How the master of horror got his first big break—and how his wife inspired him.
It was 1973, and Stephen King’s pockets were empty. He lived in a doublewide trailer and drove a rust-bucket Buick held together with baling wire and duct tape. King’s wife, Tabby, worked second-shift at Dunkin’ Donuts while he taught English at Hampden Academy, a private high school in eastern Maine. To scrape by, King worked summers at an industrial laundry and moonlighted as a janitor and gas pump attendant. With a toddler and a newborn to feed, money—and time to write fiction—were hard to come by.
King couldn't even afford his own typewriter; he had to use Tabby’s Olivetti from college. She set up a makeshift desk in the laundry room, fitting it snugly between the washing machine and the dryer. Each evening, while Tabby changed diapers and cooked dinner, King ignored the ungraded papers in his briefcase and locked himself in the laundry room to write.
The early returns weren’t promising. King mailed his short stories to men’s magazines like Playboy, Cavalier, and Penthouse. When he was lucky, every once in a while, a small check would turn up in the mailbox. It was just enough money to keep the King family off of welfare.
One day, the head of Hampden’s English department gave King an offer he couldn’t refuse. The debate club needed a new faculty advisor, and the job was his for the taking. It would pay an extra $300 per year—not much, but enough to cover the family’s grocery bill for 10 weeks.
The lure of extra income enticed King, and when he came home, he thought Tabby would share his enthusiasm about the news. But she wasn’t so convinced. “Will you have time to write?” she asked.
“Not much,” King said.
Tabby told him, “Well, then you can’t take it.”
So King turned down the job. It was a good call. Within a year, he would write his way out of that trailer with a bestseller called Carrie.
A Pair of Writers
There’s a running joke at the King dinner table that Stephen married Tabby only because she had a typewriter.
“That’s only partly true,” King laughed in 2003. “I married her because I loved her and because we got on as well out of bed as in it. The typewriter was a factor, though.”
Growing up, neither of them had much. When King was two, his father went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving his mother to raise two boys on her own. Meanwhile, Tabby was one of eight children from a modest Catholic family. The two met at the University of Maine in the '60s, fell in love while attending each other’s poetry readings, and married soon after graduation. King had to borrow a suit, tie, and shoes for the wedding.
Both of them dreamed of making it someday as writers, but during their first year together, they amassed a collection of rejections instead. Tabby wrote the first book of their marriage, a set of poetry titled Grimier, that publishers liked but not quite enough to publish. Stephen’s luck was no better. He penned three novels that barely made it out of his desk drawer. (Those manuscripts—Rage, The Long Walk, and Blaze—were published years later.)
King flourished in the nudie mag market, though. Most of his stories were buried behind centerfolds in Cavalier, a magazine that had also featured Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Roald Dahl. Science fiction and horror, for some reason, complemented two-page spreads of buxom blondes, which gained King a meager reputation as a men’s writer and sharp criticism from readers. “You write all those macho things,” one reader told him. “But you can’t write about women. You’re scared of women.”
King took that as a challenge. The fire for Carrie was lit.
Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a homely highschooler who can control objects with her mind. One day during gym class, she starts having her first period. Long sheltered by an oppressively religious mother, Carrie doesn’t know what’s happening to her—she thinks she’s bleeding to death. Bullies taunt and tease Carrie, but the newfound surge of hormones gives her telekinetic powers, and she uses them to exact revenge on the kids who make her life hell.
The idea for the novel came to King in a daydream. He had remembered an article about telekinesis in LIFE magazine, which said that if the power existed, it was strongest in adolescent girls. King’s background as a high school janitor also flashed to mind, specifically the day when he had to clean rust stains in the girls’ showers. He had never been in a girls’ bathroom before, and seeing tampon dispensers on the wall was like visiting a distant planet.
The two memories collided. King knew it could make a decent short story for Cavalier. Playboy was a possibility, too. Hef’s magazine paid better, and the Buick needed a new transmission.
King modeled Carrie White after two of the loneliest girls he remembered from high school. One was a timid epileptic with a voice that always gurgled with phlegm. Her fundamentalist mother kept a life-size crucifix in the living room, and it was clear to King that the thought of it followed her down the halls. The second girl was a loner. She wore the same outfit every day, which drew cruel taunts.
By the time King wrote Carrie, both of those girls were dead. The first died alone after a seizure. The second suffered from postpartum depression and, one day, aimed a rifle at her stomach and pulled the trigger. “Very rarely in my career have I explored more distasteful territory,” King wrote, reflecting on how both of them were treated.
