.
Back to the question I asked about what kind of books do you write. Do you compare yourself with with no false modesty to anyone when you look back? Who would you like to be compared to? Where do you put your work generally once it’s done and bound, and in a book?
I put it on the Shelf! If it’s a get in, I send it the Hollywood, who sends the check! Yeah, the writers that I like. There are writers that that i admire tremendously and there are writers whose styles have helped me at various times that I’ve sort of taken into my own mix and tried to make a part of myself.
I think that writers, when they’re forming, are like what my mother always used to say “milk in the refrigerator takes the flavor of whatever’s next to it” you know, so that as a kid, if I read a lot of HP Lovecraft, I’d write like Lovecraft.
There are a couple of pastiches in the Nightmares & Dreamscapes, the new book. There’s a Sherlock Holmes story that was written as part of a competition at a mystery weekend in Mohawk in upstate New York, and there’s also a Chandler-esque Philip Marlowe hard-boiled detective story, because I admire that style tremendously.
You know what I’m like. I don’t necessarily want to be compared to anybody now.
But just tell me who you are, because there are people, the reason I asked the question is there there many who say, and this is complimentary to you, look back years from now, look back at what Stephen King was writing and we’ll see you in a very different way. As the audience who loves you so much and buys 150 million copies sees you, they may very well be responding to these sort of base emotions of a great story.
First of all I don’t think that you would sell unless you tell a great story. I assume that you believe that as well. If they remember me at all. Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing when you think about it the writers who come and enjoy tremendous popularity and sort of disappear so that you find their works on back shelves in hotel suites or in, you know, bargain barns in New England.
If I could write one book, let’s say, in my genre that would be remembered the way that Dracula is remembered. I loved the idea of the novel Dracula because it’s it’s shameless Pulp Fiction and it’s melodramatic, and it has a lot of things in it that that critics considered to be vices, and yet it’s it’s enjoyed its own life.
It stood the test of time.
That’s right yeah.
And do you believe yours will stand the test of time?
Well, I’d like to think so and I think some of it has a chance because horror fiction is a general rule lives its own guerilla life so that sometimes it’s the kind of thing where one kid will tell another “have you read this” you know, and they’ll go and get it out of the library.
I think that some of that stuff does have a tendency in both on the superficial level at the top level; not superficial but at the very top. What is it that makes it so attractive so it sells ?Something common to yours and others. What is it about the work? You don’t call it Horror, your work Horror. You don’t call yourself a horror novelist for whatever reason but yourself.
Okay, but what is it that grabs an audience at the first level?
I show something forbidden. So that you’re saying to somebody “come with me and I will say things to you that nobody else will say and I will show you things that nobody else will”. They’re so horrible to imagine.
It shares the same attraction as comedy wriitng, which says the same thing?A movie that’s really funny, that really makes people laugh is generally saying “I’m going to show you something that you haven’t seen before” so that when Mel Brooks did Blazing Saddles back in 74, or whatever was, and the Cowboys eat beans and then sit around the fire and they start to fart right?
Well, nobody had ever heard anybody actually fart in a movie and we all fell on the floor laughing you know. It made that movie, so it was something that had been previously forbidden you know. We all know about it, we all know that people pass gas, but nobody had ever put it on the big screen and here what are you doing. It’s forbidden.
Well for instance, in Pet Sematary, what I said was “here’s something that we don’t talk about people sometimes have kids who died. There are terrible things that happen and sometimes a child will die young and in Pet Sematary that happened, and I followed the family through the grieving process and then the father goes out to the graveyard and digs his son up and tries to bring him back to life.
People say “that can’t happen, that is a total make-believe thing” just in case any of your viewers out there thought that they could dig people up and bring them back to life. It doesn’t work that way, but in fiction sometimes it can and the important part about it you know I like to say that fiction is a lie but good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
And the truth that any person who’s ever lost a child knows, is that you wish you could bring them back to life and the story explores what might happen if something like that could could happen. So horror fiction, a lot of it to me, is the lure of the forbidden.
Now at a deeper, or additional level, is it also some sense of of dealing with your own fears?
I think it is. I think that by comparison by saying as bad as things are you, know they’re not this bad. They are two stories, as scared as you might be. This is the deepest and darkest deepest but on a level where I like to work now because I’ve been here for a long time I’ve done a lot of this stuff. I’m terrified of self parody. I’m terrified of running out of ideas and just recycling the old stuff.
