I’ve often said at the Horror Drive-In, one of my favorite haunts, that how and when I read a story has a good deal to do with how I come to feel about it. Being an author myself, this seems a ridiculously unfair idea. After all, the story is just the story, right? No reading environment, no life circumstances, no anything should change that.
But like most human beings, I’m a frail creature, and if I’m being truthful, the above factors do influence my feelings and memories about a story.
When I was in seventh grade, I wasn’t much of a reader. Alright, who am I kidding? I wasn’t a reader at all. That didn’t happen until I discovered Stephen King one magical summer a year-and-a-half later. But that’s another blog post…
So I was in the school library—at my new school; I had just moved that year—waiting for my grandfather to pick me up. It was just before Halloween, one of those rain-drenched, gloomy days that most kids bemoan and kids like me relished with an indescribable and secret joy. I was friendless and bored (apparently there were no pretty girls to cast sidelong glances at in the hopes they’d notice me), and to kill time I started ambling along the windowed wall perusing the titles on the waist-high shelves. I remember choosing one particular book because it was old-looking and plain, and it seemed to suit the dreary late-afternoon light filtering through the windows. I took it to a table facing those bleary panes and began reading a story called “The Lonesome Place.”
This is where I’m supposed to use hyperbole to describe the tale’s effect on me, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I wasn’t struck by a literary thunderbolt, nor did I realize at that moment that my future self was being profoundly influenced. No, I just remember huddling over that book and inhaling its must. The crackly rasp of the paper on my fingertips gave me the sensation I had unearthed some forgotten scroll. A later glance at the check-out card revealed that the book hadn’t been read by another soul in well over a decade.
All the better, I thought.
For I had discovered a delicious, awful world inside those pages, a world uncannily like my own. There was a young boy charged by his brusque, implacable mother (though my own mom was neither) to run to the store for supper supplies despite the failing light, despite the chill in the air, despite the lonesome place through which he’d have to journey in order to make it to the store and back alive.
We all know of lonesome places. I had plenty growing up. Those shadowy, rarely-trodden corridors that exuded menace, that seemed to exhale a sense of wrongness which only registered in the darkest, most primitive regions of the human brain.
I won’t give the story away—to read it, you might have to buy the Joyce Carol Oates-edited book pictured above, which is no trial at all; if you don’t have it, you darn well should anyway—but I will say this: without that tale, I’m not sure I ever would have become a horror writer. The simple act of reading it opened a door for me (I callously made my grandpa wait outside for another minute or two while I finished those last breathless paragraphs). I wouldn’t walk through that door for another eighteen months or so (the day I bought my first Stephen King paperback), but for the first time I was aware that the door existed. Countless movies had done that for me, had brought on that mental chill, but never had the written word. And in a strange way, I understand that this method of exploring the darkness that lurks around us was even greater and more fulfilling than moviegoing. Because I was that boy treading gingerly through the shadows of the lonesome place, I was that boy surrendering to his terror and exploding into mad, unreasoning flight.
I’m still that boy who jumps at shadows.
And I have August Derleth, among many others, to thank for it.