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Drama Queen

As if being married to horror writer Stephen King isn't scary enough, now Tabitha King has collaborated on a new novel with a dead coauthor.

''Human beings fear things they shouldn't and don't fear things they should,'' says Tabitha King, whose coauthor for her new novel, Candles Burning, is the late Michael McDowell.
''Human beings fear things they shouldn't and don't fear things they should,'' says Tabitha King, whose coauthor for her new novel, Candles Burning, is the late Michael McDowell. (Photo / Mark Ostow)

Like the main character in her new novel, Tabitha King, 57, has been hearing voices. The Bangor-based writer coauthored Candles Burning using notes from a man she calls her "collaborator," Boston horror writer Michael McDowell, who died in 1999.

How did you meet McDowell?

I met him years ago at one of those mystery confabs. I was swept away with Cold Moon Over Babylon - such a gorgeous title. I loved his Boston mysteries, which were collaborations. He collaborated with so many people, on all kinds of things. That takes a generosity that isn't common.

He was generous after his death, even.

The estate said, "Do what you want." The editor said, "Do what you want." And in that sense, Michael did, too. I do think he would've been amused to follow what I did with his beginning.

As a reader, I wondered where he left off and you began. Did you like that kind of writing?

I liked the surrealism, but I hadn't written like that. I'd never dealt with ghosts before, but I'm willing to accept the ghost as a metaphor for the past. As a mother and a grandmother, I know that something carries forward. I have a nephew who is the spitting image of his great-great-grandfather, a man who died in 1919, I think, of Spanish flu. And I myself have been told the ways in which I'm like my maternal grandmother. I got her face, her diabetes, and then I got these behavioral things. I didn't know until I was long into it that my grandmother hunted mushrooms. I've been doing that for close on 20 years.

The ghosts and the Southern settings were originally McDowell's. Were they a stretch, too?

I had to learn a lot. I'd never been to Alabama. Michael got out of Alabama like "fshooo," which is entirely understandable - it's the least gay-friendly state in the Union. Steve and I have a place in Sarasota [Florida], on a key, but the climate and geography is somewhat different than it is in the Pensacola area. And I've never been to New Orleans.

You say you have books in drawers that haven't been published. The impression is that since your husband got into an accident in 1999, you haven't been writing as much.

I had to do something besides hold his hand (laughs). I feel [this project] was a gift to me. I'd become fairly discouraged with the idea that publishing was not terribly interested anymore in books about people who were partly good and partly bad.

Who decided to bill your name above McDowell's?

I didn't ask for it. I don't think my name has any particular draw. I'm always having people saying, "I've never read one of your books," and I say, "Millions haven't!" You know, Steve set a standard for millions and millions of books sold that no sane person expects to reach. The person he talks with who understands what his life is like is J.K. Rowling. And that's it. Maybe Dan Brown. But even he has the volume on one book. He doesn't have it on 30 years of writing.

Didn't you meet your husband in a poetry class?

We met at the University of Maine. He published a long, rambling, funny essay in the student paper. I remember reading that and saying, "I could've done this." He eventually got a column out of it. It was called "The Garbage Truck." He was that rare thing - a Big Man on Campus who was not an athlete. I was walking to work at the library one day and a co-worker said, "That's Steve King." And I see this shambling man, very ragged. He was wearing, not shoes, but cut-off gum rubbers, and I discovered that's all he had. I never met anybody so poor in all my life, and I didn't come from anything like wealth. But right from the beginning, I thought he was as good as any published writer I knew. I think it impressed him that I appreciated what he did. He also was hot for my boobs.

Did either of you ever write poetry for the other?

No, but this really takes you back to hippiedom - we read each other the letters of Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice.

How did his college column compare with the current one in Entertainment Weekly?

Exactly the same thing. He's engaged with pop culture in a way that I'm not. Most of the new music suggestions come from our children. He goes to movies, and I don't. I'm old enough to have seen every damn movie - all they're doing is remaking them at this point.

Did you meet McDowell through his screenplay work with director Tim Burton?

No. I'm not positive, but I think Michael might have met Tim through Steve. Michael did once offer to help get me into the screenwriting business. It is lucrative - once you're in the club, you get a quarter of a million dollars for a script that's never made. But I can only take LA for about 24 hours.

In Candles Burning, Callie says, "I feared needlessly, as one so often does." Is that how you feel?

I think, in general, human beings fear things they shouldn't and don't fear things they should. Like anybody else, if the plane drops, I'm going to scream. Otherwise, it's cool, man. We're all going to give up our ticket one of these days. Fear to me is a stopper. It stops you from moving forward. Steve is very unhappy about flying, always has been. But flying is this extraordinary experience that's only been available since the 20th century. And if you believe in a purpose to things, maybe it is important that we see our earth from a height. You can't love something without knowing it. And fear keeps us from knowing things.

James Sullivan is a freelance writer in Amesbury. E-mail him at jassullivan@earthlink.net.

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