Sunday, September 09, 2012

Stephen King: Exposed as Richard Bachman

In early 1985, Stephen King came clean and admitted that the rumours were true: he was Richard Bachman.

Bachman had published five novels: four paperback originals (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man) and one hard cover (Thinner). It was the increased publicity for, and attention given to, Thinner that heated up the King/Bachman talk.

King's admission came after Steve Brown, a Washington, D.C., bookstore employee, who had read the Bachman novels and believed they sounded an awfully lot like King, did some sleuthing at the Library of Congress.

Brown wrote that Thinner (published in November 1984) was
instantly recognizable as a King novel. It had been written in 1982 by a well-known writer at the peak of his popularity. With the exception of Roadwork (written immediately after the completion of 'Salem's Lot), the earlier Bachman novels had been trunk novels, early works where King's distinctive style was still partially unformed.

That distinctive style finally drove me to the Library of Congress in the fall of 1984. I had read all five Bachman novels and was about eighty percent convinced that it was Stephen King. A peek at the Bachman copyrights confirmed my suspicion. All but one of the books listed Bachman as a legal pseudonym, and listed King's agent, Kirby McCauley, as the holder of the copyright. The one exception, the earliest, Rage, had Stephen King's name on it. I sent King a letter detailing what I had found, and waited for a dissembling reply. Instead, the phone rang.

"Steve Brown? This is Steve King. Okay, you know I'm Bachman. I know I'm Bachman, what are we going to do about it? Let's talk."
(Brown's account of his discovery can be found here.)

King ended up giving Brown a lengthy interview, which Brown published in the Washington Post on April 9, 1985. However, Brown was not the first person to publicly make the King/Bachman connection. Exactly two months earlier, on February 9, 1985, the Bangor (Maine) Daily News published some solid evidence, but King did not comment one way or the other.

It turns out that he was getting ready to announce the news himself. From the March 1985 issue of Castle Rock - an official King newsletter:
I don't think I have to tell anyone the big news this month. Yes, Stephen King is indeed Richard Bachman. ... Stephen intended to keep it quiet until March 1, but a local paper decided they would run the story with or without his comment, as they had enough proof, and as Stephen told them, the whole thing was coming apart - he likened it to having a bag of groceries that gets wet and things keep falling out until you can't hold it together anymore.
King was angry at having to admit to the Bachman pseudonym. "I was pissed. It's like you can't have anything. You're not allowed to because you're a celebrity." King hoped to use the Bachman name "for the long haul", but there are clues/hints in the Bachman books that invariably point to King.

The most obvious one comes late in The Running Man, in which Bachman mentions an airport in Derry, Maine, a fictional town created by King.

Also, Bart Dawes (Roadwork) works at Blue Ribbon Laundry and refers to a laundry pressing machine as "the mangler". Carrie White's mother (Carrie) also works at Blue Ribbon Laundry and King's short story "The Mangler" (Night Shift) features a laundry pressing machine at Blue Ribbon Laundry.

The end of The Long Walk reads: "And when the hand touched his shoulder again, he somehow found the strength to run." Late in Pet Sematary, King writes: "... and perhaps a quarter of a mile before the path ran out of the woods and into the field behind his house, he found enough left inside him to run."

In Thinner, one character says, "You were beginning to sound like a Stephen King novel there for a minute."

King, from his interview with Brown: "I wanted [the novels] to go out there and either find an audience, or just disappear quietly. The idea was not to just publish a book that I thought was good, but to honestly try to create another name that wouldn't be associated with my name."

King had originally chosen the name Guy Pillsbury - the name of his maternal grandfather - for a novel entitled Getting It On. But when that information leaked out at the publishing house, King retitled the manuscript Rage, and chose a different name. "They called me up. They asked me what name I wanted on it. There was a Richard Stark novel on my desk and the Bachman-Turner Overdrive on the stereo. So I told them to call him Richard Bachman." (Richard Stark was one of at least 16 pseudonyms used by the incredibly prolific Donald Westlake.)

Kirby McCauley:
[The Bachman novels] didn't fit into his career very well. He was known for his supernatural horror novels, and his fear was that he would lead his audiences astray. Steve thought of Cujo as more of a Bachman book. There was nothing supernatural about it, and it certainly had a downbeat ending. Thinner, retrospectively, should have been a Stephen King novel.
(Thinner's ending is nowhere near upbeat, however.)

King also told Brown that he had a completed manuscript set for the next Bachman book: Misery.

Despite Bachman's death ("cancer of the pseudonym", quipped King), he continued to publish. According to the legend, his widow, Claudia Inez Bachman, found some manuscripts in a old trunk, and decided to publish them, with some editing assistance from his old friend Stephen King. Those books were The Regulators (1996, released in tandem with King's Desperation) and Blaze (2007, an old King novel that at one point was considered as a follow-up to Carrie).


