Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Horror Show, Fall 1987

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at his time!

The tenth free offering is “Nothing There,” a short story originally published in the late legendary Dave Silva’s “The Horror Show” and republished in "Vapors: The Essential G. Wayne Miller Fiction, V. 2," 2013, Crossroad Press.

BONUS No. 1: Cover of the Fall 1987 “The Horror Show,” when Dave Silva rated me a “rising star,” along with Elizabeth Massie, Poppy Z. Brite, Bentley Little and others. Also, the first page of “Nothing There,” the original illustration, and a two-page interview from three-plus decades ago.

My, how time flies!

Nothing There: Story, illustration, interviews and link to audio drama

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at his time!

This is the tenth free offering: “Nothing There,” a short story originally published in the late legendary Dave Silva’s “The Horror Show” and republished in "Vapors: The Essential G. Wayne Miller Fiction, V. 2," 2013, Crossroad Press.

BONUS No. 1: Cover of the Fall 1987 “The Horror Show,” when DaveSilva rated me a “rising star,” along with Elizabeth Massie, Poppy Z. Brite, Bentley Little and others. Also, the first page of “Nothing There,” the original illustration, and a two-page interview from three-plus decades ago.

BONUS No. 2: Twisted Pulp’s audio drama based on the story will be broadcast this summer on KKRN radio in northern California, but you can hear it now – including an interview of me on writing, Stephen King, Story in the Public Square and more:

Nothing There

He drove north from Chicago in a rented Honda. The Saturday afternoon traffic was thick and sluggish, like blood through diseased arteries. How polite these drivers seemed. Back in Boston, you couldn't go a block without some idiot trying to nail you. Here, folks signaled when passing. They stayed close to the speed limit. No one tailgated. He supposed it was part of their Midwestern nature to be so courteous. He wondered momentarily what kind of world it would be if everyone were like them.

Before long, the factories and tenements had thinned and then disappeared. The jets in and out of O'Hare had shrunk to distant specks. He passed an amusement park, closed for the season. He saw transmission lines coming down from Canada. It was suburbia now, 7-11 stores and neat little lawns fronting neat little houses. Soon they, too, had faded. Farmhouses took their place. Cornfields and dairy cattle. Silos, rigid and tall, guardians of this rich black soil. He crossed the line and he was in Wisconsin. From here, she'd said, it was only another half hour.

The traffic was weaker now. The November day was, too. High, thin clouds spread across the measureless sky. Another hour, and the sun would be swallowed by the fields. At kitchen tables, dinner would be served. He imagined seeing aproned housewives, their hair done up in curlers and kerchiefs, bending over ovens where hamburger casseroles simmered. He imagined hearing the children, giddy with the thought of Saturday night, and the tired husbands, ready for their evening of rest.

Overhead, the sign said County K, one mile. What a funny name for a road, he thought. County K, like some new brand of cereal. He looked down at the directions he'd scribbled on hotel stationery. Yes, this was it. He eased over into the travel lane, slowed and left Interstate 94. There was the 76 truck stop, just as she'd said. A combination restaurant, gift shop and Greyhound bus stop. A parking lot full of full-sized Fords and Chryslers, with hardly a Toyota in sight. The heartland.

He'd called her after lunch from his hotel room. The first few minutes had been awkward for them both. He could hear the sounds of kids in the background. He told her about his convention. She talked about the weather, unseasonably mild, and unlikely to last, considering Thanksgiving was just around the corner.

``Where are you staying?'' she'd asked.

``The Palmer House.''

``Very fancy.''

``It's OK.''

``No, it's fancy,'' she insisted. ``I've been there. Window- shopping in that big lobby.''

``They have some nice shops.''

``You've done all right for yourself, John,'' she said, trying to mask her bitterness. A trace still showed. ``You always did.''

He didn't answer. Didn't know what he could have said if he'd tried.

``So how'd you find me?'' she asked after shouting at the children to be quiet, Mommy's got a very special call.

``The alumni office.'' They'd been the same class, the class of '96. He'd gone back east after graduation. She'd gone home to Wisconsin, never expecting to hear from him again.

``It's funny.''


``That you tracked me down. I tried to find you, you know.''

He didn't. But it didn't surprise him. There was a time he'd actually dreaded her call, but that had passed. During the period he was married, he'd almost forgotten her. It wasn't until after his divorce that he'd thought much about her again.

``I tried several times, as a matter of fact,'' she continued. ``I wrote letters. They kept coming back.''

``I've moved a lot,'' he said. ``The company.''

``It doesn't matter now.''

There was another pause. The words weren't coming easily from either of them.

``I'm divorced, you know,'' she said after a bit.

``I know. I am, too.''

``I've got two children. That's who you hear running around. A boy and a girl.''

``I know,'' he repeated dumbly.

``You seem to have done your homework,'' she said, and he couldn't tell if she was mad or not.
``It's all on record at the alumni office,'' he explained. ``Anyone can get it by calling.''

``Did they tell you they were both adopted?'' she asked.


``After Bryce, I couldn't have children. Of my own.''

Bryce, he thought. So that's what she called him. Why did she even bother to name him? What could it matter?

``I'm sorry,'' he said. He wished he had a glass of water to get rid of the dryness in his mouth.
``I am, too.'' He was surprised at how cold her voice had turned. How suddenly. He didn't remember her like that. He remembered her as soft, pretty, the youngest-looking girl sitting at the back of Economics 101 the morning he first set eyes on her.

``I'm really sorry.''


There was silence again. It was a bad cell, and he could hear static through the phone.

The child had been stillborn. That much he'd heard years ago from a friend of a friend of a friend. 

There had been whispers of some horrible deformity, but he'd never been able to confirm that, never bothered to try. What would have been the gain? What was done was done. All he knew for sure was that Sheryl had carried the baby to term, and he'd come out blue and unbreathing. There was a question of medical malpractice. As far as he knew, it had never come to a suit. That wouldn't have been like her. This had all happened that September, three months after he'd said goodbye.

``So why'd you call, John?'' she asked, breaking the silence.

He'd been ready for this one, but he still didn't have a good answer. Just some private feelings he couldn't share because he wasn't sure what they meant, if they meant anything at all.

``I just thought I should,'' he said. ``I've been thinking about it for a long time.''

``Do you want to see him?'' she asked. ``I think you should see him. Just once. It wouldn't have to be for long.''

He had no idea what she was talking about.


``Bryce. His grave, I mean.''

What a strange idea, he thought. Perverse. Again, the pause was long, uncomfortable. He wished desperately that the call was over, but he saw no way of ending it. It was up to her now.

``I could tell you how to get there. It's not even two hours from Chicago.''


``I think you should, John,'' she said sternly. ``I think you owe him at least that. Him and me. Respect for the memory. Respect for the past.''

``Yes,'' he finally said. ``I'd like to.''

She gave him directions. He was reading them again now after stopping at the restaurant to use the men's room. County K six miles west to an intersection. Right on Rowe's Lane about a mile to a seed farm. The cemetery would be just over the next knoll. You can't miss it, she'd said. It's on the highest land around.

He rolled the window down and put the car in gear.

