Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's the way we answer the question, How can such things be? Stories suggest that sometimes -not always, but sometimes, there's a reason

I've fallen in love with more than one writer, during the course of my life: I've talked before about how I'm a certified Noraholic, and how the fact that there isn't a new Harry Potter book coming out this summer (or any summer, :sob:) makes me want to cry. But it's always been this way for me: loving books, loving writing, loving writers.

Even at a young age, the ability of Laura Ingalls Wilder to make me feel like I was living in the Great House in the Big Woods (where children would rejoice to receive oranges in their stockings), or of Louisa May Alcott to convince me that maybe having three sisters (at that point, I only had three sisters) wasn't, in fact, the worst thing in the world, seemed like magic. Beverly Cleary got me through some tough times with her Ramona, who was as much of a pest as I was, and poor Anne, out there on Prince Edward Island, trying to make the most of her dratted red hair and freckles, was not just a friend, but a true Bosom Friend to me. Probably, a lot of young girls - young, literate girls, anyways - could say the same. Even today, I'm pretty sure I could find an eight year old who - while everyone else is outside hooping and hollering (or inside playing Call of Duty, more likely) - is alone in her room, crying, because Amy just fell through the ice, and maybe Jo and Laurie won't be able to pull her back out in time.

But the summer I turned eleven, I fell in love with an author so inappropriate that even my grandmother - a fifth grade teacher and stout supporter of my right to read "anything you can get your hands on and your mind around" - was appalled. That was the summer I fell in love with Stephen King. Later on, when I got to high school, I would find out that boys had also fallen in love with Stephen King around the same time, but I didn't know that then, or that he had fan clubs aplenty and movie directors vying for his next, scariest Baddie. At the time, I felt like it was I alone who had discovered him, like he was writing just for 11 year-old, gawky, and often times completely invisible, me.

The book was It - not his most famous book, perhaps, but surely the cause of more than one person (including my younger sister)'s coulrophobia. It was around a thousand, tissue thin pages of absolute terror, which, had I known what I was getting myself into, I more than likely would never have started. In fact, although it was the first book that made me feel like I was on my way to being a grown-up, I only started reading It for the most childish of reasons - because someone told me I couldn't. Between getting the rare kibosh from my Nana and my older (male) cousin's insistence that there was no way I'd be able to read it the whole way through - because I was a girl, and would get too scared - I basically had no choice but to read it. And the thing is, I think King would have gotten that, might even have gotten a kick out of it: the whole 'I dare you, chicken/ this is forbidden' vibe. Of course, that's exactly the kind of vibe It wound up having, so sometimes, maybe, the book you pick picks you instead.

I remember lying on my bed, in the middle of a summer afternoon - windows open, cars zooming by, other kids outside running through the yard, every so often yelling at me to 'come and play' or taunting me for being a 'four eyed bookworm' (back when I wore my glasses just for close-up work) - reading this book. Knowing that I had to finish this chapter (or the next chapter, or the next) before the sun went down, because there was no way I was reading it in the dark of my room by streetlights that night. Something I would have no problem doing with any other book, certainly. I often think, now, that if I had known about Joey's trick of putting a scary book in the freezer, the pages of that first copy of It might have frozen off, instead of worn down over the years. And, while it was - by far - the most frightening thing I had ever read, that is not what kept me reading.

What kept me reading, aside from the hope that the scariest-ass clown in the entire universe would eventually get what was coming to him, was the people. A bunch of eleven year old nobodies, playing around in the overgrown wilderness on the edge of their town, ignored by just about everybody, brought together through a series of chances, and calling themselves the Losers. A real group of Losers, who were like kids I knew (hell - they were like the kid I was), who wound up taking on the biggest, baddest Evil of all time - a timeless Evil, even - with their slingshots and asthma inhalers and the knowledge that if they didn't do it, nobody else would. That's all they had - the idea that it had to be done, the certainty that nobody else was going to do it, and each other.

And the fact that the author - a grown-up - understood that sometimes kids have things that are so big, they can't tell their parents, or their sisters, or anybody who wasn't there and felt it too. That sometimes they do things that are so out of the realm of possibility of who they normally are, it's hard to imagine it was them. That kids have lives of their own, even at eleven, and that they have So. Much. Power. - the idea that King got that, and got it enough to write such this book, was like magic to me.

