Pivot Points

Today I read a mini-article by Paul Tremblay about how a Joyce Carol Oates story literally inspired him to become more of a reader, and then a writer. His novels, especially the latest two, are pretty damned good. (Nothing at all wrong with the others, but there’s something special about the books he’s putting out now). I got to thinking about how we’ve always got pivot points in our lives. Moments that define who we were BEFORE the event, and who we become AFTER.

A lot of my pivot stories are by Stephen King. This post is about the first one, mostly.

I used to go to the Buena Park Library with my grandma when I was a kid. I checked out everything by Robert Louis Stephenson and Edgar Allan Poe. I think I read Treasure Island four times, and I know that I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at least twice that. I kept returning to them, decoding their language with more and more accuracy after every pass. Their stories were puzzles, and I cut my reading teeth on their tales.

I graduated to the Adult Section of the library when I realized that the alphabetically-organized rows contained fiction. I didn’t want to read about gardening or engineering or how to take care of babies. I wanted murder and betrayal and starships. (I had also, at this point, been indoctrinated into genre by Tolkien and Asimov, but those guys were both a little stuffy for me. I read them, sure, but was never what you could call a fan.)

I started judging books by their covers. I’d walk up and down the stacks while my grandma sat in a reading nook. I’d run my fingertips along the spines, A – Z, pulling out anything that caught my attention. A title, a color, a semi-familiar last name … whatever. Then I’d crack open the hardcovers and read the blurb copy. If it sounded good, I’d flip to the first few pages and give it a read. If a stool was around, I’d sit on it. If not, I’d just plop myself down right there in the stacks and start reading.

It was a pretty great summer. I’ve always thought I was 12, but doing the math I’m pretty sure I was 11. I would turn 12 that September, after I’d already found myself a copy of a book called Skeleton Crew.

I hadn’t seen a book of short stories since Poe, and this Stephen King guy sounded scary. I don’t know if the jacket copy called him the Master of Horror on that book, or on one of the other ones on the shelves (King immediately met my prerequisite for trying a new author — he had lots of books I could read for free), but his publisher got their point across. I like chills and thrills. I stayed up late on weekends so I could watch Tales from the Crypt on HBO. I lamented the passing of Eerie, Indiana. I was a horror kid before I knew that horror was even a genre.

The first page without a title had three words, and I’ll admit they made me frown.

Do you love?

If Peter Falk hadn’t taught me the merits of a kissing book in The Princess Bride, then my life might’ve been vastly different. Instead, I flipped past it, and past the Introduction (almost another deal-breaker — only school books had intros) and I jumped right into the first story. “The Mist”. Part I was called “The Coming of the Storm”, and then … oh, and THEN. That first line. King says he cribbed it from another author, but those four simple words were enough to hook me.

This is what happened.

I sat there for a long time. By the time I got to Part II, I got up with the book and ran to my grandma and freaked out. I BEGGED her to check it out for me. I needed it.

“Sure,” she said.

The librarian at the check-out counter was like a character out of one of King’s stories. She actually sniffed at it, proclaiming it to be junk. “He just writes bad words and murders.”

I panicked. I remember panicking. I looked to my grandma, who didn’t really take that kind of shit from anyone. In her Rhode Island accent she said, “Mind your business.” She put the book in my hands, just so the librarian knew who was going to be reading that monster book of bad words and murder.

To date, I’ve read almost every published thing by King I could get my hands on. I don’t love it all, and some I downright hate, but he unlocked a modern world that had been built upon the backs of Stephenson and Poe. He wasn’t shy about sharing his influences, either (those Introductions and Afterwords became Must-Read lists to me, leading me to Bradbury, to James M. Cain, to Lovecraft and John D. MacDonald and Shirley Jackson.) I read Straub and Koontz and Anne Rice, too — they were always put on the same displays at Waldenbooks with Uncle Stevie — but none of them caught hold of me the same way.

“The Mist” was my first, but not my last. The Gunslinger came later that year — a secret Santa Christmas present from a girl named Natalie at St. Polycarp, the Catholic school my grandma put me in for 7th grade. I read that book four times over the Christmas break, but I was a shy and terrible little boy and I don’t even know if I thanked her beyond that first time. Natalie, wherever you are, you gave one of the best goddamned gifts I’ve ever been given. I never talked to anyone at that school about anything real, but you must’ve seen me reading Night Shift under the tree during recess. Let it be known that King can “Revise” and update all he wants, the first edition’s the one for me. I love the Dark Tower, but I can do without the dialect gibberish. And then I was sick the entirety of the following Spring Break and my Uncle Larry gave me The Stand.

There are literally dozens of other stories in other moments, but this blog post has gone on too long. Guys, I’ve got some REAL writing to do.

This is abrupt, but that’s what happens when you realize your procrastinating. Ask me about a King story any time, and I’ll talk your ear off. I didn’t even get to discuss Larry Underwood yet.

Another topic for another time.

Just know that at any time you might open a book and read a pivot story and not even know it.

Here’s hoping that fate sends you spinning in fortunate directions.

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