In the spirit of My Mother’s Secret Stash of Stephen King, I thought I’d post another essay I wrote about that summer when I was 12 years old. I mostly want to post this because the essay was written a few years after “My Mother’s Secret…” and it’s completely different. One of the things I’m very curious about is how our memories work. Not sure what that means in this context, but here’s what I wrote:
One summer when I was very young, I stood in the basement of my family’s house staring up at the bookcase by the pool table. This was where I had discovered my mother’s collection of Stephen King hardcovers a few months earlier.
On this particular day I saw a blue paperback jutting off the edge of a shelf high above my head. I reached up and grabbed the paperback. I turned it over in my hands.
There were eyes peeking out through holes cut in the front cover. The eyes were part of a bigger piece of artwork under the cover: a hand wrapped in bandages with eyes growing in the flesh! How horrible! How awesome!
I sat on the basement floor next to the bookcase and read the introduction by John D. McDonald. He wrote something there I’ve returned to many times over the years. “If you want to write, you write.” (It really is that simple, isn’t it?)
Next I read Stephen King’s “Foreword” and was instantly hooked. I realized this was the author himself inviting me to join him on a journey. He was talking about fear and the scary things in the dark closet, and yes, I totally understood what he was saying. It was as if he knew me and my secret fears.
I skipped “Jerusalem’s Lot” because I didn’t understand the epistolary tale yet (why are these characters writing letters to each other? where’s the story?), but I started the second piece, “Graveyard Shift,” and was sucked right in. There was a basement full of ruined junk! And big rats! What’s not to love?
And I was off to the races, reading story after story. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. This continued for the better part of the afternoon while my father was at work and my mother slept. (She worked the night shift at the local hospital.) The sun crossed the sky and the day slipped away and I just couldn’t get enough of those short stories.
My favorite in the bunch was “The Last Rung on the Ladder.” Oddly enough, after all of the killer trucks and toy soldier assassins and scary boogeymen and a very bizarre lawn guy, this story was nothing like the rest and yet it easily affected me the most. (Spoilers to follow.)
Instead of another scare fest, this was the story of two farm kids–a boy and his little sister–playing a game in their family’s barn when something goes terribly wrong. The sister was climbing a ladder to the top of the barn when the rungs splintered, leaving her hanging high above the floor, her hands barely holding on. Her brother frantically built a pile of hay to break her inevitable fall. The ladder was going to give way, but he kept telling her to hold on… and then, right before the ladder finished breaking, he told her to let go… and she did… and she landed in the hay with a sickening thud… but she lived! She had let go without looking because she knew her big brother was going to do something to save her. What a happy ending!
But then the story went on. And the two farm kids grew up. And in the end, the reader was left with a man dealing with his sister’s suicide and his regrets about the distance that grew between them as adults while he was busy chasing the brass ring in life — and the fear that, had he been a better bigger brother after they left the farm, he might have been able to break his sister’s fall one more time and she wouldn’t be dead.
Powerful stuff. Emotional stuff. And what the heck was it doing in a book of horror stories? Some readers might have been turned off by this heart-wrenching tale of loss if they were just expecting more gore and scares, but I loved it. I had never experienced a story quite like it before. I read “The Last Rung on the Ladder” a second time that day and I’ve read it a dozen times since then.
Night Shift was marketed as “excursions into horror” and it was my first taste of grown-up short stories. Soon after, I discovered a huge anthology called Dark Forces, and soon after that I dedicated myself to writing and selling my own little stories. I had dabbled with writing since the second grade, but now I had a concrete goal: my stories needed to appear in an anthology like Dark Forces or a collection like Night Shift.
Since then, my short stories have been published in many anthologies, including Borderlands 5, which featured Stephen King and a lot of other great authors I was humbled to be published with; my first collections of stories will see print next year if all goes well, although I harbor no illusions that they’re anywhere near as good as the tales in Night Shift; and a few years back Lonely Road Books published a brand new edition of Dark Forces.
When I think about it, I realize just about everything I do today is because I happened upon Night Shift one summer afternoon when I was a kid.
If you ask me, there isn’t a better foundation for a lifetime of reading than the short story. Short stories will take you to worlds you never imagined and help you examine your own world through new eyes.
What better way is there to spend a summer afternoon… or an entire life?