If you've ever come across a Stephen King novel, you already know that unspeakable darkness can lurk in the most ordinary of places. A hotel hallway. A rose in a vacant lot. The small city of Bangor, Maine. Bangor may look like a pleasant, quiet town, but it's where King first conceived of a blood-soaked Carrie while living in a trailer with his wife and kids. It's where he drew inspiration for books like It, Pet Sematary, and The Dark Tower. And it's in Bangor that King, one of the most prolific writers of all time, currently resides.
King is the author of over fifty novels. His self-described magnum opus, The Dark Tower, stands at the center of his considerable body of work, combining elements from so many of his other novels. It is the nexus of the Stephen King universe, holding all the stories together just as the tower holds together the all the worlds of reality. And the Dark Tower movie, starring Idris Elba as the gunslinger himself, is finally hitting the big screens this Friday.
“I’m more interested in the next thing than the last thing,” Stephen King tells reporters, including me, before the screening of this latest film based on his work. Much like his unassuming hometown of Bangor, King appears quite ordinary at first glance: he rarely deviates from his uniform of a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. The secret to his prolific career seems to be in constantly moving forward, forever latching onto new ideas, and not worrying too much about what things look like from the outside.
“There are so many things in the various stories…” says King, referring to the epic, eight novel series that makes up The Dark Tower. Stuffing eight books' worth of storytelling into a single movie was out of the question. Besides, as true Dark Tower fans will know, this film is the "next time around" for the gunslinger and his ka-tet. According to King, the film focuses on "the most accessible, human relationship between this old guy, Roland, who’s been around a long time, and the kid. They have a lot of chemistry that comes through on the screen.”
In adapting such a complex series for movie-goers, director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel "had to make some decisions to tell a story that the general public will get, not just the guys who show up at fantasy conventions with Roland tattooed on their arm,” says King. That doesn't mean that the movie isn't for the fans as well, though. The script is packed with Easter eggs and references to every corner of King's universe. “Of all the books that I’ve written," he says, "the fans of The Dark Tower books are the most zealous, the most fervent."
“They’ve done a wonderful job here of telling the story,” says King. And he hopes that this adaptation will introduce more people to the story of Roland and the dusty deserts of Mid-World. “The movie’s PG-13, and I totally signed off on that, I think it’s the right thing to do," he says. "I want it to be as big a tent as possible for all kinds of reasons, part of it having to do with the dynamic between the gunslinger and the boy,” which is very much a father-son connection.
“But," he adds, "I’d love to see the next movie be R.” There are so many horrifying monsters populating the vast multi-verse of The Dark Tower, after all, and King hopes that this movie will open the door for far stranger, perhaps more dangerous stories in this world.
As for the controversy about the casting Idris Elba, King is firmly on team Idris. “I didn’t care what color he was as long as he can command the screen,” says King. “And shoot straight.”
“Why shouldn’t he be black?” says King. After all, white characters are rarely questioned in the fantasy genre. They're assumed to be the norm, even in fictional worlds populated by shape-shifters and demons. As King puts it, “You've seen this show, Game of Thrones? Westeros? They’re all British! They’re all British, Westeros is basically England, and no one ever questions that.”
When he's writing a novel, King doesn't spend much time musing over what his characters look like, anyway. “If I’m writing about a character, I’m behind their eyes,” says King. He writes from inside his characters. Physical attributes don't enter into his mind, he says, unless that character happens to pass a mirror.
But where do all these ideas come from? Where does Stephen King find his seemingly bottomless well of horrors, adventures, and inter-connected realms of space-time?
Initially, as a young writer, he drew on the monsters that live in every child's mind. But now, “I don’t think that I’m as close to the childhood monsters and things,” he says. In your twenties and thirties, “you’re closer to your childhood, you remember more about your childhood." Hence his earlier books, haunted by clowns and the terrors of high school. "And then you get this double dip again, because you have kids of your own," says King, "and you see what they’re seeing, and you have them almost as research subjects.”
King draws from literature, too. The Dark Tower gets its name and its titular character from the Robert Browning poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. The poem describes a knight, Roland, battling his way through a nightmarish landscape, to the forever unknowable Dark Tower in the distance. Browning, in turn, claims that the poem came to him in a dream, which...does sound an awful lot like the beginning of a good Stephen King novel.
For nearly all of his stories, King pulls bits and pieces from his surroundings. Bangor is suspiciously similar to the fictional town of Derry, Maine, which is one of the small Maine communities that crop up all across King's work. The real Bangor is home to many real locations that have wormed their way into King's waking nightmares: a stroll through town will take you by Pennywise the Clown's storm drain and the barrens from It, the huge standpipe, the truck stop from Maximum Overdrive, and a kitchen supply store emblazoned with "R.M. Flagg," a name that King borrowed for his own, demonic Randall Flagg, or the sinister Man in Black.
Sometimes, of course, the ideas are just there, waiting to be written. “I see pictures in my mind, sometimes. You know, it’s like ‘I see dead people,’" says King matter-of-factly. “And then I think, ‘I would like to write a story about that.'”
King's focus has naturally shifted over the course of his long career as a novelist. As he's gotten older, and further away from those childhood monsters lurking in the storm drains, his books has reflected a more matured worldview. “I think that in the last few years I’ve written more about old people," he says. "I’m not sure that’s a demographic I really want to go after, because they’re shrinking all the time.” But, he says with a shrug, “you write what you know.”
“When I was, let’s say, twenty-five or twenty-six, it was like people trying to escape a burning building inside my head,” King says. The ideas were banging on the walls, always fighting to get out. These days, the tumult has calmed somewhat, he says, but he still has plenty of stories left to tell: “Now I have less, but I’m grateful to have any....I'm still working."
As for what he's working on next, we'll just have to wait.