A crazy cop and witchy wolves. A deified death-row inmate and a magical mouse. A hellion author and a heroic little boy. They all leapt with astonishing ease from the imagination of Stephen King, 49, and bolted onto the best-seller lists during a flurry of output that made for, even by King’s own standards, a prolific and profitable year. ”I’ll probably never have another one like it,” says the author, who, as always, views his accomplishments with both gratitude and bluster. It was a year when his modesty turned ironic. ”I don’t think I’d want to do another serial novel (if only because the critics get to kick your ass six times instead of just the once),” King wrote in the afterword to the final part of The Green Mile. The drubbing never happened, of course. The novel, about a death-row facility in the 1930s South and published in six monthly installments, signaled a small book-marketing revolution and showcased King at his best, quietly weaving suspense, pathos, and the supernatural into a lovely rumination on aging and loneliness. With all six parts totaling more than 20 million copies in print, King jockeyed with himself for positions on best-seller lists.

”I got letters from people who’d never read anything of mine before, and that was cool,” says the author, who is nevertheless reluctant to turn the six Green Mile installments into a novel (though they are being sold in a Christmas gift pack). ”I’m not sure I have anything more to say,” he offers. And sensitive to accusations that he overcharged for the paperback serial (total price: $18.94), King says he probably won’t try another one anytime soon. He insists, however, that he charged only what the publisher thought was necessary and took a small royalty, which earned him ”somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-$9 million less” than he would have made on a one-volume printing.

On the heels of Mile’s phenomenal success came the dual publication of Viking’s Desperation — a gripping yarn of stranded Nevada tourists forced to do battle with a demon (and wolves and spiders and snakes) — and Dutton’s The Regulators, an inferior work written under King’s occasional pseudonym, Richard Bachman. It was the ”voice” (his appropriately creepy word) that told him the novels ”were like two halves of an A-frame,” though to the naked eye the plots bear little resemblance.

True to his quirky convictions, and unhappy with director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining, King recently produced and wrote a six-hour miniseries version (to air next spring on ABC). But his most remarkable achievement in 1996 was this: With 43 books behind him (his 44th, The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, arrives in 1997), King seemed to reintroduce himself to the world. ”I write all kinds of stories,” he says, for those few who don’t know him well. ”There’s a lot of stuff that I do that isn’t necessarily horror. In a way, I’m fiction’s best-kept secret.”