The first Stephen King story I read was “The Bogeyman.” It’s a wicked little tale of parental anxiety in a collection called “Night Shift,” and my cousins and I passed it around like a joint, long before we knew how to pass around a joint. That story blew our minds. It gave everyone nightmares, which meant everyone wanted to read it. When you’re a kid, freaking yourself out can be such a high.
I was the youngest of our clan, four and a half years younger than my brother, and so Stephen King was “not appropriate for my age group” (10 or 11), but since I prided myself on doing things that were “not appropriate for my age group,” I tore through “Night Shift” and moved on to the rest of the canon: “Skeleton Crew,” “Pet Semetery,” “Carrie,” “Dead Zone,” “Misery.” I collected those books like baseball cards. I kept them in alphabetical order on my shelf.
In seventh grade, I read “Different Seasons,” which I fell in love with. I wanted to marry that book, particularly the third novella, “The Body,” made into a movie that year called “Stand By Me,” which starred River Phoenix and some other people, and I definitely wanted to marry River Phoenix but I would have settled for that book. “The most important things are the hardest things to say,” the book begins, and as soon as I read those words: Bam, all the blood traveled into my fingertips, and I just knew.
At 10 or 11, I had begun retreating into myself. My shyness felt like a hot plum in my throat, like I was always on the verge of crying. I would struggle to give voice to some private turmoil only to hear it fall with a ka-thunk. And this is what Stephen King talks about in the opening.
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They’re the things you get ashamed of because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to take away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within, not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
I loved all this stuff: Secret hearts, buried treasure, understanding ears, tears that fail to explain themselves. I loved the direct appeal to the audience. It’s like he was talking right to me. You agree about this, right, Sarah? But it’s more than that, wouldn’t you say, Sarah? And I loved that he could begin this story so tenderly, and then steer the car into an unwise thicket, the characters on a mission to find a dead body, seeking truths they should not know yet but which make the heart go ka-thunk: A bloated corpse in the sunshine, a chin caked with blood, eyes that have gone lightless. Their search turns out differently than they expected. Searches usually do.
I was having a weird childhood myself. I got it.
That book was absolutely the book that made me want to be a writer. I read the book so many times that the book fell apart. And then I bought another copy, and it fell apart too. The third copy sits on my nightstand, and for years it sat there like a smiling photo of an old friend I had not spoken to in years.
But a few weeks ago, when I was feeling blue and needed a book that could absorb that feeling, I read “The Body,” and I was so happy to find that I still loved it, and it still moved me, and that I had imitated it in embarrassing ways, the rhythms of the language having stitched itself into my sentences so long ago I can no longer find the thread. It’s a story about being a survivor. It’s a story about telling stories. It’s a story about the high of freaking yourself out.
Stephen King turned 65 last Friday. He is a master and a legend and I adore him. He was probably never writing his ghoulish books for a shy little girl in Dallas, Texas. Thank God I found them anyway.