I was super pumped to be able to sit down with none other than Stephen King historian and scholar, Bev Vincent, who provided his fantastic historical contribution to Stephen King Revisited Volume 1 from Cemetery Dance. The book is the culmination of author/Cemetery Dance founder Richard Chizmar’s decision to revisit every single Steven King book in order of publication. This first volume discusses King’s work between Carrie and Eyes of the Dragon and includes tons of special guests to go along with Rich’s interpretations from the first time he read each book to his most recent. But of course this conversation is all about Bev Vincent who is kind enough to provide a fascinating glimpse into Stephen King throughout the years. Without further ado, let’s get this ball rolling, shall we?
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: I really, appreciate this, Bev, getting to chat with you about the historical content you put into Stephen King: Revisited. You wrote some things about King I’m not sure I even wanted to know about, like about the time he once finished up some writing sessions sitting in a puddle of his own blood before letting his wife, Tabitha, take him to the hospital. Of course, you also include stories on how some of the publications themselves actually came about, which I found fascinating. What comes to your mind when I ask you about your first experience reading Stephen King, and what you were decidedly hooked for life on the work of King?
BEV VINCENT: I started reading King when I was in university. I grew up in a small town, small community, so I didn’t really have access to a lot of resources, but when I went to university I moved to a fairly big city — Halifax, Nova Scotia — and there was a really great used book store just down the street from campus that I used to frequent. I was reading primarily science fiction and fantasy at the time, but I saw a copy of Salem’s Lot on an end cap on a rack in the used bookstore, and I picked it up and added it to the pile of books I bought that day. Honestly, I was hooked from that point on. It was such a great story, such great characters, and I’ve always had the trait that when I find something that I like, I immediately wanna go and read everything else, or buy every album by somebody that I like, and so I started backtracking. This was in ‘79, so there wasn’t a lot to go back to. There was only a handful of books, so I went back and probably didn’t read them in order, I don’t think, but I went back to do The Shining, The Stand, Carrie, Night Shift, and then probably sat there and waited for The Dead Zone to come out in paperback because it was still in hard cover and I was just a poor university student.
Did you go ahead and try to collect all the big magazines as well or, I guess, at the time, they were kind of questionable publications for a university student for trying to track all of Stephen King’s short stories in various men’s magazines.
Yeah, I sent sort of a fan letter to King in about ‘82, and when he wrote back, in the envelope there was also a bibliography that had a list of all of his short story publications that had been collected and interviews and things like that, so those two sheets of paper stayed in my wallet for quite awhile while I haunted other used book stores and tried to find the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that had “The Wedding Gig” or some other men’s magazines. Eventually, I tracked them pretty much all down.
Very cool. And speaking of tracking down everything. when would you say that your interest in Stephen King gravitated from just being an ultimate King fan to a bonafide historian, where you thought you needed to know absolutely everything there was to know about Stephen King, to eventually publishing your findings with the rest of the world?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, anytime I saw an interview or anything like that, I saved it. So I’ve got this filing cabinet that was just full of old interviews and essays and things like that. I’ve always collected that sort of material. In about 2001, Richard Chizmar asked if I would be interested in writing a column for Cemetery Dance magazine. The magazine had always had an essay in every issue that was King news and reviews and commentary, and so I was happy to start with that. That was where I got my toe dipped in the water about writing more seriously about King than just on the Internet, on chat boards and newsgroups and things like that. So, I’ve been doing that for Cemetery Dance for over twenty years. It was on the strength of that, really, that I was able to get a publishing contract for The Road to the Dark Tower when that came along.
I think that was your first big collection you published as far as the history of Stephen King goes, I believe?
That was an analysis of the Dark Tower series, so it was sort of… I like to say that it’s like a travelogue—a tour guide’s trip through Midworld to see all the things in the Dark Tower books and the way they connect to all of his other books.
Can you tell us about when you and Rich first discussed his insane idea of re-reading every single King book ever published, and how you got on board with your own historical contributions?
I’m not sure whose idea it was. Brian Freeman, who was the managing editor of Cemetery Dance at the time, might have been the one who came up with the idea or it might have come from Rich. I was onboard right from the beginning. It’s right in my wheelhouse. I had all sorts of material that I could dig into to give the books the context of what was going on when the books were written. There’s lots of contemporary interviews where people, King especially, look back and say, “Well, this is what was happening,” but memories change over the years. Carrie was almost fifty years ago.
What I like to do is dig into things that were written at the time and so I found the interviews that came out as close to publication date as possible to get the most accurate representation of where his inspiration came from and how the book developed and how it went into the publication pipeline, and then what his thoughts on it were immediately after or soon thereafter as possible.
Your role added so much to Rich’s own journey as well because it wasn’t just a matter of you trying to remember, “Oh, I think this is what happened. I remember this part.” With the resources you had, it was like you had your own time capsule. I mean you kinda had it easy when you first discovered King through Salem’s Lot. At this point there’s an overwhelming amount of King books. What did you first think when Rich said, “Hey, this is what I’m going to do. What do you think?”
