This morning, I read a piece by Patton Oswalt over at Vulture, about his lifetime of reading Stephen King novels. It got me thinking about the books I first read growing up, and the King novel that was one of my most formative reading experiences. It shaped me as a writer, though I didn’t recognise it until just a few years ago.
I remember the first book I read on my own was Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I’ve written about this at length but I’ll recap here for those who don’t know: it was my drug-dealer of a step-father who got me to read it in the first place. He bet me $10 I couldn’t finish a book (I was a skinned-knee tarmac kid, at home on the street) and I took him up on it. He picked the perfect book. Magic, knights, kings and queens and witches — I was hooked.
The next book I picked up was Excalibur by Bernard Cornwall, a book I barely understood at that young age (I was 10 or so), but which I loved anyway. It had Arthur, and Merlin, so I was sold. After the success of Harry Potter in my household, my mum got on board the give-the-kids-books-to-shut-them-up train, and began using it as a tactic to keep us occupied. My brother didn’t really take to it much, though he did like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, saying of it, “It was all right. The bit at the end with fire letters in the air? That was sick.”
Though he seemed to think this book or that book was okay, it was clear he only ever really did it under duress or when there was nothing else to do –this was pre-internet, by and large. For me, however, I felt as though a door had been opened inside my chest, one I wasn’t aware existed before and it said, look, there are whole worlds out here. There’s magic. A concept that stunned my tiny, disheveled little self. To this day, I feel as though until that moment, the geographic map in my head included about three streets, three places: home, school, my aunty’s.
Thereafter, it was limitless, and the idea of there being a vast universe out there unfurled in my mind. I don’t think I was altogether conscious that these were fictional worlds either, they were experiences I lived, that jolted through my body, kept me up at night, and invaded my dreams. It was so much better than the mean world I knew, the pain and loneliness. That said, there were never very many books in the house, and I recall one night, my mum telling us to go and read.
We didn’t have any books, we told her. Well, she did. So she went into her room and came out with three books, two Stephen King books, one John Grisham. She said, with casual thoughtlessness. ‘I’m going to give you each a book. First one to finish gets a prize.’
Thoughtless because, while high, she made many promises. Very few were ever kept. In any case, I was given Rose Madder, my brother had Four Past Midnight and my sister, The Runaway Jury. I might’ve been 11 or 12 at this point, I’m not totally certain. The book, if you don’t know already, is about an abused woman who flees from her violent husband. I still remember the opening vividly, the one drop of blood on her pillow that sparks her flight.
Though entirely straightforward for the majority of the book, and despite my age, I was riveted. Dread lines her every thought, every sentence, the certainty that her husband Norman – a cop – was going to catch her. As a kid living in an often abusive, neglectful household, against a backdrop of violence and drugs, seeing elements of my life reproduced on the page was huge. I was not alone. There were others suffering out there. Here was a different kind of book, not taking me on flights of wonder, or to some new world, but very much in our own.
Then something strange started to happen. Long after she’s escaped, Rose picks up an odd painting in a shop. A painting that seemed to change every now and then, a painting which she could not stop thinking about. Eventually, she steps through it, into the painted landscape. She’s never sure if what’s happening is real, if it is in fact changing, if she can travel inside it or if she’s suffered a nervous breakdown. From there on, reality warps. Becomes like a dreamscape, with the ever-encroaching Norman increasingly nightmarish, increasingly a literal evil.
That book marked me, twisted me every bit as surely as that painting twisted reality for Rose. Especially for a kid that already had trouble distinguishing between dreams and waking, between fiction and life. I don’t think I’ve ever been as afraid or as entranced with a story since. Reading it passed like a fever, a sickness that wracked me with chills, and left in a haze of sordid after-images. And yet, when I began writing my own stories half a decade later, I’d largely forgotten it entirely.
I’d been reading YA and adult fantasy solidly since then. So you’d think the stories I first started to write would be about kings and queens, knights and wizards, but they weren’t. Still aren’t, broadly speaking. They were all resolutely set in the here and now, all concerned with obsession and murder, but always with some weirdness involved. I recall one of my friends saying, ‘Man, have you noticed how all your characters seem to die horribly? Or no, get transformed into something?’
I had, in fact. I just didn’t know why. I seemed to live and breathe horror, though my diet was one of action, adventure, and fantasy. Horror films definitely had their part to play but it was that signature blend of magic realism, of psychological horror at play in King’s novel that really took hold inside. It wasn’t until I had to write an exegesis for my latest short story at the University of East Anglia in 2009 –one that listed my influences–a that I was able to trace it back from Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury to Roald Dahl and finally, that forgotten but most impactful Stephen King.
Turns out, he only needed to scare me once.
I’ve been living with it ever since.