It's hard to imagine Stephen King, the creator of horror stories that would likely have given Edgar Allan Poe nightmares, being less intense than John Cougar Mellencamp, the purveyor of radio-friendly heartland-rock hits like "Small Town" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
But the two artists' personality differences became obvious once they embarked on their unlikely 13-year partnership, which resulted in the currently touring stage musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.
"At one point, we were probably doing workshops in New York," recalls King, "and one of the guys in his band asked me if I had been subjected to a full-blown Johnny Cougar tantrum yet. I said 'Not yet.' He said, 'You will.'"
Mellencamp's bandmate was wrong. "I've never been subject to that yet," says King. "Temperamentally, we complement each other — he's really intense, and I'm kind of a laid-back guy — so we get along."
It was Mellencamp who instigated the project back in the late 1990s after he bought a cabin near his home base of Bloomington, Indiana, and later found out that it was said to be haunted. Intrigued by the local legends, Mellencamp began to form a story built around the real-life tragic events surrounding it. He reached out to King through a mutual agent, and the two got together in Florida, where the author has a winter home.
The big concern for King was that, while he had written well over 50 books and screenplays — including such famous works as Carrie, The Shining, Cujo and The Green Mile — he had never written a play. Mellencamp, meanwhile, had never written a musical.
"So I said, 'Well, we don't know what we're doing,'" recalls King. "And he said, 'We'll figure it out as we go along. And when we need somebody to help us who knows that world, we'll find somebody.'"
Along the way, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County also gave birth to a star-studded soundtrack that was produced by T Bone Burnett, best known for his work on O Brother, Where Art Thou. The musical is now going on the road for the second year in a row, with Billy Burke and Gina Gershon in the main roles.
Meanwhile, King and Mellencamp have grown closer as both friends and collaborators.
"It was give and take, and the result is, we're so intertwined that you really can't tell where John begins and I end," says King. "You know what I think, too, is that John has mellowed a little over the years, and I've been part of that process."