“In Kindergarten, Niki can read so well, at…3rd grade level. Even writing. So you have to be careful what you write.” – my baby book
So, see, I have always been a voracious reader. During the weekend visits to the Fort Dodge Children’s Public Library where the smell of old, dusty paper & the sight of the Hundred Acre Wood mural greeted me, I bypassed the puppets & picture books. I wanted words to fill my paper pages – images to be created from them, not by an illustrator’s mind, but by my own. The three book maximum seemed torturous.
My mother had a bookshelf in a corner of our living room. I remember the Shoguns, the Psych texts, the massive King Tut tome. I would be pulled to this corner, curious to the adventures that beckoned. Inside every cover were unknown worlds waiting to be discovered. I had grown weary of the Judy Blumes, the Beverly Clearys, the Choose Your Own Adventures. & why wouldn’t I? I’d read them all.
So in search of something a little more substantial, more challenging, more adult, I drifted over to the living room corner. Fingertips tracing the cracked spines of dozens of paperbacks, hard covers, coil bound … I paused at a familiar name. Stephen King. Apparently, Mom was a fan. Well, if Mom liked him, the guy must be pretty good, right? The “if-then” comparison worked with Dad. Which title, though? My pre-adolescent hand stopped at The Shining. It was, well, shiny. Gradated silver to black, simple, with just a long head sans face. It didn’t look particular menacing. It didn’t look complicated. It didn’t look like something I’d get in trouble carrying around during recess.
(heh. this is the part where we all learn to not judge a book by its cover.)
So I secretively plucked it from the shelf & a love affair was borne.
A few years later, I was reading the dirty parts aloud to friends on the back of the school bus. I was working through my own very real demons by reading about fictional ones. I was bonding with my mom over a common appreciation for psychological thrillers.
I was also defying my 8th grade English teacher’s specific warning not to write a book report on a horror novel – explicitly laid out in language so precise, I could taste the disdain for the genre. ”An immediate F.” It wasn’t fair, I thought. I didn’t want to read the usual teen crap. Besides, I had read most of that years ago. So, what? Recycle my A Wrinkle in Time report (actually, one of my favorites from back then) or continue reading what I wanted to read, far ahead of my so-called “age level”?
Screw it, I thought. The point was to read, to exhibit enthusiasm for the written word, to prove comprehension. How could she fail me, an A+ student, if I surpassed all of these requirements? So I did. I finished IT the Sunday morning before the report was due. Have you seen IT? It’s gigantic. Over a thousand pages, smallish print.
I allowed myself a few hours rest, then plopped down in front of our old green manual typewriter (remember those?), & set out to compose the best damn book report in the history of 8th grade book reports. Chapter by chapter, I wrote. Opening paragraphs acknowledged the rule, outright challenged it, debated the validity of labeling a novel based on its genre. I defended King & the entirety of horror novelists. I proclaimed the book a “coming-of-age” story that just happened to have monsters & some really scary parts — but a lot of “legit” novels are equally as scary with their themes of war, rape, genocide. Hell, Old Yeller isn’t exactly pleasant.
With energy only a 13-year-old can muster without the aid of outside stimulants, I worked sleeplessly through the day into night into day again. With jittery hands, I placed the massive plastic-bound work of pure 8th grade genius in the wire basket. My heart was in my throat, my mind was swimming between indignant self-righteousness & the kind of terror only 4.0 students can feel, & my body was weak from lack of sleep.
Two weeks later, she handed out the reports, making an announcement as she did. ”I feel the need to repeat myself. Reports on horror novels will receive an automatic F.” She averted my gaze as she spoke. In fact, she avoided me altogether – no report fell upon my desk. I was in GPA limbo…
…until reports cards came out & my 4.0 remained intact (thank god phys. ed. didn’t factor). That book report was 25% of our grade for the year. 2 parts report, 1 part final exam, 1 part daily assignments. If I had failed the book report, there’s no way I’d still have an A. I grinned wide. My tactical risk had paid off.
In early 1997, I was co-habitating in a small apartment on the Upper West Side with actor friends. One of these friends, Christopher, a Manhattan transplant from Iowa like me, worked in the video department of Tower Records near Lincoln Center. His shift ended at 11pm every night & I’d usually be up, waiting to burn the midnight oil with my buddy.
One night, he came home all a-flutter about seeing Tim Burton. I kidded him about his lack of picking up the phone to notify me. We made a pact that if anyone came into the store whom he knew I would appreciate (I believe Brad Pitt was mentioned once or twice), I would get a phone call.
The very next evening, the phone rang.
“Niki, get the hell over here,” I was told.
“Who? What? Okay!”
“Stephen mother-fucking King. Get over here NOW.”
I yelped, fumbled with my shoe laces, grabbed a black Sharpie & the first book within my grasp that had a big KING embossed upon it. Lincoln Center was a mere half mile from our apartment & I don’t think I’ve ran that fast in my entire life. I burst into Tower Records, nearly slid down the escalator to the basement, & frantically searched. Christopher motioned me over.
“He’s over there. I got you a quick autograph anyways, but go get him.”
As any true King fan would be, I was uber-conscious of the famous Misery “I’m your biggest fan” cliché. I didn’t want to freak the guy out, so I calmly approached him.
“Excuse me, Mr. King? Hi. I’m Niki & am a huge fan. Do you think you would sign my book, please?”
He was even more gracious than I could ever have imagined. “Ayuh, I think a little birdie may have told you I was here, Niki?” he teased & nodded towards Christopher. I nervously giggled in the affirmative. It wasn’t until he gently took his my book, that I realized which one he was signing. Different Seasons.
I fumbled with my words. ”Oh God, look at that book. It’s such a mess.”
The green cover had been mailing taped back on, the pages were sun-worn & wavy from humidity, there were rips & dog-ears all over, the book itself was taped together in the center, & there were highlighted sections from “The Body“ from an Oral Comm speech in 1993.
“It’s just, it’s my absolute favorite & I’ve read it, oh man, about a dozen times.”
He smiled as he handed me it back. ”I am truly honored,” I declared.
& then he spoke. ”No, I’m the one who’s honored. Look at that thing. It’s worn to shit.”
He patted me on the back & we both went about our business, albeit my business consisted of doing a happy dance in-between stacks of videos.
Stephen King’s autograph.
Different Seasons is so much so my favorite book, that I have given it not once, but twice, to my younger brother to read. I’m proud to announce that it is his favorite as well, although he prefers “Apt Pupil“ to my “The Body.” This is the same younger brother who watched Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining with me one full-mooned Friday the 13th when he was 9? 11? I made a point to tell him how much scarier the book is. ::wink::
The cycle of family King lovers continues.
The Stephen King Project.
Not unlike getting my first tattoo, I have wanted to have a blog that honed in on a specific topic, but couldn’t find one with which I could really live. Until this week.
I was dusting off my bookshelves & found my finger again tracing the spines of my books. 60% of one bookshelf is dedicated to Stephen King. 80% of his written works are represented. They are organized chronologically. The a-ha moment. Read every Stephen King work in chronological order (by date published, unless Mr. King is out there somewhere & would like to provide a chronology on when they were completed – nudge nudge wink wink say no more say no more – & if he is, wow, thanks man, for all these years of sheer reading enjoyment).
So here I go, Constant Readers.