Stephen King has written of ghosts and vampires, revenants and demons and all manner of supernatural terrors.
What does he find scarier, the extrahuman monsters or the human ones?
"The human, always the human," King says.
There are some very scary humans in Under the Dome, King's latest novel. The usually publicity-shy author has been on the road promoting this book, not only with television and print interviews but with book signings and personal appearances, which he rarely does.
He spoke at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Monday, where, besides talking about Under the Dome, he told a delighted sold-out crowd that he would be writing another Dark Tower novel and planned another Talisman book with Peter Straub. He said that Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the musical he's been working on with John Mellencamp, isn't ready for the stage yet, but a CD set will be released in the spring. "It will be like watching a musical with your eyes closed." King also answered a question about his attendance at Tampa Bay Rays games despite his long allegiance to the Boston Red Sox: "The Red Sox are my wife, but the Rays are my mistress."
Before the appearance, he talked by phone from his home in Casey Key. "I'm looking at my fish in the tank. I took a walk on the beach. It's great to be here, especially after all the hotels," he says.
Why make the tour circuit for a book that's already a bestseller? "It's a long book, and it was a lot of work, and I really love the story."
That story is about a small town in Maine that is suddenly, mysteriously enclosed by an invisible but unbreakable dome. King fills more than 1,000 fast-paced pages with the chilling tale of how the trapped population reacts to the environmental and social consequences.
A hugely prolific writer, he has published more than 50 novels and more than a dozen short story collections and nonfiction works, which together have sold 350 million copies.
But Under the Dome underwent more than 30 years of incubation. He first tried writing it in 1976 but stopped after a few chapters. "I had never written anything on that scale before. A couple of years later I did bring off a long book called The Stand," one of his most popular books.
"People seem to like the long ones. So I tried another version, called The Cannibals, about people trapped in an apartment building. But that didn't work because the space was too small." Then King read Ken Follett's historical novels The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. "Those are huge books, but I really liked the narrative drive." That moved him to return to the dome idea in 2006. "I felt I finally had the chops to do it. You never stop learning if you keep your mind open."
All under the dome
What had always attracted him was the idea of a microcosm of the planet Earth. "That's what it is, really. We're all under the dome."
King says, "We have diminishing resources, a degrading environment. You know, this guy Malthus wrote about it a couple of hundred years ago. If our population keeps growing, eventually it will outstrip our ability to support it."
In Under the Dome, that process is accelerated. Power is cut off, the air heats up and thickens with pollution, food and fuel supplies dwindle, and civilized behavior begins to break down with frightening speed. The book, with its huge cast of characters, has many heroes and villains, but first among the worst is a car dealer named Jim Rennie, who is the town's second selectman. He seizes upon the crisis to take power, using the affable but clueless first selectman, Andy Sanders, as a front.
"I thought I really had a chance to use this fascinating conflict situation that we saw in the hierarchy of the Bush administration. A lot of people saw Bush as this ventriloquist's dummy sitting on Cheney's knee," King says. "I'm not saying that the situation in the administration really was like that; we don't know. But I thought it would be great to use that in a small-town administration. People saw Bush as inept but well-meaning, and they saw Cheney as this pit bull. It's a terrific dynamic."
He also drew from the administration's reactions to real crises. "What we certainly saw after 9/11 was people bent on restricting freedoms. They were trying to deal with this terrible calamity but solving that problem in the most inept way possible." In Under the Dome, Rennie recruits his own police force, lies unashamedly and deals brutally with anyone who stands in his way. "I don't know if Cheney would take a paperweight and beat someone with it" as Rennie does, King says. "But we do know he shot somebody. And we do know he stamped the death warrants of thousands of American soldiers and doesn't seem to have lost any sleep over it."
Several of the good guys in Under the Dome are Iraq War veterans, notably Dale Barbara, a cafe cook who is asked by the U.S. president to lead the town after the dome comes down. "Having Barbie be a vet gave him credibility as a hero, but I also have enormous respect for the men and women we have in uniform," King says. "I think if they go through combat, if they're good people, there's a moral growth that takes place."
The $9 loss leader
In addition to his affection for Under the Dome, King has other reasons for touring. "It's a tough economic climate. The bookstores are struggling, the publishers. Nobody's posting gains. I wanted to do what I could with my limited means to help."
Fans have flocked to his book signings, but he says that can be frustrating. "I signed 600 books in Baltimore, 550 in Atlanta. That's too many. You can't meaningfully interact with anybody.
"I hate to hear somebody say, 'I waited 36 hours in the rain,' and all they get is five seconds and a handshake." He is also frustrated with the book's role in the current book price wars among Amazon.com, Walmart and Target. Under the Dome is among the first group of major bestsellers that those retailers have offered at prepublication prices of about $9.
"That's less than what I get as a royalty," King says. (Dome's cover price is $35.) "I hate to see books turned into a loss leader," something sold at or below cost to bring shoppers to a store or Web site. "Walmart understood they weren't going to take the kind of beating Amazon would, because Amazon sells more books. Walmart is not associated with books in people's minds."
But the real negative effect of the price wars hits independent bookstores. King says he and his publishers "agonized" over when to release the lower-priced e-book of Dome. (It will be available Dec. 24.) "Holding off on the e-book gives the independent bookstores a little more time to run, because they can't match the e-book price. But when Amazon and Walmart and Target did this, it rendered the whole question obsolete."
He says, "James Patterson said it best. He said the 10 writers they picked for this are not Pulitzer Prize winners — and I'm including Sarah Palin, who is not going to become known for her trenchant writing. But Patterson called us the crown jewels: When we publish a book, people will come into the bookstore to buy it, and maybe they'll buy two or three other books, and a Cadbury candy bar, and a calendar. When you take that away, you hurt everybody involved."
The crossword puzzle
King says that when he wrote the final chapters of Under the Dome, he was mindful of fans' reactions. "A lot of people were unsatisfied with an earlier novel of mine called Cell, in which cell phones fired these brain bullets that essentially turned people into zombies. I never really explained it, because I didn't think I had to."
Many readers disagreed, something King kept in mind as he wrote a screenplay of Cell recently. But he says he prefers not to explain everything that happens in his books. "That's how life really is: Things happen and we don't know why. Rather than explaining how things happen, I'm more interested in how people react to them. I always feel the explanation diminishes it."
Those human reactions, both the savage and the heroic, are the most important thing in Under the Dome, but King does offer some explanation, too. "There's the part of me that does the crossword puzzle that understands the need for answers."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.