In his 1978 novel The Stand, author Stephen King wrote about a viral pandemic that decimated the world’s population. And he gets it when fans say experiencing the COVID-19 outbreak feels like stepping into one of his horror stories.
“I keep having people say, ‘Gee, it’s like we’re living in a Stephen King story,’ ” he says. “And my only response to that is, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
A pandemic like COVID-19 was “bound to happen,” King says. “There was never any question that in our society, where travel is a staple of daily life, that sooner or later, there was going to be a virus that was going to communicate to the public at large.”
Though he made his name as a horror writer, King says he’s most interested in exploring the “intrusion of the unexpected and the strange” into the lives of ordinary people.
His new collection of short stories, If it Bleeds, centers on Holly Gibney, a private investigator who seems to have supernatural ability. The character is featured in several other his novels, including The Outsider, which was adapted into an HBO series.
“There are people who have those special-type powers,” King says of the character. “People can call me a horror writer if they want to, and that’s fine — as long as the checks don’t bounce, I’m happy with that. But I think that I do a lot more, and I’m interested in the mystery of what we are and what we’re capable of doing.”
On how the pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the current generation
For me, as a guy who is in his 70s now, I can remember my mother talking about the Great Depression. It made a scar. It left trauma behind. And I think that … my granddaughter — who can’t see her friends, can only Skype them once in a while. She’s stuck in the house … when [she’s grown and] her children say, “Oh my God, I’m so bored, I can’t go out!” … [my granddaughter] is going to say, “You should have been around in 2020, because we were stuck in the house for months at a time! We couldn’t go out. We were scared of germs!”
On how writing provides an escape from reality
Twenty hours a day, I live in the same reality that everybody else lives in. But for four hours a day, things change. And if you ever asked me how that happens or why it happens, I’d have to tell you it’s as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. … And in all the years that I’ve been doing this — since I discovered the talent when I was 7 or 8 years old — I still feel much the same as I did in the early days, which is I’m going to leave the ordinary world for my own world. And it’s a wonderful, exhilarating experience. I’m very grateful to be able to have it.
On rethinking writing set in 2020 because of the pandemic
I set [the book I’m working on] in the year 2020 because I thought, “OK, when I publish it, if it’s in 2021, it will be like in the past, safely in the past.” And then this thing came along, and I immediately looked back through the copy that I’d written and I saw that one of the things that was going on was that two of my characters had gone on a cruise. … And I thought, “Well, no, I don’t think anybody’s going on cruise ships this year.” And so I looked at everything and I immediately set the book in 2019, where people could congregate and be together and the story would work because of that.
On how he’s dealing with the fear and anxiety related to the pandemic
The short answer to that is I’m not. What I’m living with and what I suspect a lot of people are living with right now is cabin fever. … But to be in the house day after day, all I can say is I’ve made wonderful progress on a novel, because there’s really not too much to do and it’s a good way to get away from the fear. It’s not panic. It’s not terror that I feel, that I think most people feel, it’s a kind of gnawing anxiety where you say to yourself, I shouldn’t go out. If I do go out, I might catch this thing or I might give it to somebody else.
On the role of horror fiction in a period when the world is frightening
Well, they’re like dreams, aren’t they? You’re able to go into a world that you know is not real. But if the artist is good — the filmmaker or the novelist or maybe even the painter — for a little while, you’re able to believe that world, because the picture of it and the depiction of it is so real that you can go in there. And yet there’s always a part of your mind that understands that it’s not real, that it’s make-believe.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.