Night wasn't far off, but it seemed to have warmed up since leaving Chicago. The air on his face felt refreshing, like a shower after a bad night's sleep. For some reason, he'd been getting increasingly anxious the last few miles. Strung out. He could feel the excess nervous energy running up and down his body. It was like having too many cups of coffee. His palms were actually sweaty. For the first time since talking to her, he wondered what exactly he'd gotten himself into, and why. He didn't have the answers. That bothered him more than anything. He'd gotten where he had in business by coming up with answers.

County K, a two-lane blacktop, wound off toward the setting sun. There was almost no traffic, only an occasional tractor or pickup truck or stainless-steel tanker carrying milk destined to become butter or cheese. The only buildings were farmhouses and barns. It seemed everyone was flying an American flag. In the Ivy-League East, patriotism smacked too much of Tea Party politics to be worn on the sleeve. Here, it fit.

He found the cemetery without any trouble. From this knoll, you could see for miles and miles over the rolling countryside. It reminded him of a Grandma Moses painting, the fields and outbuildings arranged like patchwork.

He got out of the car and paused a moment, surveying the cemetery.

It was unexpectedly tiny, a postage stamp of graveyards. The only smaller one he recalled ever seeing was one near Concord, Mass., where a handful of Revolutionary War heroes were buried together under white headstones whose inscriptions had worn off over the years. He counted, unconsciously using his finger as a measure. There couldn't be more than a dozen families buried here. One of them was hers, the Andersens. He remembered her telling the story of how the family had come over from Sweden during the great wave of Scandinavian immigration a century ago. They'd been carpenters and masons, these Andersens, and they'd done all right for themselves in the New Land.

The wind had picked up since the truck stop and it was insistent now, brisk but not harsh. In a few short weeks it would deliver the sleet and the snow, but today, on the cusp of fall, it brought only a final reminder of summer. In great sheets, it came whipping across the flat landscape, fragrant with a sweet agricultural odor he did not recognize. He stood, letting the wind caress him. He looked out over the stones, the torn veterans' flags, potted geraniums wilted by the autumn's first frost. The cemetery was surrounded by fields. They were brown, their life gone silently underground to await a more encouraging season.

The heartland. He'd probably eaten food grown around here, maybe from one of these very fields.

Carrying the green bag he'd picked up in the Palmer House lobby, he opened the rusted iron gate and walked uncertainly into the cemetery. That shaky feeling had returned. His lips were dry. He felt suddenly alone, inexplicably embarrassed, like the man in the dream who finds himself in public without any clothes. Let's get it over with and get out of here, he thought. He went directly to the Andersen plot, past the Birds, the Bergmans, the Mondales, the Thompsons. The featured Andersen stone was a towering obelisk, at least twice his height, cut from what appeared to be gray marble, polished and mirror-smooth. The shadow from a leafless tree fell across it in an abstract pattern. Somebody had paid a small fortune for this display, he could tell that. He remembered her father, Ambrose Andersen, a tall, stern man he'd met once. Andersen had made a small fortune in construction, and like many newly wealthy people, he enjoyed spending. He'd probably footed the bill.

Laid out in front of the obelisk were perhaps 25 flat stones, each roughly the size of a hardcover dictionary. All that had been inscribed on any of them were names and the two most important years in anyone's existence. ``Mother, 1845-1912.'' ``Father, 1840-1905.'' ``Henry, 1884-1944,'' and so forth. On the extreme left-hand perimeter of the Andersen territory, almost into the Birds', was the stone he was looking for.

``Baby Bryce,'' it read, ``1996-1996.''

He opened the green bag and laid what was in it, a single white rose, atop the stone. His fingers were clumsy, his breath more labored than it should have been. He didn't have any of the thoughts he had expected would be haunting him right now; maybe they would come on the return trip to Chicago, or the plane home tomorrow to Boston. Nothing about what might have been, how he might have been playing Little League baseball, what he might have looked like, what his favorite subject in school might have been. None of that. Only a nagging sensation of having done wrong, and never being able to make contrition, even if he wanted to.

He didn't hear the pickup. Didn't see her approach from the field.

When he looked up, she was there, barely 20 feet away.

He looked at her, startled initially. Time had gotten to her. It had to him, too, he couldn't kid himself. She looked unkempt, haggard, as if she never got enough sleep any more. Her clothes looked freshly laundered but worn, as if she'd had them too long. For an instant, their eyes locked. It was impossible to say what was exchanged between them in that moment. Recognition, but more. Loneliness. A glimmer of what might have been, perhaps. A rush of memories, none well defined. Then it was gone. Her eyes went as cold as the gathering evening. There was nothing to say.

She came closer. He didn't move. He hadn't expected it to play out like this.

They embraced. For his part, it was instinctive. Reflexive. There was no more thought to it than drawing a breath. She was warm, her breath intoxicating. Through her coat, he could feel the swell of her breasts. Suddenly, the memories had taken on sharp definition. Now he remembered them making love the first time, the way he'd eased inside her, the softly building passion that had finally exploded one Saturday evening when his roommate was away.

He didn't see her knife.

She plunged it into the back of his neck.

The first blood fell in perfect splatters on Baby Bryce's stone, like drops of wax from a flaming red candle. It was only a surface wound, calculated and deliberate. Alone, it might have stopped bleeding. He wasn't even sure at first that he'd been stabbed. He thought maybe she'd dug her fingernails into him. The tenderness he'd started to feel escaped him like steam. He was tempted to slap her. He'd never wanted to hit a woman before. He did now. Self-defense. But he didn't. He turned, headed for the car. A trickle of warmth ran down the inside of his shirt. The crazy fucker.
She roared toward him, her cutting arm a scythe of blurred motion. This time he saw the blade. It was a pocket knife, the kind young punks smuggle into school. The blade couldn't have been four inches long. In that instant of confused terror, he remembered something his mother had told him as a kid. It wasn't about knives. It was about drowning. You can drown anywhere there's water, she'd said. Even in your own bathtub, even in an inch of water.

This time, she connected only once, a long, violent gash that sliced through his coat sleeve into his forearm. The fabric was quickly moist from the inside out. The pain was immense. She meant to kill him. It was like being kicked in the stomach, realizing that, but he knew it was true. He was suddenly breathless, fevered. With his good arm, he grabbed his wounded one, holding it fiercely, as if that would stop the bleeding. She came at him again. For a second, he saw her eyes. There was nothing there but emptiness. He ducked to one side, and she charged past him, almost falling.

He hesitated. For a second, he thought of fighting back. He was bigger than she, stronger. And she was out of her mind, a crazed psychotic with a knife. He looked wildly around, but there was nothing he could use as a weapon, no branch or loose rock. The best bet was to get the hell away. The bleeding wasn't bad, but he'd have to see a doctor. Then he would go to the police and have the crazy fucker arrested. That's what he was going to do, goddamn it. Have her put behind bars for good.
He took a step, a step that brought his foot into contact with Baby Bryce's stone.

He felt something lock around his ankle. Tiny, vice-like.

He looked down. There was nothing there, of course, only grass and that flat polished marble stone, blending into the shadows of approaching evening. He could taste bile as his panic rose.

He tried to move.

He was locked in place.

``What the--''

She was back, blade whistling. Her aim was more precise than before. He saw the knife, heard it, tried to roll out of its trajectory, but his foot was stuck. He did the best he could, twisting and squirming to one side. It was not enough.

She made contact, again and again. His shoulder. His side. His thigh. His right hand. He felt each cut. None was deeper than tendon level. It was more like being pricked with a needle or stung by hornets than being stabbed. After each cut, the warm moisture. Death by a thousand cuts.

