When a Washington DC bookstore employee blew the lid off of King’s secret pseudonym, Richard Bachman, I was still in diapers. As a result, I didn’t even find out about Richard Bachman until ’round about 1996, with the release of The Regulators, which was a mirrored/companion novel to Desperation. (More on that when sj throws down a Death Match between ‘em.) Hardback books were just a touch out of my reach, given that my allowance was about $10 a week (and did I spend that allowance on books every week? bet-yer-ass), so I stared at them in fascination for months until they came out in paperback and I could finally read them.
I found the concept of Bachman terribly interesting. One writer, two voices–King, who goes for more of the straight, often a little campy horror (say sorry), versus Bachman, a voice that’s dark and cynical, more about the terrors of the mind than about possessed cars, psychic powers, or killer clowns. Years after Bachman had been outed, King resurrected him for the project; for me, The Regulators was a gateway into his earlier works, and even though the pair of books isn’t my favorite of the King library, the early Bachman books remain some of my favorite work by him to date.
Richard Bachman came into being in 1977, after King’s early success with Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining. Not only were his novels doing well, but Carrie had already been adapted into a film by Brian de Palma. King seemed to be feeling the pressure of celebrity; in the first foreword of the collected Bachman books, titled “Why I was Bachman”, King says, “I think I [wrote as Bachman] to turn down the heat.” King had reached a wall in the publishing game: because of his success, publishers were reluctant to saturate the Stephen King market, in order to keep sales figures high. The problem? Stephen King is a writing junkie. He can’t put down the pen. In an interview with the man who uncovered his secret, King admitted that he often wouldn’t just be one novel ahead of the game, but sometimes three or four. Another problem? The early Bachman books differed from King’s other work in style. Two of them were a bit sci-fi/dystopian, but they didn’t fit the supernatural horror gig that King had carved out for himself. Not wanting to lead his readership astray but wanting to put the novels out there, King decided to publish them under a pseudonym.
In “Why I was Bachman,” King also wrote that he wanted the challenge of writing under a different name. He purposely stacked the deck against the Bachman novels, asking that they be released as paperbacks with little fanfare; this way, if the novels found any success, it would be on the merits of the writing rather than by virtue of being published by the Stephen King, horror darling of America. I find it bizarre that a publisher would agree to this–after all, King was already a huge name, and he was basically asking them to sink his novels before they had a chance to be popular, thus cutting deeply into their profits–but Bachman editor Elaine Koster not only agreed to keep his secret, she worked hard to make sure that speculation didn’t become fact. After almost eight years and four novels (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man), Bachman had begun, ever so slowly, to build his own following.
Then came Thinner.
Thinner ruined the game for Richard Bachman. Unlike Bachman’s earlier work, this book smacked of Stephen King: in Thinner, a gypsy puts a curse on a man, causing him to waste away rapidly, regardless of how much he eats. The addition of the supernatural element didn’t mesh with the earlier Bachman work. Thinner was released in hardcover and sold pretty well compared to the paperbacks that had been published under the Bachman name. Despite a few innocently hilarious comments–King recalled that one person remarked, “This is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write”–readers everywhere were beginning to smell a rat.
One reader in particular, the aforementioned bookstore employee Steve Brown, decided to head down to the Library of Congress and snoop around into the back story of this “Richard Bachman.” He almost didn’t find his evidence, but after
strong-arming sweet-talking the clerk into manually looking up the copyright information for Rage, which wasn’t in the computer system at the time, Brown hit paydirt. Rage was copyrighted to Stephen King of Bangor, Maine. Brown contacted King with his evidence, wanting to write an article about it but promising to keep it under his hat if that’s what King preferred.
By that time, though, the secret was no longer really a secret. King received requests daily from various news outlets wanting to know if he was Bachman; the local paper in Bangor wrote an article linking King and Bachman. King finally decided to come out with it, even though he was pretty pissed off that his cover was blown. He’d had an idea for another novel to publish under the Bachman name, you see–a book called Misery that he thought could take “Dicky” to bestseller status.
King said that Bachman died from “cancer of the pseudonym.” In his first Stephen King intro to The Bachman Books, King seems pretty damn bitter about the whole thing–”good thing I didn’t kill someone, huh?” he asks several times. He refers to his “Stephen King” publishers–at the time, that was Doubleday–as “a frigid wifey who only wants to put out once or twice a year, encouraging her endlessly horny hubby to find a call girl.” Ouch. Still, he seemed in better spirits when he wrote the second introduction for the reprint, this time titled “The Importance of Being Bachman.” Perhaps figuring out how to resurrect the fallen nom de plume lifted his mood. Since The Regulators, King has also published Blaze under the Bachman name. King claims that Blaze was first written in 1973 and updated before it was published in 2007; I’m told by trusted sources (sj) that it has more of a Bachman “feel” to it than Thinner or The Regulators. There may yet be more Bachman manuscripts to be “uncovered” by his fictitious widow, Claudia Inez Bachman, whose name you might recognize from The Dark Tower series: she makes a tiny cameo as the author of Charlie the Choo-Choo.
(Aside: In the foreward to Blaze, King says that Richard Bachman once published a short story under a pseudonym. Can pseudonyms have pseudonyms? This might be too meta for me.)
I’m sad that The Bachman Books are now out of print as a collection, likely forever. King took them out of print himself; while I don’t blame him, it still pains me. You can still buy three of the four books separately, but it’s not quite the same (and also pretty damn expensive for them being sort of short). The only book that wasn’t subsequently re-published, Rage, tells the story of a disturbed high school boy who shoots two teachers and holds his class hostage–or, possibly, they hold him hostage. It has since been linked to some of the school shootings that have occurred over the past couple of decades; at least three shooters have been found with copies of Rage in their possession. King said, enough is enough–which is a damn shame for us non-insane people. Rage has resonance; it’s my favorite of the Bachman novels. (If you can read it without getting the urge to shoot up your school or place of business, I highly recommend getting hands on a used copy.)
“There isn’t any division of time to express the marrow of our lives, the time between the explosion of lead from the muzzle and the meat impact, between the impact and darkness. There’s only barren instant replay that shows nothing new.” – one of my favorite quotes from Rage
So, that’s the deal with that Bachman guy. He was, but not quite always was, Stephen King all along.
“Why I was Bachman,” The Bachman Books 1985
“Stephen King, Shining Through”, Steve Brown, The Washington Post