A Love Letter to Childhood and Stephen King

I can’t seem to do anything else right now but reread Stephen King books and Jenny Trout’s Fifty Shades recaps, and I really don’t want to write about the latter here, so instead I’m going to write a kind of love letter to the former.

Everyone who knows me is undoubtedly sick of hearing me talk about Stephen King, or, as I like to call him, my problematic father who raised me. That’s a shame, because I’m not even close to being sick of talking about him. Since I either haven’t loved or haven’t finished a lot of his more recent output, I’m going all the way back to my childhood and adolescence to share some of his works that have imprinted themselves on my mind and my heart and, let’s be honest, probably influenced my development and contributed to the person I am now. thanks a lot, Steve.

I. “It”

There are several parts to this first and largest one. In the first part, I’m eight or nine years old, standing petrified in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen while someone, I don’t remember who, is watching it on TV. I want to leave so that I’m no longer hearing what’s happening, but I can’t. Pennywise has reeled me in just like he reeled in Georgie, just like he reeled in all the other dead kids.

Later, I’ll take the most reluctant shower of my life, one during which I aim the showerhead as far from the drain as I can get it, as though that would stop It if it really wanted to get me. For years after, and, if we’re being honest here, right up until the current moment, there will be repeats of that first shower, times when I don’t want to get too near the drain, when I hurry out into the too-cold air before I’m thoroughly dried because the water is gurgling as it runs out and I don’t want to hear any voices down there.

In the next part, I’m only a year or two older, and I’m trying to read the book. The massive, meandering, time-jumping, POV-shifting book full of words and concepts I don’t understand yet. It doesn’t work, but it embeds in me a desperate desire to finish it, someday.

In the next part, I’m another couple of years older still, and I’m in my bedroom, reading the bird scene. You know the one. Mike, in the smokestack, at the Ironworks. I’m home alone, it’s early evening, and I’m terrified. I know I should put the book down and do something else, something brighter and lighter, until my parents get home, but of course I don’t. Because there’s something about that kind of fear. You know what I’m talking about. Something that makes us keep seeking it out, in movies and books and haunted houses and, sometimes, in real life situations. Especially for kids and teenagers, who believe they’re invincible. I keep reading, and it keeps getting later.

In the final part, I’m reading aloud the way I always did when I was young, not to anyone in particular, just because it made the reading better. But sometimes one or the other of my parents would listen, or my sister, or whoever happened to be around. I’m in the car, in the backseat, on the way home from a family gathering, and Bev and Tom are about to sleep together. It’s not nice, not a positive thing for Bev, but even if it had been, my voice would have faded away when I got to, “Sliding into her was like sliding into some exquisite oil.” I understand, now, the things that were beyond me the first time I attempted this book. I read silently from then on, and when my mom asks why I stopped reading aloud, I say I don’t know, I just did.

II. “The Shining”

I don’t know exactly how old I am, mid-teens. I’m in my bedroom again, but this time I’m not home alone. All the more inexplicable, then, that I’m so, so afraid. It’s that woman in the bathtub. She has haunted me all my life since the first moment I read about her.

The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time. She was bloated and purple, her gas-filled belly rising out of the cold, ice-rimmed water like some fleshy island. Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles. She was grinning, her purple lips pulled back in a grimace. Her breasts lolled. Her pubic hair floated. Her hands were frozen on the knurled porcelain sides of the tub like crab claws.

Danny shrieked. But the sound never escaped his lips; turning inward and inward, it fell down in his darkness like a stone in a well. He took a single blundering step backward, hearing his heels clack on the white hexagonal tiles, and at the same moment his urine broke, spilling effortlessly out of him.

The woman was sitting up.

Still grinning, her huge marble eyes fixed on him, she was sitting up. Her dead palms made squittering noises on the porcelain. Her breasts swayed like ancient cracked punching bags. There was the minute sound of breaking ice shards. She was not breathing. She was a corpse, and dead long years.

It’s also the hedge animals, when they start to move, to creep up the path to the fence, to Jack. Miranda laughs about that, but they made me deeply uneasy the first time I read about them, and they still do. I could go into the living room where my mom is watching TV, and eventually I think I do. I tell her I was reading “the Shining” and I actually got scared, and she laughs. But during the reading, all I can do is take another breath and turn another page. Stopping is no more a possibility this time than it was the last, or ever will be in the future. The family drama, the alcoholism, all of Jack’s inner turmoil, that will all be important later, during rereads, but this first time, it’s all about the woman in the tub and the hedge animals and Danny.

