Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Which Stephen King Scares the Spit Out of Me

Growing up in Jackson, Wyoming, I kept to my bedroom, a book glued to my fingers.

We lived in a one-story house in what was then a quiet neighborhood, five blocks from the town square.  Teens in cars lacking mufflers liked to accelerate down the street, dragging a growl from one side of my head to the other.  But mostly, it was just me and the whisper of pages.

Late afternoons and evenings, I lay on my bed, the red corduroy bedspread beneath me like a pool of blood.

Just outside my window, a juniper bush had been planted--too close to the house--and when the wind gusted, its silver-green branches scratched against the windowpane.  The wind kicked up a lot, rolling through the valley in giant, puffing coughs.

The wind especially liked to blow at night when I lay alone on my pool-of-blood bedspread.

One night in 1977, I was in my bedroom, door closed, mumble of television coming through the walls, every now and then my father's voice as he spoke to my mother, asking her for a bowl of ice cream or turn down the heat.

In my hands: 'Salem's Lot, a novel by a relatively new writer.

I'd heard of this guy Stephen King before, but had never read anything by him.  At the time, I worked at the Teton County Public Library, shelving books after school and on the weekends.  I liked to linger over the New Arrivals section, tilting my head to read the spines, pulling out the ones with the most intriguing titles.  A few weeks earlier, I'd held The Shining in my hands.  I can pinpoint this moment as the first time in my life I saw Stephen King's name.  (It would be years before I read King's first novel, Carrie.)  The haunted hotel, psychic boy, and evil topiary sounded good, but for some reason I put The Shining back on the shelf and checked out 'Salem's Lot instead.  I think it was something about that odd, displaced apostrophe in front of "Salem's."

I brought the book home, the library's protective mylar on the dustjacket squeaking under my sweat-damp hand.

I stretched out on the blood, propped a pillow behind my head, and started reading.  Ben Mears, a struggling novelist, returns to his hometown and stops in front of the Marsten House, the town's legendary haunted house...
       The witch grass grew wild and tall in the front yard, obscuring the old, frost-heaved flagstones that led to the porch.  Chirring crickets sang in it, and he could see grasshoppers jumping in erratic parabolas.
       The house itself looked toward town.  It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time.  The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look.  Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a slumped, hunched look.  A tattered no-trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.
       He felt a strong urge to walk up that overgrown path, past the crickets and hoppers that would jump around his shoes, climb the porch, peek between the haphazard boards into the hallway or the front room.  Perhaps try the front door.  If it was unlocked, go in.
I entered the novel, getting deeper and deeper with each turned page.

Outside, the night threw a blanket over the town, the wind rose, the juniper branch scratched the window.  A fingernail screamed across the glass.
       The town knew about darkness.
       It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.
The pages rasped , whispered in voices beneath my fingers.  On the other side of the wall, the disembodied TV chatter rose and fell, rose and fell.  There was a laugh track and it jarred me because, suddenly, nothing in the world seemed the least bit funny.

The wind died, then came back.  The branch scraped the glass.  The vampires were on the prowl in 'Salem's Lot and a young boy in his bedroom was roused from sleep.
       Something had awakened him.
       He lay still in the ticking dark, looking at the ceiling.
       A noise.  Some noise.  But the house was silent.
       There it was again.  Scratching.
       Mark Petrie turned over in bed and looked through the window and Danny Glick was staring in at him through the glass, his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral.  Some dark substance was smeared about his lips and chin, and when he saw Mark looking at him, he smiled and showed teeth grown hideously long and sharp.
       "Let me in," the voice whispered, and Mark was not sure if the words had crossed dark air or were only in his mind.
       He became aware that he was frightened--his body had known before his mind.  He had never been so frightened, not even when he got tired swimming back from the float at Popham Beach and thought he was going to drown.  His mind, still that of a child in a thousand ways, made an accurate judgment of his position in seconds.  He was in peril of more than his life.
       "Let me in, Mark.  I want to play with you."
       There was nothing for that hideous entity outside the window to hold on to: his room was on the second floor and there was no ledge.  Yet somehow it hung suspended in space...or perhaps it was clinging to the outside shingles like some dark insect.
Screeeee!!  I came off my bed in an electrified jolt.  I flung the book away from me.  It fluttered like a rabid bat to the floor.  My breath whistled through a straw-dry throat.*  I'd left a little something in my underwear.

Screeeee!!  The window.  It was the juniper at the window.  At least, I hoped it was the juniper....

There are moments in our lives when fiction fuses to reality, when the words on a page are amplified by the things around us at the time.  This was the first, and strongest, of those hypo-textual experiences for me.  (Reading the opening scene of Jaws while taking a bath was another.)  Not only had Stephen King drummed the reader with terror by writing about unimaginable monsters wreaking havoc on the commonplace, it seemed he had been sending me a personal message.  He'd been patiently waiting for me to get lost inside his book on a windy night with a squeaky bush outside my window.  He knew this is how I would read his scene.  He knew I would come unglued when I reached that point in the story.  He knew exactly how to turn my young life inside out with the power of words.

In the following 30-plus years, I've read nearly everything else King has written, but nothing, brother I mean nothing, can compare to that very first time he sucked the spit right out of my mouth.

*The very words Stephen King uses to describe Ben Mears' reaction to one of the novel's many frights.

1 comment:

  1. Man, "dragging a growl from one side of my head to the other" is just GORGEOUS. I had to just sit a minute APPRECIATING that one.