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Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King was written by Lisa Rogak and published in 2009. It's an unofficial biography of the one man book industry and horror writer and tells the story of how a geeky nobody living in a trailer with no money became the best selling author of the 20th century. I haven't read much of King's later work but I remember reading the short stories and some of the Bachman books when I was at school. The book of his I really love is Danse Macabre, a non-fiction work where King talks about the horror genre and old films and television shows he remembers. It was probably that book that persuaded me to take this out of the library and learn a bit more about King because he's very likeable and interesting in it. I did notice though that I was familiar with a lot of stuff here from King's own autobiographical ramblings in the introductions to his older books and also passages in Danse Macabre. King says in Danse Macabre that when he was four he witnessed one of his friends being killed by a train and came home in such a state of shock he repressed the memory for years. This is repeated here but there is reasonable amount of stuff I didn't know, like how his father abandoned the family when King was a child. Apparently, he said he was just nipping out to the shop and never returned and this trauma was a major theme of King's work.
The biography is framed around the books and contains many quotes from the subject throughout. 'America needs Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Ronald McDonald, but it needs a bogeyman too,' says King. 'Alfred Hitchcock's dead, so I got the job for a while.' King's mother Ruth was somewhat bewildered by his love of the gruesome (and eventually banned) EC horror comics of the fifties but they were a major influence on King as a child and later as a writer. 'Someday, I'm going to write this junk,' he said to his mother when she complained about these lurid comics he was always reading. On the whole, this is probably a slightly disappointing read and has a somewhat perfunctory air. It feels very second hand in terms of its sources and there is much here that might already be familiar. It's interesting though to dwell on the origins of King's success in the early seventies when he was a teacher living in a mobile home and doing a shift in a laundry. He started writing a book called Carrie and was so dismayed by the results of his labour he threw it in a dustbin. His wife Tabitha fished it out and persuaded him to stick at it. Carrie eventually sold for $400,000 and King was soon a phenomenon in terms of book sales even if critical acclaim was often harder to find.
One of the things I did find quite interesting here was how King is both an insider and an outsider. He came from a poor background and experienced being poor as an adult too but then became an incredibly wealthy and successful man. Despite his fame and money there is still something of the small town nerd about King and he's never been that comfortable in the spotlight. The book suggests that King sees himself this way, still essentially a small town character who doesn't understand why anyone would want to scrutinise him too much or put him on a pedestal. A major section of the book is taken up with King's battles with drink and drugs. I was aware he'd had these problems but I didn't realise it was quite so bad. The biography says that King was adept at portraying alcoholic writers in books because he was one himself and he was also frequently drunk and stoned when he directed the film Maximum Overdrive in the eighties. This was an adaption of one of King's stories and about trucks and cars coming to life and trying to run down people or something. Anyone who has ever watched some of this film will probably not be surprised to learn that King was a bit out of it at the time!
According to the book, his wife Tabitha got so fed up with his beer and cocaine binges she collected together all the drugs and alcohol she could find in his offices and put it all in a bin which she emptied on the floor in front of him, their children and friends. King got the message and sobered up. Despite the darker side of his personality and life, King comes out of the biography as a genuinely decent person who has done an incredible amount of charity work and has always been generous and supportive to writers and friends. He's made a living trying to scare people but what scares the man himself? According to the book King has a number of fears including the number 13 and flying. 'You have to be a little nuts to be a writer,' says King. 'Because you have to imagine worlds that aren't there.' King describes himself as the 'Big Mac' of writers but has always sought to show he can do more than horror stories and gain some sort of critical acclaim. I haven't read much of King's later work but I gathered here he has managed to do this with some books away from his usual spooky fare.
There is also too a section on the 1999 incident that nearly killed him. He was walking in a country road and a van swerved and hit him (the driver had been trying to control his dog or something), leaving King with severe injuries that he was lucky to survive. 'I was nearly killed by one my own characters,' he later joked. I'm not an expert on Stephen King or his books by any stretch of the imagination but I did notice one or two errors with book titles and the years given for films based on them and there are one or two repetitions at times that make the book feel like it could have done with one more edit. I generally found this readable and interesting but as far as biographies go it's nothing special.
Haunted Heart is an unauthorised biography of my second favourite author of all time; Stephen King. (For the purists out there, my number one favourite remains fantasy writer, Robin Hobb). It takes a measured and objective look at his life and career through good times and bad and examines briefly the events behind some of the novels that have helped made King (in)famous.
Beginning with his humble origins and the father who abandoned the family when King was very small, the book then goes on to look at King's early career selling short stories to skin mags. From here, we are slowly given slightly more of an insight than normal into the man behind the monsters from the viewpoint of not just the writer himself (taken from anecdotal interviews King has conducted over the years) but also from friends, colleagues and some of the people who know him best.
If there is one fault with this book, it is that modern-day King is strangely absent from many of the biography's most notable chapters and whilst King apparently was aware of Lisa Rogak's intention to write this, it is highly noticeable that he has refused to actively have any involvement with this project! Rogak herself has previous form having written a book earlier on President Obama but here her writing constantly seems to lack any substance and often gives the appearance of merely skimmimg over many of the salient facts!
For someone who didn't know a hell of a lot about Stephen King the writer outside the plethora of his work (except for some of the facts concerning his addiction to illegal substances and about the accident he suffered several years ago which nearly cut his life short), this biography is useful for giving an inside peek at the life of one of the finest fiction writers of my generation. But anyone expecting this to be an in depth look at this highly respected writer or a closer examination of his many novels and how and why they are all interconnected, may just walk away a little disenheartened.
Having read Slash last year, which was written in close collaboration with the ex Guns'N'Roses guitarist, this biography really suffers for not having much communication from the author it attempts to talk about. It is an okay read but nothing challenging or revelationary and I do not like the way each chapter is named after one of his novels or short stories which, to my mind, feels more than a little bit cheap and tacky. If you are a fan of Stephen King, by all means read this but I wouldn't buy it if I was you! It is the kind of book that is far preferable to simply borrow from the library rather than purchase!