By John Collins
LOWELL -- To the crowd of about 3,000 fans who filled a curtained-off half of the Tsongas Center to see and hear America's No. 1 horror and suspense author speak Friday night, it was their best nightmare: Stephen King in the flesh.
"I am ... talking ... to ... Stephen King!" announced 11-year-old Vaughan Supple of Carlisle as he stood at the microphone that was set up to allow audience members to ask questions of King, the featured guest in the inaugural event of the UMass Lowell Chancellor's Speaker Series.
Despite his age, Vaughan appeared to share fully in the older audience members' appreciation of the Maine native, who in a 35-year career has authored 50 full-length books that have sold more than 350 million copies, and more than 50 movies or miniseries based on his work.
Vaughan's awestruck prelude to her question drew prolonged cheering from the Tsongas Center audience. In answer to his question, as to whether King could describe his most "a-ha" moment in creating one of his best-selling works, he cited the instance he came up with the idea for The Stand.
Nearly every first mention of one of King's voluminous popular titles -- Carrie, The Shining, It, The Stand -- prompted ovations from the crowd.
King was joined on stage by another successful author, Haverhill native and UMass Lowell faculty member Andre Dubus III, who acted as interviewer for the program. The pair sat in armchairs on a platform designed to look like the cozy corner of someone's living room.
The two chairs were raffled off during the event, with proceeds going toward the Stephen King scholarship endowment at UMass Lowell. King also donated his entire appearance fee from the night's event toward the scholarship that bears his name, Dubus announced.
"It's scary as (expletive deleted) to sit here in front of so many people -- this is my first concert audience," King said after arriving on stage and hugging-out a greeting to Dubus. It was one of many of King's comments that broke up the audience in fits of laughter.
When Dubus waxed rather long in his opening about King's many literary and movie accomplishments, King cut him off with, "You make it sound like I died!"
When Dubus complimented King with having doubled the great Charles Dickens in book sales, King responded that "(Dickens) didn't have e-books back then."
The one moment he recalled scaring himself as a writer, he said, was in writing the "Room 217 scene in The Shining."
In recounting the memory of his first feeling of success, King described the phone call in which he learned that his publishing rights to Carrie had sold for $400,000. At the time, King told the audience, he was broke, sitting in a small Maine apartment in slippers and pajamas, and wondering where he was going to come up with the money for a car repair.
When an audience member followed up on his Carrie anecdote later in the evening by asking King if he spent the money to repair the car or buy a new one, King paused, smiled, hung his head and revealed, "We bought a Pinto." Which brought another roar of laughter and applause from the crowd.
King admitted to feeling like a rock star at times as his fame has grown during his writing career. A related story that was well-received by the Tsongas Center audience was King's account of his dinner out with Bruce Springsteen, when a beautiful and starry-eyed teenage girl approached the writer and rock star's table and asked only the writer for his autograph.
"She didn't look at Bruce once!" noted King, to huge applause.
Several audience members thanked King for the lifetime of pleasure he has brought them, and the author thanked his fans right back.
"You guys put my kids through college, and I scared the (stuffing) out of you while I was doing it. So it's a win-win!" said King.
King drew a standing ovation for reading at length from a novel he is working on, titled Afterlife.
He also shared that both of his sons, Joe and Owen, have debut novels coming out in the spring.
"Owen got buzzed about writing; he's going into the family business," said King, whose wife, Tabitha, is also an author.
In answer to a final question of the night, King confirmed that he does own a cellphone, but uses it sparingly, and added that there is one thing that gives the world's leading scare-master the creeps.
"When you see 10 people walking down the street, and seven of them are going like this," said King, who mimed the act of talking on a cellphone. "That creeps me out."
As his two-hour onstage appearance at the Tsongas Center came to a close, King gave the crowd a warning.
"I've read some news stories about this happening, so when you leave here tonight, you should check the back seat of your car to make sure there's no maniac hiding in there."