The Story of Bachman

A Pseudonymous Chapter in Stephen King’s History


In 1973, Stephen King published Carrie, a good first novel that had fair sales upon publication. The paperback publication coincided with the release of the movie version, directed by a young Brian DePalma. The movie had the good grace to be both a faithful and a well-made adaptation, garnering Oscar nominations for both Sissy Spacek as Carrie White and Piper Laurie as her religion-crazed mother. Carrie the paperback was a more sizable hit, in part due to the film. ’Salem’s Lot followed and was a modest hardcover hit and an almost-runaway paperback hit. King continued to release novels, growing in popularity as each successive novel came out. And it was around the time that The Shining was published that King began to wonder if it was all a fluke.

See, King’s major concern was that the movie Carrie had more to do with his early success than his actual talent, so he decided to begin releasing novels under a pseudonym to see if people would still buy Stephen King novels even if they weren’t by Stephen King. Taking the name Richard Bachman on a whim (the pseudonym was going to be Guy Pillsbury, after his maternal grandfather, but the news was leaked early and he changed it; according to legend, there was a Richard Stark novel on the desk and Bachman-Turner Overdrive on the radio, and from these things a pseudonym was born.), King published Rage – a book he’d begun at age 18 – in 1977 in paperback only, and to little fanfare. It wasn’t a hit. Lightning wasn’t striking.

This trend continued: The Long Walk was released after The Stand. Roadwork came after Firestarter. The Running Man was published between Creepshow and Different Seasons. None were major hits, though The Long Walk garnered a cult following that warranted three printings. Along the way, rumors that Stephen King was writing under a pseudonym began surfacing, some of which pointed to the Bachman books. (But not all; King supposedly wrote a novel of lesbian erotica called Love Letters which turned out to be untrue. In addition, a novel called Invasion, set in Maine, was widely believed to be King’s work; some critics went so far as to state this as fact. It wasn’t King. It was Dean Koontz, who later re-wrote and re-published the book as Winter Moon.) None of the speculation went beyond that, though. Until, of course, Thinner was published.

Somewhere along the line, King decided that what Bachman needed was a little more publicity. He contacted his Bachman publisher, New American Library, and asked if they’d be interested in releasing the next Bachman book, Thinner, as a hardcover. They agreed. They also agreed to do a moderate push for the title, and a larger first printing than the other Bachman books. Essentially, they were trying to make Richard Bachman Stephen King.

For awhile, Thinner met with relative success. The sucker actually sold pretty well. One commenter stated that Thinner was “what Stephen King would write if Stephen King could write.” Heh. Before the news broke, Thinner had sold into the tens of thousands of copies, a fairly respectable number for an unknown.

But as Thinner was enjoying its small success, a bookseller from Washington, D.C. was doing research. His name was Steve Brown, and he’d gotten his hand on an advance copy of the book, thinking two to three pages in that “This is either Stephen King or the world’s best imitator.” He headed over to the Library of Congress and checked the publication history of the Bachman novels. All but the first were represented by Stephen King’s then-agent, Kirby McCauley. Hmmm. Brown dug more. And discovered that the copyright on Rage was not under Richard Bachman’s name; it was under Stephen King’s.

Brown wrote to King with all the evidence he’d gathered; King contacted him days later and decided to “come out” to him. (Brown speculates that King thought it was neat giving the exclusive interview to a regular bookstore employee rather than The New York Times. I think so, too.) The interview was published in The Washington Post, and that’s when the world knew: Stephen King was Richard Bachman.

King seemed to take it all in stride, but he was actually pretty upset about the whole thing. Before Thinner was by Stephen King, it had sold 40,000 copies. After Bachman’s identity was revealed, it sold 400,000 copies and went to number one. King lamented later that all he really wanted was some privacy, some anonymity, and he wasn’t being allowed it. He proclaimed Richard Bachman “Dead, of cancer of the pseudonym.”

Because the earlier books had gone out of print, King agreed to have them all reprinted in an omnibus collection called The Bachman Books, which also sold fairly well. He accompanied it with a new essay, “Why I Was Bachman,” one of King’s best nonfiction pieces. And the matter was closed.

Sort of.

See, even though the world had discovered the truth, King wasn’t really done with Bachman. Misery was originally supposed to be the Bachman book that followed Thinner, the one King thought would break through on its own, without help from the famous name behind it. King ruminated on this for awhile, and came up with a neat Stephen Kingish what-if. In this case, it was “What if Richard Bachman didn’t want to stay dead.” The Dark Half was his response to the question, and it, too, went to the top of the charts. And it seemed as if the business was closed.

Then, seven years later, news came about that Richard Bachman was coming out with a new book. Because King had declared him dead, there was some fun hokum about Bachman’s wife finding a pile of completed manuscripts in the basement, and that she’d decided to publish them all. All very Stephen King, fictions within fictions. The new Bachman Book, The Regulators, was released in conjunction with the King novel Desperation, utilizing all the same characters from the King book but in different roles, as if the two novels were the same story taking place in parallel worlds. Kind of like King and Bachman.

To further illuminate the concept of Bachman for the masses, NAL republished The Bachman Books in a trade-paperback format, and switched out the “Why I Was Bachman” essay for a new one: “The Importance of Being Bachman.” This essay is a bit more raw, more honest, more earnest than the first one, laying down why he finds himself in a Bachman mindset at times and why it’s important to follow that muse. It’s another one of King’s stellar essays and worth a look.

One more tragic footnote: in response to the then-recent spate of high school mass-murders, King decided that Rage, published way back in 1977, should be taken off the market, especially after two separate kids were found with the book in their lockers. King stated that, while he doesn’t believe that books or movies or video games can cause kids to commit violence, “they can act as accelerants.” Rage went out of print, and the remaining early Bachman novels – The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man were republished separately, and can now be found as solo volumes in the King section of the bookstore: Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman.

When The Regulators was published, there were strong indications that “Bachman” was going to be publishing further volumes. So far, almost a decade later, that has not come to fruition. Let’s hope that changes. For a King fan, there’s definitely an importance to reading Bachman, as well.