King, from the original introduction to The Bachman Books (1985):
I think I did it to turn the heat down a little bit; to do something as someone other than Stephen King. I think that all novelists are inveterate role-players and it was fun to be someone else for a while - in this case, Richard Bachman. And he did develop a personality and a history to go along with the bogus author photo on the back of Thinner and the bogus wife (Claudia Inez Bachman) to whom the book is dedicated. Bachman was a fairly unpleasant fellow who was born in New York and spent about ten years in the merchant marine after four years in the Coast Guard. He ultimately settled in rural central New Hampshire, where he wrote at night and tended to his medium-sized dairy farm during the day. The Bachmans had one child, a boy, who died in an unfortunate accident at the age of six (he fell through a well cover and drowned). Three years ago a brain tumor was discovered near the base of Bachman's brain; tricky surgery removed it. And he died suddenly in February of 1985 when the Bangor Daily News, my hometown paper, published the story that I was Bachman - a story which I confirmed. ... I've been asked several times if I did it because I thought I was overpublishing the market as Stephen King. The answer is no. I didn't think I was overpublishing the market . . . but my publishers did. Bachman provided a compromise for both of us. ... This does nothing, however, to explain why I've felt this restless need to publish what I write when I don't need the dough.

I've been asked several times if I did it because I feel typecast as a horror writer. The answer is no. I don't give a shit what people call me as long as I can go to sleep at night. Nevertheless, only the last of the Bachman books is an out-and-out horror story, and the fact hasn't escaped me. Writing something that was not horror as Stephen King would be perfectly easy, but answering the questions about why I did it would be a pain in the ass. When I wrote straight fiction as Richard Bachman, no one asked the questions. In fact, ha-ha, hardly anyone read the books. Which leads us to what might be - well, not the reason why that voice spoke up in the first place, but the closest thing to it.

You try to make sense of your life. Everybody tries to do that, I think, and part of making sense of things is trying to find reasons . . . or constants . . . things that don't fluctuate. Everyone does it, but perhaps people who have extraordinarily lucky or unlucky lives do it a little more. Part of you wants to think-or must as least speculate that you got whopped with the cancer stick because you were one of the bad guys (or one of the good ones, if you believe Durocher's Law). Part of you wants to think that you must have been one hardworking S.O.B. or a real prince or maybe even one of the Sainted Multitude if you end up riding high in a world where people are starving, shooting each other, burning out, bumming out, getting loaded, getting 'Luded. But there's another part that suggests it's all a lottery, a real-life gameshow not much different from "Wheel of Fortune" or "The New Price Is Right" (two of the Bachman books, incidentally, are about game-show-type competitions). It is for some reason depressing to think it was all-or even mostly-an accident. So maybe you try to find out if you could do it again. Or in my case, if Bachman could do it again.

The question remains unanswered. Richard Bachman's first four books did not sell well at all, perhaps partly because they were issued without fanfare. ... [T]he Bachman novels are not the only time such novels have been the work of well-known writers sending out dispatches from deep cover. Donald Westlake published paperback originals under the names Tucker Coe and Richard Stark; Evan Hunter under the name Ed McBain; Gore Vidal under the name Edgar Box. ... I wanted Bachman to keep a low profile. So, in that sense, the poor guy had the dice loaded against him from the start. And yet, little by little, Bachman gained a dim cult following. His final book, Thinner, had sold about 28,000 copies in hardcover before a Washington bookstore clerk and writer named Steve Brown got suspicious ...

I want to close by saying just a few words about the worth of these books. Are they good novels? I don't know. Are they honest novels? Yes, I think so. They were honestly meant, anyway, and written with an energy I can only dream about these days (The Running Man, for instance, was written during a period of seventy-two hours and published with virtually no changes). ... The most recent of the Bachman books offered here, Roadwork, was written between 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and was an effort to write a "straight" novel. ... I'd only add that two of these novels, perhaps even all four, might have been published under my own name if I had been a little more savvy about the publishing business or if I hadn't been preoccupied in the years they were written with first trying to get myself through school and then to support my family. And that I only published them (and am allowing them to be republished now) because they are still my friends; they are undoubtedly maimed in some ways, but they still seem very much alive to me.


laura k said...

I didn't know this story at all - very interesting.

Who is that photo? I imagine I'm supposed to know that, but I don't.

Donald Westlake had 16 pseudonyms?? I knew there was more than one, but 16? FFS.

allan said...

The photo is supposedly Bachman, the author's photo for Thinner, taken by his wife. But it is actually a guy named Richard Manuel, the insurance agent for King's literary agent.

laura k said...

Ah, thanks.

Do you think that King wanted to be found out, and that's why he planted clues? Do you think he mostly didn't want to be discovered, but had some mixed feelings about it? What's your take?

allan said...

I really have no idea. I can't see why he would do King-type things - like using the same name for the fictional laundry company he used in Carrie - if he wanted to use the name for a long time. If he truly wanted to see if he could be popular under another name, it sems logical he would have changed all those references.

Also, the first 4 Bachman books were old manuscripts he had done before he hit it big while Thinner was one he was writing in the early 80s. Maybe it was harder to hide his stylistic quirks. People in the book biz apparently had their suspicions, so maybe he realized it was harder to keep the secret than he first thought.