This is an essay about Captain Trips, gateway drugs, and falling in love.
Last week was the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards Week. The Grand Master this year was Stephen King, a fantastic choice to my mind. His books, even when they have supernatural elements, address the big issues of life and death, situate regular people in extreme situations, and are about good and evil. The first three books he took from the library bus were mysteries. He gets it.
I discovered King’s books in 1981. It was the summer I was working in the public library, and the guy from 10th-grade English class I really, really liked came in, went straight to the fiction section. In school, “J” was always in the science fiction section, so I started reading science fiction, too, and loved it. This time, he was reading Stephen King. I made an excuse to talk to him; J was startled, shy, but said I should check out The Stand. I took it out, and stayed up for the next three days straight, reading it (I was sixteen; I could do that and still come bopping into work the next day).
I loved it. If you don’t know it, a highly contagious and deadly disease (nicknamed “Captain Trips”) is inadvertantly released from a military lab, and the story follows the struggle between good and evil in those who survive. The characters, the trueness of their voices, the storytelling, it’s still one of my favorite books. I devoured every Stephen King book I could find.
It gave me more things to talk about with J: when someone sneezed, we’d exchange a glance and mutter “Captain Trips.” When someone creepy walked by, we’d mention ‘the Walking Man.’ I got up the guts to ask J out.
He said no. Teen angst ensued.
Reading all this speculative fiction—horror, SF, fantasy, and mysteries, the ‘what-if?’ stuff—I was told I’d be illiterate. It didn’t make a lot of sense—I was reading—but folks were concerned that I wasn’t reading the classics (which also kinda silly, because I’d already found Shakespeare, Twain, and Chaucer). But here’s the thing, and I tell it to people who worry their kids will never grow out of Harry Potter or Goosebumps or whatever: all that so-called “junk” I was reading led me to fantastic stories and big ideas (and every book is only as good as the ideas it inspires in you) and more great authors. Heinlein and Asimov led to Carl Sagan. King led to Harlan Ellison (because he wrote the introduction to Stalking the Nightmare), who led to Dorothy Parker (who wrote a review of Ellison’s Gentleman Junkie), who led to the writers of the Algonquin Round Table…I could go on. You could go on.
Once you get hooked on that first writer, you keep looking for the next high.
Last week I was introduced to Stephen King. It was brief, just hello-it’s a pleasure-thanks. But it was a big sentimental deal for me. J and I have been married twenty years (he came to his senses about six months after I asked him out, and asked me out), and he was right there with me, looking sharp in black tie.
Thanks, Steve, for giving me another chance to talk to that guy from English class. Thanks for your books and all the others they led to.