It still is - maybe even more so now that I'm a grown-up. Now that I have a nephew who is eleven, and I cringe to think of what his own power might have to be used for, or what his private world might consist of, and I see just how easy it is to pretend that it just doesn't exist. That kids are just kids, and not young people. It's amazing to me that anybody is able to remember that experience - and retell it in such a powerful, truthful way.

I quickly glommed all of his other books - I am a backlist whore, more often than not: if you write something I like, I must read everything else you've ever put down on paper - and many of them, particularly the short story collections, also became favorites. The Mist , is my mom's favorite, and it still turns up to tickle my brain on a day like today when the sky couldn't be grayer, and even the headlights don't cut through the fog enough to show you which way you want to go. I loved The Body , another story about kids and powerful friendships - and Stand By Me, the movie they made out of it, of course: I can't read it now without Richard Dreyfuss doing the voice over in my head. Pet Semetary and The Stand, Needful Things and, later Insomnia all sped their way through my head and into my heart (and my keeper shelves): the only King books I didn't immediately like were from the Gunslinger series, and I think that's just because I wasn't a fantasy reader when I read them: they're certainly in my TBR pile now.

And when he wrote his tome On Writing , the writer in me rejoiced. (And cried - my previously friendly relationship with adverbs had to come to an abrupt halt. I wrote that last sentence just for him. ) It is still one of my top two books on writing ever: it makes sense (King's writing style is both chummy and no-nonsense); it talks about writing as a J O B (not just something any fool can sit down and do, as some people might purport) that you have to get up and do every day, but also as "magic" (which is what it winds up feeling like, if you ever finish anything); and manages to balance the menial (grammar and editing) with the grandiose ("And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a Wilkes'-eye-view of the world - if I can make you understand her madness - then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She's more frightening than ever, because she's close to real.")

The majority of Stephen King's writing is creepy, sure. His books, more often than not, will keep you awake at night. And that's why I can go years without reading them - when things are already heavy, when your grandmother has cancer or your own body is betraying you yet again or when everything after "wake up in the morning" on your to-do list seems like an impossibility, it can be hard (at least for me) to be reading about other people's terrors and nightmares - I'm the kind of reader who looks for happy endings when I'm stuck in the middle, a shining light instead of more dark. But sometimes, that extra dark is just what you're looking for. Sometimes, even if you're not looking for it, it turns out to be what you need.

This weekend I culled through my (bookcase-sized) To Be Read pile, and pulled out one of King's latest, Full Dark, No Stars , yet another short story collection. (I think if I had known that it wasn't a full length novel, I would've tackled it before now, but that belongs in another story - about the overwhelmingness of my TBR pile - as opposed to this one.) It was a horrifying and overwhelming read, for one reason: because each of the stories was all too real. Almost too true.

There are four short stories, each build around a significantly simple premise -
You've killed your wife;
A short cut leads you very far astray;
There's a price to pay for everything (but you sometimes might be willing to pay it);
You never really know anyone, not even those you love the most

- and goes off in directions that only King could take them. The best part, for me, was - as I was fumbling for my sticky notes and trying to count how many pages until the end of this story, because could it really end this way? - finding out, or remembering really, that I am still in love with King. He's not my steady, any more: I find I need more happily ever afters as I get older - but he's still my guy & I'm still his "Constant Reader", and when the afterword comes (oh, how I love a good afterword, and King never disappoints) , I know that I'll be back again to see him sometime.

And even though I realize that he'll most likely greet me with some paralyzing glimpse into the darkness of my own soul - or down the sewers of any given city - I find that I'm more than looking forward to it.

*The Post title quote is, of course, from Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars.

1 comment:

Sue Jackson said...

Wat a wonderful ode to books! I read every word and just loved it.

I am also a book lover from way back and spent my childhood immersed in fiction...I;m not sure exactly how old I was when I discovered Stephen King, but I know I read every novel he wrote while I was in high school - my mom, dad, and I passed them around the house. I loved IT...though I can't imagine reading it at 11 - must have been scary!

I'm sure you know this after all these years, but I write two book blogs.

Read on!!