The Bloody Business

How a physician’s assistant in Bridgton became Stephen King’s Hippocrates of horror.

Skeleton arm touching man
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Bob Croslin

Inside a Biddeford bookstore on a chilly afternoon, Russ Dorr glances down at a display table and taps a finger on the hardback cover of Revival, a Stephen King novel from a few years back about a deranged preacher who develops a Frankensteinian fascination with electricity. “This one,” he says, “was fun to work on.”

Back in 1974, Dorr was a physician’s assistant practicing in Bridgton, where King lived. One morning, King, a new patient, came in feeling ill. In the exam room, Dorr glanced at the paperwork and noticed the occupation line. “Written anything?” he asked. His patient, in fact, had just published his first novel, Carrie, on its way toward selling more than a million copies. He was also wrapping up Salem’s Lot — and he had a case of food poisoning.

After that, the two men started recognizing each other around town — Bridgton only had a few thousand residents — and quickly hit it off. Both had young families, enjoyed playing tennis, and liked sitting on the front porch of Dorr’s house on Main Street, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes.

At one point, King mentioned a book in the works about a virus that wipes out 99 percent of humankind. He wondered if Dorr, with his medical background, could help craft a plausible disease that would transmit, mutate, and produce symptoms like a real virus. “That became the virus in The Stand,” Dorr recalls. King started consulting him whenever horror and human health intersected.

In 1981’s Cujo, for instance, a boy dies of heatstroke, but details in the draft were wrong — a person’s skin would become dry, not sweaty, Dorr pointed out. In Gerald’s Game, released in 1992, King needed to figure out how a woman might get out of handcuffs, and Dorr arrived at the idea, if the cuffs were slightly too big, of using her own blood as a lubricant to slide one hand free.

King would show Dorr fan letters from doctors who admired the author’s gritty knack for verisimilitude. Some, Dorr remembers, wondered if King had gone to medical school, others if he at least consulted with a doctor. “Steve had great fun in writing back,” Dorr says: “Nope, it’s a physician’s assistant.”

Then, about 10 years ago, Dorr’s role took on new dimensions. King told him about the idea for Under the Dome, in which a small Maine town becomes cut off from the rest of the world. “It’s going to take a lot of research other than medicine,” King said, into topics like food, water, and energy. “Want to take it on?” Afterward, King borrowed Dorr’s nickname and middle name for one of characters, Rusty Everett, the local physician’s assistant.

Next, 11/22/63, a work of historical fiction about a time-traveling English teacher from Maine who tries to stop the Kennedy assassination, required exhaustive archival research, plus site visits from Maine to Texas. “When I was done,” Dorr says, “I had a thick three-ring binder Steve could flip through, from 1958 to 1963, and within each year he could see things like sports scores, newspaper headlines, what was on TV Friday night, and how much a root beer cost.”

“I just give him the stuff,” he sums up. “He takes these threads of truth and reality and weaves them into this fabric of fiction. Sometimes horror is zombies and vampires, but a lot of his books are about the real horror of what people do to each other.”

From time to time, that was difficult for Dorr. “I don’t like horror,” he admits sheepishly, sitting over a coffee in the bookstore. He mentions that, after reading a draft of Pet Sematary in the early ’80s, he asked King, “This is a terrible story about child death — are you sure you really want to publish it?” But then he chuckles at recalling King’s reply: “Russ, put on your big-boy pants.”