Free but still not quite exonerated, Damien Echols spent half his life in prison — much on death row — as punishment for a crime that he has never been linked to with, say, evidence. Many of those years he suffered in solitary confinement, even as the documentaries Paradise Lost and its sequels revealed this injustice to the world.
As he recounts in his new memoir, Life After Death, Echols taught himself meditation, the particulars of a host of religions, and even the one thing that might be truly unteachable: how to write well.
He credits his success with the latter to the years he’s spent in the company of Stephen King. Echols has never met or communicated with King — “I don’t know that he knows my story,” Echols says — but it’s possible that, after 18 years of incarceration, there’s no other adult mind with whom Echols has spent more time. The Voice called Echols to ask about King’s influence yesterday.
I heard an interview where you said you learned to write from reading Stephen King novels over and over in prison. You were actually reading these beforehand, too, right?
It goes back to when I was ten or eleven years old. My grandma got one of his books at a garage sale, and I want to say the first of his I ever read was Night Shift. I’m not 100 percent positive, but that’s one of the earliest I remember. The reason it sticks out so much is the cover. It had a hand with a bunch of eyes looking out of it, all wrapped in gauze or a bandage. I thought, “What the hell is that?”
I remember that. Book covers used to be more lurid.
I think that’s what drew my grandma in. I remember her having all of these True Detective magazines, and on the cover of every one it was something like Bettie Page/Klaus Kinski bondage material. You’ve got this curvy damsel in distress on the cover of every magazine!
The books were the only escape I had. We grew up in an almost obscene level of poverty – there’s no reason people in America shouldn’t have running water or heat. We lived in a sharecropper’s shack in the middle of a field. I didn’t have the money to buy books, so the only thing I had was the public library. I would go in and read the Stephen King novels over and over. It got tot the point where the librarians, whenever they got a new one in, they would hold it back for me.
Librarians are often there for outcasts.
They liked me because I was really quiet and read a lot, the two things that are a direct route to a librarian’s heart.
Weren’t the King books part of the “evidence” that was brought against you?
Absolutely. They brought that up in court. They said, “You put all these things together: The music he’s listening to, the book’s he’s reading, and what you’ve got is a person with no soul.”
Even though these are books by far-and-away this country’s most popular author? Why would True Detective have been acceptable in Arkansas in the early 90s, while Stephen King wasn’t?
What is he now? The most popular author ever in the history of the world? But people are weird. That’s what it comes down to. People. Are. Weird. They used the fact that we listened to Metallica against us. Back then that was dark, scary stuff. Now you hear it played on classic rock stations.
How did you get the books in prison? The library?
No, people sent them. It’s almost impossible to get a book from the prison library, and when you do it’s going to be something horrific. Somebody donated a box of Harlequin Romances, once.
Did you ever resort to those?
I tried. I read one all the way through. I thought, “That was kind of crappy, but maybe I just got a bad one. I’ll try another.” So, I did, and about a third of the way through I realized, “This is the exact same book I just read. They changed the names, and they changed it from an Old West setting to a Victorian setting.”
Anyway, the prison says you’re allowed to have three books at a time. With Stephen King’s books, I went through multiple copies of some to them. I tried to save some as a treat, and read them only at certain times of the year. Like Pet Semetary I would hold and save for October– that was my Halloween treat.
By far the ones I read the most were the Dark Tower series. I probably read the first one in the double digits. It came out before I went to prison. I would read it over and over and think, ‘My God, I can’t wait for the next one.’
You mentioned once that there was a rhythm to the language that you felt matched up with something in you.
I don’t know what the technical term would be for it. You know how when you listen to music and you hear a beat to the song? And you could sit down and maybe write a new song along the beat of the old one? It’s the same thing for me when I read. I read these novels until that beat became sort of ingrained in me. So, when I sat down to write, I wrote to that beat.
It’s a rhythm, not a style. You never refer to yourself as Big Damien or open with quotes from John Fogerty?
It’s not like I tried to match it. It’s just that it felt right to me. It’s almost like if you dance to a certain beat for years, you can’t dance to anything else.
Next: Echols on The Stand, Stephen King’s New England, and a story about a haunted house
What are your favorites besides The Dark Tower?
Those I love because you can see everything in the world in them. Every religious text you can come up with, every holy book in the world, plus Chinese mysticism, plus everything else condensed into them. And they’re connected to all his other books. Randall Flagg from The Stand, Father Callahan from The Shining— they somehow find their way in.
There’s a short story in Skeleton Crew called “Nona” that got into my head like a bug. I would think about that story for years. It’s about this lonely hitchhiker who’s down at rock bottom, and he meets this girl at a cafe. And it turns out there never was a girl, and the guy’s just gone insane. Something about that story – you can feel October air in it, you can see and smell the things he describes.
The Stand was another huge one. I used to think it was his best until I read all the Dark Tower series together. I really liked Black House, which he co-wrote with Peter Straub – and Straub’s Shadowlands I’ve read ten or so times. Black House happens right on the fringe of the gunslinger’s world.
For all that wild ambition, King also does a better job than many writers of capturing what life feels like in America at the time that he’s writing.
Exactly. It’s not like he’s just churning out monster stories. He goes deep into character and psychology, and he makes you feel like you know these people. It’s not like Dean Koontz. Koontz may be able to write a decent story now and then, but it’s so shallow you really can only read it one time. You’re not going to go back and read it over and over.
You moved to Salem, which is getting close to Derry, Castle Rock, and those other made-up Stephen King towns.
The way he writes about New England, he could just as easily be writing about the American South. It has that same feel to it. But in his books, New England starts to feel like this magical place where if you turn down an unexpected alley or go into some dark little hallway you may turn into something completely unexpected, something magical, bizarre, twisted. He makes it sound like in New England reality is so thin that you could slip over beyond this veil and into this other place. That stuck with me from when I was a kid. I thought “Wow, New England must be fucking amazing.”
Have you read On Writing?
I’ve read everything he’s ever written, at least once.
Have you tried fiction?
I have. But I’m terrible at dialogue. If you read my book, there’s almost none, just a line here and there. I did write a short story once that people will think is fiction. It’s called “Nostalgia and Marlou,” about this little girl and a haunted house. She goes to the house every day and sits on the porch, and ahe does this automatic writing – the house tells her stories. But even that was based on a friend of mine who used to do that. I just told it and added little details, like colors of stockings.
That sounds like fiction. Making real life better and fuller.
I always think of non-fiction as no truth, as completely made up. Marlou is the haunted house, and Nostalgia is the girl, and at the end of the story they come and take Marlou apart and demolish her and send her to all these different places. Her parts and pieces get incorporated into other houses and buildings, so all these little girls start having the same experience as Nostalgia did. They get up in the night and hear Marlou speaking from the sink drain or the basement. She spread her wings and went all over the world instead of being confined to one little location.
Isn’t that what you did with memoir writing?
Kind of. Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it like that.