I can recall two very distinct moments in my childhood that completely changed the course of my life – at least in terms of my reading preferences and my proclivities as a writer.
The first took place sometime in 1980, when I was about nine. I’d always been a voracious reader, with a propensity for the creepier stories or the scifi tales in the children’s section of the library. But truth be told, I have never been genre-monogamous and I read anything I could get my hands on if the first sentence was strong enough to capture my attention. If I’d been asked on the first day of fourth grade, I would have said that my favorite author was Madeleine L’Engle. If I’d been asked on the final day of fourth grade who my favorite author was, I would have replied Stephen King.
At some point in 1980, I discovered my father’s stash of horror paperbacks stacked and wedged against the back wall of a clutter-filled closet in our house. Books with names on them that included Peter Straub, Richard Matheson, and F. Paul Wilson. I don’t remember why I was looking in the closet in the first place. Certainly not because I was seeking reading material. But I do remember picking the first book off the top of the stack. The cover art terrified me and I refused to touch the image when I tentatively opened the book. It was a dark face embossed on a black background. Blood dripped from its lips. The book was ‘Salem’s Lot. The first sentence captured my attention; I wasn’t pulled into the story, I was jerked forward into it headfirst. With a vague feeling that I was doing something illicit, I grabbed three of the books from the pile and hid them in my room. I’d taken that book with the horrifying cover art, along with The Stand and The Shining. My life was forever altered. I snuck back to that closet many times until we moved, treating it like it was my personal library.
Of the Stephen King books I devoured that year, my favorite was The Stand. It was my first exposure to post-apocalyptic fiction. The very idea that the world’s population could be decimated by a virus that didn’t seem too different from the common cold (at least at first), and that a battle of will and courage could play out in that barren landscape was chilling to me. As a nine year old, that seemed entirely too real and too probable. I was, after all, a child of the Cold War and no stranger to paranoia. I fell in love with King’s use of words, his decriptive artistry, and his ability to develop his characters so quickly and effectively that they may as well have been my best friends. When I delved into that literary treasure trove, I had no idea that every story I would write over the next thirty years (and hopefully many decades beyond) would be graced by the influence of Stephen King.
The second event that changed the course of my life as an aficionado of horror came two years later, while visiting a friend’s house. I’ll never know if it was on cable or a video rental (in those halcyon days where Beta and VHS were still battling it out), but I glimpsed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead on the television and that solidified my calling as a writer. I collapsed in a heap in front of the TV, mesmerized. This was another empty world, a post-apocalyptic world like the one I had first encountered in The Stand, but this one was populated by zombies. Gruesome, shambling, hungry zombies. I was hooked. Zombies were now a permanent part of my world.
A few years later I started writing. When I was nine and ten, I told stories. When I was somewhere between the ages of thirteen or fourteen, I started trying to capture those stories on paper. All of those stories were awkward, predictable, and hopelessly juvenile. But most of those stories, and all my stories since, strove to be character-driven, evocative, and inclusive of an element of the horrorific intruding upon the everyday world, or of zombies lurching their way into day-to-day living, of characters that the reader (hopefully) cares about and with whom they have established a sense of rapport.
When I no longer walk this mortal coil, I may leave little else, but at least I will leave my words behind. And I hope that my stories reflect my profound gratitude and deep appreciation for all that my literary and cinematic heroes have given me.
What movies, books, authors, or events shaped your life as a reader or as a writer? I’d love to hear your stories!