The Greatest Reading Experience of My Life
Reading has always been one of my greatest pleasures, and recently I began to wonder about something: What has been the most pleasurable reading experience of my life?
Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky came to mind. It’s certainly one of my favorite novels, and I don’t think I have ever re-read a book more than this one. I remember back when I was a youngster of about eleven years…
I had been reading Heinlein for a year or so. One afternoon I was making Rice-a-Roni while sitting at the dining room table with Farmer in the Sky. I had the house to myself, which I always liked. I turned the heat off the stove and let the Rice-a-Roni start to cool. I let it grow completely cold, because I was so engrossed in the book. I had enjoyed science fiction up until that point, but that was the precise time when I became a full-blown fanatic. Unfortunately, few pieces of SF literature gave me the satisfaction I got from reading about young Bill Lermer’s trip to Ganymede and his efforts to create a farm there. Farmer in the Sky remains one of my very favorite books, and I have read it at least ten times. I have listened to the excellent audiobook three times.
Very close, but I have to choose another reading experience. For it, I have to step into my wayback machine, all the way back to the middle of the 1980s. And what a time it was. Horror was everywhere. The Nightmare on Elm Street series was going strong. The Friday the 13th movies were becomimg tedious, but they hadn’t been reduced to full-suck mode yet. Horror comedies and sequels ruled the movies, and while many so-called serious, i.e. OLD, critics bemoaned them, I was in heaven.
As for literature, the fabled Boom was in full swing. We had people like James Herbert, F. Paul Wilson, John Farris, Ramsey Campbell, and Charles L. Grant cranking out fantastic works. Clive Barker had recently taken the genre by storm. And a new wave of horror was about to explode with John Skipp and Craig Spector at the throttle. It was an amazing time to be a fan.
On September 15, 1986, Stephen King published his novel, IT. It was met with wild enthusiasm by everyone.
Some consider IT to be the end of the first era of King’s career, the one most refer to as his earlier, classic years. I can’t argue with that one. For me, the second phase started with The Eyes of the Dragon and ended with, oh, let’s say Lisey’s Story. This was King’s most ambitious period, and I did like many of the books that came forth. Some did not work so well for me. And then, with Duma Key, the third era began, and for me it is every bit as engrossing, scary, and satisfying as his early days.
IT was the culmination of King’s fiction up until that point. It featured the youthful protagonists that he employed so well. IT has a marvelously tacky and gruesome antagonist in the form of Pennywise the Clown.
An aside — I cannot help but share this story: My late brother Rick was not a big horror fan, but he liked King’s work. One afternoon he was alone in the house we shared, and he was reading IT. The TV was on but the sound was all the way down. So he had no idea what was really going on in the kids’ show that was airing at the time. Rick got freaked out fairly easily, and as he glanced up, a small clown face appeared at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Rick told me that he dropped the book and jumped up, terrified out of his mind. The clown face disappeared. Shaking with fear, Rick turned up the audio on the television, and he gradually realized that the local kids’ show had a contest in which viewers were supposed to call in to the station when a clown face appeared in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.
Rick didn’t read a lot of horror after that.
Anyway, IT is a monstrous gargantuan mammoth of a novel. A big, glorious Halloween present to horror fans everywhere. Is It my favorite of King’s many books? I don’t know. I have answered that question in the affirmative, but I have also done so in regard to books like The Shining, Christine, 11/22/63, and so on. I love so many of his books so much that it is virtually impossible for me to pick one as the lone favorite.
I bought Stephen King’s IT as soon as the book was published, but I did not pick it up to read it for a couple of weeks. That was really unlike me. The reason was, I was working myself practically to death at the time. I had a job on an oyster boat. I had to rise out of bed at three o’clock in the morning (feeling, indeed, like a ghoulish undead character in a King story) and head down to the dock to prepare the boat. We’d go out while it was still dark, so we would arrive at the grounds just as day was breaking. Laws forbade catching them anytime after sunset and before dawn.
We’d come back in in the waning hours of the afternoon, almost always with a full load of shellfish. Then we had to unload them by shovel. Usually it was somewhere between one hundred twenty-five to two hundred bushels. I’d grab a six pack from the marina store and head home. My girlfriend would make dinner, and more times than not I would eat that dinner on the way in to work the next morning because I feel asleep before it was done. This was six days a week, and Sunday was usually spent partying with friends.
If I didn’t have the time or energy for sex, I don’t guess you can blame me for not making time for reading.
One day I went in, zombie-like, and the captain and the other mate were not readying the boat for another day of oystering. They were cleaning it out and were getting ready for dry dock. The season was over, and no one even bothered to let me know.
Lord, what a relief. A blessed break from the bone wearying efforts I’d made over the previous months. I went back home.
I laid down on the couch, fan blowing toward me, and entered the world of Stephen King’s IT. Little did I know that the excellent money I had made would run out much faster than I dreamed it would. I had no idea that dark days were ahead, and that I would experience the longest span of unemployment I would so far see in my life. All I cared about was the world of Derry, Maine, and Richie, Eddie, Bev, Stan, Mike, and Ben. Kids who would became as dear to me as my own childhood companions. Probably dearer. Voracious readers like me (and probably you) spent a lot of hours with books while growing up.
I read all day. Barely stopping to eat. I was totally immersed in King’s landscape of horror. No underlying worries about money, or planning for work the next day, or anything. Blessed rest and a book overfilled with delicious terrors.
Yeah. I was twenty-five years old when It came out. A very young man with an unquenchable thirst for all things related to horror. Maybe you can never get that kind of enthusiasm back. Not as powerful as my obsession was, or how innocent it all seemed back then. That was the exact, perfect time for me as a fan of horror. If I wasn’t a fan for life before that, well, there was no longer any doubt.
I have many favorite writers, and there are many, many books that I love and cherish. I have not loved every book or story that Stephen King has given us, but I can say this: No writer has given me more joy, made me feel such intense emotion, made me laugh, made me shiver, and made me give a shit about the people in the pages as much as he has. And while IT may not be his best novel, it is his ultimate horror story. And I never had a better time with a book than I did on that day back on October 1, 1986.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.