Among Stephen King's friends and neighbors, it is known simply as The Accident. At 4:30 p.m. last June 19, the author, then 51, set out for his daily four-mile walk from his summer home in the resort mountain town of North Lovell, Maine. As he often does, King was reading a novel (The House, by horror author Bentley Little) as he headed north against traffic on Route 5, a two-lane blacktop. When the writer reached a hill where the shoulder narrowed, he closed the book, knowing that this blind stretch of road could be dangerous.
On the other side of the hill, heading south at about 45 miles per hour, Bryan Smith, 42, a disabled former construction worker from the nearby town of Fryeburg, was driving a blue 1985 Dodge Caravan. Smith, who had been camping with a friend, was headed for town with his pit bull/rottweiler Bullet to load up his cooler. When Bullet started burrowing into it, Smith turned around and tussled with him. Seconds later, the van reached the crest of the hill, swerved off the pavement and slammed into one of the best-read writers of our time.
It was a macabre scene right out of one of King's books. The van struck the author's right side with such force that King's head shattered the windshield and his trademark glasses were thrown into the car; he was hurled over the vehicle, landing in a grassy ditch 14 feet away. Lovell resident Donald Baker witnessed the accident from his pickup and immediately ran over to help. "I was surprised he was even alive," says Baker. "He was in a tangled-up mess, lying crooked, and had a heck of a gash on his head. He kept asking what had happened."
King remained conscious as an ambulance whisked him to a local hospital. Because his injuries were so severe—a shattered hip and pelvis, broken ribs and a fractured thighbone—a helicopter flew him to the trauma center at the state hospital in Lewiston, where, for the next three weeks, he endured six surgeries.
Today, some seven months later, King's fractures have healed and he has returned to his craft. But the master chronicler of the sinister still copes with a torturous regimen of physical therapy. Though the metal pins in his leg were removed in October, he will likely need years of rehabilitation; doctors say he may never regain full use of his right leg or walk without a cane. And, as King sees it, insult was heaped upon injury when Smith recently plea-bargained a suspended six-month jail sentence for driving to endanger, thereby escaping the more serious charge of aggravated assault. "All in all, this has been the year from hell for Steve," says King's friend Stu Tinker, owner of a bookstore in Bangor, Maine.
About the only thing to escape injury was the author's mordant sense of humor, which kicked in almost from the moment of impact. After hitting the ground, King told NBC's Dateline on Nov. 1, "my entire waist was turned around sideways and I could see this bulge in the side of my jeans. And I thought to myself, 'If that's a bone, I'm in trouble here.' " And though King was suffering from shock and terrified he would die, Smith says the author even apologized as they waited for the ambulance. "He told me, 'I think I was walking too close to the edge of the road,' " Smith recalls.
Later, as he was being wheeled into the operating room, King joked with his wife, Tabitha, 50, that he wanted an open-view coffin so people could see how natural he looked. "He has a real joy of life," says friend and fellow suspense author Ridley Pearson. "When I heard he gave the ambulance crew numbers to call his family, I thought, 'That's Stephen! Still up and running even with limbs cracked.' "
Letters and e-mail from wisecracking friends kept him chuckling. One favorite was a homemade card from actress Kathy Bates, who played the maniacal nurse in the film version of King's Misery. It said simply, "Got Novril?"—a reference to the drug her character administered to a novelist after she broke his legs.
Finally returning to his 25-room mansion in Bangor in July, wracked with pain and unable to walk, King had a hospital bed set up in his ground-floor sunroom, where he passed the time playing catch with Marlowe, his 10-year-old corgi, and fiddling with his guitar. Writer Dave Barry, who called King shortly after the accident, was shocked at how morose his friend had become. "He said, 'I thought I was gonna step out.' He genuinely thought he was going to die," Barry recalls. "He was really subdued by the fact that his rehabilitation was going to be long and painful."
