As one of the greatest horror writers of the modern era, Stephen King understands fear better than most. With his novels, which include The Shining, It, Carrie and countless others, King has explored the darkest fears and anxieties of contemporary society, essentially defining what we understand as modern horror.
His unflinching, unnerving, and frequently gory writing style has been capturing the imaginations of readers since the 1970s and, today, his legacy can be felt just as powerfully as it was then. He is the master of the morbid. And yet, the question remains: can anything scare a man who spends so much time in the shadowy company of monsters, killers and psychopaths. The answer, it would seem, is a resounding yes.
During a 1986 interview, in which King discussed his forthcoming film Maximum Overdrive, the author was asked if he’d ever scared himself whilst writing books such as Cujo and Pet Semetary. “Once in a while, he began. “A lot of time, what you feel surfacing on your face is the sort of grin I’m wearing now because you know it’s [the writing] tight and right and that it’s working.”
Fear, for King, is an integral part of the writing process. It steers him in the right direction, offering him a roadmap through which to navigate his plots. In his eyes, fear plays an essential function. It has the power to evoke the same vulnerability we feel as children. Describing the making of Maximum Overdrive, King recalled the strange reaction the crew had during some of the film’s goriest scenes: “When we did something that came off as too grotesque – and in some cases, actually turned out to be too grotesque to be in the film – you’d hear people laughing hilariously and they’d applaud and stuff like that because, your first emotion – in both humour and horror – is a sort of childish delight.”
But there have been times, as he explained, where that childish delight has given way to sheer terror. “There was a bathroom scene in The Shining where I scared myself, and in Pet Semetary,” he said. “For long periods of time, I just felt really, really weird and uncomfortable with what I was writing about.” But the greatest of King’s fears stem, not from his own work, but from some surprisingly mundane aspects of the modern world. As a writer who once described people’s love of horror as being that fear of putting your fingers in the toaster, this makes a surprising amount of sense.
It turns out that the things that frighten Stephen King the most are not monsters but forms of everyday technology. “Well, I’m afraid of trucks and cars,” King began. “I mean, Maximum Overdrive is about trucks because, as a child, they seemed so large and I seemed so small. I had the same imagination then as I do know except, for a kid, everything is harder to control. That’s why they [children] fall down and have scabby knees all the time. I would imagine that even my kids would scuttle behind me because they look so big and, on bulldozers, the treads look so cruel. And I always imagine what would happen to my little fingers if they started to move [over them].
“But even today,” he continued, “Of I put an English muffin in the toaster and it only comes about halfway up, I pick up a fork and I can hear that toaster saying ‘go ahead punk, make my day.'”
Cripes, breakfast must be a real nightmare in the King household.