Almost two decades. It’s weird to think that much time has passed since my mom bought me that hardcover of Nightmares and Dreamscapes Christmas of my twelfth year. Before this of course I was reading nothing but those Goosebumps books. They were all the rage with the middle school set back in… Jesus, was it really 1996? Did such a year really exist all those years ago? Did Pogs really exist? Were OK Soda, Sifl and Olly on MTV after school, and video stores really around? The memories are like old photographs from outdated cameras. Those pictures you used to have to shake to get a clear visual of. The ones you had to wait to see how they turned out.
I remember it was hard to read. Not just because it was one of the very first adult books I’d ever delved into, only shortly after I’d read The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton. I mean it was literally hard to read, as the hardcover was heavy for my little twelve-year old forearms to lift.
I read most of that hardcover of Nightmares with the scarecrow on it on a trip my parents took from our home state of Massachusetts down to South Carolina. My grandparents had a time-share there, and to save money on airfare, my dad decided to drive down.
I remember being in the back of a mini van, reading by a flashlight. Reading about the Ten O’ Clock People. I have no idea why, of all the stories in the collection, The Ten O’ Clock People is the one I remember most vividly. Perhaps, because it seemed so adult to a twelve-year-old. People on cigarette breaks from their adult jobs, except they were seeing these weird monsters that passed themselves off as human. In that strange way memory works, like those pictures you have to shake that sometimes didn’t come out, the only thing I really remember understanding from the story back then was that quitting cigarettes was hard, and that batmen could in fact be seen if you smoked cigs, and then tried to quit.
Why I don’t remember about Dolan’s Cadillac as strongly is utterly beyond me. I was in a car reading it, you’d think that would be the one that stuck out. But I digress.
To be frank, I remember the weight of Nightmares and Dreamscapes more than I remember the content of the book itself. Like the first time you learn to do something, how what you often remember is the first time you were proficient at it. Not how you finally learned how to stay up on that bike without training wheels, but rather the time you rode down the street to go get pizza with some friends.
The first King book I really remember the plot of was ‘Salem’s Lot. I was huge into vampires, my mother having those Vampire Lestat books all over the house, and she waxing poetic on Dracula, and her no doubt reading me stories of vampires. So, when I went into a text by this really cool author who wrote about monsters and scary adult stuff, and it was about vampires, you can bet I was over the damn moon.
I still remember the cover was a pale vampire, with fangs out, and neon purple outlining his face, against the black. It was the Signet edition. I remember being really creeped out by the town, by the Martsen house. My family had moved from a house on a busy street in another town, to a larger house on a quiet street in a very rural town. The move no doubt had a lot to do with the resonance the novel had with me.
By that summer I was verily King obsessed. And, it was time for my family to go on our yearly summer vacation to the Samoset Resort in Rockport, Maine.
I grew up in Massachusetts. Yes, we’re a state in New England, but well, we’re not like Maine. Maine is a way bigger state. And, most importantly, Maine has some woods you can really, truly get lost in. Maine has small towns sorta like Jersusalem’s Lot. Not that they’re full of vampires, but they are very small.
There’s a different vibe to the state. Things move slower. Or, maybe people from Massachusetts are just really hyper. Who knows? Point is, you can’t spend any time in Maine without hearing something about Stephen King. Hell, I’d argue you can’t go anywhere in New England without hearing something about him. But, back in the 90s, you really couldn’t escape his looming shadow.
For the first time, in that summer of my twelfth year, I noticed there was a picture of Stephen King in the lobby of The Samoset Resort. He had those signature coke bottle glasses on, the frames of which seem to be a favorite among serial killers and computer programmers if you go through pictures of either from the late 80s and 90s. For some reason he also had a mustache, a green button up shirt, and green cowboy boots. I’m not making this up, if you ever happen by The Samoset Resort in Maine, go check.
At some point that year my mom told me her friends used to be neighbor’s with the Kings in Maine. They told her how he owned a pink Cadillac he kept in the driveway, and how there was a black iron fence with bats on the top outside the house.
My grandfather on my mom’s side grew up in Maine, too. We’re pretty close, gramps and me.
So, you see, all of these things, my relatives and my mom’s friends from Maine, our yearly vacation to a resort in Maine King had, it turned out, visited, and my budding young imagination, everything combined that summer to put me in the prime head space for The Gunslinger, the first book in The Dark Tower series.
The Gunslinger hit me like a slap to the face. I was never one of those kids that liked cowboys before this. And suddenly here’s this story about a desert, and a mythical cowboy with hands fast as lighting. Here’s this story about a man in black, a magician who wants to set The Dark Tower to toppling, destroying everything. For the Tower is everything, friends. It holds up our very existence on it. And here’s me, reading about a boy named Jake, who wakes up in Roland’s universe. Jake, who was alive in New York City, until he was pushed into traffic and died.
I became Jake that summer. And King himself was Roland. I was following the path of the beam; a path this man who grew up not so very far away from where I grew up wrote about. And I got the sense that King was never very far off, you understand? It sounds very silly, but it almost seemed that summer like I was meant to read The Gunslinger.
I finished The Gunslinger, and needed to read more of the books in the series. I needed to read more Stephen King. I became down right fanatical.
It all started with that one book my mom probably bought me for Christmas because she wanted to encourage me to read. I’m sure she didn’t think that two decades later, I’d have two tattoos on my body dedicated to King’s fiction. I’m sure she didn’t think I’d spend so much time and energy reading so much Stephen King.
You see, the power of Stephen King has always been that he has put himself into his stories. King has never been afraid to get personal with his fiction. But I would argue another layer of the onion, once peeled, is that for people in New England, especially in the 90s, King was like a rock star, like an actor, like a famous athlete. King was always around the corner, you understand? He always seemed like you might see him at a Red Sox game, or see him getting an orange Crush at a gas station at a rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire. So, when you get someone who is so honest with their fiction, throwing so much of themselves into it, and then you come to find out he likes to ham it up in credit card ads, and likes to see his picture in the magazines, and likes to cameo in some of the adaptations of his work into films, or mini series…
I still feel like he’s just around the corner. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away, to be honest. And, I’m also not sure if I should be thrilled, or a little irked out by this feeling. After all, this is also a guy who wore serial killer glasses for many, many, many years before finally switching them up. This is a guy who, when he was about the age I was when I got Nightmares and Dreamscapes, used to collect newspaper clippings of killer Charles Starkweather.
Deep down, down where the memories sit in an album on a shelf in my mind, I know the important thing is the feelings his fiction evoked in me; is the way the fiction, and learning about the man made me feel about myself. The importance of Stephen King in my life, particularly in the 90s, was, and has always been, that he’s made me realize the power of the imagination, and the power of image. The reason King’s fiction was so pivotal, and say, Crichton’s was not, is that Crichton never seemed like he could have been someone like me.
Almost two decades, man. So many words. So many books. That’s a lot of time. That’s a life time for some.
You might be wondering, so what? So a horror nerd got a good PR team, and you ate it right up, so what’s the big deal, who cares?
I gotta’ be like one of those hippies from Woodstock in my response. You had to be there, man. I can’t really explain it to you.