Read an Excerpt from Stephen King’s ‘You Like It Darker’

Read an Excerpt from Stephen King’s New BookGetty Images / Art Illustration by Mike Kim
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My father—my famous father—died in 2023, at the age of ninety. Two years before he passed, he got an email from a freelance writer named Ruth Crawford asking him for an interview. I read it to him, as I did all his personal and business correspondence, because by then he’d given up his electronic devices—first his desktop computer, then his laptop, and finally his beloved phone. His eyesight stayed good right up to the end, but he said that looking at the iPhone’s screen gave him a headache. At the reception following the funeral, Doc Goodwin told me that Pop might have suffered a series of mini-strokes leading up to the big one.

Around the time he gave up his phone—this would have been five or six years before he died—I took early retirement from my position as Castle County School Superintendent, and went to work for Dad full-time. There was plenty to do. He had a housekeeper, but those duties fell to me at night and on the weekends. I helped him dress in the morning and undress at night. I did most of the cooking, and cleaned up the occasional mess when Pop couldn’t make it to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

He had a handyman as well, but by then Jimmy Griggs was pushing eighty himself, and so I found myself doing the chores Jimmy didn’t get around to—everything from mulching Pop’s treasured flowerbeds to plunging out the drains when they got clogged. Assisted living was never discussed, although God knows Pop could have afforded it; a dozen mega-best-selling novels over forty years had left him very well off.

The last of his “engaging doorstoppers” (Donna Tartt, New York Times) was published when Pop was eighty-two. He did the obligatory round of interviews, sat for the obligatory photos, and then announced his retirement. To the press, he did so graciously, with his “trademark humor.” (Ron Charles, Washington Post) To me he said, “Thank God the bullshit’s finished.” With the exception of the informal picket-fence interview he gave Ruth Crawford, he never spoke for the record again. He was asked many times and always refused; claimed he’d said all he had to say, including some things he probably should have kept to himself.

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“You give enough interviews,” he told me once, “and you are bound to stick your foot in your mouth a time or two. Those are the quotes that last, and the older you are, the more likely it becomes.”

Yet his books continued to sell, so his business affairs continued. I went over the contract renewals, cover concepts, and the occasional movie or TV option with him, and I dutifully read every interview proposal once he was incapable of reading them himself. He always said no, and that included Ruth Crawford’s proposal.

“Give her the standard response, Mark—flattered to be asked, but no thanks.” He hesitated, though, because this one was a little different.

Crawford wanted to write a piece about my father and his longtime friend, David “Butch” LaVerdiere, who died in 2019. Pop and I went to his funeral on the West Coast in a chartered Gulfstream. Pop was always close with his money—not stingy, but close—and the whopping expense of that round trip said a lot about his feeling for the man I grew up calling Uncle Butch. That feeling held strong, although the two men hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in ten years or more.

Pop was asked to speak at the funeral. I didn’t think he would—his rejection of the public spotlight spread in all directions, not just interviews—but he did it. He didn’t go to the podium, only stood up where he was with the help of his cane. He was always a good speaker, and that didn’t change with age.

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“Butch and I were kids going to a one-room schoolhouse before the Second World War. We grew up in a no-stoplight dirt-road town fixing cars, patching them up with Bondo, playing sports and then coaching them. As men we took part in town politics and maintained the town dump—very similar jobs, now that I think about it. We hunted, we fished, we put out grassfires in the summer and plowed the town roads in the winter. Knocked over a right smart of mailboxes doing it, too. I knew him when no one knew his name—or mine—outside of a twenty-mile radius. I should have come to see him these last years, but I was busy with my own affairs. I thought to myself, there’s time. We always think that, I guess. Then time runs out. Butch was a fine artist, but he was also a good man. I think that’s more important. Maybe some here don’t and that’s all right, that’s all right. Thing is, I always had his back and he always had mine.”

He paused, head down, thinking.

“In my little Maine town there’s a saying for friends like that. We kep’ close.”

Yes they did, and that included their secrets.

Ruth Crawford had a solid clip file—I checked. She had published articles, mostly personality profiles, in a dozen places, many local or regional (Yankee, Downeast, New England Life), but a few national, including a piece on the benighted town of Derry in The New Yorker. When it came to Laird Carmody and Dave LaVerdiere, I thought she had a good hook to hang her proposed piece on. Her thesis had come up glancingly in pieces either about Pop or Uncle Butch, but she wanted to drill down on it: two men from the same small town in Maine who had become famous in two different fields of cultural endeavor. Not only that, either; both Carmody and LaVerdiere had achieved fame in their mid-forties, at a time when most men and women have given over the ambitions of their youth. Who have, as Pop once put it, dug themselves a rut and begun furnishing it. Ruth wanted to explore how such an unlikely coincidence had happened…assuming it was a coincidence.

“Has to be a reason?” Pop asked when I finished reading him Ms. Crawford’s letter. “Is that what she’s suggesting? I guess she never heard about the twin brothers who won large sums of money in their respective state lotteries on the same day.”

