By all accounts, Stephen King should never have been born.
His mother, Nellie Ruth Pillsbury, who went by her middle name, married a captain in the merchant marines named Donald Edwin King on July 23, 1939, in Scarborough, Maine. But given Donald’s frequent and lengthy absences due to the encroaching war, their marriage was on shaky ground from the start.
Doctors had informed Ruth that she would never bear children, and so the Kings did what many presumably infertile couples did back then and applied to adopt a child.
David Victor was adopted shortly after his birth in Portland, Maine, on September 14, 1945, a month after the end of the war.
Despite her doctor’s diagnosis of infertility, in the midwinter of 1947, Ruth discovered she was pregnant. Stephen Edwin King was born on September 21, 1947, two years to the day after David’s adoption was finalized. He shares the birthday with H. G. Wells, author of such sci-fi classics as The War of the Worlds, who was born eighty-one years earlier.
Nellie Ruth Pillsbury was born on February 3, 1913, in Scarborough, Maine, to Guy Herbert and Nellie Weston Fogg Pillsbury. She was the fourth of eight children.
Ruth’s ancestral roots ran deep in her seaside hometown of Scarborough, Maine. Her great-great-grandfather Jonathan Pillsbury moved to town before 1790 just after the American Revolution ended, married a local woman, and raised a family. Ruth’s ancestors owned property, farmed, and built ships and houses in Scarborough for many generations. The family lived on Prouts Neck, a peninsula a fifteen-minute drive from Portland, whose population was a mix of summer people and locals whose roots went back at least several generations. As a young girl, Ruth was surrounded by her siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Artist Winslow Homer, who died in 1910, had his studio and retirement home near Guy Pillsbury’s home.
In the nineteenth century, Scarborough was an active seaport. In addition to farming, townspeople participated in fishing and shipbuilding. A dike was built in 1877 to control overflowing tidal marshes, but it changed the seascape around Scarborough from a port to a salt marsh.
The town recovered and gained popularity as a summer destination in the early 1900s when regular trolley service brought tourists from Boston and New York. Vacation establishments known as shore dinner houses sprang up along with tourist homes and hotels and motels. A majority of the population worked at jobs in the tourist industry for the summer, including a hotel known as the Pillsbury House, run by some of Ruth’s relatives from 1915 to 1932. In the early 1900s, Ruthie’s father, Guy, supplemented his main income as a carpenter by shuttling tourists from the station to their hotels in a horse-drawn carriage.
Nellie, Ruth’s mother, had worked as a schoolteacher before her marriage, and the entire Pillsbury family placed a high importance on education and music for their children. Ruth’s siblings would go on to attend Bowdoin, Northeastern, and Emerson.
In 1931, the Depression was deeply entrenched in coastal Maine. Natives were already used to making do with what they had, but the Depression brought even less hard cash to down-east households as fewer tourists could afford to travel to the state for vacation. Guy Pillsbury had a houseful: his oldest daughter, Mary, at twenty-three, was still living at home, as were his other children, Mollie, Lois, Mary, Guy Jr., Carolyn, Ethelyn, and Ruth. It was time for some of them to move on. Ruth was only too happy to set off to see the world.
After her idyllic childhood, Ruth studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston for a time. Little is known about her life during the Depression, but clearly she didn’t have an easy time of it when it came to her personal life.
A couple of years after she left Scarborough in 1931, Ruth got married, but the marriage quickly soured and she filed for divorce. In the 1930s, divorce was rare in the United States, and many men would automatically have viewed a divorced woman as damaged goods. A few years later, she met Donald Edwin King, who was born on March 11, 1914, to William R. and Helen A. Bowden King, in Peru, Indiana, and Ruth’s history as a divorced woman didn’t seem to bother him.
Ruth and Donald were married on July 23, 1939, in Scarborough, Maine, with her family present. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Chicago to live with Donald’s family at 4815 Belle Plaine Avenue. The honeymoon quickly wore off as Ruth found herself homesick for her native Maine. She was frequently alone while Donald continued to travel around the world as a merchant marine.
Over the next six years, the couple moved frequently. After spending a couple of years in Chicago, they moved to 17 Terrace Place in Croton-on-Hudson, just north of New York City. But again, Don took off, leaving Ruth to fend for herself for a few years while her husband visited sporadically.
She put a brave face on things and decided to pursue a musical career. Every Sunday morning, she ferried herself to Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center to play the organ on a radio show called The Church Today on the NBC network, a weekly broadcast of a traditional church service. If Donald objected to his wife’s career, it didn’t stop her. After all, Ruth was a headstrong woman. Besides, he wasn’t around enough to be bothered by it.