III. “Pet Sematary”

I see the movie first, and the absurdity of it puts me off the book for years. I think of it as something a little silly, not well-written, despite having never actually read any of the writing. My mom likes the movie, so we see it more than once. Gauge gets to me, kind of, mostly at night when all manner of things both frightening and not have a much easier entry into your fear spaces.

Finally, because I’m a Stephen King completionist and even as a teenager I have a goal of eventually reading all his published work, I decide to read it one night while my parents are out at a party. This is a theme, if you hadn’t noticed. I’m not known for learning from my mistakes. I huddle under a blanket for hours, immediately enthralled and ultimately so afraid that when my parents come home and the garage door bangs, I almost die of fear right then and there. I hurry into the kitchen, for once needing to be surrounded by voices and activity, and I tell my mom what I’ve been doing. She exclaims in horror, why would I want to do that? I don’t have an answer. I still don’t. It’s a hard one to get through, as much because of the deep, brutal depression hanging over the entire thing as the fear, but, oh, the fear. It’s Pascow I always remember, Pascow who scared me so much, even though he’s not the antagonist.

Something woke him much later, a crash loud enough to cause him to sit up in bed, wondering if Ellie had fallen onto the floor or if maybe Gage’s crib had collapsed. Then the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, flooding the room with cold white light, and he saw Victor Pascow standing in the doorway. The crash had been Pascow throwing open the door.

He stood there with his head bashed in behind the left temple. The blood had dried on his face in maroon stripes like Indian warpaint. His collarbone jutted whitely. He was grinning.

“Come on, Doctor,” Pascow said. “We got places to go.”

Louis looked around. His wife was a vague hump under her yellow comforter, sleeping deeply. He looked back at Pascow, who was dead but somehow not dead. Yet Louis felt no fear. He realized why almost at once.

It’s a dream, he thought, and it was only in his relief that he realized he had been frightened after all. The dead do not return; it is physiologically impossible. This young man is in an autopsy drawer in Bangor with the pathologist’s tattoo—a Y-cut stitched back up—on him. The pathologist probably tossed his brain into his chest cavity after taking a tissue sample and filled up the skull cavity with brown paper to prevent leaking—simpler than trying to fit the brain back into the skull like a jigsaw piece into a puzzle. Uncle Carl, father of the unfortunate Ruthie, had told him that pathologists did that, and all sorts of other random information that he supposed would give Rachel, with her death phobia, the screaming horrors. But Pascow was not here—no way, baby. Pascow was in a refrigerated locker with a tag around his toe. And he is most certainly not wearing those red jogging shorts in there.

Yet the compulsion to get up was strong. Pascow’s eyes were upon him.

He threw back the covers and swung his feet onto the floor. The hooked rug—a wedding present from Rachel’s grandmother long ago—pressed cold nubbles into the balls of his feet. The dream had a remarkable reality. It was so real that he would not follow Pascow until Pascow had turned and begun to go back
down the stairs. The compulsion to follow was strong, but he did not want to be touched, even in a dream, by a walking corpse.

IV. “Bag of Bones”

I first read this in midwinter, and, from then on, it becomes my winter book, despite the fact that it’s set in summer. I check it out from the public library on tape countless times, each reread burying it more indelibly in my consciousness. I never love Mike, but I come to care about Kyra and Mattie so much that I think about them at random moments and am shocked and hurt all over again by the unfairness of their story. I wish for my own John, someone funny and kind and enthusiastic and so, so sweet. I am furious about Max and Rogette, about everything they say and do. I am torn about Sara, at once sympathetic to her story and motivations and deeply upset and frustrated by her methods of revenge.

There are troubling dynamics in Mike and Mattie’s relationship, and Stephen King shows his typical lack of sensitivity or grace in writing about race, but I won’t pretend I care about those things as a teenager first gripped by the story. I don’t. I care about the relationships, but in a simpler way. I want Mike and Mattie to be together because the story wants them to, and I want Kyra to be happy, and I want Mike to be at peace with Jo’s death, and I want John to be friends with everyone and for them to have endless barbecues and picnics and laugh and talk and laugh.

When I’m home alone, again, again, I am made uneasy by Max and Rogette pacing Mike and then throwing rocks at him in the lake. When I fall asleep listening to Stephen King reading me the story and I wake up to Mike talking to a ghost in the cellar, I’m so filled with panic that I’m barely able to turn it off. And every time, no matter how many times I’ve already read it, when I read about Mike’s dream of the shroud thing, I have to take a break and do something soothing before I continue.

I’ll run away, I think. I’ll run back the way I came, like the gingerbread man I’ll run, run all the way back to Derry, if that’s what it takes, and I’ll never come here anymore.