His ankle.

He grabbed at it, like a mink caught in a leg hold trap. There was nothing there, of course. With his other hand, he tried frantically to fend her off. She was nimble. She seemed able to anticipate him, dodging when he lashed out, closing back in when he tried unsuccessfully to get to his feet.
Maybe he could crawl. In his panic, that new thought was delightful. It was like being born again. He was on his belly and maybe he could crawl. Maybe he'd broken his ankle, that was all, and he could slither away from her.

But he couldn't crawl, not more than a few inches. His foot was frozen.

She was in no hurry. There was still plenty of daylight remaining, 15 minutes or more until blackness settled over them. She was nicking him. Little flicks of cuts, counting toward a thousand. It was uncanny how she kept missing all the major arteries and organs, the ones that would have ended it quickly. She seemed to know anatomy, seemed to have studied it until she was sure what to hit, what to avoid. He was bleeding everywhere but gushing nowhere. His central nervous system only gradually was shifting into shock.

The pain was building. Soon it was too big for screaming. He began to moan. A mortally wounded animal sound, back through the millennia to when ancestors walked on all fours. Hunter and prey. 

Victor and vanquished.

His vision blurred.

As consciousness drained away to nothingness, he thought he saw her.

Smiling, her face inches from his.

He thought he heard a new sound.

The sound of a newborn crying.

The sound of birth.

(Should you wish to purchase any of my collections and books, fiction or non-fiction, visit

LANDING PAGE for all the Free Reads during #coronavirus

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The time I interviewed Stephen King

READ AFTER THIS INTRO: One of my favorite interviews ever! Of my still-favorite authors.

Look between the lines (this one, for example: Suddenly, without warning, the lines on King's face deepen, his eyes become cat slits and he's baring his teeth...) and you will see evidence of King's then-cocaine addiction, unknown to the world at the time but later very public when King himself wrote and spoke about his struggle. He's been clean and sober for decades now.

BUT then -- during this interview -- he was deep into it. Every few minutes during my hour-or-so-with him he jumped up, disappeared into a back room of his hotel suite, and returned, even more animated and hyper than before. Little did I know. I just thought he was, well, full of energy.

Another note: King was in a suite on an upper floor of a hotel overlooking New York City's Central Park (I forget which one, maybe The Pierre?). I waited in the lobby for a publicist to take me up and when the elevator opened, who stepped off but the now-disgraced Today Show ex-host Matt Lauer, who had just interviewed King for Fox affiliate WNYW, the NYC station he'd joined after leaving PM Magazine, Channel 10, Providence. We said hello; I knew him peripherally. No clue, of course, what awaited him...

And one more note, if I may?

King's editor then was the late Alan Williams, one of publishing's greats. He happened to be the editor who bought and published my first book, Thunder Rise. How glorious that was, and how long ago. I can recall like yesterday sitting in his mid-town Manhattan office discussing the book, which my first agent, the wonderful Kay McCauley, sister of then-King agent Kirby McCauley, had sold.

OK now:

The Providence Journal
KING OF HORROR: His career's in 'Overdrive' as he directs his first film
Publication date:  8/3/1986 Page:  I-01 Section:  ARTS

STEPHEN KING, the most popular horror writer of all time, is eating pizza - thick, oily, mega-calorie pizza with all the fixings. He's eating it the way a big hungry kid would - ferociously and noisily. Stephen King loves pizza, just as he loves scaring the pants off people.

King, who has made enough money from what he calls his "marketable obsession" to buy Brooks Brothers' entire inventory, is dressed in jeans, work shirt, running shoes. Comfort is the thing for King, who sets many of his stories in rural Maine, the place he's lived most of his 38 years.

Would his visitor like a slice of that greasy monster masquerading as a pizza, he asks politely? No? Then have a seat. Feel at home.

He sits - flops is probably a better word - onto an oversized chair in his hotel suite. King is well over six feet tall, and his long legs seem to stretch halfway across this elegantly furnished sitting room. He brushes his black hair off his face, grins mischievously, and peers from behind thick glasses, his "Coke bottles," as he's referred to them.

"Whatever you want to talk about," he says in a voice that is a curious mix of Downeast twang and Ted Kennedy drone. "The film is what I'm supposed to talk about, so why don't we start with the film?"

Maximum Overdrive, King's first shot at directing, opened last weekend. It's about a group of people trapped by driverless vehicles in an isolated truck stop the week all the machines in the world go murderously beserk. Machines gone mad. It's a favorite King theme, and if one were to psychoanalyze it, the connection to modern man's uneasy coexistence with his nuclear genie would be hard to miss.

The obvious first question, of course, is why a one-time teacher who has parlayed a lifelong fascination with the macabre into a fairy-tale existence as best-selling author (70 million books in print) would want to trade his golden pen for a camera.

Certainly, King is no stranger to movies. He admits to being a horror-movie junkie growing up in the '50s and '60s; as an adult, he has written the screenplays for five films, including Overdrive. Eight of his full-length novels have been made into films of varying quality, and another four (including Pet Sematary, his most recent) are in various stages of production. On top of all that, several King short stories have been adapted for TV, and an unpublished novel has been sold for a mini-series.

So why direct?

"Curiosity," he says, continuing to gorge himself on pizza.

Actually, it wasn't simply curiosity that prompted King to accept movie mogul Dino De Laurentis's offer to direct.

Pleased with some

Although King is pleased with some film adaptations of his works - he thinks Cujo and The Dead Zone are great - he has been disappointed with others. In particular, Firestarter, Children of the Corn, and The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick, still make King cringe. (He once described Firestarter as "flavorless," like "cafeteria mashed potatoes.")

The disappointing films, King explains between bites, failed to capture the spirit of his written works - either they didn't frighten, or took implausible twists, or were blandly acted, or sloppily directed, whatever. With Overdrive, King finally wanted to see if he could capture that spirit on film. If he couldn't, well, at least he'd have no one but himself to blame.

"My son's got this wonderful imitation of Leonard Malton on Entertainment Tonight," King says, becoming suddenly animated.

"He'll start off the way he always starts off when he's going to give a really bad review. He'll say, 'This is Leonard Malton, Entertainment Tonight. Stephen King says that he wanted to direct a picture to see if whatever makes his books so successful could be translated to film if he did it himself.

" 'The answer is no]' "

King grins. "Actually," he continues, "the answer is yes. I think. I think it has a lot of appeal of the books."

Not that he's exactly rehearsing his Academy Award acceptance speech, as he notes wryly. Although the film does not look amateurish - for a rookie, King's grasp of cinematic technique is quite impressive - its human characters are undeveloped. And despite King's hopes, Overdrive only hints at his books' rich textures. It's hard to escape the conclusion that what King does so well in print probably can't be translated onto the silver screen.

"I think by and large this movie will get kind of a sour critical reception," he predicts. "It's a 'moron movie,' for one thing. It's crash and bash. It's a head-banger movie - really, really loud."

Promotional tour

Critics notwithstanding, King believes audiences will like Overdrive as much as he does. He hopes so, anyway. The only reason he agreed to do a nationwide promotional tour is to hype the film. Too many earlier King films, he laments, have lasted in theaters all of two weeks.

