Stephen King is famous for his horror stories, but it's his disarming sense of humor that also will be on display when he speaks at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell. "When you go to places like UMass, they have a lecture fund and give you a fee. If I turn my fee over (to them), they can turn it into a scholarship," said King recently on a conference call with a small group of reporters. "So if someone says, 'You sucked,' I can say, 'Yes, but I sucked for free.' "
"A Conversation with Stephen King," the inaugural event of UMass Lowell's "Chancellor's Speaker Series," will take place Friday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Tsongas Center. King will donate his fee which, along with $5 from every ticket sold, will endow a scholarship fund in his and his wife Tabitha's name.
Moderated by author and UMass Lowell professor Andre Dubus III, the program will include a Q&A with King, who also will read his work and share his views on his career and his craft to the audience -- even though the thought of doing so scares him more than anything out of Salem's Lot.
"I don't do a lot of this stuff because frankly it's kind of scary," said King, 65. "I'm a writer, not a performer. When I'm in front of a bunch of people, I get a little nervous and self-conscious."
King's career should speak for itself. Having written more than 60 books which have sold 350 million copies, King is one of the most popular fiction writers of all time. His first novel, 1974's Carrie, immediately put him on the map, an achievement he thinks would happen again today if he had to do it all over again.
"In the case of Carrie, it was a good book to start with because it was about a misift, and it really struck a nerve because the story is so universal," said King. "If none of the other books existed, I think it would have the same impact -- I'm a believer in the idea that history repeats itself."
He followed up Carrie with a string of successful horror novels, including Salem's Lot, The Shining and The Stand. He's been called a horror writer (sometimes with derision), but he doesn't consider this characterization an insult.
"The horror genre is always looked at as one that appeals to low tastes, but it's also an extremely adaptable genre, so people come to it and it feels like a mirror for their anxieties," said King. "I don't call myself a horror writer, but as long as the checks don't bounce, they can call me whatever they want."
At this point, "horror writer" may be too narrow a term. Over the course of his 40-plus year career, King has written a Tolkien Western (The Dark Tower series), a time-travel novel (11/62/63), prison stories (The Green Mile and the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), a memoir (On Writing), a Red Sox book (Faithful), a pop culture column for Entertainment Weekly, and a musical with John Mellencamp (Ghost Brothers of Darkland County). But if his next two projects (Joyland, a thriller set in an amusement park, and Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining) are any indication, he's not going to give up scaring people anytime soon.
"You can always leave the movie theater or close the book, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, but people like to be entertained," said King. "And me? I like to make it as unsafe a scare as possible."
General admission tickets for "A Conversation for Stephen King" are sold out; corporate sponsorship is available. For information on sponsorship opportunities, contact Louise Griffin at 978-934-3243 or at Louise_Griffin@uml.edu.
Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete. Success on screen
The first King film adaptation is also the best, with Sissy Spacek giving a star-turning, blood-soaked performance and Brian De Palma not messing everything up for once. It later spawned a sequel, a made-for-TV movie and a remake set to be released March 15, 2013.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick's horror classic contains a bevy of terrifying scenes (blood rushing out of the elevator, the woman in Room 237, those freaky twins!) and a crazed performance by a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson. But King prefers the more faithful 1997 miniseries, the teleplay for which he wrote.
One of the scariest and least-fantastical King adaptations is Misery, starring James Caan as a famous novelist and Kathy Bates as his "No. 1 fan." Kudos to Caan and Bates for their performances, as well as to director Rob Reiner for finding the most painful way to use a sledgehammer.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Coming out in a year loaded with great movies (Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump and Quiz Show), The Shawshank Redemption has emerged as one of the most beloved films ever. The prison drama features acclaimed performances by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, as well as a welcome reminder of how great Rita Hayworth looked when she flipped up her hair in Gilda.
The Green Mile (1999)
Director Frank Darabont seems to love Stephen King prison stories. His second adaptation, The Green Mile, stars Tom Hanks as a corrections officer and Michael Clarke Duncan as a giant, soft-spoken, magical healer on death row. Horror in harmony
Title: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
Written by: Stephen King and John Mellencamp, produced by T-Bone Burnett
Soundtrack: Will be released March 19, 2013. Features appearances by Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow. Produced by T-Bone Burnett.
Plot: From official press release: "Set in the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, the Ghost Brothers' story centers on two sets of brothers: The ghosts of Jack and Andy, dead in an apparent murder/suicide, and their nephews, the living Frank and Drake, who seem to be headed toward the same downward spiral as their uncles. Joe, younger brother of Jack and Andy, father of Frank and Drake, has decided it's time to reveal his own terrible secret at the site of the tragedy, before it's too late."
For more information: www.ghostbrothersofdarklandcounty.com.