Except I can hear slobbering breath behind me in the growing gloom, and padding footsteps. The thing in the woods is now the thing in the driveway. It’s right behind me. If I turn around the sight of it will knock the sanity out of my head in a single roundhouse slap. Something with red eyes, something slumped and hungry.

The house is my only hope of safety.

I walk on. The crowding bushes clutch like hands. In the light of a rising moon (the moon has never risen before in this dream, but I have never stayed in it this long before), the rustling leaves look like sardonic faces. I see winking eyes and smiling mouths. Below me are the black windows of the house and I know that there will be no power when I get inside, the storm has knocked the power out, I will flick the lightswitch up and down, up and down, until something reaches out and takes my wrist and pulls me like a lover deeper into the dark.

I am three quarters of the way down the driveway now. I can see the railroad-tie steps leading down to the lake, and I can see the float out there on the water, a black square in a track of moonlight. Bill Dean has put it out. I can also see an oblong something lying at the place where driveway ends at the stoop. There has never been such an object before. What can it be?

Another two or three steps, and I know. It’s a coffin, the one Frank Arlen dickered for . . . because, he said, the mortician was trying to stick it to me. It’s Jo’s coffin, and lying on its side with the top partway open, enough for me to see it’s empty.

I think I want to scream. I think I mean to turn around and run back up the driveway — I will take my chances with the thing behind me. But before I can, the back door of Sara Laughs opens, and a terrible figure darting out into the growing darkness. It is human, this figure, and yet it’s not. It is a crumpled white thing with baggy arms upraised. There is no face where its face should be, and yet it is shrieking in a glottal, loonlike voice. It must be Johanna. She was able to escape her coffin, her winding shroud. She is all tangled up in it.

How hideously speedy this creature is! It doesn’t drift as one imagines ghosts drifting, but races across the stoop toward the driveway. It has been waiting down here during all the dreams when I had been frozen, and now that I have finally been able to walk down, it means to have me. I’ll scream when it wraps me in its silk arms, and I will scream when I smell its rotting, bug-raddled flesh and see its dark staring eyes through the fine weave of the cloth. I will scream as the sanity leaves my mind forever. I will scream . . . but there is no one out here to hear me. Only the loons will hear me. I have come again to Manderley, and this time I will never leave.

V. “Night Shift”

It is again midwinter, cold even in the house, in my bedroom, and I’m reading “The Boogeyman”. It is not, in all honesty, either a very scary or very good story, and yet there’s something about it. Something that creeps. Something that unsettles, in the awful way Billings talks, the things he says and the way he regresses into child speak, the way you can almost remember something from your own childhood, the monster you knew was hiding in the closet. I alternate between bursts of reading and then hurrying to the other unoccupied bedroom, where my desktop computer is, to distract myself for a while before gravitating back to the story. I’m not home alone this time, but it doesn’t matter.

I am always drawn to “I Know What You Need”, something in its occult premise calling to me. Something about tenderness, something about ruthlessness. Something about the things love and the need to be loved will drive you to. I say it’s my favorite story in the collection, and maybe, for a while, it is.

My experience with “Sometimes They Come Back” is much like that of “The Shining”. Not home alone, my parents in the living room watching TV, and yet. My bedroom might as well be the only room that exists in the world, isolated from any other life, any other contact. I am as terrified as if I were the one being driven mad by boys who can’t possibly still be boys, summoning the devil himself, seeing my dead brother get his revenge.

I am who knows what age, it could be anywhere from 11 to 16. I’m spending the night, or the weekend, or the week, at Miranda’s house. Her dad is reading “The Ledge” to us. I’m only partially paying attention because I’m sleepy and, as much as Miranda enjoys being read to, I do not. But later, I imagine myself onto the ledge, the wind, the pigeon, and adrenaline spikes through me, even as I’m lying in bed.

Phrases from “Night Surf” and from “The Lawn Mower Man” work their way into the vocabulary of my friendship with Miranda and into our everyday speech, the way we randomly quote the things we love most during situations where they seem to fit. Even if we’re the only ones who know what they mean.

VI.

Stephen King gives me language for things I don’t yet know how to say, comfort for the times in my life when I’m too depressed or too anxious or just too much, familiarity and dependability when nothing else feels familiar or dependable. I can always count on him to be exactly what he is, on his stories to do exactly what they’ve always done. I learn to be critical of him, to acknowledge and not make excuses for the many, many ways he fails. I love other writers more. I love his son Joe Hill’s writing more. My feverish obsession rises and falls. But he’s always there, and always, I come back.

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