“Well, that might not have been a complete coincidence,” I said. “Assuming, that is, that you didn’t just make the story up on the spur of the moment.”

I gave him space to comment, but he only offered a smile that could have meant anything. Or nothing. So I pressed on.

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“I mean, those twins might have grown up in a house where gambling was a big thing. Which would make it a little less unlikely, right? Plus, what about all the lottery tickets they bought that were losers?”

“I’m not getting your point, Mark,” Pop said. Still with the little smile. “Do you even have one?”

“Just that I can understand this woman’s interest in exploring the fact of you and Dave both coming from Nowheresville and blossoming in the middle of your lives.” I raised my hands beside my head as if framing a headline. “Could it be…fate?”

Pop considered this, rubbing one hand up the white stubble on the side of his deeply lined face. I actually thought he might be about to change his mind and say yes. Then he shook his head. “Just write her one of your nice letters, tell her I’m going to pass, and wish her well on her future endeavors.”

So that was what I did, although something about the way Pop looked just then stuck with me. It was the look of a man who could say quite a lot on the subject of how he and his friend Butch had achieved fame and fortune…but who chose not to. Who chose, in fact, to keep it close.

Ruth Crawford might have been disappointed in Pop’s refusal to be interviewed, but she didn’t drop the project. Nor did she drop it when I also refused to be interviewed, saying my father wouldn’t want me to after he’d said no, and besides, all I knew was that my father had always enjoyed stories. He read a lot, went nowhere without a paperback jammed in his back pocket. He told me wonderful tales at bedtime, and he sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks. As for Uncle Butch? He painted a mural in my bedroom—boys playing ball, boys catching fireflies, boys with fishing poles. Ruth wanted to see it, of course, but it had been painted over long ago, when I outgrew such childish things. When first Pop and then Uncle Butch took off like a couple of rockets, I was at the University of Maine, getting a degree in advanced education. Because, according to the old canard, those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers. The success of my father and his best friend was, I said, as much a surprise to me as to anyone else in town. There’s another old canard about how no good can come out of Nazareth.

I put that in a letter to Ms. Crawford, because I did feel bad—a little—about not giving her the interview. In it I said they surely had dreams, most men do, and like most men, they kept those dreams to themselves. I had assumed Pop’s stories and Uncle Butch’s cheerful paintings were just hobbies, like whittling or guitar-picking, until the money started rolling in. I typed that, then handwrote a postscript: And good for them!

There are twenty-seven incorporated towns in Castle County. Castle Rock is the largest; Gates Falls is the second largest. Harlow, where I grew up, the son of Laird and Sheila Carmody, isn’t even in the top ten. It’s grown considerably since I was a kid, though, and sometimes my pop—who also spent his whole life in Harlow—said he could hardly recognize it. He went to a one-room school; I went to a four-roomer (two grades in each room); now there’s an eight-room school with geothermal heating and cooling.

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When Pop was a kid, all the town roads were unpaved except for Route 9, the Portland Road. When I came along, only Deep Cut and Methodist Road were dirt. These days, all of them are paved. In the sixties there was only one store, Brownie’s, where old men sat around an actual pickle barrel. Now there are two or three, and a kind of downtown (if you want to call it that) on the Quaker Hill Road. We have a pizza joint, two beauty parlors, and—hard to believe but true—a nail salon that seems to be a going concern. No high school, though; that hasn’t changed. Harlow kids have three choices: Castle Rock High, Gates Falls High, or Mountain View Secondary, most commonly known as the Christer Academy. We’re a bunch of country bumpkins out here: pickup-driving, country-music-listening, coffee-brandy-drinking, Republican-leaning hicks from the sticks. There’s nothing much to recommend us, except for two men who came from here: my pop and his friend Butch LaVerdiere. Two talented bastids, as Pop put it during his brief over-the-fence conversation with Ruth Crawford.

Your mom and pop spent their whole lives there? a city person might ask. And then YOU spent your whole life there? What are you, crazy?

Nope. Sane.

Robert Frost said home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in. It’s also the place you start from, and if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s where you finish up. Butch died in Seattle, a stranger in a strange land. Maybe that was okay with him, but I have to wonder if in the end he wouldn’t have preferred a little dirt road and the lakeside forest known as the 30-Mile Wood.

Although most of Ruth Crawford’s research—her investigation—was centered in Harlow, where her subjects grew up, there are no motels there, not even a bed and breakfast, so her base of operations was the Gateway Motel, in Castle Rock. There actually is a senior living facility in Harlow, and there Ruth interviewed a fellow named Alden Toothaker, who went to school with my pop and his friend. It was Alden who told her how Dave got his nickname. He always carried a tube of Lucky Tiger Butch Wax in his hip pocket and used it frequently so his flattop would stand up straight in front. He wore his hair (what there was of it) that way his whole life. It became his trademark. As to whether he still carried Butch Wax once he got famous, your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know if they even still make it.

“They used to pal around together back in grade school,” Alden told her. “Just a couple of boys who liked to fish or go hunting with their daddies. They grew up around hard work and didn’t expect nothing different. You might talk to folks my age who’ll tellya those boys were going to amount to something, but I’m not one of em. They were ordinary fellas right up until they weren’t.”