The thing that interests me the most right now is the fact that sometimes things happen that are terrible and it doesn’t seem to be any clear reason why. There are two stories in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, this one called Rainy Season and there’s another one called the Moving Finger.
Rainy Season is about these tourists who are just sort of besieged by killer toads. Moving Finger is a story about a Prom Queen who one night sees a finger poked out of the bathroom drain. Just a finger, and it keeps getting longer and in neither case are these phenomena explained. One of the things that particularly in Hollywood that filmmakers like you to do is to explain where these monsters came from, or whatever the phenomena was.
What started this? It’s ridiculous. Why would they want to go ahead? It is ridiculous. Yeah, why would they want to do that, because that ruins the mystery of the whole thing.
Let’s get to that subject, I mean, what about the movies that have been made out of your novels? I mean some of them, they forget that whatever is inside the book, and they take the title and they go off and make their movie.
Now that you know that’s simply trying to make a few bucks.
Yeah, but what about those that are more true to what you have written. Why do they fail? I don’t mean fail in terms of your liking them, not in terms of an audience, not in terms of making mone,y but in terms of Stephen King saying “by god they did a hell of a job”?
Well, one movie that departs considerably from the from the book, that’s a failure, is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Right, and I think that that would fail because Kubrick was going to make the horror movie that was going to be the benchmark horror movie, the one by which other horror movies are judged and he didn’t really know the field and he didn’t take any time to educate himself in the field so that I think that might be a failure of Hubris.
And with the case of another movie like Firestarter, which was the book literally exactly point-to-point. It is the book. I think it’s a failure because it doesn’t have the sparkle and the life of the novel. I’ve been waiting for this to happen to John Grisham but there’s only one film out.
I love his stuff and one of the reasons I did love his stuff, because we all have a little sensor inside our heads that stands at the gate what we really think and what we actually say or write down, and Grisham’s is out on a permanent coffee break. Whatever comes into that guy’s mind, boom, it’s on the page and that’s what makes him really work. He’s really alive and the books are really alive.
They may be a little bit unbelievable in places, and they may be a little bit rough edged in terms of style, but The Firm worked really well as a movie. The first movie ever made from one of my books Carrie also really worked well, and another thing that they have in common is in both cases the film departed significantly from the book, but still work.
It will be interesting to see how future films have hit work, whether or not they can catch what I’m trying to say. To lead back to your question, if the movie has to capture some of the spirit of the writers heart and mind, and if it doesn’t find , generally speaking, what the reader went to the book and found and loved.
How many screenplays have you written?
I’ve written … you had to ask me that as well … tough. Just bear with me folks, I’m looking at the what they call the masthead page, where I essentially has it I’ve written Creepshow, Cat’s-eye, Silver Bullet, Maximum Overdrive, Pet Sematary, Golden Ears Sleepwalkers and The Stand.
Which of those did you like the most?
The one that I like the best is The Stand, which is going to be a okay. That’s an eight-hour miniseries on ABC and that’s why I like it, because it got a chance to spread.
And did you have more of a direct involvement with the director and the producer?
I had a fair degree of control, listen the Stan Lee – was a huge project but it’s the one where readers come to me and say “The Stand has to be a movie, don’t make The Stand into a movie” all in the same breath. It’s this feeling like they want to see it but they feel like it can’t be done and for 10 years we tried to do it as a theatrical and it could because it was too long but the standards of TV have changed so much you can do more.
Let’s speak about critics. How do you feel about the critics and what they say about you, and what do you think of literary establishment in America.
I think that that those are big fields I can cover. I’ll take critics first. I think the critics by and large have been very fair to me over the years as I’ve gotten more successful in terms of copy sold.The critical reaction to my stuff has been stiffer, and that’s the way that it should be when a lot of people are reading a lot of stuff.
It deserves to be evaluated with a real strong edge of, what would you say, that devil’s advocacy feel. Like, so that there’s been some of that, but I also think that there’s a critical view in this country that says “we critics are the few, the proud, the brave, and we understand what real literary quality is” and there aren’t very many of us guys, us real pencil neck geeks who understand the true meaning of the game.
The idea is that there tends to be critical approval for people who have a fairly narrow range of appeal and there is a feeling among the real critical intelligentsia that anybody who’s being read by a lot of people I can’t be very good, because the middle range is fairly low and that’s total bull.