It’s cool. I think there was a point, and I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, but it might have been in the mid ‘90s, where I did this experiment myself. I went back and re-read the books in order. Of course, Rich had a more daunting task because there weren’t many more books at that point because King keeps publishing one or two a year. But it’s an interesting thing to re-evaluate a book that you’ve read many years down the road because there are some books that for me, when I read them the first time, I thought, “Hmm, that’s an interesting book. That’s okay. It’s a good story.” And then there’s something in your life that changes you. You get older, you have more experiences, and you go back and read that book again and you say, “Wow! This book is…” I didn’t really understand at the time how really powerful and how well conceived and executed a particular book was. It’s always interesting to have The Before and After perspective because we do read things through different lenses based on the experience that we have between the two time periods.
A hundred percent. To kind of piggyback off the idea of the changed lenses, do you find that you’re able to look back and have a different perspective over what Stephen King might have gone through and some of his experiences from say twenty, thirty years ago? Do you find that there’s any new surprises now when you do dig back through your catalogue of history of King?
I think the one thing that always intrigues me, and I have a new book that came out last year that was called Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life and Influences. The interesting thing for me, you know, the order of the words in that title of work, life, and influences is, you know, the work comes first, but the things that were going on in his life sometimes percolate into what he’s working on, and so I was always fascinated by the seed, the beginning idea which grew into this novel. Sometimes it’s just a dream or a snapshot or a fleeting image or a transient thought like the grain of sand in the oyster. The oyster worries its way out and keeps adding layers to it, and then eventually you’ve got the complete story at the end. Sometimes you can go back and say, “Yes, I can see the straight line from that initial snapshot to the final thing.” Then there’s other times where the snapshot either doesn’t figure into the final work, or you would never have thought how did you get here from there. That creative trajectory is one thing I’ve been fascinated at going back and rediscovering.
What I find interesting is a lot of folks will say, “Oh, I read Stephen King, you know, way back in the day thirty years ago and he wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I keep hearing about him,” which is fair because every time we turn around there’s a new Stephen king book being published. This might be a bit of a lazy question to ask it’s a specific question which I’m not sure has a specific answer, but what is your thoughts when you compare Stephen King now versus Stephen King five years before that, and five years before that and so on? Do you think his writing style and interests has changed though through the years or if he’s maybe just kept in tune with whatever has been going on his own life and the world around him?
Well, you know, people look at the Mercedes books and the related crime books, the ones he did for Hard Case Crime to say that he’s changed direction. But, if you go back to his early works, you know a lot of the earliest short stories that he published even before Carrie, there was a lot of crime fiction in there. There were stories like “The Fifth Quarter” and “The Wedding Gig” and “The Ledge.” Some of them have scary elements to them but no supernatural elements to them. They’re straight up crime stuff. And knowing King as I do in terms of the sorts of things he likes to read and the things that he likes to watch, crime fiction has always been a big part of what he consumes. He’s always big on people like Donald Westlake and all the great crime novelists over the years; that’s been part of his jam.
One of the challenges I had when I did the new book was how do you divide up the eras in his life? For me the answer that seemed the easiest, but there was some logic to it, was by decade because in the 1970s — that was sort of his Doubleday era — he changed publishers at the end of that. That was the time when he was finding his feet, when he was publishing some really great books, but he was still heavily under the influence of his editor, being forced to change things for purely economic reasons. And then he shifts to Viking in the ‘79 era, and then we have this ‘80s era where he’s just on fire. Everything that he publishes becomes a bestseller at that point, and he is just cruising through but he’s also suffering from various sorts of addictions which are fueling his energy process in one way or another.
Then you reach the end of the ‘80s, and you get to the point where he goes into recovery. He essentially empties the slate. He publishes four books in a matter of like sixteen months and says, “Okay, now this is the stuff that came before, and now we’re going to change gears a little bit.” We go into the ‘90s, and it’s a period of experimentation. He does three books in a very short period that are told from the perspective of a female protagonist. He’s doing some interesting things with the early facets of the Internet. “Umney’s Last Case,” the short story, was the first one that he ever published as an e-book, and so he was seeing a lot of possibilities there. Then we reach the end of the ‘90s, and of course there is his accident which is a real defining point in his career. Everything that comes beyond that is heavily influenced by the repercussions of that, plus he moves publishers again, and he starts getting more critical appreciation starting with books like Bag of Bones, and certainly On Writing is a book which even people who don’t generally read King have cited as being a very important work for writers.
So then we go through the early 2000s, The Dark Tower era, where he finishes things off. Then we get into the 2010s when he really embraces his crime fiction roots but also takes, you know, the thing I’ve always noticed about the two different series, the Mercedes books and the Hard Case Crime books, is the first one in the trilogy starts out to be pretty much straight crime, the second one is a little bit more supernatural influenced, and then the third one is full on Stephen King horror/supernatural. It’s no longer like a mainstream crime. So yeah, that’s the way I was thinking you could sort of segment, in one way, his career.