When it was clear that World War Two would soon end, the Kings returned to Maine and Donald retired from his footloose life. The couple fell into an uneasy truce in their modest home in Scarborough, Maine, an hour’s drive from Ruth’s relatives in Durham. Ruth had never learned to drive a car and depended on her husband to get around. He didn’t care for her family, so visits were infrequent. The couple’s unhappiness grew.
Donald took a job as a door-to-door salesman around Portland, pushing Electrolux vacuum cleaners to housewives who were establishing families and contented households as they settled into the beginnings of the postwar baby boom. Knowing that he’d spend each night in the same house, with the same woman, did nothing to soothe the restlessness Donald had indulged during the years he roamed all over the world, during stints at sea that lasted for months at a time. “As my mother once told me, he was the only man on the sales force who regularly demonstrated vacuum cleaners to pretty young widows at two o’clock in the morning,” said Steve years later. “He was quite a ladies’ man, according to my mother. In any case, he was a man with an itchy foot, a travelin’ man, as the song says. I think trouble came easy to him.”
Neither an adopted nor a biological child could keep Donald with his family. He was stuck in a place he didn’t like with a family he didn’t particularly want. And the housewives who invited him into their homes for more than his vacuum cleaners couldn’t hold him either. He missed the adventure of the open road and sea, and waking up in the morning—or in the middle of the night—and never knowing which enemies he’d face.
So one night, when Steve had just turned two, Donald casually told his wife that he was going to the store for a pack of cigarettes. He walked out the door and kept on going. They never saw him again. The drama of his departure would be comically cliché, if not for the permanent damage it did to every member of the King family.
Ruth was a resourceful Mainer, frugal and practical by nature.
After her husband walked out, Ruth packed up her two kids, swallowed her pride, and depended on her relatives, as well as Don’s family in Chicago, to put them up for a short time each while she looked for a job to keep them afloat. Steady jobs for a once-divorced, once-abandoned female pianist with two small children were not in great abundance, even in the great economic boom of the postwar years, so she took what she could get, which most often was menial labor as a housekeeper or bakery clerk.
The small King family would stay in a room in an aunt’s or cousin’s house or apartment until Ruth felt they were about to wear out their welcome, then they’d move on to the next sympathetic relative with a room to spare. Their perambulations took them far beyond Maine. During the first four years after Donald left and while Stephen was two to six years of age, they lived in Chicago; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Malden, Massachusetts; and West De Pere, Wisconsin.
Sometimes, to Ruth’s great consternation, she had to split up the family. At one point Steve stayed with Ruth’s younger sister Ethelyn and her husband, Oren Flaws, in West Durham, Maine, while Dave stayed with Mollie, another sister, in Malden, Massachusetts.
Ruth King rarely let her boys see her dejection at their poverty and constant moves. Instead, she dealt with their circumstances with a sense of humor and by telling her young sons stories. Both her optimism and storytelling would have a lasting influence on Steve.
The boys often shared a bedroom, more often a bed, and had to deal with threadbare hand-me-down clothes and broken toys from cousins who were often resentful at the attention Steve and David received. In the midst of such tumult, and with a few relatives who were clearly not thrilled about having a couple of youngsters underfoot, the two young boys quickly learned to look after each other, finding a comfortable refuge in books. They often read to each other. When Ruth got home from work, she’d grill them to make sure that they’d been reading the whole time she was gone.
In later years, Steve told a story from when he was four years old and playing outside with a friend who lived near a railroad line. He was supposed to wait to be picked up or to call Ruth when he wanted to come home, but he showed up back home an hour later, clearly in shock, his face white as a sheet.
While they were playing, Steve’s friend had wandered over to the tracks and been hit by a freight train. “My mother told me they picked up the pieces in a wicker basket,” he said years later. “My mom never knew if I had been near him, and I have no memory of the incident at all, only of having been told about it some years after the fact.”
The family’s constant changes of address continued. When Steve was in kindergarten, Ruth packed up the family to live with Donald’s family in Chicago for a time. This was something new, a real connection to Steve’s father. Through all their moves, Steve and Dave had learned to keep quiet whenever they were around grown-ups, but it became especially important when they were staying with Granny Spansky, Donald’s mother. Steve was even better behaved around her for two reasons.
First, if he kept his mouth shut and just listened, maybe he’d hear her talk about why his father had left. After all, she was Donald’s mother, she had to know what happened to him. But if she did know the whereabouts of her son, she wasn’t talking.
