Stephen King scared the shit out of me to make room for imagination

Today is Stephen King’s birthday. He’s turning 67. He’s been scaring the living shit out of me for the better part of my life. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

I was born and raised in Florida, primarily the small town (at least at the time) of St. Cloud. It wasn’t unlike most southern small towns I’ve been to in my travels as an adult; proud of its high school football team, predominately white, single-screen movie theater, pickup trucks, military families, farm families, and a sort of overwhelming feeling that, unless something miraculous or magical happened, you would live and die there.

My mother worked at the elementary school and my father was a cowboy. And, when I grew up, I wanted to be a cowboy too.

We ate supper, we said “Grace,” we even went to church on occasion.

Somewhere along the way, I became enamored with movies and, when I was 9 years-old, my career goal shifted from, “I want to be a cowboy” to “I want to be a cowboy or Jack Nicholson,” after seeing him knock it out of the park as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

Likely due to my near-idol-worship of Nicholson, I was still a kid when I saw Kubrick’s The Shining. It was on network TV, probably around Halloween. There was a big, off-putting, purple, blurry blob over the naked lady when she stepped out of the shower. But it would take more than a big, off-putting, purple, blurry blob over the naked lady to keep that film from changing my life forever.

In hindsight, I think the first King-related film I ever saw was Cujo, a few years prior. But Cujo didn’t change the way I walked down our (to me, long-as-fuck) hallway at night; with the at-first cautious then hurried steps of a prisoner tiptoeing past the guard and scurrying towards freedom.

No, Cujo was about a dog with rabies. Scary, no doubt, especially considering I spent the first eight years of my life on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. But I could wrap my head around a dog, even one with rabies. You can see it, you can touch it, you can shoot it.

The terror of The Shining was psychological. It was in Danny’s head, got in Jack’s head, then got in your head. Were the ghosts even there? What was real? How the fuck should I know? I was like 9 years-old. I couldn’t even spell “psychological.”

All I knew was there was a light switch at either end of our hallway and my days of using only one of them every time I walked that hall after dark were long gone.

In junior high, a family friend close enough at the time to justify me calling him “Uncle” shipped me a huge box of Stephen King books he’d read and no longer needed. I never read them all. Admittedly, for someone who fancies himself a writer, I don’t read enough. But I don’t mention this shipment to wonder aloud why I don’t read more, or talk about the books from the box that I did read — The Eyes of the Dragon, Pet Sematary, The Dark Half, Night Shift, Four Past Midnight, Needful Things, some of Cujo — I only mention it as an illustration that the lid had come off. I was hooked. It was like Pringles: once I popped, I couldn’t stop.

King had managed to do something no one, or thing, had been able to do for me up to that point: crack open the part of my brain that held my imagination and show me there’s far more there than meets the eye.

It wasn’t just about fear, although being scared is great fun, it was about having the ability to manipulate someone’s mind over and over again, using only words, and build worlds, birth characters, tangle them all together, and destroy whatever you had to for it to all make sense. It was about hearing myself ask myself, “Where does he come up with it?” and never finding an answer.

Most importantly, it was a break from the routine. From high school football games, Sunday school because it’s Sunday, and kids with rat tails who didn’t know any better calling kids in punk rock t-shirts, “Faggot.” It was a glimpse into a universe where you had to expect the unexpected, or you might literally get sucked into a gutter or machine with a mind of its own.

It’s impossible to say whether or not I would have ended up the way I am today without reading Stephen King or being exposed to movies based on his books. Maybe I’d have found my own way. Maybe something would’ve happened to where I’d need to build my own hammer and smash into my own brain to escape or make sense of it. Fortunately, I don’t have to wonder.

See, the thing is, like imagination, there’s more to life than meets the eye if you just know how to look. We’re more than automatons, punching in and out day after day at jobs that pay just enough to keep us alive, kicking our feet up to watch TV, and falling asleep only to wake up and do it all again; with little regard for the fleeting years or how we’re spending them.

We’ve accepted that because it’s the norm and, in doing so, lost our sense of wonder, our sense of being, our ability to realize we’re dreams inside dreams inside the mind of a sleeping giant who, whether we like it or not, is going to wake up one day and destroy us all.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know if that last bit about the dreams and the giant is 100% accurate, but, the beauty is, that idea, that belief, is mine. And if it frightens you, it’s only because you can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t shoot it.