Stephen King Witnessed A Chilling Incident As A Child – And It May Have Inspired His Best Work

Stephen King is widely regarded as one of the finest and most creative horror writers of the modern day. However, it turns out that not all of the novelist’s best-sellers were works of pure fiction. Indeed, at least one particular tale was inspired by a very real traumatic experience which took place when King was a youngster.

And if you’ve seen Stand by Me, the movie adaptation of King’s novel The Body, then you may well know what the incident is. The writer also addressed the subject explicitly in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre. Here’s a look at the childhood tragedy, which some say shaped King’s best work.

Born in the Maine city of Portland in September 1947, Stephen King endured something of a difficult childhood. His merchant seaman father Donald abandoned the family when the future writer was aged just two. His mother Nellie subsequently struggled to cope financially with raising both King and his older sibling David.

ADVERTISEMENT

King developed a passion for the macabre from a young age, with the horror comics publications from EC a particularly formative influence. He started penning his own horror stories as a high school student and in 1965 had his first independently published tale in Comics Review. King then studied English at the University of Maine, where he also wrote for the student newspaper.

King intended to pursue a career in teaching after his graduation but initially struggled to find work. He subsequently began writing short stories which he then sold to various men’s publications such as Adam and Cavalier. He continued to develop this sideline when he eventually got a teaching position at Maine’s Hampden Academy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Originating as a short story, Carrie became King’s first novel to be published in 1973. The tale of a teenage girl who discovers and develops powers of a telekinetic nature became an instant hit. Released two years later, Salem’s Lot further established King as the new master of horror fiction.

ADVERTISEMENT

Shortly after, King added The Shining and The Stand to his list of best-selling chillers. And 1982’s Different Seasons proved that he could write serious drama just as effortlessly as he could horror. The novella collection also spawned three different movie adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and Stand by Me.

ADVERTISEMENT

By this point, King had also published a string of hit books under the moniker of Richard Bachman. The writer adopted this pseudonym to determine whether his work would still be appreciated without the big name behind it. And the popularity of short novels such as Rage, The Running Man and Thinner soon gave him the answer.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then in 1985 King ventured into the comic book world when he contributed to Heroes for Hope Starring the X-Men. He also published one of the decade’s biggest-selling fiction hardbacks with clown story It the following year. Pet Semetary, Christine and Misery, all of which were also later adapted for the big screen, helped continue his winning streak.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, King’s career and indeed life was nearly tragically cut short in the summer of 1999 when he was hit by a minivan during a walk. Thankfully, the author recovered from his severe injuries. That same year King also revealed he’d been diagnosed with macular degeneration and that he may possibly go blind.

ADVERTISEMENT

Despite his troubles, King remained just as prolific in the ’00s. His most notable works during this period included three instalments of The Dark Tower series, a return to his Richard Bachman pseudonym with Blaze and novel Under the Dome. The latter was later adapted into a TV series that King co-produced with Steven Spielberg.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the 2010s King added to his bibliography with the likes of Joyland, the Bill Hodges Trilogy and Revival. He also published Doctor Sleep, a belated follow-up to one of his most popular books, The Shining. And in 2017 he co-wrote a novel, Sleeping Beauties, with his own son Owen about a women’s prison.

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, in his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, King wrote about the reasons why he began writing horror stories. In the “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause” chapter, he compared the moment he realized it was his calling to his uncle’s act of using an apple branch’s bough to dowse for water. And he was in the attic of the home he shared with his mother and brother at the time.

ADVERTISEMENT

Apparently, King was with his sibling David when he discovered a collection of H.P. Lovecraft short stories. The Lurker in the Shadows had previously been owned by his absent father. And in 2009 the writer revealed to Barnes & Noble Studios that, “I knew that I’d found home when I read that book.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Lovecraft isn’t the only pivotal inspiration when it comes to King’s writing career. The horror master once named Richard Matheson, the man responsible for I Am Legend, as “the author who influenced me most as a writer.” He’s also claimed that “without Ray Bradbury, there is no Stephen King.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In another interview, King said that “there was nothing else I was made to do,” when asked why he became an author. He continued, “I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That’s why I do it. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and I can’t imagine not doing what I do.”

ADVERTISEMENT

King typically adheres to a strict formula when penning one of his novels. He once advised, “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.” In fact, he won’t stop writing until his daily word count reaches at least 2000.

ADVERTISEMENT

Horror maestro King also has his own method for spotting a gifted writer. And the requirements aren’t as detailed as you might expect. He reportedly once said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Although King may remain relatively modest about his talents, others are far more willing to celebrate his work. Fellow writer Jeffrey Deaver once remarked that the author “singlehandedly made popular fiction grow up. While there were many good best-selling writers before him, King, more than anybody since John D. MacDonald, brought reality to genre novels.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Unsurprisingly, King has also been showered with accolades since his rise to literary fame. In 2004 he picked up the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement – and three years later The Mystery Writers of America presented him with the Grand Masters Award. The United States National Endowment for the Arts also honored him with a National Medal for his services to the literary world in 2015.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of King’s most cherished works is The Body, a 1982 novella that was first published in the Different Seasons collection. Set in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock in 1960, the summer tale centers on the disappearance of a young boy named Ray Brower. And a group of friends, Teddy, Chris, Vern and Gordie, make it their mission to discover what happened.

