When I was twelve years old, a very strange thing happened to me.
I had just been retrieved from Camp Roosevelt, a summer camp facility run by the Boy Scouts of America. I was still short for a boy, and I had yet to hit my growth spurt that would turn me into a young man. I was dirty and unkempt – breaking one of the twelve points of the Scouts Promise – sweating from the heat of the summer. My hair had been lightened by the summer sun when it deigned to show (my troop was better known as ‘The Droughtbusters’) and my skin tanned dark by hours outside.
As we drove home from New Jersey in the mostly air-conditioned coolness of my father’s car, my mother turned around in the passenger seat. Mom looked at me and said, “Did you have a good time?”
The lie came easily. “Yeah, sure I guess.” I didn’t like lying to my mother, but I wasn’t a very good scout – something the older boys would take great pains to point out. I also knew that my parents had put out money for me to go. I didn’t want to seem unappreciative, and Dad was still the bearer of justice. Lord knew I didn’t want to make him mad. I also knew in that strange way that sons intuit, that it was not completely for my benefit. While scouting taught me a great many things, I think fathers bring their boys to scouting to watch the growth that they themselves had come through – or, I suspected in my father’s case, to watch me surpass him in scouting. And so, I went through the steps to make him proud.
While I mulled over my deception – or more likely took some small measure of comfort in the car’s weak AC – Mom and Dad shared a brief glance. Maybe they knew the lie, or perhaps they had decided on what was about to happen next. But soon, Dad’s eyes were back on the road and mom was rooting around in her pocketbook.
“I got you something,” Mom said.
My ears picked up. All kids like gifts, and I was no different. Maybe she knew that we had five days out of seven of solid, drenching rain. Maybe she and my father had held some sort of council before hand to determine what was about to happen. The whys don’t really matter I suppose. As I was to learn, ‘Why is a crooked and bent letter that cannot be made straight.’ But that would come later.
Mom held out to me a book. Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Half’.
It was heavy in my hand, even in paper back. And it was thick. Intimidating. I’d never held a book so big. I was astonished anyone could read such a tome, despite watching my parents read through books like them. The cover showed two birds, hued red. One was upside-down, the other upright, and there was an eerie composition at play. Just looking at it, I knew that my diet of books, mostly half read and not yet fully explored, was about to change forever. For whatever reason, Mom and Dad had decided that the time of the Hardy Boys and John Bellairs were over. It was time for grown-up books to enter the equation.
After a few mute moments of silence, Dad said “What do you say, son?”
“Thank you,” I murmered, puzzled and intrigued by the mammoth tome aside me. The die had been cast, and something important began.
What possesses two parents who love their children to give their son a book by Stephen King, I’ll never know. Mom had read Cujo. She should have known what was up. Even my father, who at that point had no interest in King, should have known that Steve-o had a few kinks in his slinky. He was ‘The Master of Horror’ by that point. He anchored the horror section of every book store. He still does.
Yet, into the hands of a twelve-year old boy the book went.
Maybe my parents had asked around. Jason, a friend from my middle school band class, had read the Talisman at that point. Maybe they talked to Nick’s parents. I’d seen him reading Night Shift and others by that point, but had yet to start reading them for myself. But, whatever the reason, it was a pivotal point.
When I came home to the air conditioned haven of my room, I started reading horror. I have not looked back. Much to my mother’s regrets. Maybe if something else had made it’s way into my hands – Tom Clancy, Louis L’amour, John Steinbeck – it would have been different. But…
It set up other King books like dominoes. The next book read after reading the story of Thad Beaumont and his malignant twin, George Stark, was The Shining. After reading it, it became a diorama for a book report in sixth grade, much to the horror of my mother. Then, when I was thirteen, I tried Misery. Let me tell you. Misery is a good way to mess up a kid, but I got through it as I sat on the old, battered couch in the sitting room of a cabin in Union County, PA. After that, I took on others. Christine was a good one that I finished on my last real trip to the beach with my parents. So was It, the first book to actually scare me as I read by electric candlelight long after I was supposed to be asleep in my first year in High School. But, somewhere in my Junior year, several books later, I picked up something different.
I read ‘The Gunslinger.’
Now there was an epiphany. The Gunslinger is not a book for all King fans. It’s not a story of removed tumors coming to life to replace their hosts. It was not about spider-clowns, living in sewers and eating children. It was not about an evil car or a pyrokinetic little girl. It was a story about a man tracking a wizard through a strange and bizarre world in the process of emptying itself out. A story about a world that ‘had moved on.’ It was full of demons and doorways into other worlds. Of small town xenophobia and dark acts of magic. Of sacrifice, betrayal and love. It was epic in scope, and magic in the telling. It held me hard enough so that I not only continued the series, working through the Drawing of the Three and the Wastelands (all that was available at that time), but went back and read them again. With Audiobooks becoming more common, my father would buy them as well, and we’d listen to them on my way to early Quartet or Jazz Band practices, and then again on the way home from Marching Band practice in the evening. The author himself spoke aloud those audio presentations, and when dad and I would go fishing, King would read for hours and Dad and I would be silent and spellbound.
Mom wished I’d read something else already, and I had (Douglas Adams and William Gibson mostly), but King was always on the docket. In college I read through The Stand, ‘salem’s Lot, Needful Things, Firestarter and the fourth book in the Dark Tower Series, Wizard and Glass, all of them in the space of about ten days (when I get stressed, I can read a staggering amount of books). My palate is a lot broader these days, but King has always been there for me.
And tonight, as I finished up what must be the fourth or fifth time I’ve read or listened to the audio presentation of the Gunslinger, I find myself looking back on the story, and still finding the wonder within. A truly good story sticks with you subconsciously, lets you finish lines before you read them, becomes a part of you until you can tell the story yourself – yet opens new realizations and little nuggets you’ve forgotten or didn’t have the perspective to see.
And that’s why I think I’ve taken this turn lately, why I want to write. I have stories to tell. And, if I can hit my mark and set my watch and warrant by it, and more importantly if I can remember the face of my father (and mother), perhaps I can help some other kid look at what I’ve read and realize, ‘There are other worlds than these.’