Before J.K. Rowling Was Robert Galbraith, Stephen King Was Richard Bachman

J.K. Rowling has not been known to cite Stephen King as a prime influence, but with her latest act of literary deception, the Harry Potter author has taken a page out of King's book. Seven of his books, in fact.

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J.K. Rowling has not been known to cite Stephen King as a prime influence, but with her latest act of literary deception, the Harry Potter author has taken a page out of King's book. Seven of his books, in fact—most of them published early in his career, between 1977 and 1985. Those were the years when King, a newly established young writer, published secretly under his pseudonym of choice, "Richard Bachman," enjoying the anonymity for quite some time before his cover was blown.

By most accounts, King's motives in hiding behind a pseudonym were twofold. The first was largely practical and stemmed from his exceedingly prolific nature (he has to date published 50 novels and more than 200 short stories). In the 1970s, authors were discouraged from writing more than one book a year; industry wisdom held that publishing more would oversaturate the market and diminish sales. So King, finding this insufficient to satiate his inspiration, turned to a pseudonym, despite having only three books to his real name.

But the second reason was more curious, and probably more akin to what J.K. Rowling was thinking when she opted to publish The Cuckoo's Calling as Robert Galbraith. As a post on the horror publishinger Charnel House's website explains it, "King’s major concern was that the movie Carrie had more to do with his early success than his actual talent," so he envisioned Richard Bachman as a test: would readers still care about Stephen King books if they no longer had the King name attached to them? And, he wondered: was his success due to real talent, or merely a product of the hype Carrie had produced? King went so far as to "load the dice against" Bachman by poorly marketing the books, he explains in an introduction to the collected novels, just as Rowling reportedly submitted her manuscript to publishers anonymously to see what would happen. (It was rejected by Orion Books, by an editor who sheepishly admitted to "turn[ing] down J.K. Rowling." But surely the rejections, if they were many, were all worth it for the thrill Rowling probably felt when the reviews trickled in and didn't bear ample comparisons to Harry Potter.)

King, whose fame in 1977 certainly didn't match J.K. Rowling's, enjoyed his little experiment quite a bit longer than the latter novelist. It began with Rage, his infamous 1977 tale of a high school shooting and hostage crisis (which King let fall out of print when school shootings became the stuff of primetime news rather than horror novels). Soon came The Long Walk (1979), and then Roadwork and The Running Man, in 1981 and 1982 respectively. None was wildly successful, and each contained clues pointing to the author's identity (not to mention the writing style itself). But then The Long Walk gathered a cult following, Charnel House explains, and rumors began to fly that King had a pseudonym—some readers pointing to the Bachman books, but none with definitive proof. So King added fuel to the fire:

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. 

Bachman "was supposed to be there for the long haul," King later reflected in a second introduction to the collection, and as his novels slowly picked up steam, "he became real," just as Philip Roth, publishing under his own name, has over the years adopted a revolving door of literary stand-ins and counter-egos, most memorably Nathan Zuckerman. And just as Roth's counter-egos have entered as characters and narrators into his fiction, King later authored a book about a novelist whose pseudonym comes alive. King explains:

[Bachman] began to grow and come alive, as the creatures of a writer's imagination so frequently do. I began to imagine his life as a dairy farmer... his wife, the beautiful Claudia Inez Bachman... his solitary New Hampshire mornings, spent milking the cows, getting in the wood, and thinking about his stories...his evenings spent writing these stories, always with a glass of whiskey beside his Olivetti typewriter.

He took on his own reality, that's all, and when his cover was blown, he died. I made light of this in the few interviews I felt required to give on the subject, saying that Richard Bachman had died of cancer of the pseudonym, but it was actually shock that killed him: the realization that sometimes people just won't let you alone. Put another way, Bachman was the vampirish side of my existence, killed by the sunlight of disclosure. My feelings about all this were confused enough (and fertile enough) to bring on a book (a Stephen King book, that is), The Dark Half. It was about a writer whose pseudonym, George Stark, actually comes to life.

