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BOOK REVIEW

In bio, King of horror reveals little of himself

By Erica Noonan
February 5, 2009
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While reading "Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King," you may get the feeling that the book's subject is somewhere nearby, gently approving, but out of sight.

Your Spidey sense would be tingling for good reason. King never had a one-on-one interview with biographer Lisa Rogak. The author's closest encounter with King came during a 2007 interview in Bangor with his longtime assistant, Marsha DeFilippo, while "the man himself hovered just outside the doorway, listening in on our conversation but never once stepping inside," Rogak recalls in the book's introduction.

This makes "Haunted Heart" technically unauthorized, but in the most friendly of ways - King did give permission to his friends and family members to speak, and scores of them enthusiastically weigh in at length about one of America's most prolific and popular authors.

Rogak, the gatekeeper for this flood of information, cheerfully goes about her work, consolidating hundreds of hours of interviews and the millions of words written by and about King into a readable, well-researched character study.

But without a fresh, groundbreaking interview with King, much of her analysis is limited to older interviews and his own 30-year body of work, including the heavily autobiographical "On Writing."

Rogak - the author of 40 books, including biographies of "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown and Shel Silverstein - certainly did her due diligence, unearthing ancient interviews, reading all of King's 60-plus books, and watching just about every movie version made of them.

Too many other writers have unfairly painted King as everything from nutcase to hack and shamelessly exploited his dark themes for maximum gross-out effect instead of thoughtful insight and analysis. In contrast, "Haunted Heart" is a thoroughly respectful overview of King's life, and a great starter biography for new fans.

Devotees, however, may not find much terribly new here. Most of the time Rogak is reworking territory King has already spoken or written about: his fatherlessness, childhood and early-adult poverty, sudden success with the novel and film "Carrie," drug and alcohol abuse, recovery, and being struck by a car and almost killed in 1999. All of this is recounted and dissected thoughtfully, but not in any especially surprising or revelatory way for folks who are familiar with King's life.

Rogak does find fresh material with her exploration into the smaller, more obscure corners of King's life. His phobias - airline travel, spiders, and the number 13 - are also examined as is his obsessive work ethic, including a little-known anecdote in which King, during a writing session, had a surgical incision from a recent vasectomy burst and fill his lap with blood, yet refused to get up or seek help until he'd finished his chapter.

King's very normal family life finally gets its due in this biography, which details his marriage to a beloved wife, Tabitha, and his views on parenting his now-grown children: Owen and Joseph, both published authors, and Naomi, a minister.

Rogak, an experienced journalist, gripes a bit about King's factual inconsistencies; his mother's date of death is given incorrectly in "On Writing," for example.

But her complaints are minor, and she does not seem to take personally her subject's lack of enthusiasm for her book. In fact, Rogak seems as fond of King on the last page of "Haunted Heart" as on the first.

Erica Noonan, a member of the Globe staff, can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

HAUNTED HEART: The Life and Times of Stephen King By Lisa Rogak

St. Martin's, 320 pp., $25.95

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