By the time I discovered Stephen King in the summer of 1980, he was preparing to publish his sixth novel, Fire Starter. I was already a horror fan. I had grown up on the television variety of horror like Creature Feature and Chiller and enjoyed the age of satanic horror movies like Race with the Devil, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Devil’s Rain. I had watched grainy black and white episodes of the Twilight Zone and had seen the Omega Man at the drive in. My exposure to horror literature in comparison was limited.
In 5th grade I read Poe’s the Tell Tale Heart. For my project I did a shadow box using the arms and legs of my toy army men. My teacher, Ms. Adams (this was 1977 and there were no “Miss” only “Ms.”) recognized my passion and introduced me to W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw and Ambrose Pierce’s, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I was hooked. I bought and borrowed any horror book I could get my hands on. In later grades I wrote a book report on Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror and another on John Saul’s debut novel, Suffer the Children. (Today a boy of that age from a divorced home with an obsession for horror would most likely be doing at least some quality time with the school’s psychologist). By the summer of 1979 I was still reading titles like Jere Cunningham’s, The Visitor and a book called Julia by some guy named Peter Straub. If during those years book stores existed I, at least, was unaware. My books came mostly from those wire stands at the local pharmacy or convenience store.
I was doing something else in the summer of ‘79. I was writing my own horror stories. They were pretty bad and they always involved Vampires. I had never read a vampire story. I had however seen every vampire movie shown on television – mostly those Universal ones like Count Dracula and Count Dracula versus. That would change in the summer of 1980. But before I could discover the author who would have such a major influence on my own writing, I needed to suffer my first love.
Her name was Margie (the “g” was pronounced like that in “go”). Where she was before the 5th grade I don’t know, but from 5th to 8th grade we shared every class together and I spent 4 years love-struck. I was a chubby kid in those days. While the other guys gained inches in height I seemed to gain them in width. I was however, publicly confident and outgoing, a comedian most of the time, and I possessed a razor sharp sarcasm to stave off any jokes about my weight or any whispers about being a kid from a “broken home.” My confidence, however, ended where Margie’s personal space began. I went where most chubby kids with false confidence go when they are interested in the class’s prettiest girl – “Oh yes good sir, I see you have your ticket. Please proceed right through those doors and have a seat in the section marked, “THE FRIEND ZONE.” Is there anything worse than a secret crush? Yes, being friends with your secret crush. I have daughters and learned enough to know that Margie was probably very aware of my case of puppy love. She was probably also confident that I would never cross the friend line. In retrospect I’m glad I never professed my love – lord what a disaster that would have been.
It’s funny though that from time to time I still think about Margie. You never forget your first crush – especially one that lasts for four years. I can’t recall the things we may have shared in common. I don’t know why she liked to hang out with me. Perhaps it was more about our parent’s actions than are own that created that bond. My mom worked as a secretary and she worked hard to keep our house. I never had the newest clothes or shoes. I had three or four outfits for school. Margie had plenty of nice things. Her parents were academics at some college. But still we shared a bond. My parents were divorced and Margie was adopted. So perhaps that is what made us similar. Different versions of abandonment issues. Not exact social misfits. Not the kind at least that kids point fingers at, but the kind they whisper about when the topic arises. We had something else in common – A love for horror stories.
While I was suffering through Saul’s Suffer the Children, Margie was reading Salem’s Lot. In the summer of 1980, right after our 8th grade graduation, she gave me her copy to read. I would have read anything she handed me – puppy love is like that. At first I was most interested in all the underlined sections. She had done her book report on it. I was fascinated with what Margie thought was important. I tried to imagine her, there in that story, and the things that it whispered to her. And then somewhere beyond thoughts of Margie, I discovered the author Stephen King. It would be a discovery that changed everything I knew or thought I knew about horror. He would be my favorite author for many years and that book would start me down a path of writing.
