I was 16 years old when the death rattle sounded in my parent’s marriage. It would be another seven years before my mom and dad would actually divorce, but in the summer of 1986 something had snapped like a marrowless bone and the blue colonial house we lived in on the corner of Grand and Clinton was broken in two.
I spent a lot of time away from home that summer. When I wasn’t at my job pumping gas at Tony and Vinnie’s Automotive Shop on the south side of town, I was at the library reading books on vampires, monsters, and werewolves. There was something about fictional horror that made the real life Twilight Zone episode of my family falling apart easier to accept. That summer I read Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew. This collection of short stories featured the novella “The Mist” about a supernatural fog that envelopes a small town, bringing out the worst in a group of people trapped in a supermarket. Though the story took place in Maine I couldn’t help but imagine that a similar thick cloud of dread had somehow blanketed Rockville Centre and my home in particular that summer.
Quickly devouring the remainder of the stories in Skeleton Crew as if they were potato chips, I moved on to the novels, Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and Cujo. These books spoke to me in altogether new ways. Chief among them was my identification with the doomed protagonists—mostly outsiders and misfits—in just about all the stories. Most of King’s characters were screwed. For whatever reason, Fate had decided to be cruel to these people and that was that. Sometimes the good guys won. Sometimes not. But in the end Fate is a powerful god and, more often than not, the son-of-a-bitch always seemed to come out on top.
As that summer drew to a close and the arguing at home increased, I noticed a newspaper article announcing the release of a new King novel, one that purportedly incorporated all the monsters from our nightmares. The novel was titled It--“It” being the evil under the bed, the ghost in the basement, the distorted face staring at you from your closet in the middle of the night, or the thing scratching at your window during a thunderstorm. “It” could also be that horrid clown that had scared the crap out of a six-year-old me at the old TSS department store in Oceanside (he tried to give me a piece of gum—I screamed and ran for my life). Though I didn’t know it at the time, “It” was also the monsters that manifested in my parent’s disappointment, sadness, and anger. Big ugly monsters lurking in the attic are one thing; little memory monsters perched on my parents’ shoulders seemingly whispering vitriol in their ears as we sat around the dinner table was another.
I preordered the book at a local B. Dalton’s in East Meadow on Long Island. (This was in the days before Amazon.com when you had to actually call a store or stop in and talk to a real person, usually exchanging words of excitement about an upcoming new novel from a favorite author. How quaint.) The arguments continued at home, but I spent the remainder of the summer and my first days back at high school fantasizing about King’s new book, wondering how he was going to scare the bejeebers out of me this time.
In the middle of September I got a call that the new King book had arrived. I begged my mom to take me to the store so I could dig right in. She agreed and we hopped into her car and drove for a half-hour along traffic light riddled Hempstead Turnpike. I don’t remember exactly what the weather was like that early evening, but in the fiction of my memory the drive looked something like a Ray Bradbury dusk—a sky the color of bruised pumpkins, crepuscular shadows that made the people on the streets look like phantoms, and, in the distance, what may have been a dark mist rolling in from the south.
I was in and out of the store in fewer than five minutes. In my hands I held a whopping doorstop of a book. The cover was black. King’s name dominated the jacket, hanging like a specter over the title, which was printed in blood red letters. Emanating from the shadows was a scene depicting a dark street, a paper boat, and green, reptilian fingers rising out of a sewer grate. The book, which was over a 1000 pages long, will turn out to be the lengthiest book I had ever read.
“That’s a big book,” my mom observed. I glanced over at her. She looked tired. Hollow. That year, I was still just a bit shorter than her. Even so, I found myself imagining that if I was really, really tall, looking down onto the top of her head I would see that she had been cored just like an apple.
“What’s the first line?” she asked.
I remember sniffing the top of the book, something I always did in those days. I opened it, hearing a little pop as the tight binding acknowledged my presence. I read aloud.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made of a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. “
To this day I don’t know what exactly it was about those opening lines, but something about them made me want to become a writer.
And somehow my mom, who I always suspected of being able to read minds, looked at me and said, “You’re going to be a famous writer one day.”
I closed the book. I was silent. Her words lingered in the air like cigarette smoke.
Twenty odd years later, Penguin would publish my book Holy Ghosts, a memoir about growing up in a haunted house. And though I’m far from famous, I did become a writer, just as my mom predicted. In fact, I may have actually started writing in my head on the way home that evening. It was a story about a moment in time; there were no ghosts, no monsters, no sinister mists and nothing to fear, just a mother and her son driving together down a suburban turnpike at twilight.