It’s not uncommon for people to admire Stephen King as a writer these days. His rebel years when he was the maverick genre writer of the publishing field, lacking the respect of the more august literary voices of the 1970s and 1980s, bucking trends to write horror fiction to a mass audience, are now well behind him. Now, he is an august literary voice himself, his novels having influenced one, and perhaps now two, generations of young writers.
So it’s nothing new or unique for me to cite Stephen King as a primary influence on my own writing, as I did frequently throughout my recently-completed blog tour for SHADA. Yet I have a different, more unique link to the master of modern horror than most writers. I can honestly say this:
Stephen King saved my life.
I mean that, literally.
No, Stephen King did not perform a life-saving operation on me in some secret second profession as a rival to Dr. Gregory House. Nor did he leap in front of me when we were walking down a lonely Maine road together as a dog-distracted driver bore down on us with his van.
Truth is, Stephen King and I have never met face to face. I’m not sure we ever will.
But despite the fact that we’ve never so much as shook hands or even passed each other in the airport, despite the fact that I’ve never even been to a book signing or writer’s conference where he was in attendance, one hard, cold fact remains true.
Stephen King saved my life.
How, you ask? Well, even though it’s true, that is a story in itself.
Allow me to set the scene.
The year was 1983. I was 16, in the middle of my high school career. And for probably the first time, I had some friends close to my own age.
That was an entirely new experience for me, and it had only developed over the past year or so. I was and had almost always been a bookish, shy kid. I preferred the company of books to the company of my classmates. Heck, I preferred hanging out with adults, for that matter.
Why? Well, I’d always been a bright kid. And not to verge on immodesty, but the gulf between me and my peers was significant enough to make me seem… I don’t know. Stuck up? Stand-offish? You’d have had to ask them, back then, at the time. Whatever the case, I didn’t “join in any reindeer games,” and generally kept to myself.
This landed me in trouble, more often than not. I’d be targeted for bullying. My mouth … I tended to be a smart-alack, as so many brainy, bookish kids are … often played a role in drawing such negative attention to me. And that happened enough that I ended up in a group counseling setting with some other kids close to my age. Kids who, like me, just didn’t fit in with “the general crowd” for one reason or another.
Slowly, I made a handful of friends. I started hanging out with them. The core group of us included three guys and one girl. The girl was dating one of the guys. (Not me.)
Anyway, we formed a bond and hung out whenever we could. We’d go to public parks and hang out until dark. We’d sing together. Whenever I was learning a part for a school play, they’d help me run lines. If I was memorizing a speech for speech competition, I’d recite it for them.
In fact, flash forward to my senior year in 1984-85, and the story I’d recite for them was “Strawberry Spring,” by Stephen King, a story out of his NIGHT SHIFT collection that was just short enough to… with a little selective editing to brief it up even more… fit within the time limit for the Dramatic Interpretation of Prose. I performed that piece well; in fact, I came one horror-hating judge away from going to state that year. But that’s a story for another time.
The point is, I learned to spook my friends out by reciting “Stawberry Spring” to them over and over again. They loved it, and loved getting spooked by it. And if we got too spooked out, we’d go back to singing Billy Joel and Wham! and Duran Duran songs to lighten the mood. I never would have come close to going to state with that piece without my friends being such a willing audience. I simply wouldn’t have practiced it enough without them.
But that’s not how Stephen King saved my life.
That’s yet to come. But what I need you to appreciate first is how important these friends were to me. These were not just my favorite pals from a certain time period. They were pretty much the only friends I’d made, ever, to that point in my life. At least among those who were my age, or close to it.
When a person has no close friends their own age at all, it’s actually easier to cope with. You don’t know what you’re missing. Because you never really had that. But once you’ve really had a tight group of friends, friends who accept you as you are… it creates a sort of magnetic field. You want to keep those friends. You don’t want to give them up. Even if it means making some personal sacrifices in your own life.
What kind of sacrifices?
Well, by the time I was in my junior year, I knew I was heading to college. I wanted to; I needed to. Grade school had been no challenge at all for me, and I knew I needed what college could offer… a chance to study in a way that would cause me to grow, to expand what I know, to push me harder than I could push myself. Because in high school, that’s the only time I learned anything: when I pushed myself.
But here’s the thing: it was also becoming clear to me that my three friends, the ones I was hanging out with as often as possible and who meant so much to me, were not heading to college with me.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with where they were headed. It’s just that my path was drawing me toward college, and their paths were drawing them toward different goals than I had.
It’s natural. It’s part of growing up. It’s almost inevitable.
And it terrified me.
You see, having lived sixteen years as a loner, my best friends being books instead of people, had it’s up-side: for example, I had published my first short story at the age of 14. I had written a few novels and a lot of short fiction since, though it would be a while before lightning struck again. And while I was generally a creative kid, involved in acting and singing and speech club and writing… I knew writing was where I would land. Had to land. It was my biggest strength. And for that I needed college. Needed it because I required more than what my tiny public school was able to offer me in terms of writing mentorship, even though they did what they could.
