Does everyone remember summer camp? I went to a YMCA summer camp, and my best friends there were a heavy kid with glasses whose name was Chris and a thin, tall guy whose name escapes me. It was funny, because back then I had buck teeth and we called each other Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, from The Chipmunks cartoons. We formed a tight little group called The Inner Circle, but soon Simon dropped out and me and Chris were each others' best friends for the summer.
My camp was a day camp in upstate New York, where I spent the summer with my Grandparents. Most days, the camp was happy to see us go at three o'clock and have done with us brats for awhile. But once or twice a summer, we had camp- outs -- bivouacs in the main hall where we watched movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and drank bug juice and ate s'mores. Ah, 1984. This night, someone there had brought a book with them. A lot of us had comics, but we were at camp! Not reading! Reading was for school time! But this kid had a scary book, one with gory pictures. Slowly, it made the rounds from sleeping bag to sleeping bag. Amid the calls of guys asking other guys if they liked Hershey's Squirts and the constant, shrieking scream of boys getting wedgies, the copy of Cycle of the Werewolf fell into my hands. I lay on my stomach in my sleeping bag, entranced. Oh my God, here was a picture of a werewolf ripping a cop's face off! Look at this picture of the kid in the wheelchair throwing firecrackers at the werewolf! Wow! I knew right then that I liked horror. It came all at once, as a revelation. I had discovered horror, and found I wanted that in my life.
Later that summer, my friend Chris stayed over my Grandparents' house with me. My uncle Doug, who was then still young enough to live at my GP's house, had left behind some of his horror comics, and we were reading them intently well after lights out. Then, Chris said "I have to show you something. It's my sister's." He went into his overnight bag and pulled out Creepshow. "You gotta see the bug picture!" Chris said, grinning ear to ear, turning to the last page and showing me the panel of cockroaches streaming out of Upton Pratt's mouth. Again, I was in love. It's a sick thing, I guess.
Now, at this point, I didn't connect the fact that Cycle and Creepshow were done by the same man. And I didn't get the irony that I was becoming a King fan instead of a Berni Wrightson fan until much later -- after all, it was his pictures I was loving. The words were secondary at that point. After that point, I began to pay more attention in English classes. I've always enjoyed lists of things, and I found the lists of prepositions and exceptions to rules and singulars and plurals fascinating. Soon, words were making sense to me in a new way, in an exciting way. I'd always been a reader, but until that point my reading consisted of kid's stuff like The Borrowers and Dear Mr. Henshaw and Narnia and Roald Dahl. Around the time I turned ten, I began to notice books had actual subject matters and genres. I just hadn't connected the facts of my like of horror comics and films to the facts of horror books. In rapid succession, I read The Thing at the Foot of the Bed (by Maria Leach), Haunted, by Judith St. George, and all those 13 Minute-After-Midnight stories books. My Dad began to worry that he had a reader on his hands, but when he saw the subject matter I liked, he was cool with it. I still hid the Judy Blume from him. :)
A couple of years passed. Uncle Doug, way up there in New York, had gone away to college, and my Grandparents were doing some cleaning. They sent my Dad, who read mostly technothrillers in the Clive Cussler vein, a box of Doug's old books. I didn't pay much attention to them -- they were "adult" books, and they looked far too big for me to read. My dad didn't pay much attention to them, either, and the books went into the basement with all the other useless crap my Grandparents pawn off on everyone.
One day, while looking around in the basement, I stumbled on the box. I opened it and found a whole bunch with the name Stephen King on them. The titles looked freaky -- one had a bandaged hand with eyes on it. One had an orange cover with skulls going down a highway. One was mostly black except for a claw coming out of a sewer grate. I took a lot of them out of my box and up to my room. This was where my habit of putting books I don't really intend to read on my shelf because they look good began. They sat there, spines out, for months.
Then, I got grounded. For whatever reason is lost in the annals of time, but I was some angry. I'd read all the small books in my room, and I was frustrated enough to pick up that orange book with the skulls on it: The Bachman Books. I opened it, and discovered that it wasn't one long book -- it was four little ones. I pinched the thickness of pages between Rage and The Long Walk and discovered it wasn't much bigger than what I read usually. Cool!
I lay down on my bed and read Rage. I believe I finished it in one sitting, and was blown away at the language, the situation, the fact that books like this existed. Judy Blume did not prepare me for this thing. The characters were real, Charlie Decker somehow got into my head and described what it was like to be an outsider and a loner in a world of adults and cliques. I picked up Night Shift after that and devoured some of the stories there: “The Mangler,” “The Boogeyman,” “The Ledge.” One story struck me odd: “The Last Rung on the Ladder.” What was that story doing in a book of scary tales? It was sad, sure, but not scary at all. I mentally shrugged and just said, well, that stuff was cool, too.
