Mother Goose, Ghosts, and The King

Puss in Boots

March 21, 365 days of Writing

Prompt: What was your favorite childhood book? How did it influence you?

I should begin by saying that I am pleasantly surprised by how much introspection these prompts bring me. I have spent a couple of days thinking about this subject in particular, and dreading it because I simply couldn’t remember a book that influenced me in my childhood.  I will use the word “childhood” loosely here, and extend it into my teen years, but it was only tonight that I realized a profound influence.

When I was a young teen, reading was not my thing. My parents received the Sunday paper, and I liked to look at the comics, and the Parade  section.  Invariably, in the back of that insert was an advertisement for a book club. You could subscribe, get the first three or so books for a modest price, and then cancel at any time! Although I’m not sure that my parents didn’t end up paying for the long-term subscription (through no choice of their own), I chose my first three books carefully.  I had always heard good things about Stephen King, so I decided to purchase The Stand. It sounded promising, but was an uncut/unedited/un-something version that was at least 1400 pages long.

When the book arrived, it sat, and sat, and sat. It was just too big. I couldn’t pick it up. It was intimidating in its weight, and I found it even difficult to comprehend its sheer thickness.  I could only assume that it was boring. But then one day, I picked it up and began reading, and a whole new world revealed itself to me. The characters -I loved them. Some were dark, and some were good, but they were all fascinating. The story was long, yes, but not long enough. I couldn’t believe when it was over, and wanted more. I wanted to know what happened next to these well-written, very three-dimensional people who only existed in a fictional world, brought so vividly to life by the mind and handiwork of another mere human.

When I was five, my family went to dinner for my birthday. When we got home that evening and went to the front door, there, between the screen door and the entry door was a book. It was a Mother Goose fairy tale book, with the inscription that it was for me, from my aunt Tamara and uncle Joe. I still have the book, and I recall reading it, but even more, I remember its illustrations. They were simply fantastic. The drawing of “Puss in Boots” is one piece of artwork that has never left my mind; it was more than just a cartoon drawing in a book – it had depth, and the cat’s face conveyed a very disturbing emotion, something that I might describe as hateful contempt. Most certainly not normal cartoon material.

Years later when I was babysitting for Tamara and Joe’s kids, I found myself perusing their bookshelf. I picked up a paperback that was entitled (loosely) The Bachman Books.  I was surprised to find that it was comprised of early works by Stephen King, so I dove in. The story “Rage,” has stuck with me since that time.  It is about a teenager who takes over his school by force and kills students and teachers. I might feel differently about the story if I first read it today, after multiple school shooting tragedies, but at the time, I was struck by its honesty. “Sandra Cross wears white cotton panties.”  He had caught a glimpse under the skirt of a pretty girl he liked, and he kept going back to this detail about her. He talked about how the lawn came right up to the brick walls of the school, like it was saying “fuck you.” These most definitely are the details of life, but would I think to include them in my own writing? What did Sandra Cross’s choice of underwear say about her, and how would anyone think to give voice to the grass outside?

But my love of Stephen King probably harkens back to my grandmothers house, for she had the book “Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,” by Kathryn Tucker Windham. Even though the book gave me the creeps, I could never resist pulling it from the shelf and turning to a story I’d read before, still wondering whether it could actually be true. In my grandparents’ den stood a tall grandfather clock that my grandfather had built. It had to be wound each day (by pulling the chain behind the pendulum), and its tick was always the predominant sound in their quiet house. The clock made the ghost book even scarier, and made me regret my reading choice after the lights had gone out for bedtime.

I honestly didn’t realize until tonight, when preparing to write this post, that a ghost book, read as a child, could have lead to a lifetime of my waiting for the next Stephen King book to be published. I guess it’s not improbable – I had simply never considered this. Our personalities, likes and dislikes are formed at an early age, so why not our love of reading as well? Perhaps my persistent choice of the ghost book was an indication of an existing proclivity toward the dark and mysterious. It’s the old chicken and egg conundrum, I suppose. But I will decide right now that my love of horror was spurned by the petite author, Kathryn Tucker Windham.

*I have realized that Puss in Boots is not in my Mother Goose book. I will correct this. Sorry!