How much of it though is the fact that they don’t think that the horror genre or even suspense genre is real literature?
I think to some of that but on the whole because it has a real a real openness to allegory and symbolism. I’ve been better treated and a lot of horror novelists have been better treated. Peter Straub for instance, Patrick McGrath, right we’ve been better treated in Clive Barker then say really good Western novelists like Llewellyn.
Larry McMurtry is a good case in point. There are a lot of people who are working in the Western field.
You know one thing I’m curious about, that a field that’s been totally overlooked by the critic,s except when they want a sneer. So I wonder if anybody’s done anything good in the romance field?
I don’t know the field, yeah, I don’t know, sort of like swim savage love Lana somebody has in fact. I don’t even know that I can name five romance novelist. It’s tough. Rosemary Rogers , and then I’m sort of Danielle Steele.
What about the notion of a part of you wanting to, I mean, a little part of you having all the success you’ve had both in terms of readers, both in terms of enthusiasm for your latest book. Your name alone will sell the book now I mean. If it’s a Stephen King novel, they want it and there’s a built-in audience, as there is in a different genre for Tom Clancy and others . Is there still a part of you that hungers for sort of someone to say “this guy is a great writer”.
Yes, there’s always a feeling here that I would love to be allowed to go around to the front door instead of always having to use the tradesmen’s entrance. That would be wonderful but essentially I’m sort of resigned to the idea that I’m going to be regarded as a popular novelist, with a popular novelist virtues and a popular novelist fault and in a sense that’s all right. I’m running my own race now.
What do I mean? My family is well provided for. There’s no need. If it were a matter of money, I would never have to set, yeah, my pen to paper, or turn on my word processor on again. In the world, if it were a matter of critical acceptance, I would stop right now, because that’s never going to come.
On the level that you just mentioned, I don’t think. Never. I don’t know, no, I don’t think so. Not in my lifetime certainly and probably not after, but are you going to reach for it? Oh yeah, yeah always. Every time that I sit down. That’s why I say I’m running my own race. I’m writing to please myself and that’s all. I’m my own toughest critic. I’ve never been able to reach to the place that I want to be at.
The last two novels were the best reviewed and some say a new direction for you more in the genre of suspense than horror.
Yes, well, I think that that’s true. I think that as, if you were reaching, stretching, growing moving somewhere else, yeah, I think the people look at the books coming out next month and I’ll be interested to see how that does. Those are straight novels in the sense there’s no supernatural element, there’s no hocus-pocus, there’s no ‘why you’ll notice that my arm goes all the way up this shoulder’ and all that.
They’re straight novels, have that child’s game – same thing right but the basic thing is I never said that I was a horror novelist. I never said that I was a suspense novelist. I never said I was anything, except a guy who writes books and any labels that go on me I don’t accept those or reject.
Why do you write so prolifically? Why so many, I mean, are all those stories in there that have to get out?
Yeah, I think that they do, but I also think that some of it has to do with simply being fairly facile with words. There’s this story, I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, about James Joyce. A friend comes in and Joyce has got his hands up on his head like this. The guy says “James what’s the matter, did you have a bad day? How many words did you write?” and Joyce said “I wrote seven words today”. “That’s not bad for you, James,” he says. “But I don’t know what order they go in!”
I know I’ve never been that kind of a writer. I’ve always known what what order they go in and I think that sometimes that very facility has caused me problems with the critics. It’s hard and it gets harder, it doesn’t get any easier at all. There’s no formula, there is no magic elixir that works for, you know.
You get an idea, you play with the idea, you get to the point where you say “well I’m certainly not going to try to write that, that would be much too difficult, and I don’t have the time anyway”, and then you find yourself doing it anyway.
Once you get the idea set and once you get to do you know where the ending is before you start writing?
I usually think I do. Often, it will not end the way that I expected it to do at all so it does usually surprise because that’s what is what happens. It means that you’ve got an organic living piece of work that you’re dealing with there. It’s alive, it’s changing, it’s evolving as it goes along.
I remember reading one time that Erle Stanley Gardner had all these notebooks and he would pick and mix and match, you know, like a chess sketch and write like paint numbers. Who would want to write that way?
When you submit what you finish to the editor, does the editor have much influence on your stuff? Is it pretty much now they look and say 150 million copies?
