Stepping Out of a Big Shadow

“Here, smell this for me,” says Tabitha King, grabbing a day lily as we walk through the front yard of Kate’s Mystery Books near Boston. King has lost her sense of smell over the years, so I lean forward; when I stand up, there’s pollen all over my nose. She laughs and brushes it off. “I’d like to just ruin my yard with gardens,” she says.

By “yard,” she means the seven-acre property in Bangor, Maine, where she lives with her husband, Stephen King, in a bright-red Victorian house surrounded by a gate of wrought-iron spiders and snakes (her idea), designed to keep gawkers off the lawn.

Most of these callers aren’t interested in the house where Tabitha King lives; they’re looking for the house where Stephen King lives. His fans think of her—when they think of her at all—as the woman who saved their favorite author: from obscurity, from addiction, then from giving up while he recovered from a tragic accident.

“I always felt she never got the attention she deserves as a writer, because her husband is so famous,” says Kate Mattes, owner of Kate’s Mystery Books, where King is scheduled to read from her just-published ghost story, Candles Burning. The book follows 7-year-old Calliope Dakin, who discovers, after her father’s murder in 1950s New Orleans, that the dead speaks to her.

It’s the first new book King’s had on shelves in eight years. She finished the novel from notes left by her close friend, mystery/fantasy novelist Michael McDowell, who died in 1999. It’s also her first full-length foray into the creepy tales so often associated with the King name, and her first time co-writing.

“I’ve never sought out collaboration,” Tabitha King says. “I’ve seen other people do it, and I think it takes a lot of generosity and a willingness to let go of control to some degree. I’ve seen my husband do it, but I don’t think he lets go of control. I think he just bulls his way into what he wants. He’s sort of a freight train.”

That’s part of why the Kings haven’t collaborated on a book; but also, Tabitha says, their writing processes are so different: Stephen sits down to write every day, while Tabitha lets things percolate longer in her mind. “I have my compulsions, but they’re not in the direction of [working] every day,” she says. “They’re more in the direction of researching the living crap out of it and then entering the story.”

The detailed research she did for Candles Burning gave her such a good feel for the setting that even Southerners have mistaken fictional details for truth. “You know how writing articles always say ‘write what you know’? My feeling is ‘know what you write,’ ” she says. “People think ‘write what you know’ means tart up your autobiography as fiction. And people who say, ‘I’d love to write a novel, but I can’t bring myself to sit down and do it,’ often don’t know who’s telling the story, when or where. Those are the things you have to know if you’re going to write fiction.

“This is one thing I really learned from Steve: In order to scare people, or do whatever else you’re going to do emotionally, with any fiction, you must make it seamless. The more real this side is,” she says, holding each thumb on one side of an invisible line, “the less you question this side.”

SOUL MATES

King and McDowell were what she calls soul mates: the kind of friends who shriek when they see each other and, no matter how much time has passed, slip back into their relationship like they never left each other’s side. When McDowell’s editor came to her after McDowell’s 1999 death and asked her to finish the book—already contracted and comprising nearly 350 pages of notes— King was honored, and intrigued.

“The luminosity of the world—I’m perfectly comfortable with that,” she says. “I don’t believe in vampires; I’ve said this for years. When people die, they lose their muscle tone, and I just don’t buy that drinking blood is going to bring that back. Not even a really good gym is going to work. But the ghosts, the afterlife, the essential nature of human life—that’s another thing. And to create a very real world and then set a ghost loose in it looked like fun.”

McDowell’s team gave her full permission to finish and revise the book as she saw fit, so King changed the ending; expanded on themes that McDowell had only dipped into in his notes; and wove in irony, references and jokes that she thought McDowell would have liked.

“I took it to mean that we were genuine collaborators. I wasn’t going to be hired to finish, like I was supposed to finish a house that someone had done. I wasn’t working from a blueprint in that sense,” she says.

“She reworked just about everything,” says Jane Otte, McDowell’s longtime agent. “It’s not the book he would have written, but no one could have done exactly what he did. She did a good, thoughtful, loving job.”

King knows the book isn’t exactly what the publishers had been expecting—but then, fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. “Your expectations are never gonna jive,” she says. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success. “Everyone I’ve sold the book to has fallen in love with it,” Mattes says. “It has a wonderful voice.”

KING’S SHADOW

Still, despite critical acclaim for the gritty plots and honest prose of her novels, King has never drawn a huge fan base. Only three people—other than McDowell’s friends—show up for the reading. King prefers the intimacy of a small, devoted crowd; she says she’ll leave the fame for her husband.

“The whole world knows who Stephen King is,” says Hillyer Thayer, a 20-year follower of Tabitha’s work. “And he’s an incredible storyteller; but in terms of classic writing, I think she’s better.”

For Tabitha King, it’s never been about being a better writer than her husband. “I wrote before I met the man,” she says, in her thick Maine accent. “That’s one of the things he liked about me.” She may not be as prolific as her husband (and really, who is?) but she’s not concerned with comparisons of their style or success. “I’m just too old to care anymore.” She sighs. “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, and if you don’t like it, don’t read it,” she says.

Tabitha paid her way through the University of Maine, Orono, with scholarships and work-study at the Fogler Library. Stephen was working at the library, too, in the summer of 1969; the two met in June and were married 18 months later. By 1973, they had two children, Naomi and Joseph. Stephen taught high school while Tabitha sometimes worked nights at Dunkin’ Donuts to keep up with the bills—after begging the manager, who thought her bachelor’s degree in history made her overqualified, to hire her. “As soon as the bills were paid up, I’d stop working there, because otherwise it was Steve working the day shift, me working the night, not seeing the kids, not seeing each other—it wasn’t good.” They tried to bring in extra money by selling essays and short fiction to magazines, and it was Tabitha who found the first three pages of Carrie balled up in the trash and told Stephen to get back to work. It was also Tabitha who, in the spring of 1973, called Stephen at work—from a neighbor’s phone because they didn’t have one of their own—to tell him that Doubleday was offering a $2,500 advance on the book. The paperback rights sold for $400,000—more than 60 times his annual teaching salary.

The small fortune left Tabitha more time to publish, too, though with three kids—son Owen joined the family in 1978—it wasn’t enough time to write full time. She was also quickly realizing that Stephen’s sudden fame meant she couldn’t escape his shadow.

“The first book I published, I got a letter saying, ‘Leave the writing to your husband. You’re no good.’ I wrote a little note and said, ‘Thank you very much for your two cents. You can have it back.’ “

She went on to write seven novels, including a three-part series set in fictional Nodd’s Ridge, and contributed short stories to several collections. After Sports Illustrated killed a piece they’d assigned her on high school basketball player Cindy Blodgett, she self-published it under the title Playing Like a Girl.

Stephen’s dedication page for the 1999 reprint of Carrie reads: “This is for Tabby, who got me into it—and then bailed me out of it.” It’s an apt summary for the years between the first run of the book and the most recent one: years in which Stephen developed addictions to cocaine, pills, alcohol and mouthwash. Tabitha staged an intervention that sent him to rehab. In 1999, Stephen was hit by a van, and while he recovered at a physical therapy center, he wrote his beloved autobiography On Writing. Tabitha rented a condo nearby and brought him poached eggs and tea every morning, while they kept the sense of humor that had drawn them together in the first place. “Giggling is very important,” she says. “We still make each other laugh.”

These days, she’s just as devoted to her family as ever. She’s been doing readings with her son Owen, who just published his first novella, and is thinking about traveling through Europe with her older son, Joseph, on a book tour.

“YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH VOICES”

Inside Kate’s Mystery Books, King has settled into a faded blue armchair in the back room, wearing a sleeveless black shirt, tan linen shorts and bright-red sandals. She adjusts her thin, silver-framed glasses and smooths her graying pageboy cut. A half-inch square aquamarine stone glitters on her right hand and an elaborate diamond shines on the left. The back room feels crowded—even with just three customers—and the audience shuffles white plastic folding chairs on worn hardwood floors to make more space. King is about to start reading when the front door opens, signaling another guest. “Well, look who it is,” she says, as her husband walks in.

In any other room, Stephen King’s arrival would be met, no doubt, with great fuss. “I wasn’t expecting to see him, and I really didn’t want to,” Thayer says later. “I came for Tabitha; it was for her book. I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, and I think he’s a very good storyteller, but I didn’t want him to steal the show.”

He doesn’t want the attention, either. He sits quietly on a folding chair and leans forward with his face in his hand. He rubs his eyes, twists his glasses and chews three pieces of Big Red at once. He listens intently as Tabitha reads, and when she attempts a Southern accent, he laughs aloud. It’s easy to see he’s proud of her. He says later that she began work on the book without telling him; he thinks she might have been nervous about moving into a genre he’s dominated for 30 years.

“I’d like to see her just do more,” he says. “I like her voice. You fall in love with voices.”

Tabitha would like to do more, too; she’s working on several books—including one about a string of small-town arsons and another that tells the family history of an aging couple—but refuses to write any of the formulaic mysteries that crowd the bookstores. And she might see Calliope Dakin through another story, even though Candles Burning was such a departure. “This was so out of left field; it was so unexpected,” she says. “I really did feel it was a gift from Michael.”

For now, at least, she’ll stick to writing novels about all the weird, wonderful things that can happen in the real world, whether tangible or mystical.

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