Second, she was nothing like his mother’s relatives back in Maine, who were reserved, quiet, and steered away from uncomfortable and difficult subjects. Granny Spansky reminded Steve of the evil witches in the stories he and Dave read to each other. “She was a big, heavyset woman who alternately fascinated and repelled me,” he said. “I can still see her cackling like an old witch through toothless gums. She’d fry an entire loaf of bread in bacon drippings on an antique range and then gobble it down, chortling, ‘My, that’s crisp!’ ”
After they left Granny Spansky’s house, they moved to West De Pere, Wisconsin, to live with Ruth’s sister Cal for a while, then they moved on to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they lived with Don’s sister Betty for a few months before finding an apartment of their own nearby. But Steve already knew it wouldn’t last. Either they’d be evicted—once they were kicked out of an apartment after the babysitter fell asleep and a neighbor saw Steve crawling on the roof of the building—or they’d wear out their welcome and the sisters would be calling each other long-distance to see who would take Ruth and the boys this time. Before long, it was time to move again.
When Stephen was six years old, Ruth and her sons moved to her sister Lois’s house in Stratford, Connecticut. Finally, it looked as if Ruth’s fortunes were starting to turn. After working for a few months, she had saved enough money to rent an apartment of their own nearby.
Once Steve got to school, he was always the new kid in the class, often more than once in one school year. But he quickly learned how to cope. If one of his classmates began to pick on him, it didn’t last that long; Steve combined his intelligence and wit to gently disarm his fellow students—always in a nice way, he’d been on the receiving end of nasty and knew it only made the target hate the tormentor more—along with his teachers, and so he rarely had any trouble.
But from the beginning, Steve was a sickly kid. Whether from the stress of the family’s constant moves or living in poverty, he spent most of the first-grade year home from school, confined to his bed. First he came down with measles, followed by strep throat, which then spread to his ears. He ended up with a nasty ear infection that wouldn’t go away no matter how many antibiotics he took.
To combat boredom while at home, he devoured every book he could get his hands on, including a wide assortment of comic books of the day, but he also began to create his own stories. One day he copied the words out of the cartoon balloons into a notepad, adding some description about setting or a character’s appearance whenever he felt it was necessary. He gave it to his mother, who read it and showered praise on him, until he admitted that he didn’t really write it after all, it was mostly copied.
A flash of disappointment crossed her face. She told him those comics were mostly one-note: “He’s always knocking someone’s teeth out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.”
Steve immediately got to work, scribbling out a story entitled “Mr. Rabbit Trick,” about a white bunny who drove around town with his three animal pals looking for little kids in trouble to help. When he handed it to Ruth, the first question she asked was if he had written it himself. He answered yes. She told him it was good enough to be in a book, and he was so jazzed by her approval that he sat down and wrote four more stories about the rabbit and his buddies. She read them, smiled and laughed in all the right places, then gave Steve a quarter for each story.
It was the first money he made as a writer.
When he was engrossed in writing, he forgot he was sick. Though his stories made him feel better, they did nothing to clear up the infection. Ruth brought him to an ear doctor who recommended that his ears be lanced by sticking a sterilized needle into the eardrum to drain the moisture so the infection could heal. The doctor told the young boy to lie still on the exam table and be quiet. But he also assured Steve it wouldn’t hurt. “The pain was beyond anything I have ever felt,” he wrote years later. He howled and screamed as the tears ran down his face. But more important, he tried to absorb that the doctor had lied to him.
He returned to the doctor’s office a week later, and again the doctor said it wouldn’t hurt. “The second time I almost believed it,” he said. But he was again betrayed. The third week when the lie was repeated, Steve kicked and thrashed on the table, anticipating the searing pain while realizing that he could do nothing to prevent what was about to happen. What made matters worse was that the doctor never got his name right, calling him Robert instead of Steve.
“In my panicky child’s way, I’m thinking, ‘Of course it will hurt! You’re even lying about what my name is!’ ”
After his ears cleared up, his tonsils flared up next. After they were removed, he recovered, and he never again had to face a doctor with a needle pointed at his ear. But Steve had missed so much school that he had to repeat the first grade. To further embarrass him, that same year his brother, David, was doing so well that he was allowed to skip the fourth grade.
After Steve’s father left, the only reference anyone in the family made to Donald was with a kind of shorthand: he became known as Daddy Done, short for Daddy Done Left.
“It was like he was an unperson,” said Steve. Whenever Ruth had to leave Dave and Steve with various relatives, the boys would occasionally overhear a cousin or an aunt whispering among themselves that she’d had a nervous breakdown, and the only way she could get better was to go off and rest someplace for a while. The truth was that Ruth was actually working two and three jobs to pay off the debts Donald had accumulated during their marriage.