"Graham Greene said . . . writers write books they can't find on library shelves. To some extent, I think directors must direct movies that they can't go and watch in movie theaters.

"Overdrive is fun. I like movies where you can just, like, check your brains at the box office and pick 'em up two hours later. Sit and kind of let it flow over you and, you know, dig on it. This movie is just sort of gaudy blaaaaah. It's not a heavy social statement," he asserts.

Suddenly, without warning, the lines on King's face deepen, his eyes become cat slits and he's baring his teeth - he's got one hell of a set of incisors, one discovers. Normally a rational and intelligent human being, he's transformed himself into a raving lunatic.

He jumps up and screams: "One of the things I wanted was to never let up. My idea is that what you do is build up, like reaching out and grabbing somebody by the ----] Right out of the page if possible or right out of the screen] Tell you what, ------------, you're mine]]]]]]"

He sits down again, laughing like - like a kid.

Four new novels

To say that Stephen King is big is a little like saying Carrie, telekinetic murderess of his first novel, is odd.

Some noteworthy footnotes to the King saga:

* The initial hardcover printing of last year's Skeleton Crew, his second anthology, was one million copies, one of the largest first hardcover printings in publishing history.

* King books are hot collectors items. In May, for example, an uncorrected proof of his Night Shift collection brought $2,500 at a San Francisco auction. A small-press magazine in which one of his stories appeared years ago brought a cool $150.

* For a decade, King's books have consistently topped the best-seller lists. According to Publishers Weekly, his scorecard for 1985 included the fifth and 11th best-selling fiction hardcover books; the second, fourth and eight best-selling mass paperbacks; and the second and third best-selling trade paperbacks. Total sales of those seven books alone: 11.49 million.

* King has his own monthly newspaper, Castle Rock, published and edited by his secretary, Stephanie Leonard.

* Against the advice of his publisher, who's worried that the market will be saturated (King disagrees), King will release four new novels in the next year, including the 1,000-page-plus IT later this summer.

* A musical version of Carrie takes to Broadway this fall.

Not to mention all those movies.

This being America, money has come hand-in-hand with his fame. King is so rich that when someone threatened to buy his favorite radio station in Bangor, Maine, and replace its rock format with EZ Listening, he rushed out and bought it himself. Rumor has it he paid cash.

The unknowns remain

Naturally, there are secrets to King's success.

One - hardly the best-kept - is that people, millions of them, anyway, like to be scared. Late at night, with the wind moaning, the leaves on the trees rustling, the kids sleeping (are they still breathing?) and something downstairs making a strange noise (is it only the cat?), they love to curl up with a good scary book and let the chills crawl down their spines.

King has lectured and written extensively about fear. He understands that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much the scientists figure out about ourselves and our world, the great unknowns remain: darkness, death, whatever is beyond the grave.

Still, there are plenty of horror writers slogging away out there, including several who have won critical acclaim - such as Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, and Peter Straub, author of the million-seller Ghost Story, and J.N. Williamson and Richard Matheson, two of the more prolific writers of the genre. Some are literary, closer to Poe than King; others are more gruesome, more skilled with plot. In terms of popularity, King has eclipsed them all.

The real secret is where King has taken horror - out of the Egyptian mummy's tomb and straight into the living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens of contemporary middle- and lower-class America. King's landscape is the America of kids and pets and Coke and malls and cheeseburgers and troubles with the mortgage payment and that old clunker, the family car - much the same vision of America that Steven Speilberg has brought to Hollywood.

Not that everything is ordinary in King's works. Whether haunted car or haunted child, King's villains and monsters and spirits are deeply troubling, frequently uncontrollable, and usually deadly. There's a lot of darkness in King's work, and plenty of ghosts. Death is never very far away.

It is precisely this juxtaposition - ordinary people victimized by extraordinary forces - that is the key to all good horror, not just King's.

Hitting the nerves

Still . . . 70 million books, 16 movies, a Broadway play, and no end in sight?

"Some of it," King explains as he polishes off lunch, "has got to be that I'm talking about things that, like you say, hit nerves. Or maybe they don't hit nerves - maybe they just resonate.

"You know, people say, 'I know about that, because that happened to me.' I don't mean an ability to light fires or anything like that (the heroine of Firestarter is a young girl with pyrotechnic powers), but something about family life, or something your kid said, something like that."

Not that King's intent is anthropological exposition; he is not a scholar, nor does he pretend to be. He bases his fiction on situations he understands because they've been his life, too - family, marriage, the battle (at least in the early days) for a buck. King and his wife, Tabitha, also an author, have three children. The eldest is 16.

"I don't write with an audience in mind. I mean, the audience is me. My popularity says something about my own mind. It's a little bit distressing when you think about it. It says, 'Well, here's a person who's so perfectly in tune with middle-cultural drone that there must be this incredible bowling alley echo inside his head.' "

Even King's detractors - there's no shortage of critics who dismiss his work as insignificant - concede that he has a true talent for depicting children. Maybe that's because King himself could well be the biggest kid in America. Even when they are blessed/cursed with supernatural powers, King's fictional children are flesh and blood - so seemingly real that you wonder if they don't actually exist somewhere, and King is only documenting their lives.

In fact, King's own children have had enormous impact, and if you doubt that, you only need look at his dedications.

"I grew up with them," he says. "Bringing up baby or child or children or whatever has been one of the experiences of my life, and so it's one of the things I write about. But also it's a way of trying to make sense of how the child you were yourself became the man that you are and that whole crazy business."

Woes with women

As good as King has been creating children, he has had his woes with women, as countless critics have been quick to point out.

"I've had such problems with women characters," he agrees, the smile leaving his face. "God knows I have tried. I tried with Donna Trenton in Cujo - tried to make a real woman. (I thought) she worked pretty well, except I got hit pretty hard by a lot of critics. An awful lot of critics said the dog is punishment for adultery.

"The death of her child . . . consciously, on top of my mind, I was simply trying to create a convincing chain of events that would put the boy and her in that position where they could spend a period of time. But when you think about it. . . .

"Yes, I've had trouble with women. It's funny because that's why I started to write Carrie. This friend of mine said to me, 'The trouble with you is you don't understand women.' I said, 'What do you mean?' It's like he'd accused me of being a virgin or something like that, which I just barely wasn't at that time.

"He says, 'Ah, all these stories with these hairy-chested horror things, these guys fighting monsters and stuff like that.' I was trying to tell him, 'You don't understand. That's what they buy, these men's magazines.' He said, 'You couldn't create a woman character if you tried. You know, a good one.' I said I bet I could. Carrie - that's a book about women, almost completely about women. There are almost no male characters in it."

Father ran off

By now, the story of King's climb to the top is legendary.

It begins with a kid growing up in Maine and (for four years) in Connecticut - a kid whose father ran off never to be heard from again, a kid whose mother raised him and his elder brother on a shoestring. On the outside, King was a polite child who liked cars, played some sports - but inside, he would later recall, he often felt unhappy, "different," even violent.

He remembers writing his first horror story at the age of seven; it was about dinosaurs on a rampage. Through his teens, he read voraciously, spent hours in movie theaters, kept on writing and writing and writing. It was while attending the University of Maine, Orono, that he began to sell short stories to magazines. But his novels, and there were several of them by this point, were going nowhere.