These tragedies made Carrie all the more difficult to write. When King started, he typed three single-spaced pages, crumpled them up in anger, and dumped them in the trashcan. He was disappointed in himself. His critics were right—he couldn’t write from a woman’s perspective. The whole story disgusted him, too. Carrie White was an annoying, ready-made victim. Worse yet, the plot was already moving too slowly, which meant the finished product would be too long for any magazine.
“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell,” King wrote in his memoir On Writing. “So I threw it away … After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?"
The next day, Tabby went to empty the trash in the laundry room and found three crinkled balls of paper. She reached in, brushed off a coat of cigarette ashes, and unwrinkled the pages. When King came home from work, she still had them.
“You’ve got something here,” she said. “I really think you do.” Over the next few weeks, Tabby guided her husband through the world of women, giving tips on how to mold the characters and the famous shower scene. Nine months later, King had polished off the final draft.
Thirty publishers rejected it.
Published at Last
It was fifth period at Hampden Academy, and just as he did during every other fifth period, King was groggily grading papers in the teacher’s lounge, thinking about how nice it would be to take a nap. A voice boomed over the lounge PA system. It was the office secretary.
“Stephen King, are you there? Stephen King?” King reached for the intercom and said he was there. “Please come to the office,” she said. “You have a phone call. It’s your wife.”
King raced to the office. Tabby never called him at work. Tabby never called him anywhere—they didn’t have a telephone. They had removed it to save money. To make a call, Tabby would have had to dress up the kids, drag them to the neighbors’ house, and call from there. That kind of hassle meant something either terrible or amazing had happened. When King picked up the phone, both he and Tabby were out of breath. She told him that the editor at Doubleday Publishing, Bill Thompson, had sent a telegram:
“CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”
King had broken through. The $2500 advance wasn’t huge—not enough to quit teaching and pursue writing full time—but it was the most money he had ever made from writing. King used the advance to buy a shiny Ford Pinto and moved his family out of the trailer and into a dumpy four-room apartment in Bangor, Maine. They suddenly had money for groceries. They even could afford a telephone.
King hoped that fat royalty checks would keep replenishing his bank account, but Carrie only sold 13,000 copies as a hardback, tepid sales that convinced him to grudgingly sign a new teaching contract for the 1974 school year. He started a new novel called The House on Value Street, and, by Mother’s Day, he figured Carrie had run its course. It was the last thing on his mind.
One phone call changed all that. It was Bill Thompson again. “Are you sitting down?” he asked.
King was home alone, standing in the doorway between his kitchen and living room. “Do I need to?” he said.
“You might," Thompson said. "The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for $400,000 ... 200K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Stephen.”
King’s legs wobbled and gave out. He sat on the floor, shaking with excitement from winning the literary lottery—and there was no one home to share the news with. Tabby had taken both kids to their grandmother’s house. To celebrate, he felt compelled to buy Tabby a Mother’s Day present. He wanted to buy her something luxurious, something unforgettable. King raced to downtown Bangor. It was Sunday and every shop was closed except for a drug store. So he bought Tabby the best thing he could find—a hairdryer.
King quit teaching and Tabby stopped peddling pastries. And three years later, King bought Tabby another present. He visited swanky Manhattan jewelry store Cartier and bought her an engagement ring. They had been married for six years.
A Bonafide Hit
Carrie sold over 1 million copies in its first year as a paperback despite a mixed critical response. The New York Times was impressed, considering it was a first novel, while Library Journal called it “terribly overdone.” Falling somewhere in the middle, the critic at the Wilson Library Journal said, “It’s pure trash, but I loved it.” Forty years later, even King is critical of his debut. “It reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader,” he later said. “Tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”
The book-buying public was more enthusiastic—Carrie was a hit. The novel struck a sympathetic chord with teens and adults who knew what it was like to be an outsider. In 1975, it was adapted into a profitable feature film, which sparked a sequel a decade later and a remake in 2013. The story has also been adapted for TV and the stage (although the 1988 Broadway production was a forgettable flop).
King made Carrie, and Carrie made King. Now the 19th best-selling author of all time, King won the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 and was invited to speak at the National Book Awards. When he spoke, he didn’t talk about writing or success or money. He talked about the woman who rescued Carrie from the trash and insisted he keep going—Tabby.
“There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world,” King said at the ceremony. “In short, there’s a time when things can go either way. That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness ... that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint.”
But the thought never crossed her mind. And if you open any edition of Carrie, you’ll read the same dedication: “This is for Tabby, who got me into it—and then bailed me out of it.”