So, as much as I knew about my intellectual needs… I also understood, perhaps for the first time, that I had social needs as well. I needed that group of friends. I wasn’t convinced that if I left them behind, I could ever replace them. After all, look how long it took me to find these three, right?
I began to wonder if college was the right path for me. If my friends were going a different direction, then maybe I needed to change mine.
Of course, that would have been a disastrous path for me. I lacked both the skill set and the interest level in the sort of opportunities that awaited me on the non-college path, to be successful by going that direction. I’d have ended up on a career path that wasn’t right for me, never excelling at it, all to keep the only three really close friends I’d ever known.
I’m about to tell you how Stephen King saved my life.
In 1982, Stephen King published his collection of four novellas, DIFFERENT SEASONS. I held off buying it right away. I kind of liked his short fiction, such as NIGHT SHIFT, but mostly I loved King’s long novels. CUJO, CHRISTINE, and PET SEMATARY were all books I’d grabbed right away.
But for some reason, I held off on DIFFERENT SEASONS for a year… maybe two. If I recall correctly, I bought it sometime during my junior year, and let it sit before reading it later that summer, before my senior year.
I learned I didn’t care for all the stories in the book, in fairly short order. “Apt Pupil” held no appeal. “The Breathing Method” was boring, to me, back then.
But I read right away, and loved “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Cool prison tale.
And then there was “The Body.”
I had no idea what I was in for. But that story was written for me. Whether Stephen King realizes it or not, “The Body” was written directly to a seventeen-year-old Craig Hansen, about to enter his senior year, both looking forward to college, and secretly dreading it because it might mean leaving his friends behind.
Maybe Stephen King lived through a similar time in his youth. Maybe one of his sons, Joe or Owen, faced a similar dilemma at some point. I’m not sure what his direct inspiration was. But “The Body” was written to an audience of one: me.
Because as I started reading “The Body,” I began to understand on a subconscious level, that Gordie LaChance was me. Gordie had three friends, just like I had three friends. And he feared entering college-track courses in high school that would separate him from his middle-school friends, just as I feared entering college would separate me from mine.
Gordie, you see, had a gift. He could write. He could story-tell. He had talent. Just like me.
And like me, “The Body” revealed, he was considering setting aside that talent to remain with the friends who meant so much to him. Just as I was.
So when Gordie shares his fears and his plan to blow off college-track courses to his best friend of the group, Chris Chambers, he expects approval; he figures Chris wants him to stick around, too.
But anyone who’s read “The Body” or seen STAND BY ME knows what happens next.
Chris threatens him to wise the hell up. “It’s like God’s given you this gift,” Chris basically tells him, “and if you throw it away, you’re an idiot.”
(Stephen King wrote that scene better than I’m retelling it. Go read it. Or rent STAND BY ME.)
The point is, with that scene, the older, wiser Stephen King was speaking directly to the teenage me. King was Chris Chambers to my Gordie LaChance, and he was telling me I was about to be a complete idiot. That my plan to hang onto the friends I had at age 17 at all costs … tossing aside my writing talent as a result … would be a completely bone-headed thing to do. A mistake. And one I’d come to regret only after it was too late.
King, through “The Body,” reached through the span of fiction, time, and space, shook me by the shoulders, and shouted, “Don’t be an idiot!” at me… just when I needed to hear exactly that.
Was King the only person who would have told me that? Probably not. I’m sure my mom would have said the same thing. Perhaps even my friends might have said it. But King is the one who said it… at the right time, and in the right way, so that it sank in and made a difference in the trajectory of my life, before I made that mistake. His was the one voice I wouldn’t have blown off, at that point in my life.
Now, had Stephen King written me a personal letter telling me the same thing blatantly, it probably would not have had the same impact. At all. I was bull-headed back them. Still tend to be.
But through the art of story, the gift of fiction, the creativity and craft of tale-telling, King reached me. He convinced me that however scary leaving my friends behind might be, it’s what needed to happen. That however frightening a prospect college was, it would benefit me in the end and I needed to embrace it.
So, I did. I listened as Stephen King/Chris Chambers read the riot act to Craig Hansen/Gordie LaChance. And I did go on to college. And eventually, I did lose touch with those three friends, for a time.
And ultimately, one of them even came back into my life recently as a long-lost pal who I still share a bond of friendship with. We’re both older, carry more weight and have wives now. But at least one of those friendships came back to me, over time.
But if I’d not gone to college? Not pursued writing? Not had the courage to grow up and move out? Who knows where I’d be today? But it probably would be nowhere good.
And that’s how Stephen King saved my life.
And that’s why it was so important to me to write something like “The Body.” That’s why it served as my inspiration for SHADA. And while SHADA might never save some young girl’s life the way “The Body” saved mine … well … I’m sure Stephen King never imagined “The Body” would save anyone’s life, either.