After college, he and his wife worked a succession of jobs to keep their family afloat: Tabitha as a waitress, he as a worker in a coin laundry and as an English teacher at a private school. The short stories kept selling - they were helping to pay the rent on the tiny trailer where they lived - but the novels were still moribund.

King wrote Carrie working late into the night in the furnace room of their trailer - the only available space in already cramped quarters. Somewhere, King says, they still have the Olivetti portable typewriter on which he banged out several early novels and stories.

The old portable

"There were no word processors then," King remembers. "I used my wife's portable. She stills says sometimes - in jest, I think - 'My husband married me for my portable typewriter.' It's got my fingerprints carved into the keys. I mean, I beat that thing to death just about.

"I used to have to bring Joe in in his crib to where I worked, which was the furnace room. You'd get hot and you'd be going along good and he'd wake up and you'd have to give him a bottle because he'd cried. It was just, you know, you get it done the best you can.

"You don't raise your head and look around, because if you do you just get depressed. And I was depressed then. Because I was selling some short stories, but I had had like three, four novels bounced back at me at that time and also a number of other short stories."

Even after finally selling Carrie to Doubleday, the struggle continued.

"My wife used to work at 'Drunken' Donuts,' which is what they called it on the night shift. I used to take care of the kids while I did the rewrite. This was after the contract and everything, but before we had any money. I mean, the contract was only for $2,500. It wasn't exactly a king's ransom," he says, seemingly unaware of the pun.

The big break came with the paperback contract for Carrie, which had done reasonably well in hardcover. King had expected to earn $5,000 to $12,000 on the paperback rights. When his editor called to tell him that the sale had been for $400,000, virtually unprecedented at the time for a newcomer, he was flabbergasted.

He celebrated by buying the thing he thought his wife would like the most - a $29 hair dryer.

'Normal' life in Maine

It seems a lifetime ago, those early days.

Today, King and his family live in a large Victorian house in Bangor. He has a summer home on a Maine lake, drives a Mercedes, is a Red Sox fan, loves beer as much as pizza, enjoys tennis and softball, usually wears a beard in winter. Except when he's on tour, he writes every day of the year, except Christmas, the Fourth of July and his birthday. He does the family shopping. His children attend public schools.

"They don't have any sense that there's anything really odd about what I do because I've never made out like I'm a big shot because I don't feel that I am. Also, we don't live in New York or California, where they might live in an atmosphere that's a little stranger. They seem pretty normal."

Although he is Bangor's most famous citizen - arguably Maine's, as well - the natives, he says, "mostly leave me alone. I have the town broken in. I guess familiarity breeds contempt."

Not that he hasn't become something of a celebrity for the tourists - a class of citizen he has often lampooned in his written works.

"Oh, sure," he says. "They have Canadian tour buses that come down to go to the mall - the Bangor Mall, which is the closest real big super mall to Nova Scotia. One of the things they throw in with this is you get to go by the 'Stephen King House,' like you're stuffed and embalmed. You're in there and one day you look out and you see this huge bus with 150 Canadians lined up along the fence snapping pictures. It's very odd."

Next interview

A TV crew has arrived early to set up for King's next interview. "Let's go into the bedroom," he suggests. "It's quieter." He gets up, crosses the room and closes the door behind him. Stretching full-length on his unmade bed, he props himself up on his elbows and resumes talking about his film.

Overdrive is based on "Trucks," one of several brilliant short stories in his first anthology, Night Shift.

"It's always been my favorite from that collection," he says. "Trucks I liked just for the feel of it. It had a desperate film noir quality as a story."

Machines gone mad. In Overdrive, which will be remembered more for its special effects and pyrotechnics than its acting or social significance, they go one step further: They try to take over the world. Knives, soda machines, video games, lawnmowers, a drawbridge, cars, 18-wheelers - all become killers.

"I'm fascinated by (machines)," King says enthusiastically. "They scare me. There's so much potential for destruction. In the film there's a track shot that starts on this hammock that's empty and swinging. In the background you see a guy who's obviously had his head cut off by his own chainsaw. The chainsaw is buried somewhere in his neck.

"There's a little Watchman with a little teeny screen giving this information about machines having gone beserk. The camera pans down and tracks and you see an overturned Styrofoam cooler and then you see empty beer bottles and then you see the Watchman. It doesn't have a picture on it but it's splattered with blood.

"Then you see the guy and you track up his body and he's all been shredded because he's been, you know, 'lawn-mowered' to death. You come to the lawnmower itself and it's all covered with blood and everything. When it finally runs, it chases this kid. It's quite funny."

He chuckles, then pauses. "Well to me, it's funny," he explains. "A lot of people are going to say it's gross and gratuitous. That's OK."

Machines and actors

King chose Overdrive for his directorial debut because he thought it would be easier to work with special effects and machines rather than with real-life actors.

It turned out to be the other way around.

"I thought to myself: 'My electric knife is never going to say, 'I can't cut the actress's arm today because my hairdresser didn't come in from New York.' My truck is never going to say, 'I can't run by myself today because I'm having my period.' You know what I mean?

"I went into the thing with a lot of the stereotyped ideas that people get about actors. You know, 'They're a bunch of conceited snobs. They're all babyish, you have to baby them along, you have to always be feeding them constant praise, they're always difficult to work with,' all this stuff.

"It turned out all to be b-------. They all worked really hard. They gave me more than 150 percent. They were almost always at their best.

"The actors were great, but all the machines . . . they wouldn't run. The trucks wouldn't start. We crashed four vehicles that were supposed to roll over before one finally did, and that was only on the third take. We had problems with the power mower. It was radio-controlled. Back at the studio, it went like a bat out of hell. Get it on location, it would just sit there.

"The electric knife that goes beserk . . . skittering along the floor like a big bug. The special-effects guys built three knives using dildo motors - basically vibrator motors to make them work. Two of them got wrecked on bad takes and we only had one left and we had to get it right. Luckily we did."

What scares him

The TV people are ready and time is almost up.

A few questions remain.

What scares you?

"Just about everything, in one way or another," he says. "But I think the thing that scares me most would be to check on one of my kids one night and find him dead in bed."

Did you ever expect to sell 70 million books?

"I don't even know what that figure means," he says, as if still finding it impossible to believe. "Do you realize if I live along enough there could be as many copies of my stuff actually sold as there are people in the country?"

No, King never expected all this - not even in his wildest dreams.

Are you afraid that someday it'll all be gone?

"Yeah," he laughs, starting to act out a scene from a movie where an enormously fat man explodes after a gargantuan meal. "Someday I'll just burst like that guy in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Did you see that? 'Just one more mint.' 'Nah, I'll burst'. . . and he did."

Friday, May 22, 2020

Alden's Neck, Act I of III

During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at this time!

This is the ninth free offering: Act I of Alden's Neck, a treatment for a horror movie, published in  "Since the Sky Blew Off: The Essential G. Wayne Miller Fiction, V. I," 2013 by Crossroad Press.

A story of timeless love, betrayal, and guilt
A treatment for a horror movie

Azazel, fallen angel.

