Known Alias: How Stephen King Was Outed as Richard Bachman

Getty Images
Getty Images

Steve Brown was working his shift at Olsson’s Bookstore in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1985 when he heard his name come over the store intercom. There was a call waiting for him.

When Brown picked up the telephone, he heard a voice ask, “Steve Brown? This is Steve King. Okay, you know I’m Bachman, I know I’m Bachman, what are we going to do about it? Let’s talk.”

King was referring to Richard Bachman, the alias he had adopted eight years earlier and carried through four books (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man). The titles had floated in and out of the market in relative obscurity, drawing only passing suspicion that their true author was one of the most well-known and successful writers of the 20th century. New American Library (NAL), Bachman's publisher, refuted any suggestion that the author was fictional.

But Brown—a bookstore clerk, writer, and fanzine publisher—had read enough King novels to recognize that Bachman’s latest book, Thinner, was unequivocally a King work. After some additional investigation, Brown wrote a letter to King’s agent sharing his discovery and asked how they’d like to proceed. It marked the beginning of the end for Bachman, who would soon perish, King wrote, owing to “cancer of the pseudonym.”

The book jacket from 1985's horror novel 'Thinner'
Mitch9000, eBay

By 1977, King had completed his transformation from nearly-destitute English teacher to cultural phenomenon. His first three books—Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining—were bestsellers, with The Stand nearing completion. Feature film and paperback rights for his work added to his newfound wealth.

King’s professional problem, if he could be said to have one, was that he secreted words like most people produce sweat. His novels were swelling in size—The Stand’s first publication saw it cut from 1152 to 752 pages—and he was eager to publish more than the industry standard of one book a year.

Editors balked: Multiple releases would glut the market, they insisted, undercutting the King brand and cannibalizing his sales.

Tired of arguing his point, King decided to submit one of his earlier manuscripts to his paperback publisher, New American Library, with the caveat that it would be distributed under a pen name. NAL editor Elaine Koster agreed to an impressive veil of secrecy, including keeping most NAL employees and even their CEO in the dark about their newly-signed author.

Beyond circumventing the antiquated thinking about being too prolific, King had an alternative motivation for pursuing a pseudonym. He had long wondered if his work could be successful outside of the notoriety he had developed over the years. Getting It On, a long-finished book about a student who takes his high school class hostage, would receive little publicity and would essentially be left to flourish or perish on its own merits. “I wanted it to go out there and either find an audience or just disappear quietly,” King told The Washington Post in 1985.

The first stumbling block was King’s preferred alias: Guy Pillsbury. Pillsbury was the name of King’s maternal grandfather, but when Getting It On began to circulate around the NAL offices, some people became aware of the connection to King. He pulled the manuscript, retitled it Rage, and had better luck flying under the radar.

When it was time for the book to go to press, King received a call asking about a pen name. According to King, a Bachman Turner Overdrive record was playing and a Richard Stark novel was on his desk. Stark was the pen name for writer Donald E. Westlake—hence “Richard Bachman.”

The publication of Rage in 1977 was followed by The Long Walk in 1979, Roadwork in 1981, and The Running Man in 1982. Sales were modest at best, and reader reaction was tepid: King recalled getting 50 or 60 fan letters a week for himself and perhaps two a month for Bachman. Still, he seemed to relish having an alter ego and delighted in inventing a morbid biography for him. In his mind, Bachman was a chicken farmer in New Hampshire who wrote novels at night, happily married but facially deformed owing to a past illness—hence, poor Bachman would be unavailable for interviews.

King’s cover endured for a surprisingly long period. But the 1985 release of Thinner would usher in fresh suspicion about Bachman. Unlike the other four novels, Thinner was contemporary King, a hardcover written with the knowledge it was a “Bachman book” and perhaps more self-conscious about its attempt at misdirection. And unlike early-period Bachman, which often featured nihilistic but grounded scenarios—a walking marathon that ends in death, or a game show where prisoners can earn their freedom—Thinner took on more of a horror trope, with a robust lawyer cursed to lose weight by a vengeful gypsy until he’s practically nothing but skin and bone.

