Heap all the accolades on Stephen King that you see fit. He’s the most successful horror novelist of the modern age. His works have been adapted for films, television and even, somewhat notoriously, the musical theater stage.
While King’s stories gather all the attention from both hardcore and casual fans, it’s his introductions and forewords that draw me in, hook me, and make me want to read the rest of the book. In those brief passages, we are reminded that we’re not just reading more scary tales by the lauded master of the macabre. We’re going to hang out with Stephen King, Relatively Normal Dude.
King’s introductions are conversational without feeling like aged diary entries or hastily constructed blog posts. He begins his classic short story collection Night Shift with an invitation to talk about fear. That’s an intriguing suggestion for anyone, but within this introduction, we are given the basic set-up for King’s personality and why he writes what he does.
King tells us that in 1978, he was married with three kids, living in Maine, and working on quitting smoking. He also covers many of the questions both audiences and journalists would ask at the time. Why do you write this stuff? How do you get your ideas? Aren’t you, maybe, a little sick in the head?
King addresses those curiosities about himself as a public figure with tact and aplomb. He calls his overwhelming desire to write scary stories a “marketable obsession” and notes that there are people in “padded cells the world over” who have done the same thing, albeit less successfully.
For someone in the horror business, such as King, explanations and motivations feel necessary to placate the normies. Placing them into the forewords of his books is a beautiful decision. Some people don’t want to know how the sausage is made. They’ll skip right over the preliminaries and head directly into the meat of the story. Thought processes and inspirations mean nothing to those readers. They want the spooky and they want it right now.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like ignoring the special features and commentaries on the special Blu-ray edition of a slasher movie. We just want to watch the camp counselor’s throat get cut. Who cares how much latex was used to create the appliance or how many gallons of fake blood the special effects technicians had to whip up?
It’s different with King, though, and blowing off those first few pages diminishes the reading experience. When King writes his forewords or story introductions, he is embracing the act of reading as a collaboration between the writer and reader. There’s not only behind-the-scenes aspect to those words but a level of measured intimacy. King has millions of fans worldwide but at those moments, he’s talking directly to me, as if he were writing for no one else. It’s a handshake, a slight nod, the Gandalf-like laying of the finger upon the nose that intimates an understanding of ourselves and each other.
Some writers seek a connection like that with their audience and never achieve it. They churn out word after word in laborious silence. When a connection between the artist and the supporter is never forged, it brings about a coldness between the two, a distance that feels unbreakable. The writer sends pages down from the top of their pedestal while the groundlings scramble to scoop them up and place them in numerical order. Think of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road, sending down just enough water to keep his citizens alive.
Maybe that’s the agreed-upon business model. It feels off to me. When I first read Night Shift in 1978 as a nine-year-old kid in a horror-loving family, King’s wonderful foreword about himself, his family, and the nature of fear itself, made me think of him as a surrogate friend. It was as if he could show up at our family Thanksgiving, good old Uncle Steve sitting on the ugly couch next to the telephone table, telling tales and anecdotes to whoever would listen.
Reading that book also allowed to me to tempt the idea that maybe I could be a writer as well. If Stephen King could do it, and he was just a guy from New England, then what could stop me?
The inclusion of introductions and forewords is something King has continued throughout his decades-long career. Allowing his Constant Readers a glimpse into the person behind the publishing machine makes the terrors King creates more effective because we have a better understanding of where they come from. Yeah, he writes about some supremely weird shit, but at the heart of it, he’s a Relatively Normal Dude. And at night, when King’s stories ooze into your dreams and twist them like black licorice, knowing a little bit about him as a human being makes the nightmares more palatable.