For the next two months the wheelchair-bound King rarely ventured outside. He saw the thriller Deep Blue Sea and also attended a reading by Maine author Tess Gerritsen at Borders Books. "Watching how much trouble it was to get him out of the van, I was just so moved that he showed up," says Gerritsen. By mid-October, King was well enough to go to Fenway Park in Boston to watch his beloved Red Sox vie for a division title, and neighbors spotted him gingerly negotiating his driveway on crutches.
He approached his writing gingerly as well. King's 34 novels—including Carrie, The Shining, Christine, Bag of Bones and, most recently, the bestselling Hearts in Atlantis—have sold more than 100 million copies around the world, and his tales have spawned 27 feature films, including The Green Mile, the new Tom Hanks movie about a prisoner with preternatural powers. But when he first returned home, King was unable to sit without pain and could write only 90 minutes a day—a fraction of his normal four-hour stint. "Maybe there'll be another book, maybe there won't," King said on Dateline. "I'm more concerned with walking again without crutches." As time passed, however, his writing sessions lengthened, and his agent says he is now back to his old form.
If not quite back to his former local-hero status. Many Bangor residents believe that once King learned of Bryan Smith's record—11 violations since 1989 for speeding and driving while intoxicated—the author used his influence against him. When Smith pleaded not guilty last fall to a charge of aggravated assault—a felony crime rarely invoked in automotive cases, and one that carries a possible 10-year sentence and $20,000 fine—his court-appointed lawyer, John Jenness, argued that King's celebrity and civic generosity made a fair trial impossible. He cited as prejudicial the $240,000 the author donated in October to the local ambulance service and the two hospitals that treated him. In previous years, the Kings also gave $2.5 million to renovate the Bangor Public Library, and another $1.2 million to build a Little League baseball park (dubbed the Field of Screams), replete with lighting towers and a computerized sprinkler system. "They do a lot of things people will never hear about," says friend Ron St. Pierre, who remembers "Coach King" clowning around with the kids when son Owen, now 22, was in Little League. "Someone once said to him, 'Stephen, you really are weird.' He said, 'Don't forget, weird paid for this ballpark.' "
For his part, King denies bearing a grudge, saying the only thing he wanted was the permanent revocation of Smith's.driver's license. "What he took from me-my time, my peace of mind, and my ease of body—are simply gone, and no court action can bring them back," King wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to the court, which expressed his concern that Smith might someday "hurt someone else, or even kill someone." King characterized the plea arrangement, which calls for Smith's license to be suspended for one year, as "irresponsible public business."
Nonetheless, King is struggling to get his life back to the way it was before the accident. "Steve writes every day and got back to that routine as quickly as he possibly could, which wasn't all that quickly," says Chuck Verrill, King's longtime editor. Since August, the author—who is set to sign a new contract for at least two books—has completed a novella, some short stories and a part-memoir, part-how-to book titled On Writing. In addition, King and Peter Straub are now getting started on a sequel to their 1984 bestseller The Talisman. "You can just see a change in Stephen's whole attitude, where he is starting to get focused and get back to business," says King's lawyer Warren Silver.
At the Green Mile premiere in Manhattan on Dec. 9, King told reporters he was "doing well." But he looked gaunt and pale. On doctor's orders, he and Tabitha—who went to Boston for much of the fall to be near their son Joe, 27, and 9-month-old grandchild Ethan—are wintering in Florida with daughter Naomi, 29. "Stephen can get more exercise there and not worry about falling on ice," says Silver. "He's going to try to start putting weight on that leg to see how well it holds up. He's far from out of the woods yet."
The same may be true for Smith, since King is considering filing a civil suit. As for that infamous Dodge van, Silver bought it from Smith for $1,500 to keep it out of the hands of souvenir hunters. "Eventually it will be destroyed," the lawyer says. Asked about his client's vow to take a sledgehammer to it as soon as he's able, Silver adds, "Knowing Stephen, he probably will."
Eric Francis in Bangor
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