ADVERTISEMENT

The gang are initially enthusiastic about the prospect of finding a dead body as they scout the town’s railway tracks. However, their summer adventure takes a much more emotional turn as they learn about each other’s hardships. And then when they do eventually find Ray’s body, they realize that death is nothing to get excited about.

ADVERTISEMENT

Writing from the perspective of an adult Gordon reflecting on his childhood, King perfectly captures the stark reality of the moment. He writes, “The kid was dead. The kid wasn’t sick, the kid wasn’t sleeping. [He] wasn’t going to get up in the morning anymore… or catch poison ivy or wear out the eraser on the end of his Ticonderoga No 2 during a hard math test. The kid was dead.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Four years after its publication, The Body gained a new lease of life when it was adapted for the big screen. Renamed Stand by Me, the coming-of-age movie was helmed by Rob Reiner and made stars of its young cast. Indeed, Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton and a virtually unrecognizable Jerry O’Connell all made early appearances. However, the true breakout star was undoubtedly River Phoenix.

ADVERTISEMENT

Stand by Me made a handful of changes to the original story. Whereas The Body was set in 1960, Reiner’s film pushed the timing back one full year. And while the novella’s fictional town of Castle Rock was based in Maine, Stand By Me relocated it to Oregon. However, the main narrative largely remained the same.

ADVERTISEMENT

And it turns out that the idea for the story was rooted in a real-life incident which King experienced as a youngster. Indeed, at the age of four years old, the future best-selling writer went out to play with a friend at a neighbor’s home. In what proved to have tragic consequences, the house just happened to be next to a railroad line.

ADVERTISEMENT

King was only out for an hour but on his return, it was clear that something particularly troubling had happened. The author recalled in Danse Macabre that he was “white as a ghost” when he first saw his mother. He added, “I would not speak for the rest of the day.”

ADVERTISEMENT

King continued, “I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home. I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back, but had allowed me to come home alone.” Indeed, at such a tender age, King had actually just witnessed the death of his friend.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, while out playing together on the railroad tracks, King’s unknown young friend was tragically killed by an oncoming freight train. The future author wasn’t able to tell his mother exactly where he was at the time. And in fact, he still doesn’t recall anything about the incident at all.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, perhaps as some form of coping mechanism, a young King soon managed to bury the trauma of witnessing his friend’s death to the back of his mind. Moreover, he only learned of the incident when family members recounted the events of that fateful afternoon several years later. But despite this, some believe that this was a formative experience when it came to his writing.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, King doesn’t agree that the incident had any bearing on his future writing career. In fact, it’s fair to say that he feels quite strongly about the matter. He reportedly once said, “I believe this is a totally specious idea. Such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, in another interview with Barnes and Noble, King did appear to concede that the incident had a “bearing” on his profession. He also revealed why he still talks about the incident. He said, “… the only reason that I tell the story, I don’t have any memory of it myself, but I remember my mother saying, ‘They picked up the pieces in a basket.’”

ADVERTISEMENT

But King was keen to point out that he’s sick of the subject being brought up. He said, “I’m in my early 60s now, so, I’ve heard the question a lot, and I know what the subtext is. It’s what screwed you up so badly that you’re interested in this stuff. But I don’t have any memory of anything quote-unquote ‘screwing me up.’”

ADVERTISEMENT

King then continued, “There’s a saying that alcoholics have in Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets.’ He then claimed that he was “built to try and give reader satisfaction,” before adding, “I like to tell stories and I like to make people excited about what I do.”

ADVERTISEMENT

So King doesn’t believe that the traumatic incident played any part in his future career. But he does acknowledge that other aspects of his childhood were a significant influence. He reportedly once said, “I was prey to a lot of conflicting emotions as a child. I had friends and all that, but I often felt unhappy and different – estranged from other kids my age.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“I was terrified and fascinated by death – death in general and my own, in particular,” King continued. “I was absolutely convinced that I’d never live to reach 20 – I envisioned myself walking home one night along a dark, deserted street and somebody or something would jump out of the bushes. And that would be it. So death as a concept and the people who dealt out death intrigued me.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, a young King was terrified of the dark in general. Indeed, as an infant he insisted that his bedroom light be kept on as he found it difficult to get to sleep otherwise. He was also frightened by the thought of something particularly monstrous hiding in his closet.

ADVERTISEMENT

And it wasn’t just the darkness that gave a young King the heebie jeebies. Indeed, by the time he was five years old he’d developed a fear of everything from rats, snakes and spiders to deformities, choking and psychotherapy. He was also something of a nervous flyer and suffered from claustrophobia.

ADVERTISEMENT

And King does at least admit that the idea for The Body stemmed from his youth. He once said, “For a long time I thought that I would love to be able to find a string to put on a lot of the childhood experiences that I remember. A lot of them were funny and some of them were kind of sad.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, despite this source of inspiration, King found it hard to put the story together. He added, “Nothing came and nothing came – and what you do when nothing comes is, you don’t push. You just put it aside. The most important things are the hardest to say. You can’t talk about them because once you start, they tarnish.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT