Haunted Home Pages (#1): Stephen King

The Official Stephen King Web Presence (2000)
The Official Stephen King Web Presence (March 2000)

Welcome to Haunted Home Pages, a semi-regular series of blog posts in which Jim McGrath spends October 2017 communicating with the internet’s afterlife via The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine . For all the posts in this series, click here.

I wanted to kick off Haunted Home Pages with a look back at The Master of Horror, Stephen King. I went through a huge King phase back in junior high and high school, and I will provide an embarrassing image of myself from this period to prove just how into King I was back then!

Jim McGrath, Stephen King fan (Christmas 1996)

The Wayback Machine has entries for stephenking.com stretching back to November of 1998, but this March 2000 cached page is the first one I found to provide a clear vision of the author’s “web presence.” We’re greeted with a static home page that visualizes the site’s architecture as a large circle with a smaller one devoted to “Links” orbiting it (half of the larger home planet of All Things King is dedicated to a timeline, while the other half covers a range of topics about the author).

The section dedicated to “rumors” is disappointing to gossip hounds (like me) since it’s primarily about fan correspondence and autograph policies, though there is a question about an alleged haunted house run by King on Halloween (“this is not true and never has happened.”). “the man” is a biography of King (co-authored by Tabitha King, his wife) spread across a number of individual pages: each page has about a paragraph of text on it and includes a link to a printer-friendly version. There’s also a brief note about a 1999 appearance by King on Dateline that apparently led to fan concerns that the author was “unable to write”: this note isn’t clearly dated on the home page, which seems to aspire to the “endless present” of static home pages then and now.  King’s site in this incarnation was “designed, maintained, and hosted” by i-forge Design Factory, a company whose own home page from this period is sadly hidden from the Wayback Machine by robots.txt.

THE PLANT, an unfinished serial narrative King began selling on his personal web site in 2000.
THE PLANT, an unfinished serial narrative King began selling on his personal web site in 2000.

The next major transformation of King’s personal web site comes in 2000, when the author decided to add a “downloads” section in order to sell The Plant, “an epistolary novel set in the 1980s (before email, in other words, and when even the fax was a fringe technology).” As the  project’s Wikipedia article notes, King would never complete the novel, but it was a fascinating experiment in self-publishing via electronic means, especially given the author’s stature and his commitment to transparency. You can read what was completed on The Plant, as well as commentary from King during and after this publishing experiment, on the current “live” version of the author’s site, free of charge.

Stephen King’s personal home page during the distribution of “The Plant,” late 2000.

King’s most famous experiment with serial publication is likely The Green Mile,  a “serial thriller” published in six print installments in 1996 (my dad, also a King fan, was cool enough to buy each part as it came out and loan them to me). Then again, maybe fans of the film aren’t aware of this publication history? In any case, The Plant comes on the heels of King’s success with Riding The Bullet, a 2000 novella that Wikipedia calls “the world’s first mass-market e-book.” It’s remarkable that King gets The Plant up and running so quickly in the wake of Riding The Bullet’s popularity: Bullet was available for purchase in March 2000, while the first installment of The Plant went on sale in July of the same year!

Screenshot of the "Agreement" page for The Plant.
Screenshot of the “Agreement” page for The Plant.

Readers knew up-front that King was waiting to gauge their interest in consumption before committing to more than the first two installments of The Plant. The whole initiative was an interesting experiment in self-publishing and self-distribution, made possible thanks to the author’s popularity and ability to self-finance, but also in larger part due to recent developments in content creation, e-readers, and e-commerce. Readers had the option to pay via an early version of Amazon Payments (though they could also pay later via check or money order if they noted as much on the Payments page) to receive a copy of each installment of The Plant in PDF (the “nicely formatted version,” which the project’s F.A.Q. page recommended be read via Acrobat Reader), PRC, PDB, OEB, or “text and HTML” formats.

The Plant: Frequently Asked Questions
The Plant: Frequently Asked Questions

In his initial framing of The Plant back in 2000, King revels in the potential to become “Big Publishing’s worst nightmare”:

“Not only are we going glueless, look Ma, no e-Book! No tireless encryption! Want to print it and show it to a friend? Go ahead!”

This language is missing from the project description currently circulating on King’s web site, though he does recirculate an interesting letter included with digital copies of the first installment of The Plant, in which he explained the motives behind the text’s lack of encryption:

On one hand I applaud Metallica’s decision to try and put a few spikes into the big, cushy radial tire that is Napster, because creative people should be paid for their work just as plumbers and carpenters and accountants are paid for theirs. On the other hand, I think that the current technology is rapidly turning the whole idea of copyright into a risky proposition…not quite a joke, but something close to it. It took hackers only forty-eight to seventy-two hours to bust the encryption on “Bullet” (as Tabitha [King] says, spending invaluable hours to obtain an item that sold for $2.50 and was at many sites given away).

King’s update on sales of Part 1 of The Plant. (July 2000)
King’s breakdown of the expenses and profit of the work completed and sold on The Plant.

Adhering to a belief in an “honesty is the best policy” among his “Constant Reader[s],” King hoped for “a ratio of nine honest folks for every chiseler” in terms of sales. As installments debuted, the author updated his site with information on project costs and sales, demonstrating a commitment to transparency that was surprising then and remains so now. The Plant “furl[ed] its leaves for the time being” after the publication of the fourth installment in December 2000; while the initial note on the author’s site suggested King might resume the project, new material never surfaced. One wonders if the ratio between profits and expenses was a factor, if the experiment in self-publication (and its attendant challenges) had run its course, or if King got distracted or bored and then moved on to other things. In any case, the material saved by The Wayback Machine documents a fascinating moment in the realities and economics of digital publishing and remediation.

The desire for new and constantly-updated material on web sites is visible in the strain it puts on the layout of King’s home page: as readers come to expect this information on the author’s site in the early years of the twenty-first century, the sidebar highlighting this content begins to disrupt its cleanliness and order.

GIF promoting excerpts of King’s work on the Time magazine site.

GIFs in the sidebar go on to further complicate things. It may be time for a redesign!

There’s also an odd quirk in the site’s favicon from this period: the current site’s is an “SK” with a raven resting on top of it (nice), whereas the earlier site’s is…the BBC logo? I wonder if this is a quirk in The Wayback Machine or a sign of where the web site’s earlier design team borrowed some things.

Also, let us never forget this web banner advertising the personal home page of John “Cougar” Mellencamp that appeared on King’s page (King collaborated with John Cougar on a musical):

Ain’t that America (Online).

Stephen King’s home page in 2003.

Anyway, King’s homepage gets a redesign halfway in May of 2003. Most of this “facelift” isn’t visible on The Wayback Machine due to its reliance on Flash, but a few new features are documented in text by the site’s design and editorial team.

There was an entire section dedicated to The Dark Tower series (which King had resumed writing after a lengthy break) that was dependent on Flash, for instance. There was also an audio file “Welcome Message” available as an mp3 file or in Windows Media Player format!

The photo gallery mentioned above is still accessible, though a “Map of Stephen King’s Maine” is not: I would love to see what that looked like! We also see links to a “Links” page and information on King’s email newsletter documented in the site’s new “miscellany” section.

Image gallery from King’s personal web site. (2003)

As the web moves into the age of social media and the 2.0 of it all, we see King’s personal site make explicit reference to these spaces. Apparently “MySpace Imposters” were a problem in April 2006:

Scattered between press releases and updates on King’s publications and media appearances are occasional “Special Notes” from the author on the News page (and archive) .

King also frequently documents his pop cultural consumption habits (perhaps unsurprising to some readers familiar with his Entertainment Weekly column) in semi-occasional bits of microblogging.

He did not like Crank. No word on whether he liked or disliked Crank 2: High Voltage.

The current iteration of King’s website is a lot more polished and image-heavy, which is perhaps unsurprising. The GIF above was made this past weekend (nice timing on the Adobe update, Adobe! I just noticed that: whoops), and the recent film adaptation of It over on Twitter (which I still need to see) is one of several items featured there. To be honest, I prefer the weirder, infrequently-updated, highly personalized King home page, but I’m sure there are many reasons why King has moved on to other uses of his time (you can find his current microbloggery , naturally). I’m excited to finally check out The Plant

Haunted Home Pages will run through October 2017! Questions, comments? Get in touch with Jim on Twitter @JimMc_Grath! You can also email me: james_mcgrath[at]brown[dot]edu!