Reminder: Stephen King Loved Cocaine

How King's love of nose candy shaped some of his greatest stories.
Reminder: Stephen King Loved Cocaine

One night in 1978 or 1979, Stephen King went to his garage and noticed, to his horror, that the trash can he reserved for recycling beer cans was "full to the top." Why would that horrify the same brain that came up with Pennywise the Clown and the nudist ghost lady from The Shining? Because the trash can had been empty a week earlier, and King was the only one in his family who drank beer (unless his toddler and two young kids were really good at hiding beer breath). That's when King realized he had a bad drinking problem and should probably do something about it.  

And he did: he developed an even worse cocaine problem.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Picture this but with something other than snow. 

King says he was a "heavy user" of the happy powder from 1978 till around 1986 when he was churning out best-sellers like ItChristinePet SemataryMisery, and Cujo -- the classic tale of a murderous St. Bernard dog that King "barely remember(s) writing at all." Yes, even his blackout drunk scrawls sell millions of copies and get movie adaptations. We're now picturing King browsing novels at an airport bookstore and saying, "A killer St. Bernard? Who came up with th-- oh."

Cover for Stephen King's Cujo.

Viking Press

"What's next, killer cars? Killer clowns? Killer menstruating teenagers?" 

In his memoir, On Writing, King says that he was pushing so much junk up his nostrils that he had to write with "cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding" (though that seems like a convenient way to save on ink). It's probably not a coincidence that this was also the most insanely prolific period of his career. At one point, he was writing so many books that he invented a fake name so he could keep publishing them without the publishers whining about saturating the market. Oh, and keep in mind that King only killed off his alter ego because the secret got out. For all we know, half of all English-language horror fiction published between 1978 and 1986 was written by a doped up Stephen King under various aliases that were never discovered. 

So, King was making lots of money and becoming more and more famous, but he was also deeply miserable. Hence the book Misery, which is about a famous author being kept hostage by his biggest fan, a psychotic nurse called Annie Wilkes. According to King, "Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave." King felt as trapped as his character; every attempt to quit his addiction was met with a harsher relapse, like Annie coming back with a mallet to break her beloved's feet. Basically, Kathy Bates won an Oscar for playing the personification of the pile of cocaine on King's desk.

But at least Misery resulted in a novel King could be proud of. The Tommyknockers, the novel after that, not so much. King has called it "an awful book" and the point where his addiction was definitely making him a crappier writer. If the drug metaphor in Misery hit you in the head with an Annie Wilkes-style mallet, the one in Tommyknockers did it with a whole-ass spaceship -- the book is about a writer stumbling upon a buried spacecraft and accidentally releasing the ancient alien minds trapped within, which begin possessing people. Having an alien squatting in your head enhances your energy and basic intelligence but royally screws up your health and sanity. 

King called it "the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with." It might as well be called Invasion of the Drug Aliens from Planet Cocaine. But King's biggest cry for help in this period wasn't a book. It was his first and last movie as director, Maximum Overdrive, which made it extra clear that he wasn't in a good state of mind right from the bonkers trailer (starring King and his blinkless stare). 

"The problem with that film," King has said, "is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn't know what I was doing." Members of the cast and crew have claimed that they didn't know about King's drug problem, which really makes us wonder if any of them even read the script. The movie is about a comet causing all machines on Earth to become sentient and start killing people -- or, in the case of King's Southern-accented character, calling them a-holes.

The main antagonist is a truck with a giant, definitely not street-legal Green Goblin mask on the front that, if real, would probably have a kill count in the hundreds even without alien intervention. Yes, it's confirmed at the end that the machines were being controlled by aliens like the humans in Tommyknockers, which must mean that this movie is about how cars can get high too. Anyway, the crew may not have noticed King's cocaine use, but booze was another matter: according to the on-set translator, he would start drinking at 6 am and be on his 10th beer by 8:30. 

Sadly, the part about King "not knowing what he was doing" was a lot more obvious to everyone, especially after the incident where someone literally lost an eye. While shooting the scene where a blood-splattered lawnmower chases a kid, director of photography Armando Nannuzzi and the special effects department asked King to remove the blades (which didn't even appear in the shot) for safety reasons, but King allegedly refused to do it. As a result, the lawnmower went out of control and hit a wooden wedge being used to prop up the camera, sending a splinter flying into Nannuzzi's eye. Nannuzzi ended up suing King and others for $18 million and got an out-of-court settlement, but his career never recovered. Incidentally, King's 2018 book The Outsider includes this bit:

It's worth noting that producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted on using an inexperienced non-union crew to save money, so perhaps King isn't the culprit here. Still, it's probably for the best that he never directed another movie. 

By the time Maximum Overdrive came out, King had gotten less effective at hiding his drug problem from his family. Or anyone. He recalls sneaking booze into his son's Little League game and being caught by the coach (hence his next novel, The Little League Coach Who Wouldn't Mind His Own Business And Got Decapitated By Aliens). King's friends and family finally staged an intervention that started with his wife dumping a trash bag full of stuff retrieved from his office: "beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash." It's incredible that some of the best-selling horror novels ever were written in a room that must have looked and smelled like two dozen punks were squatting in it. 

Sensing that King wasn't able to pull himself together on his own, his wife decided to help him out by threatening to kick him out of the house if he didn't get clean ("I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house"). King says that all those years, he'd been worried that he wouldn't be able to write anymore if he sobered up, but his wife's ultimatum made him realize that he loved his family more than his loved his ability to write well: "I decided ... that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that." 

Luckily, it didn't come to that, and King was back writing about killer ghouls and alien mind parasites within a few years. His first post-sobriety novel was Needful Things (1991), which he called "the first thing that I'd written since I was sixteen without drinking or drugging." He has remained sober for over 35 years now while continuing to provide more material for movie adaptations than any other living author (as long as they're directed by others). Someone might need to stage an intervention about his addiction to dad jokes on Twitter, though.

 Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at 

Top image: Columbia Pictures, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group


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