"The importance of being Bachman," King reflected, "was always the important of finding a good voice and a valid point of view that were a little different from my own." Alas, not different enough to squash suspicion when Thinner began to sell rather respectably in 1984 and 1985. (One reviewer reportedly described it as "what Stephen King would write if Stephen King could write.") It was a Washington, D.C. bookstore clerk named Steve Brown who put the pieces together. But this being the 1980s, Brown's sleuthing took more time, and was a good deal more labor-intensive, than the mysterious Twitter tip that unveiled Rowling. Brown, in fact, had to visit a brick-and-mortar library—and use a Xerox machine! In an essay on a Stephen King fan site, Brown explains:

When I read an advance copy of Thinner, I was no more than two pages into it when I said, "This is either Stephen King or the world's best imitator." I began to ponder that maybe this *was* King. More or less as a kind of game, not real seriously, I took the subway over to the Library of Congress to look up the copyright documents. All but the oldest were copyrighted in Kirby McCauley's name—a big clue, as KM was King's agent, but not conclusive. McCauley had many clients. I almost gave up at this point, as the oldest book was copyrighted before the LC changed to an easy computer system. But, just to be anal about it, I insisted the clerk go off and manually hunt up the document. She came back and handed it to me. There it was: Stephen King, Bangor, Maine. I xeroxed all documents and went home.

A similar clue arrived in the Rowling case when a Sunday Times editor noted that The Cuckoo's Calling shared the same editor, agent, and publisher as Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. But Brown was more reserved with his discovery. Instead of going public, he wrote to the author, explaining his discovery and expressing interest in writing an article about it but promising to "keep quiet" if King preferred. Two weeks later (remember—this was the 1980s), he received a phone call:

I heard a page over the intercom at the big bookstore I worked in. "Steve Brown. Call for Steve Brown on line 5." I picked it up and a voice said, "Steve Brown? This is Steve King. All right. You know I'm Bachman. I know I'm Bachman. What are we going to do about it? Let's talk."

It hadn't occurred to me he'd call, so I hadn't bothered to give him my number or even the name of the bookstore. He had spent a whole afternoon calling every bookstore in DC trying to find me!

Anyway, we chatted for a while and he gave me his unlisted home phone and told me to call him in the evening. I ran out and got a tape recorder with a telephone attachment and interviewed him for three nights straight over the phone. He was very relaxed and very funny throughout. He didn't seem at all upset that I had found him out. He was extremely gracious and said that he wouldn't talk to anyone else but me (outside of simply admitting it), that mine would be the only lengthy interview on the subject.

Brown's interview (which doesn't seem to be available online) was later published in the Washington Post, and then in a collection of essays on King, Kingdom of Fear. King, Brown speculates, "liked the idea of this nobody book clerk in Washington getting the story instead of The New York Times or something." And so Steve Brown's name is immortalized in the saga of the Richard Bachman books.

King, in typically morbid fashion, subsequently announced that Bachman had "died of cancer of the pseudonym"; a collection of the Bachman novels was then published to cash in on the revelation. (It only took several hours for The Cuckoo's Calling to become Amazon's bestseller.) But he later reassumed the pseudonym—in 1996 for The Regulators, and then in 2007 for Blaze, a novel that had originally been drafted more than 30 years earlier.

It's unclear if any Rowling fans connected the dots before Brooks rushed to spill his secret this weekend. But the information age, naturally, affords digital evidence of such speculation. And a brief glance at The Cuckoo's Calling's Amazon reviews reveals that some readers' imaginations were rather piqued by the pseudonym.

"It didn't read at all like a first novel," gushed "Chile Chica" on May 27, while one "Lisa Marie" noted, on June 8, that "whoever 'Robert Galbraith' is, he/she's the real deal." It gets better: "I do wonder about all the hype (and since the author is a pseudonym, I also wonder if he has major connections which account for the hype)," speculated "book worm," in a lukewarm May 22 review, while a reader identified only as "Karen" came closer than anyone to guessing the truth in a review dated July 7. "This book is so well written," Karen exclaimed, "that I suspect that some years down the road we will hear the author's name is a pseudonym of some famous writer."

It took weeks, not years, to J.K. Rowling's chagrin. Had Karen dug a little bit deeper and perhaps taken a trip to the Library of Congress's Xerox machine, maybe she—and not Sunday Times arts editor Richard Brooks—would have had her story chronicled in The New York Times this weekend.

But does the Library of Congress even still have a Xerox machine?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.