Stephen King celebrated his 70th birthday, on Sept. 21. In honor of the author’s milestone, EW is presenting tributes to the man whose Constant Readers call “Uncle Steve.”
Finally: Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts, which King said “scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” Tremblay is also the author of last year’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, as well as numerous other short stories and novels.
Growing up as a child in the 1980s, I wasn’t much of a reader. I was a shoot-free-throws-in-the-driveway-pretending-I-was-Larry-Bird or watch-the-new-fangled-cable-TV-all-afternoon kind of kid. And I watched a lot of old monster movies even though I was a card-carrying scaredy cat, sleeping with a fortress of stuffed animals ringing my head for maximum boogeyman protection.
I knew who Stephen King was as many of the adults in my extended family were his constant readers. I used to pick through my parents’ books and stare at the lurid cover art of the paperbacks; the snarl and dripping teeth of Cujo’s cover was the coolest.
I had one aunt who always went on about how The Stand was her favorite book and another aunt who instead of telling me anything about the actual stories she read would only breathlessly describe how terrified the books made her feel (with Salem’s Lot being her scariest). The message to the kid-me was clear: King was the serious scary stuff.
Adult scary. And I wasn’t yet worthy.
During my awkward and scoliosis-inflicted teen years, I graduated from Godzilla flicks and kitschy B horror movies to watching (between my fingers; I was still a scaredy cat) the many King movie adaptations, but I had yet to read any of his books. My scoliosis worsened throughout high school despite the torturous plastic and metal back brace in which I slept.
Six days after graduation, I had major surgery, fusing two-thirds of my vertebrae with a handy-dandy bonus set of metal Harrington rods to hold my spine in place as the bone healed. That entire summer before college, I couldn’t do much beyond sitting on a pillow-padded rocking chair.
Was I going to do nothing but watch TV all summer? King’s novel IT was perched like a gargoyle on the bookcase; the well-worn paperback with the green monster hand sticking its fingers up through the sewer grate on the cover was a dare.
I was newly 18 and I had a new spine (literally and figuratively!), so I thought I could handle something adult like reading a 1,200 page Stephen King book. I read the first chapter: the paper boat floating away, poor Georgie chasing after it (and in my mind’s eye he was the 6-year-old version of my little brother), and Pennywise in the sewer and… Yeah. Utterly terrified, I chucked the book across the room.
Fast forward four years.
I graduated college with a mathematics degree (yes, math!) and for my 22nd birthday, Lisa (then: my new girlfriend, now: my wife) gave me Stephen’s novel The Stand. She had been reading Stephen since she was 14 and was eager to share a favorite book of hers and, I think, eager to make me read something, anything, as I used to playfully make fun of her with quips like, “You English majors, there’s no right or wrong and you just make it all up.”
Whether it was because of, or despite, my math-geek-obnoxiousness, Lisa gave me what turned out to be the most important birthday present I would ever receive.
I inhaled The Stand: Charlie waking up Sally on the first page … and Larry Underwood’s trek through the Lincoln Tunnel … and Lloyd in his cell with a half-eaten rat … and the sound of Randal Flagg’s voice in my head … and how I was simultaneously terrified of and felt terrible for the Trashcan Man.
I swear I still remember where I was and who I was when I read the book, and I remember the emotions the book stirred, the ones that cannot be simply described and take an entire novel to communicate. I’ve since read many of Stephen’s books more than once, but not The Stand. I don’t need to read it again. It’s all there inside me.
A few months later it was the fall of 1993 and I headed off to the University of Vermont. Over the next two years, as I struggled with the graduate-level math, I read every Stephen King book that had been published. When I exhausted his oeuvre (yes, including It) I branched out to Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many more books and writers.
At the end of those two years, I earned a master’s degree in mathematics. I had also emerged from an intensive reading seminar with Stephen King as my instructor, and my passions were fundamentally and forever changed. I was to be a lifelong reader, and eventually, a writer.
What I learned and continue to learn from Stephen is that the lift of fiction, the story’s effect, is built upon the scaffolding of empathy.
Empathy, not sympathy, which is easy, cheap, and fleeting, akin to rooting for the home team. Empathy is difficult and messy and it’s the best part of us when we let it be. Empathy is the higher purpose of fiction (and all art, really); the want and need to understand who each of us are and why we make the decisions we make. We won’t always like the people or the answers (I’m looking at you Trashcan Man), but the effort and undertaking of understanding is always worth it.
Let’s fast forward one more time.
Twenty-some odd years after my initial Stephen King binge, my novel A Head Full of Ghosts was published. A few months after publication I was home, rattling around my kitchen, and my cell phone buzzed with texts and instant messages from friends congratulating me and asking if I’d seen that Stephen King had tweeted about reading my book and it scaring the hell of out him.
I sat down and I read the tweet (like two thousand times). The glowing screen of my smartphone became a time machine that brought me back on a tour of all those books read pre-and-post Vermont, the special birthday book Lisa gave me, and the book that I couldn’t read past chapter one.
Well, at least not on the first try.