If had an editor who felt that way, I would get a new editor because they really do help you. Yeah, and the thing is, there was a time in the 70s where you know, I’d read criticisms that would say “Oh Stephen King could publish his laundry list if he wanted to” and the horrible thing is probably now I could publish my laundry list.
I don’t know how many copies it would sell but I could probably sell a lot, except the next time you published a book, yeah, it would really hurt. I want an editor that’s fairly tough on me. I’m in the process of rewriting a book now and I’ve got a manuscript. It’s covered with line edits. The editor’s name is Chuck Barrow. He’s very, very good. At this stage in the manuscript I could kill him.
I heard your wife is a novelist – do you show her chapter-by-chapter, or wait until you end it
Generally speaking, I will show her a book in progress in about three chunks, so she will read the first third and then the first two thirds, and then the whole thing. She’s the first person to see it. She’s always the first person to see it and when she writes her novels she has a tendency not to show me what she’s involved with or even talk about it very much and I certainly couldn’t go into her office and pick it up because she works in a way that makes me want to scream.
There’s pages here and this page is there, and this page is somewhere else, and I just don’t understand how anybody can work in that clutter, but she probably doesn’t understand how I work either so we do show each other our stuff yeah. She makes changes and suggests changes, and talks about character development, those kind of things. She’s very tough.
I saw this just amazing Harper magazine article, it was a list of all the ways that you have killed people.
Yeah, I do but I’ve had a long career and I’ve killed a lot of people.
Well, what’s been the most for you, the one that was the most delicious, and I choose the word delicious on purpose.
Yeah, I think probably it’s a story called Survivor Type. It’s a short story. It’s not in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which, should you wonder is on sale at a bookstore near you even as we speak. From seeking press, there’s an earlier collection called Skeleton Crew.
In this story, a survivor type was in that and it didn’t appear anywhere else, because I couldn’t sell it to a magazine. It was about a doctor who’s smuggling heroin, who’s on a boat that shipwrecked and he lands on this desert island, and there’s nothing to eat, and so because he’s a surgeon and he has all this anesthetic, he eats himself a piece at a time.
I remember going to this this retired doctor who lived next to us and saying how much of a person could have personally cut off before they died of shock or trauma. This is the same guy a year before I gone to him and asked if it would be humanly possible for a human being to swallow a cat, so he’d gotten to a point where it was really weird.
He told me a person with a strong survival instinct could actually remove quite a bit of his person. Recently, we’ve had a couple of examples of that, where people who have been trapped and have cut off limbs in order to get loose, otherwise they would have died.
Yeah, I mean that’s exactly what you’re talking about. Yeah, well this guy except this guy sort of eats what he cuts off, although he did make a fire and cook some of it, so I guess that’s the worst. You said “the tasty delicious”.
I think of a lot of injured men. I think there was a guy in Firestarter, well, let me put it this way. In Nightmares & Dreamscapes there’s this couple that are eaten alive by carnivorous toads, that worked.
Have you ever gone too far and said “no no no I’ve gone over the line”?
Well like I say, generally speaking I will go ahead and write them anyway, because at this point I am sort of racing myself, and I’ll tend to put him away so that there are several times where I thought I had gone too far.
I thought Pet Sematary was a step too far and it was a tremendously popular book which shows that it’s almost impossible to gross out the American people. At this point in my career, the British, the French or the Germans either, but I can tell make a paraphrase of that.
I think I have a couple of ideas that are probably a little beyond the pale. Yeah, what’s your worst fear, that one of my kids would die? That’s the basis of Pet Sematary. I think the call in the middle of the night with a cop saying brace yourself for some bad news, that would be the most horrible.
I don’t know about you, I’m a control freak and for me some say “well when your kids grow up they go out on their own and you can’t protect them or insure them from the whips and scorns of outrageous fortune and you simply have to let them go” and I understand that because I’m a relatively rational human, being in spite of the guy who eats himself.
I’m a rational human being, but there’s a part of me that just does not want to let go, that wishes that I could ensure their success. You can’t bargain with God.
You once said that the readers are interested in your secrets, not in what you read. Meaning what?
Well, it goes back to what I was saying earlier about how if you if I give an interview about my my career, what I do for a living, sooner or later somebody will kind of say “by the way what was your childhood like?” People want to know where the bodies are buried, they want to know what what twisted me to do what I’m doing and the truth is even more horrible. The answer is nothing. I’m just this way naturally.