How Stephen King scared me into loving horror
Things that go bump in the night are some of my very favorite things. My movie collection contains dozens, maybe scores of horror films. A disproportionate percentage of my reading for pleasure is horror fiction, or nonfiction about horror movies or related topics. If you look back at my writing for this site, you'll see that a fair bit of it -- maybe even a majority -- is about horror. There's one man responsible for this, and his name is Stephen King.
Would you like to buy an incredibly creepy monkey?
Now, that's not an unusual experience, I expect. The man is, after all, one of the most popular fiction writers of our time, and his specialty is horror. There have to be any number of people who share my experience, in broad terms, even if the particulars aren't necessarily all that similar. For me, though, horror is one of the pillars of my persona, and I don't believe that would be the case had I not encountered King when I did, and the way I did.
Most horror fans are lifers. They can remember discovering horror at an early age, fondly recalling an adolescence spent absorbing slasher flicks and Fangoria magazine. Not me. I hated that stuff. Hated it. As a thirteen-year-old nerd, I avoided real horror -- anything scarier than, say, Monster Squad -- like I would avoid a group of jocks looking to beat someone's ass, and for largely the same reason: It scared me. A commercial I saw for Return of the Living Dead when I was twelve kept me from sleeping well for weeks afterward. I didn't even like my horror-loving friends to tell me about movies they'd seen. I would read the occasional "spooky" story, but we're talking Goosebumps level scares here, not real horror, and even that stuff made me check under the bed for weeks after I'd read it. Yes, I was kind of a wimp.
All that started to change on my very last day of seventh grade. Sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the last bus of the year, for some reason I picked up an older girl's copy of Stephen King's short-story collection Skeleton Crew and started reading "The Mist," the novella that kicks off the book. Why I did this, I can't even begin to guess. I think the bus was running late, and I was bored. Still, it's odd. I knew who Stephen King was, and I had steadfastly avoided his books at the library for as long as I'd been wandering into the grown-ups' section (by then, at least three years; I was a precocious reader). I certainly wasn't the kind of kid at that point who would think to use a book a girl was reading as a pick-up angle. Hell, I wasn't the kind of kid at that point who would even talk to a girl I liked, much less work an angle. It's a mystery. Maybe it was fate. All I know is I picked up this girl's book, started reading "The Mist" and basically never put the book down until I finished it.
If you're familiar with the book, you know that took me a lot longer than the bus took to appear. I was a precocious reader, but not a superhuman one. Somehow, for some reason -- again, I don't remember the details -- this girl decided to let me borrow the book. Why? I don't know. I'm certain I didn't know her well, in part because I don't really remember anything about her apart from the fact that she was older and apparently liked Stephen King. Also because I had no real female friends at that point, and wouldn't make one for more than a year. She may have expected me to give it back on the bus ride home, or when I ran into her in the neighborhood. In any case, she never saw the book again, and now that I think about it, I don't think I ever saw her again. Like I said, it's a mystery. Maybe fate.
I read that book from cover to cover over the next 24 hours or so. I read it through the school day. I read it on the bus home. My family headed out to the redwood forest for some camping that same day, and I read it while we drove and after we got to the campsite. I didn't put it down until I had to, and I picked it up again as soon as I could. I devoured it. And it scared the ever-living shit out of me. I spent the night out in those woods sure I would be devoured by some eldritch horror, my imagination alive with nightmare imagery like it had never been before. Only now, for some reason -- the incredible skill of Mr. King, if I had to wager -- I found the sensation of mortal terror strangely pleasurable instead of unpleasant and off-putting.
Once I was done with Skeleton Crew I started in on his other work. I don't remember what order I read them in, but within a few months or so I'd read The Shining, The Bachman Books, Night Shift, Carrie and Salem's Lot. A year or so later I read It, and it was all over. I was hooked. I started to branch out. I read other horror writers -- mostly terrible compared to King, but I read them all the same. Then I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and I really liked it. I added the Friday the 13th television show (anyone remember that?) to my late-night viewing schedule. Zombies, vampires, murder and monsters were now things to embrace, not avoid.
In short, I was a changed man -- the start, in many ways, of the man I've since become -- and it was all due to a late bus and a strangely friendly girl with a paperback book. In one of King's stories, those circumstances probably would have led me to some grisly fate. In reality, they led me to one of the great loves of my life. All in all, I prefer the latter, but man, what a great story it would have made the other way.
Stephen King will be at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on Wednesday, September 25, to discuss Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, but tickets are sold out. In fact, they sold out in a day. Find more info here.