Confessions of a Constant Reader
by John Dorney
And the blog critics are in…
“Electrifying.” – John’s neighbor
“A classic blog of boyhood to manhood. A must-read for this Halloween day.” – John’s Girlfriend
“Well done, Dear.” – John’s Mom
John was quite an insular child. A fascination with stories and storytelling left him veering towards outcast status amongst a schoolful of children more interested in sports and music. He could be mocked for reading a book on magic, say. Or asked how he could watch an episode of Doctor Who over and over again when he knew what happened. It never occurred to him to respond by asking how they could watch a largely action-free ninety minute game that they weren’t actually involved in, and that ended without lasting consequence. How they could listen to a band’s album over and over again when they’d heard the songs before. No, he responded by retreating further and further into fiction.
He first came across Stephen King in his teens, with the book Misery. Widely regarded as one of the author’s best, this tense, claustrophobic, but nonetheless short and punchy thriller was the perfect place to start. And from there he read on – through the surprising alien invasion of The Tommyknockers, the meta-textual madness of The Dark Half, the bitter tragedy of Pet Sematary and the puzzle box of Gerald’s Game – devouring many of King’s early classics.
But two titans remained on the shelf, two vast epics that would require time and commitment. The post-apocalyptic majesty of The Stand…
‘Have you read any of these?’ Regina Kenney, editor of Literati Pulp, asked John at the end of October. She showed him a list of the top horror novels of all time. ‘We’re doing a read-a-thon of these. You know, for Hallowe’en.’
John scrolled idly through the online pages. Surprisingly few, he realised. I mean, he’d got a lot of them – his reading pile must have been nearing a thousand titles by now, so that was hardly surprising. But actually ‘read’. No.
‘Well, I’ve got It,’ he said.
‘Self-praise is no recommendation,’ Regina replied.
‘No, I mean, I’ve got It. The book It. Not it. Although I have got it as well.’ He looked at the photo of the cover – two malevolent eyes gazing out of a storm drain whilst a lone balloon floats nearby. ‘Actually, I think I must have had it about twenty-five years. Never read it.’
‘Just not got around to it.’ That wasn’t true. John knew exactly why he’d not read it.
‘Well, if you fancied giving it a go…’
John wrinkled his nose. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d read a Stephen King. He’d worked his way through the short story books, sure, but an actual novel? Was it Dreamcatcher – the weird one about the shit-weasel aliens? Insomnia, with its strange visions of life being a thread floating above your head that a mischievous spirit goes around cutting with scissors? No, actually… it was Hearts in Atlantis, that one about… well, whatever the hell Hearts in Atlantis is about. But still, he’d remembered enjoying the early ones, and It was certainly vintage. He shrugged. ‘Oh go on then,’ he said.
John had taken his copy of It on a narrow boating holiday with his family. He’d always carry around way more books than he needed. Any car journey had three. One to move onto if he finished the current title… and then a further one in case he got through that one as well.
It was lying on the table as the boat passed through a lock, and it got sprayed with water. A massive gush of water. The pages warped. The beautiful cover, so evocative, so creepy, concealed a ruined book, at least as far as John – who loved his books spine unbroken and pristine – was concerned. His family, failing to understand his upset reaction, got into a huge argument, his father getting particularly angry, the book becoming a massive issue. So he put it aside. He didn’t want to look at it. It gave him bad memories. He’d read it, some day. He’d read It.
John picked up his copy of It from the shelf. The tiniest kink in the bottom right corner was the only evidence the book had ever been damaged at all. ‘Ah, well.’ He thought. ‘Why not?’ He wouldn’t really be able to finish the book in a month, but he could always see how far he got.
So he started. And he was transported.
In his mind, he’d always thought that Stephen King over-wrote. But now, a professional writer himself, he realised that that wasn’t true. He found himself viewing the words in a new way. The writing was crisp, clear and economical. It simply went into a lot of detail. An awful lot of detail. And that detail led to a more fully realised world, that in turn led to a more involving reading experience.
Every character had an intricate back story. Over-weight Ben Hanscom had his bullies… but even the bullies had histories of their own. And this reminded John of all he’d enjoyed in the author’s previous works. For all the characterization of King as a writer of horror, it was in character that his prose truly sung. That was why his straighter material – most famously the novella basis for The Shawshank Redemption, but also The Body, a tale surprisingly close to It, and which was filmed as Stand By Me – was able to live without the ghosties and the ghoulies. Because these were not horror novels, they were richly evoked tales of human beings… that from time to time just happened to feature monsters.
One of the chief characteristics of a King novel, John realised – other than being largely set in Maine – was the effect of our past upon our present. King heroes were often scarred by events they experienced when growing up: The ill sister of Pet Sematary, the abuse of The Library Policeman, to name but two. And to defeat whatever evil they’ve encountered, the protagonists had to confront and deal with those childhood events, and emerge on the other side with not just literal demons defeated.
Which was probably why It was the definitive, the ultimate King novel. Not just in terms of its scope or size. But in its very form. It was that trope writ large. A story of how we should not be afraid of our past.
John thought of his family. His late, beloved father. His adored mother, his wonderful sister and his nephews. That argument seemed so long ago now. So tiny and unimportant against the love they shared. He really should have got onto this book before now.
But this time, he was going to finish It.