One of the year’s best books is End of Watch, by the great master of readable fiction, Stephen King. Steve Braunias recalls an appointment with the author in London.
Then there was the time I saw a ghost. It was Stephen King. It happened 10 years ago, in London, at this time of year – winter was around the corner, and so was my daughter. I had the ultrascan pinned to the wall of my room in Oxford: a fuzzy little image of something shaped like a bean. Thoughts of birth and new life and parenthood followed every step I took in the three months I was in England on a fellowship to Oxford University while my real life – the one with Emily, pregnant with Minka – was on the other side of the world, in Auckland. But one day I sat down opposite Stephen King, and thought about death, also life after death.
He gave a press conference. It was for a new novel. I didn’t actually read it; I just wanted to meet him. I didn’t really meet him; I just looked at him, and saw a ghost.
As the best-selling author of various assorted mayhems and inexplicable horrors set in the American suburbs, Stephen King has always looked exactly like Stephen King should look – weird. His face was always his best PR. The large flat face with the big flat forehead and the dark eyebrows was exactly the right face for a great modern master of horror. It was a scary face. It was a face that took up a lot of room. It was a face that loomed. It didn’t float; it was more like a hard piece of rock, implacable.
That was the face on the book jackets. He didn’t have that face on a day in late autumn in 2006 in London. The address was Award House, 7–11 St Matthew Street, Westminster, between Buckingham Palace and the Thames. The venue was the rooms of the Foreign Press Association. I was a foreigner, along with press from Italy, Poland, Canada, India, Hong Kong, Spain. We sat in rows in a small room. India was to my right, Canada to my left. I wanted to say to India: “My girlfriend is having our baby in a few months!” I wanted to say to Canada: “We’re going to call her Minka.” But no one talked. No one said a word. Poland had a cold; when she coughed, it sounded like, “Coughovic.” There was dust on the windowsills. The carpet had been trampled to threads. We waited for Stephen King in an atmosphere which kind of resembled suspense, but really it was just the English disease – reserve. It acted like a drug on the hacks of many lands.
But even our state of suspended animation was livelier than Stephen King, He creaked into the room and collapsed into a chair. It was the mid-morning of the living dead. I was in the presence of genius, but it lacked distinct physical form. His skin was pale, waxy, chalky. The line of his mouth was small and vaguely defined. A widow’s peak raced back across his head – this was the only real sign of life, of motion. He was tall, upright, as stiff as a stiff, on its way to keep an appointment with a good London embalmer.
He was 59 years of age but carbon dating might have revealed he was actually 159. Perhaps it was the years of drug and alcohol abuse; it was no secret he’d been a fiend for beer and cocaine. Perhaps it was the road accident he suffered in 1999; a lunatic sideswiped him while he was taking a walk, and left him with 25 broken bones. Perhaps it went further back than that, to when his mother was pregnant, and had a craving for tar; she raked it off the road, chowed it down, the gunk slipping into the baby’s bloodstream.
Italy asked, “Are you still the world’s biggest-selling author?”
A faint voice replied, “I’ve been eclipsed, left behind by … I can’t remember who. Probably they can.”
Poland coughed, “Coughovic.”
Canada asked, “What is the scariest thing in the world?”
King said, “George W Bush.” Correct answer – Bush was President, busily arranging the killing fields in Iraq – and it showed that someone was definitely home; it was just that King’s lights were out. There was further talk about scary things and horror and such, but it was impossible to imagine anything making King jump out of his skin. He’d already jumped. He was Mr Bones, a bare, stark presence rattling on the trampled carpet.
He quoted from Philip Roth’s novel, Everyman: “Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” And then he said, “I don’t think reading should be an intellectual affair.
“I think it can be, and I think it’s possible for literature to be enjoyed on an intellectual plane, and if you want to read Henry James or Edith Wharton, that’s absolutely fine. But I just do what I do, which is assaulting people, mugging them, emotionally. You know, my job is to forget you had a date. My job is to make you burn dinner. My job is to make you get on the airplane in London, and actually be sorry when the plane gets to New York. That’s my job. That’s what I want to do. If you read one of my books, and you turn off the light, and you’re afraid something’s under the bed – good. I win.”
Where were all these words coming from? I stared closely at that large piece of chalk on his shoulders. It was as though his lips didn’t move. But more words came out. He told a story about his wife deciding to redecorate their house while he was in hospital with pneumonia.
“When I finally got home, my wife said, `I wouldn’t go into your office. It’s disturbing in there.’ I did go in, and it was disturbing. The books were off the shelves, the furniture was gone because she’d taken it out to get reupholstered, the rugs were rolled up and standing in the corner. I could hear my footfalls echo back, the place was so empty.
“I thought, this is what it will look like when I die. My wife will be faced with that job of cleaning out my office.”
I asked, “But aren’t you already dead? I mean – Jesus fucken Christ, man, you look terrible! You look like a ghost, something spectral. Certainly you’re as white as a sheet and quite immobile. Every word you say sounds like one word: ‘Boo!’ So are you dead? Is this a séance? Or one of those interviews with a vampire? The other thing I’d like to ask is, do you have any kind of otherworldly contact with prenatal children? Is there a plane where the souls of the undead commune with the unborn? And if so, could you pass on a message to Minka?”
But he’d already gone. I was talking to myself. The dust lay a little thicker on the windowsill; the heavy curtain was parted, and a wan autumn light crept into the room. Poland had fled, so had Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, Canada. India was putting on her make-up and her coat at the door. I turned and looked back at the rows of chairs, the desk where Stephen King had sat. I could hear my footfalls echo back, the place was so empty. I thought: will I live to see my child?
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.