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Being haunted by Stephen King, on his 70th birthday

2:42 PM  Sep 20th, 2017
by James Farrelly

Stephen King has haunted my classrooms since 1975 when his first novel, Carrie, made it out of the trash bin — courtesy of his wife, Tabitha — and into the paperback market. That allowed students in my Literature of the Occult class to scoop up and trip out over the telekinetic Carrie White and her mean-spirited destruction of not only her high school classmates but also her hometown of Chamberlain, Maine. By 1980, almost half of the books in my so-called “Séance Fiction” course were written by Stephen King.

I resolved to woo Stephen King to be the keynote speaker for the University of Dayton 1982 Writers’ Workshop. I persuaded Ellie Kurtz, director of student activities at the time, to write a letter inviting him to speak. I told her to stress that his audience would be mostly students familiar with his work and eager to learn about his writing process.

Ellie had a different idea.

She told him a story about this crazed professor who teaches the occult who had been twisting her arm for months, insisting that she invite King to campus or she might not have the use of her arm or even that arm itself if he does not agree to come. How could he say, “No”?

When I picked him up at the Cincinnati airport, the first words out of his mouth were, “Does she still have her arm?”

My introduction and King’s presentation on that glorious night is on YouTube.

Since the early ’90s, I have taught the course Stephen King on Film on a rotating basis with other film courses. When planning the course for fall 2000, I was mindful of the 1999 accident that came close to killing King on June 19 (ironically my birthday); I noticed that we would be in session on Sept. 21, King’s birthday.

Surely, a party for his 53rd birthday was in order for us to celebrate as a class his recovery and rehabilitation. The class had such a wonderful time at this event (Carrie, too, who shares King’s day of birthday, was included) that I repeated it when he turned 55, 60 and 65.

This year, 2017, King turns 70. I enthusiastically shared my plans for the big “7-0” party planned for the fall with the students in my spring term class. “What about us?” a disgruntled student inquired; “What do we get?” Other students chimed in.

Since it was March, I remembered that it was the 35th anniversary of King’s visit to campus. With St. Patrick’s Day a week away, I also thought of our students’ penchant for celebrating “Half-way to St. Patrick’s Day” in September. So, we celebrated “Half-way to Stephen King’s Birthday.”

We watched the YouTube video of King’s speech, sang Happy Half-Birthday to King, and devoured the gruesome chocolate birthday cake with dark chocolate icing with red blood sprinkles (so we could remember Carrie, too).

On Sept. 21, 2017, we are doing it all over again, this time on his real 70th birthday. The only thing missing will be the King himself.

My invitation will never measure up to Ellie Kurtz’s ghastly motivator that brought him to the University of Dayton campus 35 years ago.

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