We’re thrilled to be able to offer you Stephen King’s full foreword from Gwendy’s Magic Feather, the second book in the Gwendy’s Button Box trilogy. Below, King explains how Gwendy came to be, and how a chance email from Richard Chizmar rescued her from the unfinished ideas file.
Gwendy’s Magic Feather is on shelves now.
By Stephen King
WRITING STORIES IS BASICALLY playing. Work may come into it once the writer gets down to brass tacks, but it almost always begins with a simple game of make-believe. You start with a what-if, then sit down at your desk to find out where that what-if leads. It takes a light touch, an open mind, and a hopeful heart.
Four or five years ago—I can’t remember exactly, but it must have been while I was still working on the Bill Hodges trilogy—I started to play with the idea of a modern Pandora. She was the curious little girl, you’ll remember, who got a magic box and when her damned curiosity (the curse of the human race) caused her to open it, all the evils of the world flew out. What would happen, I wondered, if a modern little girl got such a box, given to her not by Zeus but by a mysterious stranger?
I loved the idea and sat down to write a story called “Gwendy’s Button Box.” If you were to ask me where the name Gwendy came from, I couldn’t tell you any more than I can tell you exactly when I did the original 20 or 30 pages. I might have been thinking about Wendy Darling, Peter Pan’s little girlfriend, or Gwyneth Paltrow, or it might have just popped into my head (like the John Rainbird name did in Firestarter). In any case, I visualized a box with a colored button for each of the earth’s large land masses; push one of them and something bad would happen in the corresponding continent. I added a black one that would destroy everything, and—just to keep the proprietor of the box interested—little levers on the sides that would dispense addictive treats.
I may also have been thinking of my favorite Fredric Brown short story, “The Weapon.” In it, a scientist involved in creating a super-bomb opens his door to a late-night stranger who pleads with him to stop what he’s doing. The scientist has a son who is, as we’d now say, “mentally challenged.” After the scientist sends his visitor away, he sees his son playing with a loaded revolver. The final line of the story is, “Only a madman would give a loaded gun to an idiot.”
Gwendy’s button box is that loaded gun, and while she’s far from an idiot, she’s still just a kid, for God’s sake. What would she do with that box, I wondered. How long would it take for her to get addicted to the treats it dispensed? How long before her curiosity caused her to push one of those buttons, just to see what might happen? ( Jonestown, as it turned out.) And might she begin to be obsessed with the black button, the one that would destroy everything? Might the story end with Gwendy—after a particularly bad day, perhaps— pushing that button and bringing down the apocalypse? Would that be so farfetched in a world where enough nuclear firepower exists to destroy all life on earth for thousands of years? And where, whether we like to admit it or not, some of the people with access to those weapons are not too tightly wrapped?
The story went fine at first, but then I began to run out of gas. That doesn’t happen to me often, but it does happen from time to time. I’ve probably got two dozen unfinished stories (and at least two novels) that just quit on me. (Or maybe I quit on them.) I think I was at the point where Gwendy is trying to figure out how to keep the box hidden from her parents. It all began to seem too complicated. Worse, I didn’t know what came next. I stopped working on the story and turned to something else.
Time passed—maybe two years, maybe a little more. Every now and then I thought about Gwendy and her dangerous magic box, but no new ideas occurred, so the story stayed on the desktop of my office computer, way down in the corner of the screen. Not deleted, but definitely shunned.
Then one day I got an email from Rich Chizmar, creator and editor of Cemetery Dance and the author of some very good short stories in the fantasy/horror genre. He suggested—casually, I think, with no real expectation that I’d take him up on it—that we might collaborate on a story at some point, or that I might like to participate in a round-robin, where a number of writers work to create a single piece of fiction. The round-robin idea held no allure for me because such stories are rarely interesting, but the idea of collaboration did. I knew Rich’s work, how good he is with small towns and middle-class suburban life. He effortlessly evokes backyard barbecues, kids on bikes, trips to Walmart, families eating popcorn in front of the TV . . . then tears a hole in those things by introducing an element of the supernatural and a tang of horror. Rich writes stories where the Good Life suddenly turns brutal. I thought if anyone could finish Gwendy’s story, it would be him. And, I must admit, I was curious.
Long story short, he did a brilliant job. I re-wrote some of his stuff, he re-wrote some of mine, and we came out with a little gem. I’ll always be grateful to him for not allowing Gwendy to die a lingering death in the lower righthand corner of my desktop screen.
When he suggested there might be more to her story, I was interested but not entirely convinced. What would it be about? I wanted to know. He asked me what I’d think if Gwendy, now an adult, got elected to the United States House of Representatives, and the button box made a reappearance in her life . . . along with the box’s mysterious proprietor, the man in the little black hat.
You know when it’s right, and that was so perfect I was jealous (not a lot, but a little, yeah). Gwendy’s position of power in the political machinery echoed the button box. I told him that sounded fine, and he should go ahead. In truth, I probably would have said the same if he’d suggested a story where Gwendy becomes an astronaut, goes through a space warp, and ends up in another galaxy. Because Gwendy is as much Rich’s as she is mine. Probably more, because without his intervention, she wouldn’t exist at all.
In the story you’re about to read—lucky you!—all of Rich’s formidable skills are on display. He evokes Castle Rock well, and the regular Joes and regular Jills that populate the town ring true. We know these people, and so we care for them. We also care for Gwendy. To tell you the truth, I sort of fell in love with her, and I’m delighted that she’s back for more.
May 17, 2019