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Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King Review by Joseph Maddrey Lisa Rogak
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008
$25.95/Hardcover

Reactions to Lisa Rogak's new book Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King (St. Martin's Press, 2008) will depend largely on what the individual reader brings to it. The subject is certainly interesting enough and Rogak's writing is solid, but one has to wonder whether an unauthorized biography of the world's bestselling writer is really necessary. King himself would probably say no, because he prefers for readers to concentrate on his fiction. Years ago, he joked that he wanted the following message printed on his tombstone: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” The author's most fanatical followers will probably also say no, because they have by now collected and absorbed most of the source interviews and biographical essays (including King's own pseudo-biographies, Danse Macabre [1981] and On Writing [2000]) from which Rogak draws.

On the other hand, there are readers like me who will soak this book up like a sponge. Not because this is new information to me— I've been reading about Stephen King since high school, so I know the pertinent details of his life. And not because I think that King's life is anywhere near as interesting as his fiction. Rather, it's because I am endlessly fascinated with the creative process, and Rogak's book serves as an overview of the major intersections between King's life and art. I am not aware of any other book that explores these connections in such a coherent fashion, and because of that I'm willing to forgive the author's repetitiveness and occasional editorial oversights (like the jarring misplacement of an entire sentence on page 132 of the hardback edition).

Rogak offers a portrait of a writer whose creative obsessions took hold in childhood. The author's “haunted heart” began beating when he first realized that his father had walked out on his family. King's mother worked long hours in rural Maine sweatshops to care for her two sons, but the family of three never quite found their way onto stable ground. They moved around a lot and were forced to rely on the pity of friends and relatives. King's greatest fear as a child was that his mother would get sick, making he and his brother orphans—a possibility that he thought would literally drive him insane. The young writer acknowledged and coped with these fears by escaping real life whenever possible, immersing himself in fiction. More often than not he was drawn to horror, because his mother had advised him that if you think the worst, it can't come true.

As a teenager, King kept a scrapbook on serial killer Charles Starkweather—not, he explains, because he wanted to be like Starkweather, but because he wanted to avoid people like that. And, perhaps more importantly, he wanted to avoid becoming like that himself. As he got older, King's childhood fears only grew, and he found himself getting increasingly angry about the way the world had treated him. By the time he was in college, he was channeling his anger into anti-war activism as well as less constructive forms of anti-social behavior. Eventually he found himself on the flip side of the same spirit-crushing routine he'd experienced as a child—working dead-end jobs for no money, unable to adequately support his wife and young children. He knew he'd never walk out on them, the way his father had walked out on him, but he nevertheless felt trapped and powerless in a life he couldn't bear for long. As always, he feared for his sanity. King credits his wife Tabitha with keeping the monsters at bay, but he also relied heavily on two particular means of coping with his fear and anger: substance abuse and story.

King discusses his drug addictions at length in his book On Writing, and there's nothing new on that subject here. More worthwhile is the chronological approach to his writing, which reveals how the books gradually changed over the years. His early rage-fueled novels (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) quickly gave way to fantasy and the supernatural. The Stephen King that most audiences know and love was born with Carrie (1974). The sale of that book immediately lifted the young author and his family out of their poverty-stricken lifestyle—and for anyone who has ever felt like an underdog, it's hard not to feel inspired while reading about this success. Carrie established a formula for King's writing: He would combine people and places that he knew intimately from real life with supernatural events. Armed with that plan, he never looked back—his repeated fusion of fantasy elements and real-world struggles made him a household name.

When asked about the biographical elements of his novels, King says, “I'm always puzzled to realize years later that in some ways I was delineating my own problems, and performing a kind of self-psychoanalysis” (80). To Rogak, however, it's clear that this is what he has done. In The Shining (1977), he wards off his own fears of becoming an abusive father. In Cujo (1981), he tries to understand the destructive potential of marital infidelity. In Pet Sematary (1983), he struggles with his own worst fear: the death of one of his children. To a large extent, King himself admits, the novels that made him famous (those published between 1974 and 1986) are about being a father and re-living his own childhood through the observations of his own children. This period culminates with It (1986), his “final exam” on monsters. It was around that time that he first considered “retiring”… and, since then, he's been making the same threat every few years as he continually reassesses his worth as a writer.

In 1987, King confronted his substance abuse problems and, as his life entered a new phase, so did his writing. He put the monster-ridden town of Castle Rock to bed in Needful Things (1990), toyed with the idea of writing fiction for children (see The Eyes of the Dragon [1987]), and gradually turned toward more realistic, “adult” fiction— beginning with Gerald's Game in 1992. The change alienated some readers. Truth be told, it wasn't a particularly comfortable experience for King either. He later said, “At this point, writing on a nonsupernatural level is like learning to talk after you've had a stroke” (183). But he remained true to his muse and wrote what seemed genuine and challenging to him at the time, and continued to produce works that garnered acclaim among loyal fans and critics—including The Green Mile (1996, a serialized novel that turned into an award-winning movie) and Bag of Bones (1998, a rare first-person narrative that explores King's personal belief system).

Another big change came in 1999, when the author was hit by a reckless driver and nearly killed. Once again, King rebounded in his life and in his writing. In a white heat, he completed his long-suffering fantasy series The Dark Tower. Although Rogak devotes little time to the series, anyone who has read the final book knows that it is all about intersections between life and art. King's accident directly factors into the quest of his fictional characters. Regarding the series as his magnum opus, the author also went back and re-worked the first book in the series (published in 1982) to bring it more in line with the whole. At the time, I was somewhat disappointed by this decision. King says that with the first book he was “trying too hard to make it be something really, really important,” and needed to go back and “simplify it a little bit” (222). I prefer the hint of something really, really important, but I also understand that it's his story and he had to do what he felt was honest. Stephen King is not the same man, or the same writer, that he was thirty years ago. The value of Rogak's biography lies in her ability to make one realize that his books wouldn't be worth reading if he was.

The biography winds down with observations about King's real-life children, who are now grown up and living their own lives. When asked what made her become a Unitarian priest, his daughter Naomi says, “We begin and end with primary experience: awe, wonder, fear, trembling, amazement. Everything else is commentary” (228). Rogak adopts this as her own summation. Stephen King, the man and the writer, has always been defined by his acute sense of awe, wonder, fear, trembling and amazement, and his work continues to demonstrate that. King's latest book, Under the Dome, is due out in November.

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