Leading up to Halloween this year, I’ve been writing a bit about various things that scare me, and why. So far, I’ve gone through movies, poetry, and music. I’ve got a few more things I want to write about but it’s time to take a turn deeper inward and talk about books.
On this subject, books present a problem. Like movies, there’s lots to choose from — and, frankly, a lot of junk food. I’ve read my fair share of stories that deliver the literary equivalent of “rubber mask” shock without lasting resonance (or, to my sensibilities, quality).
I’ve spent most of my life carrying around books. Like an alcoholic hiding booze around the house, so I am with reading. They’re in my car, virtually every room of the house, at the office, in my briefcase — just within reach if I’ve got a free minute or no one’s looking.
Growing up, books were everywhere. Most of my family were (and still are) big time readers, everyone has something on their nightstand at the very least. Which meant that, as a kid, I had access to a lot of books that were way over my head. One of the best things that ever happened to me was the simple fact that my parents didn’t discourage or prevent me from exploring those things. I can remember them suggesting things, recommending that something might not be interesting or suitable, but I can’t recall a time when anyone ever said “You can’t read that.”
At a certain point, my older brother seemed to have a lot of horror books lying around. Teenagers.
I remember picking up a collection of early Stephen King short stories that I found in his room. I was probably ten or eleven years old. The book scared the crap out of me.
And I couldn’t stop reading it.
One of the stories — “The Bogeyman” — stayed with me for a very long time. There’s no surprise about this. King does an excellent job of capturing that innate fear that small children have of the closet door being open just a tiny bit. Since I was still a little kid, his explanation for why the closet always seemed to be ajar (see the title of the story) rang the hotline of my imagination over and over again. As such, it was years before I finally stopped checking closet doors before I went to bed. Sometimes I still do.
Worst (best?) of all, though is the story that leads off the collection. “Jerusalem’s Lot” owes a great deal to H.P. Lovecraft, something I didn’t realize until much, much later. As stories goes, it follows the classic arc of a man returning to the ancestral homestead only to discover dark secrets and influences lurking in his family’s history. I could write for pages about the varied themes that King (and Lovecraft et al) explore in these kinds of stories, but what I really want to tell you about is a moment near the ending of the story.
The protagonist has ventured into a secret basement/crypt and come face to face with some nasty relatives who still bear the marks of their own self-inflicted deaths. And, of course, they’re still alive. I won’t transcribe it here (it really is worth reading, if that’s your sort of thing) but King’s description of the sheer, evil lunacy in their eyes is excellent. Pure King distilling pure Lovecraft.
They stayed with me, those two. As a child, they were lurking behind every heating register (we didn’t have basements in California). I could feel their eyes on me.
And I can still see them, in my imagination, as vivid as when I first read (and then reread) the story as a child.
Twenty years ago, I spent a few months living alone in a twenty-room mansion in Santa Barbara, California. It was over a hundred years old and I made the mistake of reading Lovecraft for the first time while I was living there. I regret it now that I never really explored the whole of the house, from attic to basement.
But I had no doubt that, had I done so, those two ghouls from King’s story would have been there… waiting.