I remember the next big step because I like to make a production of everything. I was twelve years old, and I stood in front of my bookshelf for twenty minutes, trying to decide whether or not to pick up this huge mega-book up off the shelf. I'll never finish it, I thought. Never in a million years. The book was It. I picked it up, and got lost in the world of Derry for two weeks. The first scene grabbed me with such an intense feeling of terror and I found the book really didn't let up. I was exhilarated; was a STORY actually doing this to me?
I discovered something else while reading It. I was not being led down a long, scary hallway alone. No way. I had The Loser's Club with me, and when you are lonely and twelve, you discover that fictional characters can be your friends. I was hooked on Stephen King, but I still had a ways to go. I entered into a fairly progressive high school that had a fairly impressive library. I was writing a lot at that time, and I had noticed that my stories were all tiny little horror vignettes. My girlfriend at the time, Karen, was beginning to notice that my writing was getting better. The best moment of my life when I was 14 and a high school freshman was hearing my girlfriend tell me that my stories were getting more adult. Sorry, got a little lost in memory lane there.
I found myself always in the "K" section of the library. But I'd begun to realize I was taking a lot of books out but never finishing them. That was my big thing back then. I read very slowly and I was never finished with a book in time for it to be returned in the two weeks. I remember specifically my librarian giving me a ride home once after she recommended The Tommyknockers to me. She had to run a little errand, and while she was in the store, I read the first page of that book: "For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost..." That was as far as I got on that book then.
That same year, my Dad bought me Pet Sematary and I read a lot of it in an attic in a cabin I didn't live in during a rainstorm. I got some vocabulary from that: I found I was saying "metabolism" wrong, with the accent on the third syllable. And the phrase "You're gonna give me a complex" circled around my fam for awhile before my stepmother got fed up with it.
I went to go live with my Mom a year later. The summer I moved in, I began to take the bus from near my house to the larger city a town over every weekend. I would go into the bookstore in the square, then go across the street and watch a movie at the theater. One day, I discovered a large paperback display rack of The Dark Half. It was the first book I ever bought for myself, little 15-year-old me. I thought it was cool.
I began a trend, going into the bookstore on the weekends, buying a Stephen King book, and beginning the read while waiting for the movie to start. I remember sitting on the steps inside the movie theater reading the first chapter of The Dead Zone, marveling at how terrific this stuff was. Eventually, I bought The Tommyknockers in paperback for myself, and I found I actually liked the book. One of the most surreal moments of my life was bringing The Tommyknockers to my Mom's AA meeting, reading about Jim Gardener, drunk. Weird, man.
I was actually finishing books at this point, and becoming a bigger King fan daily. My Mom thought it was a little weird, but she decided that it was my life and reading wouldn't warp me as much as smack. In 1990, the year I turned 16, I bought the books The Stephen King Companion, by George Beahm and The Stephen King Quiz Book, by Stephen Spignesi. As I read them both, I discovered there was more to King, more meat than just the stories. I've always been a reader, but I never really understood why I liked what I liked. With these two books, I began to look closer, examine things like tone, mood and subtext. What really kick-started me, though, was the film version of Misery. So, I'm not a psychotic fan. But I remember sitting in the dark with my buddy Patrick, watching the film, and seeing Annie Wilkes' shelf of paperbacks AND hardcovers. Hey, I never thought of that! I can have BOTH!
That Christmas, my Mom bought me The Stand (Uncut), and Four Past Midnight, in hardcover, among many paperbacks. They were the first real hardcover books I owned, and my love for books in general and King books in particular grew. In 1991, I made my own hardcover purchase for the first time, paying for Needful Things out of my paper route money.
Years pass. Stephen King becomes the most important author in the universe to me. At this time, I'm living on my own and now have King books and posters everywhere. I am the fanboy. I begin to go to used bookstores in Boston, and I discover the lure of limited editions. I bought The Talisman without a slipcase for $60 that I couldn't really afford, and started to buy alternative cover paperbacks. I discovered a huge cache of old Castle Rock newsletters and bought most of them up. Life as a fan is good.
But no one shares this love of King with me. No one seems to understand. My friends that are readers -- well, wait, I didn't have any reader friends. Frustration! One night, I walked to the library to take out a King book on audio when saw the computers there now offered Internet connection. I'd heard of the Internet, but didn't really know what it was. The librarian there (woo-hoo to ALL librarians out there, by the way!) helped me out, and soon I was surfing the web. Of course, I typed in "Stephen King" first -- anything and everything I could find out about King was my motto. I found some fan pages that were chock full of info about the upcoming The Green Mile series, and I got really excited. Eventually, I clicked on something called Russian Stephen King page. There, I found something called SKEMERs.
Since SKEMERs, I've actually met one of my major influences, George Beahm. I've proofread his books and contributed columns to his newsletter. I've become his friend, and the friend of my other major influence, Stephen Spignesi. It still blows my mind that I just casually chat with these guys, and people like Jim Cole and Stu Tinker. Weird. And that’s how I became a Stephen King fan.