I saw Margie only once more after summer ended. She went on to a very nice private high school and I went on to a public education. I never was too dumb or too creepy to search for her. Never showed up somewhere twenty years later to see if she was everything I thought she was in 8th grade. That Margie was gone as was that boy with the crush. As for that borrowed book, the one with the underlined sentences that I hoped would tell me something more about my beloved. Was it lost somewhere or given away? Did I lose track of it over the years? No I didn’t. Like every good memory I kept it. Thirty three years later it still sits on my bookshelf. Not just because it is a fond memory of puppy love – but because it was the first in my vast Stephen King collection.
It was his writing style. There was something about the manner in which he told his stories that captured my attention. I learned that the story wasn’t just about the monsters it was about the characters. The humanity that became so bright and focused in an otherwise dark world. The way he folded in the character’s back stories, the way he could bring to life the description of an otherwise mundane observation and I would think, “I want to write like that.” Later, in high school I would read Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. I would come to Chapter 11 and its just two and a half pages of text. A description of an empty house left behind by its owners. I would almost laugh aloud – I was not alone in my use of imitation, my favorite horror author also borrowed from his favorite authors. Years later my own style would emerge. One that took from many elements such as Matheson, and Hemingway, but that also relied on what I loved about horror movies – motion and dialog. That however would be later, because for the better part of 18 years Stephen King would be my mentor even if he never knew my name.
I might have found King’s work on my own – it seems impossible that a horror fan and writer could not find it. I think the timing however was critical. High school is the development stage for many aspects of life. At the dawn of those four years I discovered King before the distractions of being a full-fledge teenager. Before cars and beer, before rock music and my leather jacket, before cigarettes and my first girlfriend. I discovered King as the sun set on my innocence. His work anchored between the magic of childhood and the twilight of puppy love. Those worlds we would share for many years. I would come to understand that I needn’t write “just like King” – that I could borrow and shape the things I loved and discard those things that I didn’t. And I would learn that life and the experiences we draw on can change an author – even an author like Stephen King. It would be a lesson that would disappoint me, but also inspire me to write my own worlds on my own terms.
I cannot be certain who changed. Was it me and my own quest to be an author or was it Mr. King? We each had a major life change in 1999 – King’s a life threatening accident and mine, the finalization of a two year divorce process. In retrospect, me and Mr. King parted company after the publication of Bag of Bones in 1998. With the exception of his Dark Tower series, every other novel of his since I have struggled to complete. I will not venture to critique an author of King’s stature and status. As a horror writer I can only dream of reaching the heights of such fame. But something changed. One of us did. Perhaps discovering my own voice made his less interesting. Perhaps my treatment of a plot – one that does not included heavy page counts of descriptive text – made his less enjoyable. Maybe after 1999 both of us viewed the world in a different way and those views no longer meshed in the stories.
I continue to buy his novels, although I no longer rush out on day one to purchase. I find mostly that I am impatient with the story telling. 11/22/63 sits unfinished by my bedside. I am unprepared to see if Doc Sleep does the same. I was horrified by the mistakes in Under the Dome, almost as much as I was disappointed by the ending. From my perspective I can’t imagine that the author who wrote The Stand, The Mist and It is the same who wrote these newer stories. Yet still I wonder if maybe the guy who read The Stand, The Mist, and It is the same who read these other stories.
I am and always will be a fan of Stephen King. Even if that is a pre-1999 fan. Those stories are like a set of good memories. They inspired me to become a novelist. His writing and my first love will always be entwined in that final summer before high school. A time when I had to leave childhood behind. And maybe that is the real answer – growing up. My memories of my first love are a sweet and innocent thing. Not shadowed or defined by any of the requirements of a mature relationship or a world of responsibilities. Beautiful because such a lovely ghost can never be compared to things of substance. King’s work became that same ghost when I began in earnest to be my own type of author – when my writing was no longer a childhood summer, but a journey into writing maturity.
All our ghosts come from the past. And those ghosts make the best subjects for a writer’s words. When I sit down at the keyboard it is still a place of black and white Twilight Zone episodes and childhood nightmares. When I fall into my story a part of me always returns to the summer of 1980 – amazed by Stephen King and in love with a 13 year old girl named Margie. But hell, what could be a better place than that?