I suppose the million dollar question you get asked the most is, and which which the nswer likely changes plenty, of all the books you’ve ever read of Stephen King, and I assume that you’ve probably read them all, what would you say is the one that you remember most fondly as far as overall reading experience, maybe even the one that you go back to the most often, either in your head or physically with it in front of you?
Yeah, I have been asked that before, and you’re right, my answer does sort of vary. I mean it’s easy to go back to Salem’s Lot because there was a magical experience of discovery when reading that book, and I have gone back and reread it a number of times. I do have to say the experience of reading the last three Dark Tower books, and maybe not everybody knows, but King gave me the manuscripts to those last three books about two years before they were published so I could work on The Road to the Dark Tower and have it ready for publication at the same time as the seventh book came out. And so I had this experience of sitting on the couch with this stack of 2,500 pages of manuscript; just, you know, take one page off the stack and read it and move it to the other one, and being the only person who was experiencing the books at that time. That was the…
Best secret in town?
Now, because of that experience would those be the books you be would most apt to recommend to somebody whose new on board, or they’re like, “I’ve heard this Stephen King guy can write, what should I start with?”
I often go to Bag of Bones because it is a literary romantic ghost story horror novel. It’s got a lot going on I think might appeal to people who maybe aren’t into full-on horror. It certainly has its horrific elements but it’s really a love story with a ghost. Actually, it’s a special kind of ghost; it’s a ghost that’s possessed. So there’s a lot going on in that. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would recommend Revival as the opening gambit because it’s not until the very end that you realize how bleak and terrifying the book is, but by the time you get to the end it is just one of the most horrific things that he’s ever written.
I agree, one hundred percent.
The Dark Tower is sometimes a difficult read for a lot of his readers. I mean even people who’ve read him regularly sometimes had a hard time getting into that series. Although, I have to say, I probably read it ten times or more. Lisey’s Story to me is a bookend to Bag of Bones. Those two go together very well. The first one is the story of a writer who loses his wife, and the second one is the story of the wife of a writer who loses her husband, and there’s a nice symmetry to that pairing.
To sort of reach for the cherry on this chat, and maybe the cherry of your collection, of all the King books that you have, what do you consider the most cherished, the one which, God forbid, your house catches fire and besides your living, breathing loved ones, what’s the first thing you’re grabbing from that King collection and running out the door with?
I have a little yellow legal tablet, one of the smaller ones, and on it, its pages, is handwritten the section of Song of Susannah, where Roland and Eddie first meet Stephen King. And King wrote it on an airplane while he was flying up to California to visit Frank Muller, who was an audio book narrator who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, and Muller had done the audio books of some of the Dark Tower books plus many other of King’s. And King sent me that tablet as a gift one time, and that’s really my prized possession.
Oh wow! I noticed you wasted no time at all with that choice. And sorry, but when you say a tablet, are you referring to an electronic device?
No, no. Just a bunch of pages and it was handwritten.
That’s incredible. That’s literally one of a kind then, isn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. And what’s interesting is that on the front page of it, he has a list of things that he wanted to remember to take with him. You know, it’s the regular stuff, but then there was some funny things he put on there like “nightmare repellent” and a few little things like that.
Nightmare repellent? If that’s the one thing he forgot I’m pretty sure we fans would be good with that. I mean, forget about that one and bring on the nightmares. We don’t want you to repel them, Steve. Although I’m sure he’s repelled a few when readers get to have cathartically repelled from their system.
And of course, Bev, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what we can expect for the next volume? Maybe this is a better question to ask for Rich, but I assume the next volume of Stephen King Revisited is already locked and loaded, or is it still a work in progress?
It’s been a good number of years since Rich did his last entry for that online. It started with StephenKingRevisited.com. He would do his essay while usually I had my historical context essay ready and sometimes Brian would publish that first while we waited to get Rich’s contribution. But it’s been a good number of years since Rich has continued the saga. I have about six essays on the dashboard of that website ready to go for the next six books, and so if and when you do have Rich face-to-face on the camera, maybe you can ask him when he’s going to pick that up again. But there’s been a lot going on in Rich’s life.
He’s done the Gwendy books with King. He’s published his first novel (Chasing The Boogeyman), which has done extremely well, and I know he’s got a sequel to it coming along (Becoming The Boogeyman). Plus running a publishing business.
But every now and then I can subtly or not-so-subtly egg him on to see, you know, “When you gonna do the next one ’cause I’m ready to go when you are?”
I’ll be sure to ask him, “Not that Bev wants to pester you or I want to pester you, but c’mon Rich, let’s get it together now. When’s it coming out?” I’m actually chatting with him in a couple of days so I’ll be sure to throw that in there. I’ll do that at the end in case he hangs up on (laughs).
Just tell him that Bev’s ready to go for the next six books now.
I can’t thank you enough for your time today, Bev. This has been awesome.
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.