Horror writer's author-son finds his own voice
Owen King may share his father’s liberal politics and fervent support for the Boston Red Sox, but the two break ranks when it comes to ghouls, vampires and other denizens of the dark side.
There’s no hint of the supernatural in King’s debut novella and short stories. Nor is there any mention that the author is the younger son of horrormeister Stephen King and novelist Tabitha King. Instead, the title tale in We’re All in This Together is an imaginative and absurdly humorous tale of political partisanship run amok, laced with quirky characters whose bizarre behavior offers a lesson in the perils of zealotry.
The book jacket purposefully makes no mention of the author’s parentage and contains not a word of accolade from Stephen King, long known for his generosity in trumpeting the books of others.
To Owen King (28) this reflects a desire to cut his own path and see his work accepted or rejected on its merits.
But an even stronger motive, he says, is to dispel any assumption that he is writing in the same genre as his dad.
“I don’t think it’s fair for Stephen King fans to be deceived, and I know I’m a Stephen King fan,” he says in an interview outside the Bangor Public Library.
“The last thing I want to do is to present something as ‘Stephen King, Part II,’ and have it be something that’s a big disappointment.”
He considered using a pen name, but was put off by the idea of going by an alias when meeting people or having a go-between handle details of his professional life. The prospect seemed too complex and too weird.
Despite his family’s fame and wealth, King attended public schools and enjoyed as close to normal a childhood as possible for someone born to the privilege and advantages he enjoyed. Bangor, a city of 31 000 that’s rich in history and short on glitz, was the ideal place for a kid looking to sidestep celebrity.
King played Little League and American Legion baseball. He was on Bangor High School’s state championship baseball and basketball teams, although never as a starter. And he mowed ball fields during the summer at minimum wage.
King gravitated toward the family business of writing while in high school, working on the student newspaper and contributing to the literary magazine. His older brother, Joe (33) also has dabbled in fiction and has collaborated on a screenplay with Owen. The only sibling as yet untouched by the writing bug is sister Naomi (35), whose career has evolved from restaurateur to Unitarian minister.
“I didn’t feel drawn to anything else,” Owen King says. “I wasn’t good at the sciences, I wasn’t a good enough athlete. The only thing I could do was mow lawns. So I thought that writing or teaching was what I wanted to do.”
King acknowledges that his book is grabbing more attention than would a first-time effort by a writer without comparable lineage, but he seems to have made a conscious effort not to capitalise on his father’s fame.
“I think the model that I look at is someone like Jakob Dylan, whose dad is obviously every bit if not more famous than mine,” King says.
“He’s a guy who sought to build a career on his own, doing something that’s a little bit different than what his father does.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Vassar College, King went on to a masters of fine arts programme in writing at Columbia University, where he met his fiancée, novelist Kelly Braffet. The two now live in an apartment in a deconsecrated Catholic church in Brooklyn, New York.
Clad in T-shirt, shorts and a Red Sox cap on a steamy summer day with the temperature hovering around 32°C, King was combining a visit to his family with a few promotional stops at bookstores in Maine, where the novella and two of the stories are set.
“I got engaged, and I moved into an apartment, and I’m doing the book tour,” he says. “It’s a busy, exciting, stressful, neat time.”
We’re All in This Together has received a generally positive response from critics, with Kirkus Reviews calling King “a talent to watch”.
His pursuit of a writing career comes as no surprise to George Beahm, author of seven unauthorised books about Stephen King and his work. “When you grow up in an environment where reading and writing are encouraged, it’s natural to think, ‘Do I have a talent,’ and ‘Is this where my interests lie?”’ Beahm said.
Beahm believes that the younger King is wise in avoiding fantasy or horror. “He’s trying to find his own voice and not follow in his dad’s footsteps,” Beahm said.
Stephen and Tabitha King declined to be interviewed about Owen’s book.
“Owen’s trying so hard to do this on his own, so they’ve been trying to keep a fairly low profile,” said Marsha DeFilippo, a spokesperson for Stephen King.
Owen King’s novella was an outgrowth of his despair at the outcome of the 2000 presidential election and the role played by the Supreme Court. “I’m a very liberal person,” he says. “I was really bummed out.”
In the novella, those feelings are carried to the extreme by a former union organiser and grandfather whose obsession is revealed to the world from his front yard in a giant billboard extolling Al Gore. Increasingly unhinged, he enlists his grandson in a vendetta against the paperboy he suspects of defacing his message. But in the end, all is not as it seems.
King’s message: People are seldom all bad or all good, and a lot of screeching and craziness aren’t helpful. He says it’s time to move beyond the invective of the talking heads on cable TV and begin to reason with one another.
“It’s not meant to be a polemic. It’s meant to be enjoyable, and something that people who don’t agree with me can enjoy because it’s funny,” he says.
The short stories, written while he was in graduate school, include two period pieces. One is about an itinerant dentist at the turn of the 20th century who is led by trappers through a snowstorm to perform primitive surgery; another is set in Coney Island during the 1930s and tells of a baseball player’s guilt over an illicit romance. - Sapa-AP