Tales of a Fourth Grade Stephen King Addict

Posted: 10/03/2011 in Horror, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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!

  1. Stephen King was a big influence for me too! I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever published.

    • blackalchemy says:

      I love hearing about the impact he’s made on other writers! Do you have any particular favorite books of his? He is an incredible role model for me as a writer… and I still read his books like a junkie. 🙂

  2. The Stand is one of my all time favourite books joined by Pet Sematery, The Shining and (currently re-reading) Black House. I love the way Stephen King makes the implausable and downright impossible not only believable but utterly terrifying. If I can write one paragraph to his standard in my entire life I’ll be happy. My quite wonderful husband just got me his entire catalogue for kindle. That’s my bedtimes sorted oooh… forever!

    • blackalchemy says:

      Best. Gift. Ever! Happy reading and re-reading! 🙂

      Black House is marvelous, I need to give that one another read! I love how you worded it so well – King’s gift is his ability to make the implausible so horribly feasible and terrifying. I totally relate to striving to write just one paragraph, just one, with the same level of skill and artistry. You can do it! Keep writing and best wishes!

      • It’s hard to pick one favorite, but I have a very distinct memory of finishing It. I picked it up from the library when I was fifteen. It was the longest book I had ever attempted at the time. It’s sheer girth was intimidating, but I read it in two days. I couldn’t put it down! I loved how the time lines intermingled and how you could see the characters grow from children to adults. Not to mention the cool, evil alien. King’s craft is strong!

  3. blackalchemy says:

    @trawlingforgators I remember lugging my paperback of It around and trying to jam it into the back pocket of my jeans (1000+ page epic fail). That book remains one of my favorites! I had never seen that technique of weaving together two storylines involving the same characters in different time periods before, and it was – like you mentioned – pulled off seamlessly!

  4. Paul D. Dail says:

    Wow, if I was ever supposed to have a sister (instead only had two brothers), I have a feeling you would’ve been she (too early to know if that’s correct grammar, but I think it is).

    This read very similar to some of my thoughts. I find it interesting that you also mentioned that you were a child of the Cold War. I think this has affected our generation in many ways (as well as just my writing). And when it comes to The Stand, it made it into my blog post, “My own Works Cited list: 10 books that have inspired me” for many of the same reasons. And in 1980, that means you read the original release. I’m guessing you have read the unabridged version since.

    Anyway, great post. While I don’t read as much horror as I used to (now I’m like you were in the 4th grade… searching for any good story, regardless of genre), King will always hold a dear and dark place in my heart.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • blackalchemy says:

      I love that sense of kinship and the commonality of experience that brings writers and readers together! I also really enjoy hearing from other writers who have been influenced in style, technique, or genre by the writers they admire. It validates my long-held belief that stories matter and that writers do make a difference.

      I think the Cold War engendered in many of us kids a strong sense of paranoia and an impending sense of inevitable destruction. We grew up believing Brezhnev had his finger hovering over the Button. I know that has influenced my fiction, darkened it, heightened the tension and cynicism.

      I’ve actually lost count of how many times I’ve read both versions of The Stand. 🙂

      Paul, you have an exemplary blog. I am enjoying exploring it, and recommend it to others who love words, writing, and of course, horror. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and let’s keep churning out these dark tales in solidarity!

  5. Heh, I do believe ‘Salem’s Lot was the first book I read by King as well…must’ve been in 1978 or so. Then The Stand, The Shining, Firestarter…never did read Carrie though!

    • blackalchemy says:

      ‘Salem’s Lot and the Shining was the one-two knockout punch for me – hopelessly addicted after that! I don’t think I read Carrie until I saw Brian DePalma’s movie fo it several years later. As a kid, it held less fascination for me than, well, vampires and the evil entities populating the Overlook! 🙂

  6. Wren Andre says:

    Holy crap! It’s like reliving my childhood!;-) The Stand will always be that seminal work of fiction that informs everything that I love about dystopian fiction. I have reread that thing so many times – including the uncut version – it’s ridiculous. It is one of the few original books of my childhood that has survived all of my many moves through the years. Stephen King will always be my first muse when it comes to story-telling.

  7. subtlekate says:

    You’ve made a mother feel better. My 10 year old son has been taking the Stephen Kings off my book shelf, one by one, and I was concerned, but when I look back to being 10 I remember doing the same. Thanks for reminding me.

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