Laird and Butch went to Gates Falls High. They were placed in what was then called “the general education” courses, which were for kids who had no plans to go to college. No one came out and said they weren’t bright enough; it was just assumed. They took something called Daily Math and Business English, where several pages of their textbook explained how to correctly fold a business letter, complete with diagrams. They spent a lot of time in woodshop and auto shop. Both played football and basketball, although my pop spent most of his time riding the bench. They both finished with B averages and graduated together on June 8th, 1951.

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Dave LaVerdiere went to work with his father, a plumber. Laird Carmody and his dad fixed cars out on the family farm and sold them to Peewee’s Car Mart in Gates Falls. They also kept a vegetable stand on the Portland Road that brought in good money.

Uncle Butch and his father didn’t get along so well and Dave eventually struck out on his own, fixing drains, laying pipe, and sometimes digging wells in Gates and Castle Rock. (His father had all the business in Harlow, and wasn’t about to share). In 1954, the two friends formed L&D Haulage, which mostly meant dragging the summer people’s crappie to the dump. In 1955, they bought the dump and the town was happy to be rid of it. They cleaned it up, did controlled burns, instituted a primitive recycling program, and kept it vermin-free. The town paid them a stipend that made a nice addition to their regular jobs. Scrap metal, especially copper wire, brought in more cash. Folks in town called them the Garbage Twins, but Ruth Crawford was assured by Alden Toothaker (and other oldies with intact memories) that this was harmless ribbing, and taken as such.

The dump was maybe five acres, and surrounded by a high board fence. Dave painted it with murals of town life, adding to it each year. Although that fence is long gone (and the dump is now a landfill), photographs remain. Those murals remind people of Dave’s later work. There were quilting bees that merged into baseball games, baseball games that merged into cartoon caricatures of long-gone Harlow residents, scenes of spring planting and fall reaping. Every aspect of small-town life was represented, but Uncle Butch also added Jesus followed by the apostles (last in line came Judas, with a shit-eating grin on his face). There was nothing really remarkable about any of these scenes, but they were exuberant and good-humored. They were, you might say, harbingers.

Shortly after Uncle Butch died, a LaVerdiere painting of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe strolling hand-in-hand down the sawdust-floored midway of a small-town carnival sold for three million dollars. It was a thousand times better than Uncle Butch’s dump murals, but it would have looked at home there: the same screwy sense of humor, set off by an undercurrent of despair and—maybe—contempt. Dave’s dump murals were the bud; Elvis & Marilyn was the bloom.

Uncle Butch never married, but Pop did. He’d had a high school sweetheart named Sheila Wise, who went away to Vermont State Teachers College after graduation. When she came back to teach the fifth and sixth grades at Harlow Elementary, my father was delighted to find she was still single. He wooed and won her. They were married in August of 1957. Dave LaVerdiere was Pop’s best man. I came along a year later, and Pop’s best friend became my Uncle Butch.

I read a review of Pop’s first book, The Lightning Storm, and the reviewer said this: “Not much happens in the first hundred or so pages of Mr. Carmody’s suspenseful yarn, but the reader is drawn on anyway, because there are violins.”

I thought that was a clever way to put it. There were few violins for Ruth Crawford to hear; the background picture she got from Alden and others around town was of two men, decent and upstanding and pretty much on the dead level when it came to honesty. They were country men living country lives. One married and the other was what was called “a confirmed bachelor” in those days, but with not a whiff of scandal concerning his private life.

Dave’s younger sister, Vicky, did agree to be interviewed. She told Ruth that sometimes Dave went “up the city”—meaning Lewiston—to visit the beer-and-boogie clubs on lower Lisbon Street. “He’d be jolly at the Holly,” she said, meaning the Holiday Lounge (now long gone). “He was most apt to go if Little Jonna Jaye was playing there. Oh my, such a crush he had on her. He never brought her home—no such luck!—but he didn’t always come home alone, either.”

Vicky paused there, Ruth told me later, and then added, “I know what you might be thinking, Miz Crawford, most everyone does these days when a man spends his life without a longtime woman, but it’s not so. My brother may have turned out to be a famous artist, but he sure as hell wasn’t gay.”

The two men were well liked; everyone said so. And they neighbored. When Philly Loubird had a heart attack with his field half-hayed and thunderstorms in the offing, Pop took him to the hospital in Castle Rock while Butch marshaled a few of his dump-picking buddies and they finished the job before the first drops hit. They fought grassfires and the occasional house fire with the local volunteer fire department. Pop went around with my mother collecting for what was then called the Poor Fund, if he didn’t have too many cars to fix or work to do at the dump. They coached youth sports. They cooked side-by-side at the VFD pork roast supper in the spring and the chicken barbecue that marked the end of summer.

Just country men living country lives.

No violins.

Until there was a whole orchestra.

Copyright © 2024 by Stephen King. From the forthcoming book YOU LIKE IT DARKER: Stories by Stephen King, to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.

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