Stephen King is accustomed to hearing ghost stories, although they’re normally being told by the voices in his head. But the world’s foremost horror novelist heard one from his buddy, John Mellencamp, that intrigued him.
“John came to me with this idea that was based on a cabin that he bought for a summer place,” King said in an interview. “It was on a lake, in Indiana, and after he bought it — not before, but after — someone told him, ‘Did you know that this cabin is haunted?’”
The true story of that Indiana cabin, one of unhinged accidental deaths and restless spirits, became the inspiration for “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which comes to the Kentucky Center Friday night. King and Mellencamp teamed up to write a stage play with songs, but it’s not a musical in the traditional sense.
King described it as a stripped-down production that combines aspects of full stage production with a simpler, almost old-fashioned approach similar to radio plays. The songs, written by Mellencamp and produced for the stage by T Bone Burnett, don’t specifically move the narrative along as in a musical, but enhance the story while also being a major part of the show.
“I don’t think people have seen anything quite like it,” King said. “I have not seen the finished set yet, but John says it’s terrific, and you can take that to the bank.”
The cabin’s true story involved three friends, two boys and a girl. While horsing around one day, the boys decided that they’d play a game of William Tell, but with a pistol. The boy with the pistol missed the apple on his friend’s head, but not his head.
The remaining two loaded their friend into a car and roared off, hoping to get him to a doctor. Not far from the cabin, they lost control of the car and died in the subsequent accident. Their spirits were said to be bound to the cabin by tragedy.
That’s not a bad story, but it lacks real drama. Mellencamp wondered what it might have been like if the boys were brothers with a history of conflict, and he figured that they may have both liked the girl. King took it from there and finished the story while Mellencamp wrote the darkly evocative music.
King, who has sold more than 350 million books and is considered one of modern fiction’s finest storytellers, regardless of genre, said that the play is his first true collaboration. He co-wrote two novels with Peter Straub and two novellas with his son, Joe Hill, but King said that was more a case of taking turns.
“We’re word people, and we trade the story back and forth, but with this it was working with somebody who had an entirely different sensibility, the music side of it, which I can’t do,” King said. “And John has written hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand, songs, but he’s never worked with narrative before.
“We were trying to create a unified thing coming from two different perspectives, and that was really fun.”
King is famed for stories that place recognizable, relatable people in fantastic and often supernatural situations. Classics such as “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Stand” and “Misery” have become a part of popular culture, and King wanted “Ghost Brothers” to have a similar appeal. After an initial version that featured quite a bit of theatrical bling, producers dialed “Ghost Brothers” back to focus more on characters and the music.
“When I started out with this, I thought to myself that I wanted to do something that’s really simple, that could be staged almost anywhere,” King said. “John talked about Broadway, and I was kind of interested in that, too, but I don’t think that either one of us really saw that as the be-all, end-all.
“We also thought this could be the kind of play that could be produced in a lot of community theaters and smaller venues, and that kind of thing lasts forever. Stuff like ‘The Fantasticks’ and ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,’ things with very simple sets and very simple requirements.”
“Ghost Brothers” will play in 19 cities through Nov. 6, and stars Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Thirteen Days”), Emily Skinner (Tony Award nominee for “Side Show”), Lucas Kavner, Joe Tippett, Peter Albrink, Travis Smith, Kate Ferber and Jake LaBotz. Musicians in the on-stage band include Andy York, Dane Clark, Troye Kinnett and Jon Gunnell, who are all from Mellencamp’s band.
King has been a weekend musician for years, mostly banging out cover songs, and he said that working with Mellencamp was a treat.
“I wouldn’t have worked with him if I didn’t think he was really a terrific songwriter, with a really great ability to write songs that people relate to on an emotional level,” he said. “If somebody else had come to me with this same idea, I don’t think I would have said yes. I can’t think of anyone else I would have said yes to, except maybe Bruce Springsteen.”
‘THE GHOSTS OF DARKLAND COUNTY’
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Whitney Hall, the Kentucky Center
Cost: $49.50, $59.50, $69.50
Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter, @JLeePuckett.