Three men have shaped the entirety of my life: My dad, of course, was the first. He was my rock, one half of the strong internal foundation built by my parents.
The other two men were Stan Lee and Stephen King, and each shaped me equally. But where Lee taught me how to protect others, without me realizing it, King taught me how to protect myself.
I grew up idolizing Stephen King. I first cut my teeth on Carrie well before I was old enough to worry about the period troubles that plagued the book’s telekinetic protagonist. My dad, an avid reader of horror and watcher of B-movie sci-fi, was the one who introduced me to the author who would be my favorite writer for decades. My mom was also an avid reader, but she leaned toward Harlequin romances; those were a different sort of awakening. I read those later, during my exploratory teen years, either squirreled away into bed or snuck out from the pile underneath the coffee table and read in a state of warring curiosity and fear of being caught. Naturally, I always skimmed to “the sexy parts.”
There was no skimming with King. I devoured every word, pored over every passage, often more than once. The fundamental scares of his novels were enough for a pre-teen (and then a teen) like me to digest, and those scares resonated (Pennywise, in particular, scared the hell out of me as a kid). But it was the rest of it, all the stuff in between the monsters, that really hooked me. And there is a lot of stuff in between. In the early decades of his career, King was dismissed as a hack, considered, as he put it, “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” But longtime readers know that his writing doesn’t get enough credit for getting right to the center of the human heart, his books as much about fighting human nature as they are about fighting supernatural creatures. Reading King got my brain to wake up in ways it wasn’t quite ready for, my mind sent down paths and grappling with adult concepts that were a little too big for it at the time.
When you’re a kid – especially if you’re a kid who grew up happy and a little naïve like me – the bittersweetness of just being doesn’t really enter your brain. But King’s work is built on inherently bittersweet themes: nostalgia, the mundanity of most human lives, the fleetingness of childhood. It’s impossible to escape or ignore if you devour his work, and I found my childhood mind crossing paths with these complex ideas and tangled emotions often. It made me ache. Now, as an adult, I know that ache is simply the nostalgic hurt of life, the awareness of time passing. I feel that ache right now, as I write this piece that seems to be about Stephen King but is really about all the things I’ll never recapture. But back then, I couldn’t understand it. Wrestling with those ideas was like being out at sea and glimpsing some hulking ship out in the fog; still too far away to make out the details but close enough to understand the shape of the truth behind the mystery of it.
As a teenager, my closest connection with my dad, outside of nature and hockey, was The Dark Tower series. To say those books were formative for me on a multitude of levels would be wildly understating the impact they had. It was the series that woke me up to how unique and effective genre-mashing could be, a true epic that didn’t rehash the same derivative high fantasy concepts I saw in too many other series. In the ’80s and ’90s, fantasy was full of Robert Jordans. And I was tired of the Robert Jordans by then. Along came King and the Dark Tower, which didn’t neatly fit into any one genre. It was world-hopping dark fantasy tinged with horror, a Western that also embraced sci-fi, ancient supernatural entities wrapped around concepts of quantum physics string theory. It blew my mind.
I caught up on the first three books (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands) just before the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, was released. From that point on, my dad and I eagerly awaited the release of each new book in the series. In our post-binge culture, it’s laughable to look back at how frustrated I was about having to wait so long between installments, but that’s how it was. When King was struck and almost killed by a reckless driver in 1999, my very first reaction after the initial horror was to ask my dad, “He’ll still finish the Dark Tower, right?” More than a little worry coursing through me. Every time a new Dark Tower book would come out, my dad and I would each get a copy. I’d inevitably finish it first and would spend the next few weeks patiently reminding him who minor characters were and of story details he’d forgotten. Dad had been my guide; I became his historian. Our shared love of Stephen King bound us together, a stoic, blue-collar father and his free-spirited daughter.
In the tumultuous years of college when I grew more progressive, our relationship changed. A staunch libertarian-leaning conservative all his life, my dad grew frustrated, unable to process that his little girl was growing up and away from him, full of liberal ideas and with an alarming love of leaping into the unknown. We clashed, me matching his frustration with my own, angry that he seemed to still treat me like a child incapable of understanding the world. The universal transition of a child and a parent reestablishing new boundaries, though necessary, still hurt. It was a new kind of pain experienced on the way to adulthood, the pain of realizing my dad was fallible and often wrong, and I could no longer talk to him as openly as I once had. So much between us was changing and cracking and reshaping itself. But Stephen King was always a safe topic, one of the few neutral territories left where we could pretend everything else between us wasn’t suddenly uncomfortable and alien. It was the only place where I could still look at my dad as my dad rather than a flawed human being in his own right, not quite ready to accept the inevitable reality of him no longer being on the pedestal I’d built as a child.
Eventually, I came to realize it was fear-born love that drove my dad’s anger. He had grown up in a time and place where men didn’t talk about or express emotions, where emotional repression was all they knew. To say he’s merely stoic is asking the word to do an impossible amount of heavy lifting. The day he and my mom packed the car up to move me, the eldest, into college, he disappeared just before we were about to leave. I asked my mom where he had gone. She looked me in the eye then and said lightly, “I believe he took the dog and went into the woods to cry.” My mind was blown; I’d had no idea he even knew how to cry. I later grew to understand the man who went off into the familiar woods to hide his emotions had no idea how to convey that he was scared of losing me, of his little girl going out there into the dark woods of the world and coming back broken. “The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted,” Stephen King once wrote. My dad knew it all too well and that’s exactly what terrified him. I was too open, too impulsive, trusted too much, protected myself too little.
In college and the years immediately after, the world’s teeth took chunks out of me, some that left ragged scars. I experienced the small heartbreaks of boys lying with a smile while they talked to someone else, of those same boys pinning me up against locked car doors and forcing kisses and hands on me while I said no. I experienced the huge heartbreak of friends stabbing me in the back and of one, in particular, trying to ruin my life. I experienced depression for the first time, the crippling kind that found me failing out of classes in what should have been my senior year. I experienced the sickening purgatory of living with someone who was an alcoholic but in no rush then to deal with his demons. My parents had prepared me to be strong, but they hadn’t prepared me – couldn’t prepare me – for how much it hurt. That job went to Stephen King.
When I read that line in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, it hit me with a profundity that felt like a spiritual awakening. The world had left me alone before, but I was big enough now to notice, and it grew fangs. In his characteristically straightforward way, Stephen King once again resonated with me. A section of my soul I hadn’t even charted yet lit up, whispered, Yes. This is a fundamental truth of life. The ship in the fog I’d glimpsed throughout my childhood was clearer now, more defined. Its boards were steeped in hurt, its sails threaded with loss.
I’m 38 now; since then I’ve boarded that ship in the fog, become its captain, knit through with the same hurt and loss that binds the ship together. Maybe it’s because 40 is closer than it has ever been, but I’ve found myself thinking lately of the experiences and emotions we can never again recapture once we board that ship. It’s a melancholy feeling.
But that’s what it means to grow up, doesn’t it? What it means to live in the world. It’s beautiful and terrible and heartbreaking and terrifying and joyful and sad. To be alive is a gift with strings. Adulthood is gaining so much but sometimes losing more, and losing it forever. As a kid, you only look forward; nothing is behind you to grieve the loss of. As an adult, your sight is split between looking ahead to an often uncertain future and making peace with never again regaining the things you see in the rearview mirror. If you’re lucky, you also remember to look around you and appreciate where and who you currently are, and what your life has become.
“If being a kid is about learning how to live,” King wrote in Christine, “then being a grown-up is about learning how to die.” Throughout my life, Stephen King has always been quietly teaching me how to die. And because of it, I learned what it means to live.