Stephen King and my dad (Part 1)
I was reading Stephen King’s latest – 11/2/63, an alternate history of JFK’s assassination – when I ran into my father. I was using the Kindle app on my iPad, so I can’t say which page it was on, only that it was location 1071, 8% through the book. My father would have been horrified that the book didn’t have page numbers, horrified by the whole concept of eBooks. He was lucky not to live to see them.
I have recounted in a previous post – Brain in a Jar– how when I was young my father loved to tell me gruesome tales, and how they combined with my seeing a real brain in a jar to produce the worst nightmare of my young life.
That dream should have put me off dark stories. It didn’t. Maybe I developed a fondness for them because they took up much of the rare time I got to spend with my busy father, who in the years before his fame worked by day and wrote by night. Or maybe I was just born with a taste for the macabre. At some point my appetite grew beyond my father’s stories. I found myself devouring Poe and the midnight side of Ray Bradbury.
Just as I reached adolescence my father became too busy to tell me stories. He was busy – 15 hours a days, 7 days a week – telling the very real dark story that King’s fictional work is based on– the assassination of Kennedy. He started by conducting 1000 interviews. By fall of 1965 he was writing, and reached a roadblock when it came to describing the moment the side of Kennedy’s head was blown off. It was particularly tough because he’d called Kennedy a friend.
By spooky coincidence, during those same weeks that he struggled I was meeting one of the hardest challenges of my young life – battling a psychopathic roommate at the boarding school my parents had shuffled me off to. Months after I escaped him I was still haunted by the memory of that terrible experience. My parents were too embroiled in my father’s epic battle with Jackie Kennedy to hear about my trouble. So I turned to the thing I’d learned at my father’s knee – storytelling. I wove my own dark story from my trails, and told my friends. They found it entertaining, and I found myself unburdened of some of the weight of an unpleasant memory.
In college someone turned me on to H. P. Lovecraft. Crappy and impenetrable as I find this overly-adjectived author today, discovering him felt like finding a long lost friend – those stories of my dad.
Out of college, on the road with my band, I picked up Ed Sanders’ The Family – the story of Charlie Manson and his skeleton crew. But other than that I forgot about dark tales.
It wasn’t until my mid twenties that the strange seed my father had planted fully bloomed –like that plant Aubrey, in The Little Shop of Horrors -into a literary obsession.
My obsession started on a dark and, yes, stormy night. I was driving home to my crummy apartment in Allston from a recording session I was producing at a studio far out in the sticks. My car broke down on a back road. For the sake of this story I’d like to report that I was picked up by a tall, dark stranger, who grinned at me, revealing feline incisors and a tongue thick with the blood of his previous victim.
But no, it was just my boss who picked me up – a short, eccentric fellow I knew all too well. He was kind enough to drop me at the train station in white bread Lincoln, about as unlikely a venue for a creepy tale as one can imagine.
Yet as I entered the train station I did experience a fright. My train was on the platform. I ran out only to watch it leave without me. I fretted -when was the next one? It was getting late.
Not for an hour and a half. Shit. I was hungry and tired. No longer afraid, but annoyed. And soon bored. I spied a rack of paperbacks. I spun it around. Nothing here for me.
Wait. A teenaged girl, standing, drenched in blood. Might be my kind of book. Carrie, by some guy I’d never heard of -Stephen King.
I stood at the rack, and started reading to see if it was worth the couple of bucks they were charging. By the time the next train came I was still reading, and almost missed it. I ran over, paid for the book, hopped on the train and finished reading before I got home.
It was King’s first book. I liked his second, Salem’s Lot, too. I proceeded to read every subsequent book of his, plus just about anything else I could get my hands on involving vampires, evil forces, ancient curses, you name it. Many of the books were terrible.
King was more or less reliable. He was (and still is) terribly prolific, and uneven. But for every turkey like Cujo (which King himself admits he wrote in a chemically-induced haze) there were always at least a couple of fine tales like The Stand and The Shining.
Back to my father. He was a very difficult man to buy presents for at Christmas. Writing consumed about 95% of his time and energy. He had all the pens and typewriter ribbons he needed.
When he wasn’t writing he was reading. He liked stuff by guys like John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, and John LeCarre. I was always afraid to get him one of those, in case he already had the latest. I hate getting presents I already have, and assumed he felt the same way.
Socks, sweaters…one Christmas I had a new idea. What about those stories he’d once told me? I gave him King’s Misery. When I called him later he said, “I liked that book. He tells a good story.” Real praise coming from my father.
It became a yearly ritual. And the prolific King was obliging. We hit a snag the Christmas after my mother died, when I unthinkingly bought my father Bag of Bones, the tale of a man who’s recently lost his wife. My father scolded me, though only halfheartedly – his marriage had been no picnic, unless you’re talking about that one at Hanging Rock…
My father didn’t just like King’s writing. He identified with him, too. They both came from blue-collar families, both sold a lot of books while suffering the scorn of academic elites. The New York Review of Books trashed my father’s work, and he never made it into the New Yorker, except for a truly horrifying picture of him in old age that Richard Avedon took. King has come up in the world, not only making the New Yorker, but having the New York Times list 11/22/63 as one of the ten notable books of 2011.
They both loved the Red Sox, though my father would die the spring before their long awaited World Series triumph in 2004. King would go on to write a book about it.
King and my father had one other thing in common. They agreed on who killed John Kennedy.
I’ll leave that story for Part 2.