OPEN with an exterior shot of a rambling old summer house –– wraparound porches, widow’s walk, etc. –– near the ocean in Ipswich, Massachusetts. A spectacular dawn is breaking. We note the plaque on the house: “The Aldens’’

Cryon: Ipswich, Massachusetts, July 7, 2007

The camera takes us inside the house, which is tastefully furnished. Old money. We see the kitchen, with pictures of a happy family of three on counters and refrigerator: Arthur Alden, 29, a researcher at defense contractor Raytheon, a tall and sandy–haired man; his wife Heather, 26, an advertising executive, a beautiful, hot blond; and their only child, Pearl, seven, a dark–haired girl. The Aldens live in Boston, and vacation here.

Heather is awake at this early hour. She strolls through the living room, past a wide–screen TV that is turned off, into Pearl’s bedroom. Pearl is sleeping. Heather goes back into the master bedroom, where Arthur is also asleep. Heather has seduction in mind. She wakes her husband with kisses and touches, and as dawn streams through their window, the scene culminates with erotic love–making.

CUT TO: The living room, where the TV flickers on by itself. We see a grainy image of bespectacled man of about 65, apparently dressed in colonial garb. The image is gone as fast as it appeared, and the scene DISSOLVES to:

The Aldens beach–combing all by themselves on a deserted beach on (fictitious) Alden’s Neck, about a half–mile walk through woods from the summer house. Alden’s Neck is named for Arthur’s family, descendants of a Mayflower passenger. They have owned property in the area since the 1600s, when Ipswich was settled.

Cryon: Alden’s Neck, Ipswich, Massachusetts, late that afternoon.

Heather finds a beautiful heart-shaped stone, which she gives to her husband with a comment about how they will be in love forever. Arthur makes a corny joke – his trademark – about being careful what you wish for. Heather rolls her eyes, as usual. She loves this guy desperately, but his sense of humor is a tad lame.

The family leaves the beach, and starts down the path back through thick woods to the summer house. On the way, they pass a distinctive–looking ancient oak tree. Almost every time they see it, Arthur makes another of his dumb jokes: This thing is so old, looks like they probably hung witches here during the witch trials. Heather rolls her eyes and replies: As I keep reminding you, dear, those were in Salem, not Ipswich.

At this exact moment, Arthur collapses to the ground, writhing, his hands frantically clutching at his neck.

Is it another of his jokes?

No – a bloody froth fills his mouth.

Heather and Pearl scream, and Heather tries to revive him – but she is no nurse, and her efforts fail. Is he suffering a heart attack? A stroke? An epileptic fit? Poisoning?

Arthur’s eyeballs now bleed, and blood seeps from his pores. He seems to be liquefying, decomposing before their eyes. Horrifying. Gross. Stephen King.

Panic city now – and all alone, a half mile from civilization. Heather dials 911 on her iPhone and begs for help immediately. Finally, Arthur, or what is left of him, is dead. Grabbing Pearl by the arm, Heather runs frantically. We hear the sounds of sirens approaching in the distance.

Heather and Pearl break free of the woods – and fire trucks, cruisers, and ambulances roar up. Heather tells her story, and leaving Pearl in the custody of a woman cop, leads the rescuers down the path to Arthur. The path is too narrow for vehicles.

But they do not find Arthur, only the unmistakable old oak tree.

No signs of struggle, no blood, no evidence of any kind that he was ever there; just the tree, in the gathering darkness.

Heather is certain of the spot – someone must have stolen the body, maybe a bear took it, it was more than just dying, she saw it, he decomposed in front of her very eyes, can anybody tell me what the hell is happening? She continues hysterically as the rescue people, skeptical but kind, try to comfort her. Of course, we believe you; of course, your husband was here. Apparently he’s all right – he must have just decided to take a little walk, that’s all. Not to be insensitive, but we have to ask: has there been some sort of domestic dispute? No! They lead Heather back to the vehicles, where the police captain, a tall, handsome, dark–haired man of about Heather’s age, runs a computer check of ``Arthur Alden.’’ No one fitting Arthur’s description and d.o.b. pops up. No one…
The police advise Heather to let them bring her to a hospital just as a precaution, but she refuses. The captain drives her and her daughter to the summer place. Pearl is in a state of shock, speechless and eyes glazed. The sun has dropped beneath the horizon; a moonless, pitch–black night is coming.
Heather settles Pearl into bed, then tries to gather her wits.

But it is clear that whatever happened on Alden’s Neck is only part of something much bigger and more terrifying. She proceeds hypnotically through the summer place – and finds no trace of Arthur. Only her clothes in the master bedroom closet. Only her name on the check book and the mail. Only photos of her with Pearl – no Arthur – on counters and the refrigerator door. She dials Arthur’s cell phone – and the recorded message says the number is not in service. Arthur’s parents are dead, but he did have a sister. Heather calls her – and the woman who answers says she never had a brother, and has never heard of Heather Alden, please don’t call again, whoever you are (you crazy lady). Just for the record, how did you get my number? The ”sister’’ says it’s unlisted.

Has Heather lost her mind? Has Arthur’s work at Massachusetts–based Raytheon somehow landed him in sci–fi trouble? He never spoke much about his work, which was in advanced weapons technology, lasers, something like that. Was he the unknown subject of an experiment? What is going on??? She turns on the TV, hoping to get her mind off things, but she can’t bring in a channel, the screen is nothing but static.

Heather finally falls into troubled sleep.

And the first nightmare unfolds:
We see that it is the summer of 1917 (July 7, 1917, to be precise) – perhaps from a newspaper with World War I headlines, a picture of an early airplane, whatever. The sign on the door reads: “The Aldens.”

The camera travels through the house, revealing a young girl – Pearl – butchered in her bed, blood strewn on floor, walls, ceiling, everywhere. On we go, to reveal a young man – Arthur – similarly butchered in the hall outside the master bedroom. Into the bedroom, where Heather, still alive, is being held captive by a man wearing a black executioner’s hood (which obviously hides his identity). He is holding a gold–handled dagger that looks to be from the 1600s. Heather begs for her life, screaming: “Please! I thought you dead! Lost at sea! Had I known…” But the man shows no mercy – nor says a word. He savagely hacks Heather to death…
Heather wakes up sweating and shaking.

The next morning, Pearl tells of her own nightmare: She saw Daddy in a distant, dark place, and he kept repeating: “Help me honey, I’m stuck! Help me honey, I’m stuck!” Pearl otherwise has begin to retreat into herself. Now Heather has another worry.

The two Aldens drive back to their house in Boston, where – no surprise to Heather by now – they find no traces of Arthur. Heather calls Raytheon – but knows what she will hear, and she hears it: no record of an Arthur Alden ever having been employed at the company. OK, he worked in highly classified research. But how to explain the fact that when Heather gets to her ad–agency job, no one there recalls she was married, or remembers an Arthur Alden? There are no pictures of him on her desk, only Pearl. Apparently, her colleagues know here as a single mother.

As the days pass, Heather becomes increasingly paranoid, withdrawing from her friends, not daring to ask any of them anything more about Arthur. She thinks of hiring a private detective, but doesn’t – what would she say? She sees a shrink, and he (gently) recommends she go to McLean Hospital for a while… clearly, she has become sadly delusional, perhaps late onset of schizophrenia… the good news, Mrs. Alden, is thanks to modern medicine, there is help, you can get better. Pearl, meanwhile, continues retreating into herself. Heather takes a leave from her job, and mother and daughter hole up in their house. They barely have the energy to get out of their pajamas. Summer nears its end.
But not Heather’s nightmares. The most recent:
We see that it is the summer of 1817 (July 7, 1817, to be precise) – perhaps from a newspaper. Candles flicker; the shadows are deep. A family of three is alone – seemingly – at the front of the church. Their heads are bowed in prayer; we do not get a good look at their faces. All is peaceful… until the moment is shattered by a man in an executioner’s hood who savagely attacks them with the same dagger from Heather’s first nightmare. The blood and life drain out of them as the man escapes into the night.
A week passes.

