The turboprop plane breaks through the storm clouds, revealing the barren, wind-whipped landscape of Bangor, Maine, below. Inside the cabin, the flight attendant is expressionless as the craft begins its shaky descent. The landing is rough; workers on the ground silently usher the passengers onto the tarmac and into the strangely empty airport. Outside, a single cab is idling curbside, as if waiting just for you. The driver, a gruff older man of about 60, does not turn around as you get in. ”Do you know Stephen King?” you ask. He cocks his head just slightly in your direction so a quarter of his face is revealed, not enough to ever identify him again. His eyebrow is arched suspiciously. ”Sure I do,” he says slowly. ”Everyone here does. He’s… one of us.”
It’s only slightly less ominous when the driver drops you off at an office in an industrial park near the airport, headquarters of what could be called Stephen King Inc. The staff, four preternaturally serene women in charge of King’s vast book, TV, and movie empire, move noiselessly about what used to be an Air Force base. Suddenly the eerie silence is broken. The front door bangs open, and a man in a baseball jacket, jeans, and white karate shoes strides in. King, 48, lives about a mile away in the famous mansion with the wrought-iron bat gates but no longer permits visitors there because of stalkers. He has a warm, booming laugh, which is evident as he displays a gift he’s just received from a fan, a wreath shaped like a bat. He grins when you tell him that arriving at the Bangor airport was like walking into his recent ABC miniseries The Langoliers, which was set in a desolate airport. ”That’s because it was filmed there,” he says gleefully. ”I made ’em film it there to help the community. Now lemme just get a soda. Go relax on the couch and I’ll be right there.”
Relax? With Stephen King? Godfather of horror, author of 34 books, 5 short story collections, and 8 screenplays about the terrifying and the macabre — America’s official Dark Half? King may seem to inhabit a frightening universe, but he appears to be a reasonably normal guy. Even though he’s made millions since the 1974 publication of Carrie and become a touchstone in pop culture — think The Shining, Cujo, Misery, Firestarter, Creepshow, Pet Sematary, The Stand, Dolores Claiborne, It, Gerald’s Game — King still has extraordinary enthusiasm for his work. ”All writers basically want the same thing,” he says, draping his long legs over the side of an armchair, cracking open a can of Diet Pepsi, and dropping his g’s. ”They’re dyin’ for as many people as possible to read their stories.”
That’s King’s goal for his latest effort, a gothic novella in six Charles Dickens-style installments about death row in a Depression-era prison, called The Green Mile. The plot involves a guard on death row, an inmate convicted of killing two young girls, and a mouse that may have supernatural powers. The first 96-page episode will be published in late March, and a new one will appear each consecutive month. Each will cost $2.99; there is no hardback. ”It’s like a novelistic striptease,” says King. ”It’s old-fashioned. The opposite of instant gratification — like pushing a button online and getting something off your laser printer. Not this time.” Phyllis Grann, chairman and CEO of the Putnam Berkley Group and doyenne of New York publishing, says, ”His fans, including me, are going to rush out to get that first one.” But Penguin USA (which owns Signet) could still lose money — a series of paperbacks probably won’t make as much as a single blockbuster hardcover.