While she never wanted her kids to find out, Ruth did engage them in a bit of conspiracy before they entered elementary school. In the 1950s, for a husband to leave a wife, or to get a divorce, was the ultimate shame, especially in a small town, where neighbors would gossip about the real reasons and typically blame the woman. Only a widow could hold her head up high.
And so Ruth pulled her two young sons aside and told them what to say whenever anyone asked where their father was: “Tell them he’s in the navy.”
“We were ashamed not to have a father,” said King. “I think my mother was deeply ashamed to have been left with these two young boys when her other sisters kept their husbands.”
At one point Ruth had a job working the midnight shift at a bakery. Her sons would come home from school and have to tiptoe around so she could sleep. Desserts, a rarity before, now came in the form of broken cookies from the bakery.
Ruth lacked the time or the energy to chastise her children—she expected David to help her to raise his younger brother. But when Steve began to show interest in science fiction stories and horror comics, she told him she disapproved, though she never gave either of her children an outright no. Instead she preferred to let them make their own decisions and perhaps learn a lesson.
Steve’s mother did forbid him to listen to radio broadcasts of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction stories, but Steve eavesdropped anyway upstairs from his bedroom through a heating vent after he was supposed to be in bed as his mother listened to the radio downstairs. Afterward, he was so scared that he couldn’t sleep in his own bed so he slept under his brother’s.
As his appetite for books grew, a few started to make a huge impression on him. When he read The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, Steve realized that strange things could happen to perfectly normal people often for no reason at all.
He loved the comic-book series Castle of Frankenstein and bought the new installments every time one appeared on the newsstand.
Steve and his brother discovered E.C. Comics, which stood for Entertaining Comics, in the midfifties. The boys loved the ghosts, zombies, and ghouls that were featured in the bimonthly Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Crypt of Terror. The publisher of E.C. was Bill Gaines, who would create a new kind of comic book in 1956 with Mad magazine. The narrators of E.C. comics would often start with an aside directed at “Dear Reader.” This would later be echoed in Steve’s work with the use of the salutation “Constant Reader” in his stories and novels.
“One of my favorites was when a baseball team was disemboweling the bad guys and lining the base paths with their intestines,” Steve said. “They used his head for the ball, and this one eye was bulging out as the bat hits it.”
Though Ruth was tolerant of her son’s choice of reading material, she hated E.C. comics. She finally put her foot down when he began to wake up in the middle of the night screaming from his nightmares. She confiscated all of Steve’s copies and refused to give them back, so he bought more and hid them under his bed. When she caught him, she’d ask why he was wasting his time with such junk. “Someday, I’m going to write this junk,” he replied.
In addition to reading comic books and writing stories, Steve also loved the movies. When he was living in Connecticut, he watched the Million Dollar Movie on WOR, broadcast out of New York, as much as he could. This nightly program featured a black-and-white movie, usually from the 1940s, that was often repeated every night for a week. Steve was glued to the screen and began to study the structure, language, and special effects in each movie, and he began to apply the lessons he learned to his own writing. “I began to see things as I wrote, in a frame like a movie screen,” he said.
He also saw The Snake Pit, a 1948 movie starring Olivia de Havilland, about a woman who is in an insane asylum but doesn’t know how she ended up there and as a result is driven insane. Steve’s wife, Tabby, later said that the movie made a lasting impression on him: “I think it may have infected him with a belief that you can go insane quite easily.”
Steve agreed: “As a kid, I worried about my sanity a lot.”
He also went to the movie theater as much as he could. He particularly loved the B-grade horror flicks such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and cheesy sci-fi movies like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Though some people enjoy watching horror movies for the schlock value, even back then Steve never denied that he was scared out of his wits by these movies, while continuing to go back for more. “I liked to be scared, I liked the total surrender of emotional control,” he said. “I’d been raised in a family where emotional control was a really important thing. You weren’t supposed to show you were afraid, you weren’t supposed to show that you were in pain or frightened or sad.
“There was a high premium on keeping yourself to yourself—on maintaining a pleasant exterior—saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ and using your handkerchief even if you’re on the Titanic and it’s going down, because that’s the way you were supposed to behave.”
While being scared out of his wits, he was also studying the technical effects in the films. “I got a little more discriminating in my ability to detect special effects, if not necessarily my sense of taste,” he observed. “Even when the flying saucer appeared to be a Kool cigarette filter tip with a sparkler stuck in it, it looked real to me because I was at a young and very credulous age.”
Excerpted from Haunted Heart by .
Copyright © 2008 by Lisa Rogak.
Published in January 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.