One night in early September, Heather’s cell phone rings; a Boston–area number she doesn’t recognize comes up. Hesitantly, she answers. A man asks if this is Heather Alden. Who’s calling? she says. He identifies himself as Henry Howland, rare books dealer on Boston’s Beacon Hill. He says he has been trying to reach her husband, Arthur. Says he ordered a book some while back, and it has only recently arrived. Arthur left two numbers – his, no longer answered, and his wife’s, I assume that’s you? Heather, scrambling, says that Arthur is away on business, and as long as she’s known him, he’s never been into rare books. He’s a physicist, for heaven’s sake. But she will come for the book. This guy sounds like a kook, but what does she have to lose at this point?

The next morning, Heather goes to the store, a quaint old shop reminiscent of Ollivander’s magical wand shop in the Harry Potter series. Howland is about 65, tall, bespectacled, kindly. Heather has never seen him, but we recognize him as the man who appeared on the Aldens’ living–room TV in the opening minutes.

The older man and the young woman sit by a fireplace, where a blaze takes the chill off the unseasonably cold day. Heather scans the many old volumes, her eye settling on one particularly old leather–bound volume, The Book of Azazel. She has never heard of it, but it looks straight out of the Middle Ages.

But it’s not the book Arthur supposedly ordered. That’s a 1600s edition of the King James Bible – bound in black Moroccan leather, gilt lettering, mint condition, worth an astonishing $23,000. Heather cannot contain her disbelief – Arthur never would have ordered such a book. Is this some sort of swindle? No, Mrs. Alden, Howland says; your husband already paid. Look – here is his signature on the charge, along with his name, address, and two phone numbers, his and yours, which he wrote, yours as a backup since he said he often neglects to answer his own phone.

But why would he want this bible?

Howland relates the June afternoon that he placed his order: he seemed extremely interested in the Salem Witch trials of 1692, when Cotton Mather and the colonial ministers and elders used the King James Bible. Arthur seemed very familiar with certain Bible passages… almost as if he were a minister. Heather says he rarely even goes to church, he’s a scientist, not a man of the cloth.
Heather doesn’t know what to make of this –– but there’s no doubt it’s Arthur’s handwriting. It’s also his handwriting on a note he absent–mindedly left behind. Howland shows her the note, which consists of six dates, no elaboration or other text: July 7, 1700; July 7, 1777; July 7, 1817; July 7, 1877; July 7, 1917; and July 7, 1977.

Do they mean anything to you, Mrs. Alden?

No, nothing, beyond so many sevens…

Is there something you wish to tell me, Mrs. Alden?

What a curious question.

No, Heather says.

Then is there anything else I can help you with, Mrs. Alden?

Another odd question.

No, thank you, she says.

Howland gives her the bible and the list.

Well if you need anything in the future, Howland says, cryptically – creepily – you know where to find me.

When Heather gets home, Pearl, who was left with a babysitter, is totally unresponsive. Catatonic. Heather calls an ambulance, and Pearl is taken to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she is admitted to the psychiatric ward. Heather sleeps by her side the first night.

And has another nightmare:
We see that this is the summer of 1977 (July 7, 1977, to be precise).
Police and fire vehicles and the medical examiner’s van are parked at the edge of the sand. Yellow tape defines a crime scene. Even these experienced investigators are sickened by the scene: a young girl and a man and a woman, apparently her parents, have been hacked to death. We do not see their faces – only various body parts, being scooped (if that’s the word) into three body bags. One cop tries to break the tension by saying: Wouldn’t wanna be the undertaker, gonna be closed caskets, that’s for sure. We do see a distinctive dagger inside an evidence bag – its age and style have the investigators scratching their heads. It looks valuable – not your basic hatchet or meat cleaver ordinarily used in these sorts of brutal homicides. Maybe stolen? Sign of a Satanic cult?
The morning after her latest nightmare, with Pearl drugged and still totally out of it, Heather goes to the Boston Public Library, which keeps archives of Massachusetts newspapers dating back to the first, the New England Courant, which began publication in 1721. She has Arthur’s list. She can find nothing unusual on or about July 7, 1777, or on or about July 7, 1877 – but there is a brief, incomplete account of a family of three that died on July 7, 1817 in a Boston church, and another family of three murdered in a house in Ipswich on July 7, 1917. But there are no photos, and the names are Jones and Smith, not Alden. It could be, probably is, pure coincidence.

However, a front–page Boston Globe story the day after July 7, 1977, describes a family of three found brutally murdered on a beach in Ipswich: Karen and Robert and their young daughter, Sally. Their last name: Kraft. They were apparently picnicking at the beach; their address, as listed in the paper, is in Back Bay, Boston. No photos.

But there is a photo in next day’s follow–up story, which says that no suspect in the senseless killing has been identified. These “Krafts” are identical to the Aldens in 2007 – the photo could have been lifted from the summer–house refrigerator door.

Heather stills her heart and continues reading.

But with no leads and no motive, the story soon went cold, and after a few days she finds no further mention whatsoever. But it occurs to her that she – Heather – was born almost exactly nine months later, in April, 1978. How weird is that?

The Boston Public Library is just a few blocks from the Back Bay address listed for the Krafts, and Heather walks over: it’s a brick townhouse on Arlington Street. She stands outside, pondering – does she feel any strange connection? No. Her reverie is broken when a man well into his eighties opens the door and asks if he can help. A sweet old man. Heather mumbles something about a relative having once lived there. Must have been a long, long time ago, the man says – I was born here, and except for a stint in the Army, I’ve lived here ever since. So you were here in 1977, Heather says. Oh, yes, I remember that year well: my wife, God rest her soul, died that summer. Heather blurts out: Is your name Kraft? No, my name is Winthrop, George W. Winthrop, and whom do I have the pleasure of meeting? The man goes on to say that his wife had a heart attack… would be 89 if she were alive now… she was the most beautiful person… come in, I insist, let me show you photos. (It’s a red herring.) Heather goes into a wondrously furnished townhouse. Old money. The man takes her to the study, lined with books and other stuff... the man’s a pack rat. He shows photos. Heather finds old Boston phone books, including one from 1977, and leafs through it. The Winthrops are indeed listed at this address. And there is no Karen or Robert Kraft anywhere in Boston in 1977.

Heather returns to Children’s Hospital, and spends another night by her daughter’s bed.

Her dreams are once more tortured and terrifying, and one of them awakens her at about 4 a.m., the hour of the wolf. The ward is quiet, dark, foreboding.