When Stephen Brown obtained an advance copy at Olsson’s, he had an innate belief he was reading a King novel. To confirm his suspicions, he visited the Library of Congress to examine the copyrights for each Bachman title. All but one were registered to Kirby McCauley, King’s agent. The remaining title, Rage, was registered to King himself. It was the smoking gun.

Brown wrote McCauley with the evidence and requested his advice on what to do with the information he had gathered. He didn’t plan on “outing” King, but, by this time, the King-as-Bachman theory had been gathering steam, with both King and NAL getting more inquiries from journalists. That’s when King decided to phone Brown directly and offer him an exclusive interview revealing himself as Bachman.

The book jacket for 'The Bachman Books,' a collection authored by Stephen King
Mitch9000, eBay

With King’s permission, NAL began circulating Thinner with a credit that read, “Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.” The following year, they reissued the previous Bachman titles in a volume titled The Bachman Books, with sales more in line with what publishers would expect from a King title. Film producers who had optioned The Running Man were ecstatic, since they had gotten a bargain Bachman price on the rights for a King product.

The only person unhappy with the reveal was the author himself. Bachman, King felt, was on the cusp of developing his own following and his own identity, and he had fully intended to continue publishing under the pen name. (King had planned on making Misery a Bachman tome.) But Thinner had been too much of a King book, and there is evidence King himself may been giving himself too much rope with which to hang his alias. One of the characters in Thinner muses that “You were starting to sound like a Stephen King novel for a while there.”

In his introduction to The Bachman Books, King hinted that more “undiscovered” Bachman manuscripts may be lurking. In 1996, he published The Regulators as a “posthumous” Bachman novel, and did the same with Blaze, a 2007 paperback that was originally written in the 1970s. King’s 1991 novel, The Dark Half, was dedicated to his pen name. It was about an author with a pseudonym who takes on a life of his own.

Ultimately, Bachman may have outlived his usefulness. In the 1980s, publishers seemed to relax on their shop-worn edicts over publication frequency, and King once published four titles (all under his own name) in a calendar year.

Whether Bachman could have one day rivaled King in popularity will have to remain a mystery. During his short time in publishing, he would sometimes get favorable notices that hinted at a bright future. “This is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write,” remarked one reviewer.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

Back to the Future Fan Theory Changes the Meaning of a Famous Line

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

No matter how many times you've watched the 1985 sci-fi classic, there's always something new to look for in Back to the Future. Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale packed the movie with thoughtful details, from Doc Brown's foreshadowing of Back to the Future Part II to a subtle homage to Stanley Kubrick. As Express reports, one of these easy-to-miss details is a short dialogue exchange during the climax, and once you start paying closer attention to it, it could change the way you watch the rest of the movie.

Redditor amanwhodrinks recently laid out his observation in the r/FanTheories subreddit. According to him, Doc's decision to heed Marty's warning from 1955 and take steps to save his own life in the present isn't the abrupt character change it seems to be.

In the past, Doc worries about how time travel might affect the future, and he refuses to hear what the future has in store for him out of fear he might disrupt the space-time continuum. In the present, Marty finds that Doc ended up listening to him after all. When he asks what made him change his mind, Doc responds, "I figured, what the hell."

The Reddit post argues that we see the exact moment when Doc has his change of heart. When Doc is preparing the DeLorean for time travel, Marty explains how his dad won over his mom by standing up to Biff, something he’s never seen his father do before. Doc responds, “Never?” while looking at the restored picture of Marty and his siblings. Marty says, “Yeah, why?” and Doc says “Nothing,” before returning to the task in front of him.

On first viewing, this exchange may not seem important enough to justify a pause in the action so close to the climax of the film, but according amanwhodrinks, it’s there for a good reason: “My theory is that Doc had a major epiphany in this scene. At that moment, when he saw the restored picture of Marty and his brother and sister, he realized that you can completely change the past and still have a positive and congruent outcome on the future without destroying the space-time continuum.” If this hypothesis is accurate, Doc’s decision to influence his own fate at the end of the film is part of a developed character arc, rather than a snap decision made just for the hell of it.

This interpretation is tame compared to some of the theories that have been built around Back to the Future. Some creative fans think that the trilogy is an elaborate chiasmus and others say that Doc Brown is suicidal.

[h/t Express]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER