King's appearance was the grand finale of the 2011 Fall for the Book festival. That it was the 13th annual seemed fitting for an appearance by the master of horror.
Even before King was introduced, the audience was electric. An older woman from Burke said she'd come even though she'd never read any of King's books. "How could I not come to hear a great American author," she said.
Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA-11) introduced King. "He's number 33 on the list of all time greatest authors in human history," said Connolly. "Shakespeare's number one, but he has about 400 years on King."
The moment King was introduced, the audience erupted in cheers, yells and a standing ovation. "All that for a writer," smiled King in a red t-shirt and jeans. "You don't get out much, do you," he quipped.
King spent about an hour telling stories, answering pre-submitted questions choosen by Fall for the Book, and accepting the Mason Award from Fairfax City Mayor Rob Lederer. He walked the stage, even though only the podium was lit. He was a master storyteller, a stand-up comedian. "I expected him to be scary, not so funny," said a woman from Springfield.
King said he became America's "boogie-man" more by chance than choice. The others, like Alfred Hitchcock, died, and he was left. "People want to know what f***ed me up so badly that I turned out [writing the way] I did," he said. "They want to know what made me decided to write. What makes you assume I had a choice."
The author several times mentioned bedtime readings by his mother. He recalled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde making a big impression on him at about age nine.
He said the basis of his writing comes from his mother's mantra for living. "Think of the worst thing that could happen, and then whatever happens will be better than that," she'd say. "Following her advice has made me a lot of money and a little paranoid," King laughed.
King said many of his ideas are based on real events. He told of once walking home through a park after his car broke down. His boots made a clop, clop, clopping sound on a wooden bridge, and that reminded him of Three Billy Goats Gruff. He realized a basic human fear is, "who is that trip, trapping over my bridge." "I decided to write a final exam on all the monsters that scare people," he said. "It became the basis of the horror in the book I called It."
Each time King named one of his books, the audience spanning all generations yelled and clapped. "It's like Stephen King's greatest hits," he laughed.
Sometimes the author doesn't know where his ideas come from. "The Dead Zone, I don't know where that came from," he said. The Green Mile, he said, began with a picture in his head that in the end didn't even make it into the book.
King's newest book, 11/22/63, will be released in November. King said he tried to write this book in 1972, but the wounds were too fresh and the research required was too great for a kid his age at the time.
"I was about 17 when Kennedy was assasinated," he said. "For us back then, that was our 9/11."
The book is about Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher who travels back in time on a mission to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy.
King read a preview of the book he's currently writing, titled Dr. Sleep. "I've always wondered what happened to that kid in The Shinning," he said of his book published in 1977. Dr. Sleep will tell.
It was evident that the love of reading began for King as a child, with his mother reading to him. "I loved reading so much that it became second nature to write," he said.
"In some ways the mother force [of my writing] comes from the horror comics of the 1950's," he said. Other influential titles include The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and The Rats in the Walls by H. P. Lovecraft.
"The book that hit closest to where I live is Lord of the Flies," said King. When he read it in high school, he said he could see where he and his friends might possibly be those boys.
King said of all the characters he's created, the one he relates to the least is Big Jim Rennie in Under the Dome. He said Big Jim makes him consider all the hate and anger in the political system today. "It's very disquieting to me that a President is regarded as weak because he's looking for consensus," he said. "There's something very wrong somewhere."
Asked if he ever leaves projects unfinished, King said he has about 40 sitting around. Hatchet Head is one: "It's a half-finished novel that I couldn't figure out [how to finish], so I stopped," he said.
King gave the audience a gift. Early on he'd discussed the statistical probability of how many people in the audience had left thier cars and homes unlocked, and the low probability of a psychopath trying all those handles and knobs. "But don't think of that later on," he said.
But I did think of that when I went to my car. And I wondered how many others did, too.