Heather leaves her daughter’s room, and starts down the hall. A tall man suddenly materializes. The scene is shadowy, details difficult to discern, but he seems dressed in the style of a late 1600s tradesman (breeches, banyan, shirt, vest) – an old–fashioned look, but not in the high style of wig and waistcoat. He grabs and kisses Heather, in a momentarily erotic scene. Who is he? We don’t see his face at first. Heather seems to have a fleeting sense of knowing him, or having known him. Is he passionate –– or hostile? His intentions are initially baffling, and then Heather struggles, finally breaking free. The night staff hears the commotion and comes running down the hall. Lights on. An alarm sounded. We catch a glimpse of the man’s face as he disappears into the ether:
It’s the handsome young police captain from the opening scene.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A brutal surgery, a Midwest romance

Dr. C. Walton Lillehei's pioneering, high-risk surgery in the 1950s brought us life-saving open-heart surgery. Lillehei himself underwent a radical operation at the hands of his mentor, Dr. Owen Wangensteen, to save him from deadly cancer. Walt's wife, Kaye, nursed him back to health. It was the latest chapter in a romance that began before Walt left to operate a MASH unit in World War II.

You may purchase the book in paperback, Kindle and audio editions!

An excerpt from 

Chapter Three: Invasive Procedures

After reading what he could find about the treatment of lym­phosarcoma, Lillehei reluctantly agreed to surgery. Trying to stay focused on his work until the very last minute, he was awake into the early hours of the day of his operation com­pleting the final draft of an article about ulcers that he'd coauthored with Wangensteen. Before finally going to bed, Lille­hei asked his wife, Kaye, to type it.

At 7:15 A.M. on Thursday, June 1, Lillehei entered Univer­sity Hospital's Room I, Wangensteen's room. He did not know exactly what would be done to him while he was asleep. He knew only that Wangensteen intended to open him up and remove everything that might conceivably be cancerous.
David State, the surgeon who'd removed Lillehei's parotid tumor in February, began the operation.

Under Wangensteen's supervision, State excised the re­mainder of Lillehei's parotid gland. Then senior surgeon Varco scrubbed in and he and State started on Lillehei's neck, from which they took all of the lymph nodes and glands. Some of the nodes near the jugular vein were enlarged, and Wangen­steen decided they had to go down into the chest. Wangen­steen had not raised this possibility to his patient, but it was too late now to seek permission: Lillehei was dead to the world, his face and neck splayed open like an anatomy-class cadaver.

Now Wangensteen scrubbed in. Four hours had passed; for 1950, it was already a marathon.

Assisted by yet another surgeon, John Lewis, Lillehei's best friend, Wangensteen split the sternum and opened the chest. Wangensteen carved deep, removing more lymph nodes, more glands, muscle, fat, vessels, the thymus, an entire rib. No op­eration like this had ever been done anywhere. This was scorched earth, and the bleeding was horrendous. Lillehei was transfused, pint after pint after pint of blood—including one donated by Norman E. Shumway, an intern who many years later would invent human heart transplantation.

Ten hours and thirty-five minutes after the operation started, Wangensteen was finally done.

Seven surgeons, four anesthesiologists, and several nurses had assisted.

Nine pints of blood had been used.

Twenty-three specimens had been sent to the pathologist.

Lillehei faced twelve sessions of radiation. Still, he was alive.

The odds said that in five years, he would not be.


A week after Wangensteen's lymphosarcoma surgery, Lillehei was discharged to the care of his wife. They lived with their young daughter in a duplex apartment near the university.

The only daughter of Swedish immigrants, Katherine Ruth Lindberg grew up in Minneapolis. She was an uncommonly pretty girl, who was voted Most Popular by her high school classmates—and who had her choice of boys. "If you had lis­tened closely, you would have heard my knees rattle," one of her high school suitors confided in a note he slipped to Kaye after watching her play volleyball, one of several sports at which she excelled. "You were the cutest one on the floor—thanks for the privilege of looking at you. I think you are per­fectly proportioned. . . . What is your locker number?"

Kaye Lindbergh Lillehei, 1938.

After graduating at the top of her class, Kaye entered the University of Minnesota's nursing school, intending to be­come a stewardess and then a practicing nurse, perhaps even a supervisor or administrator. Kaye met Walt in 1941, at Min­neapolis General Hospital, where she was studying and Walt was serving his internship.

Wow—look at that blond! a friend of Kaye's said to her one day when Dr. Lillehei walked onto the ward.

Kaye agreed that Walt was a looker. And she admired the way he, unlike so many of the interns, always took the time to listen to patients and offer them encouraging words. For his part, Walt thought Kaye had the best legs of any of the stu­dent nurses.

Kaye was dating someone else, but when he left for the navy, Walt asked her to a hospital picnic. They went steady from that day until Lillehei enlisted in the army, in June of 1942. Before leaving, Walt gave Kaye his fraternity pin; when the war was over, they would marry. For more than three years, as Lillehei moved with the Allies across northern Africa and into Italy, the couple exchanged letters constantly—and planned to reunite overseas even as war raged.

"My darling Kaye, Sweetheart," wrote Walt in one of his letters, "I'm so damn much in love with you I'm in misery. . . . You are so darn cute and lovely darling that you undoubtedly will get many invitations for dates, but please wait for me faithfully my dear because I am sure that we will be together very soon."

But Kaye never did get overseas during the war. And three and a half years apart took a toll: although Kaye and Walt re­mained engaged after Walt came home, they did not rush to the altar. Wangensteen's demanding residency program ab­sorbed Walt, and Kaye was flying for Northwest Airlines. "We were two different people," Kaye recalled later. "We just sort of went on different paths."

An abrupt change in airline policy pushed Kaye and Walt to wed. Desiring only unmarried stewardesses, Northwest in late 1946 declared that starting in 1947, married women would no longer be hired; the only married stewardesses would be those already married and on the payroll by that January 1. Figuring it was now or never, Kaye married Walt on New Year's Eve—beating the deadline by mere hours. Eighteen months later, the Lilleheis had their first child, a girl they named Kim.


Never before gloomy, Lillehei went into a funk the summer of 1950. His chest wound became painfully infected, and Varco came by evenings to clean it out (for his troubles, Lillehei mixed them both martinis). Another complication, a dilated stomach, sent Lillehei staggering to the emergency room. Two weeks of radiation treatment for his face left him nauseated and raised the specter of worse side effects some day, including cataracts. That, of course, was assuming Lillehei lived.

This was no easy time for Kaye, either. Doctors had just sent her mother to a sanatorium for tuberculosis, and with the care of her sick husband, now Kaye had to abandon her work toward a master's degree in nursing, which she had been pur­suing at the University of Minnesota. Her stewardess days were already history; abruptly reversing its marital-status pol­icy, Northwest Airlines had sent the newlywed a pink slip shortly after she'd returned from her honeymoon.

That terrible summer, Walt tried to move his mind off things by watching TV, mostly afternoon baseball games and a few programs that were broadcast before midnight, when stations signed off until morning. He read medical journals, worked some on his doctoral dissertation, and looked ahead to autumn, when he hoped to resume operating and open his own lab.

Physical suffering was only a part of that summer's misery. Although he never mentioned it to Wangensteen, Lillehei re­sented the chief's cutting so deep, without forewarning—es­pecially considering the pathologist's final report, which showed no further malignancy anywhere. Nonetheless, Wan­gensteen had recommended a second-look operation in six months. Lillehei refused. Enough was enough.

And Lillehei worried for his young family. Wangensteen continued to pay his salary, but no insurer would cover a lym­phosarcoma survivor. With savings from the wartime pay he had dutifully sent home, Lillehei began to invest in the stock market. This, too, would turn out to be fortuitous in ways the young doctor could never have imagined.