Witches, Sitcoms, and the Stephen King Top 40

When I was 25, I had a life and death experience, one that was so painful I decided I had to write a novel about it. I wouldn’t get to it until many years later though… when I joined a very select writing class held at night at the home of legendary TV writer, Bill Idelson.

Bill was a famous radio star in the early ’40s. Later he became a television success playing Herman Gimsher on the TV sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. But he always considered himself a writer, and he was very successful: head writer on The Andy Griffith Show, head writer on Love, American Style, producer on The Bob Newhart Show, writer of dozens more episodes on many other sitcoms from The Odd Couple to Will and Grace. By the time I got to him, Bill was in his 80s. But still going strong.

I had written a draft of “my great story” and read parts of it to him. Bill’s first response was, “You’re confusing the truth with a really good story. Somewhere in there you do have a good story; we just have to figure out where it is.”

What Bill finally zeroed in on was one of my early chapters about how, when I was very little, I was terrified of my grandmother because she looked just like the witch in Snow White. I’d written about the time my parents left me at home with her one night… so they could go to the movies. I was a kid who was afraid to go to the upstairs bathroom because it was so frighteningly dark at the top of the stairs. Spending an evening with a wicked witch was almost more than I could stand.

Under Bill’s careful direction I rewrote my great novel as a horror story… about witches. And I liked it a lot. So did Bill. Things were going very well. So well, in fact, that Bill invited other writers over to help me along. One of them was Bill Habeeb, a fine LA writer who had a lot of great ideas. I brought cookies with me whenever I flew down from my home in the San Francisco area to LA. I brought very good cigars too, for Bill and Habeeb to smoke after I had gone.

I was so excited with one set of chapters that I scheduled an extra trip down to meet with Bill between our normal monthly sessions.

“Go ahead, read it out loud,” Bill said when I got there. He had opened the box of cookies and tucked the good cigar neatly behind the counter. Habeeb was there too. So I read the 12 new pages that I was very proud of. When I finished, Bill looked at me for a long time, then frowned, and said, “Cookies and cigars are nice, and so is pleasant conversation, but that’s not what this is about.”

My heart sank.

“You’re supposed to showus something here. You need to find out what a good story really is.”

I was silent. Habeeb was silent. Bill was angry.

“You know that guy who writes horror novels,” Bill grumbled at last, “what’s his name?”

“Stephen King,” Habeeb answered.

“Yeah, that guy. Go out and buy three of his books and read them from cover to cover. Then do what he does… even if you have to copy it word for word.”

I was crushed. I liked what I had written. I thought they would too. Still, I packed up my stuff and turned to see Bill looking rather downcast.

“I gave him good advice,” he mumbled to himself. “Yeah, read some Stephen King.”

“You haven’t seen the last of me,” I called as I turned and walked out the door, wondering where the hell that line ever came from… some old potboiler movie, I guess. Even I knew it wasn’t very good.

But Bill was right, and I knew it. I had read only a few horror novels in my entire life, and only when I’d been forced to. They did fascinate and terrify me, I knew that: The Turn of the Screw, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. WOW! Maybe I should have learned something from them, but apparently I didn’t.

Anyway, I went out and bought a copy of Stephen King’s The Shiningand read it from cover to cover… at midnight after my wife had gone to sleep and I felt totally alone. Opening the book each night was like starting up that stairway to the second floor bathroom when I was a very little kid.

I read Needful Things and then Christine. About halfway through the latter, I stopped reading and started to write, in one feverish explosion. It was the most horrific chapter I’d ever written, one I didn’t even know I was capable of writing. DAMN! What a great experience! The only thing was, it was that constant voice of Stephen King in my head that was helping me. I knew I needed more. So, I went out and bought Salem’s Lot and blasted through it in a few days.

As I pounded out a few more chapters of my novel, my witches were becoming so real that I dared not stay up until midnight for fear that my long dead grandmother would come hobbling out of the darkened kitchen and have me for supper.

After I had quite a few new pages together, I called Bill, knowing that he would be damn pleased with what I’d done.

His wife Seemah answered the phone and told me that, at age 88, Bill had fallen and broken his hip. He was in the hospital. I tried to write to him; I sent him a box of cookies. I knew they probably wouldn’t let him have cigars in the hospital. And then to my absolute despair, Bill’s son Paul emailed me one night about six months later and told me that Bill Idelson, my mentor, had died. He had in fact seen the last of me on that terrible night.

What the hell was I going to do? Who was going to be my mentor now? Well, there was only one possibility that I could think of, really… Stephen King. Not only had he written what for me were the archetypal horror novels, ones that I had to keep reading and reading so that I could continually hear his voice in my head. But he had also put together a book on how to write: On Writing! I read it and read it again. Then I bought the audio book narrated by King himself and listened to it as I drove down to LA to present my new chapters to Bill Habeeb. He liked them very much.

So, I’ve written eight novels now, pretty much all horror. The first two are what I call “the witch books,” about how my grandmother turned out to be the most powerful witch in the history of the world. Then I went on to sci-fi, then vampires, then aliens. I even wrote a book that featured a character very much like Bill Idelson, a TV writer who decided one day to change his show from a sitcom to a thriller… to the everlasting horror of the characters in the show who wondered just what the hell was happening to them.

Through all of this I kept reading Stephen King, and reading and reading until I had read every novel and novella King ever wrote including all the Bachman books. I was terrified when I ran out of original King works. Where was I going to get that Stephen King voice now? So I started in on the short stories, and I re-read the novels; I added H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, and all the horror classics I could find. Meanwhile, to my endless gratitude, Mr. King kept writing and writing. Thank you, Steve.

One day I had a realization. Because I had read all the novels and novellas that King had ever written, it made me some kind of an expert, didn’t it, especially since I had devoured all 50+ in the space of about 2 years. Why not rank them? I sure had my favorites… and knew those few works that I really didn’t like. My intent was to honor the books that I found so great. So I put together the Stephen King Top 40, knowing that it was a great injustice to King, because there were some massive works that he must have been very proud of, that didn’t make my cut.

I apologize to the great artist, and to all the fans who love books that ended up lower on my list or didn’t make it at all. These are the works that inspired me, turned me into a fan of the genre, and helped me become a reasonable practitioner, I hope, of the art of scaring the holy hell out of people. (BTW: I updated this list in 2018 to add some new books and the results of some recent re-reads.)

1.     Wizard and Glass
2.     It
3.     The Shining
4.     Salem’s Lot
5.     11/22/63
6.     Misery
7.     Duma Key
8.     Bag of Bones
9.     The Long Walk
10.  Different Seasons
11.  The Stand
12.  The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
13.  On Writing
14.  Finders Keepers
15.  Full Dark, No Stars
16.  Gerald’s Game
17.  Christine
18.  Joy Land
19.  The Dead Zone
20.  Wolves of the Calla
21.  Under the Dome
22.  Hearts in Atlantis
23.  Rose Madder
24.  Cujo
25.  Carrie
26.  Pet Cemetery
27.  The Green Mile
28.  Dolores Claiborne
29.  Black House
30.  Lisey’s Story
31.  The Waste Lands
32.  The Tommyknockers
33.  Firestarter
34.  Insomnia
35.  Four Past Midnight
36.  The Dark Half
37.  The Eye of the Dragon
38.  The Gunslinger
39.  End of Watch
40.  Revival

 

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