When I was 10 years old, I sent Stephen King the first thing I had ever written.
It was a short story called “Murder on Washington St.”
The reply I received changed the course of my life forever.
If there had been a such thing as the Losers’ Club at Smith Elementary School in Columbus, Indiana, I most assuredly would have been a member. That’s probably why I gravitated towards It in the Fall of 1990—first the miniseries, and then the novel.
I suppose it all began on the evening of November 18th, 1990, as I sat cross-legged on the living room floor in front of a television set we thought was pretty big but undoubtedly pales by today’s comparisons. I can’t tell you exactly what I looked like sitting there on that evening, but I would put money on my mouth being agape and my pupils being all but dilated while I sat terrified of the thing that had popped up in the storm drain on Witcham Street. It was a clown, remarkably just like the Bozo I watched on Saturday mornings, and just as remarkably not like Bozo at all. Suddenly there were screams from a boy in a yellow rain slicker as the clown drew back his lips to reveal razor sharp teeth. And as the boy reached into the drain to retrieve his boat made from a sheet of newspaper, the man with the big red nose grabbed the child’s arm… and pulled.
That was my introduction to Stephen King.
Nothing like It had ever been seen on primetime television. There were photographs that moved, bathroom sinks that gushed blood, and clowns that ate children. It was 1990, and networks were pushing the envelope, attempting to see just how much they could get away with, and in a time slot before kids like me had been put to bed.
It was all anyone could talk about at school the next day, and it was certainly all I could think about.
I raced out that weekend and spent my allowance on the paperback novel—the one that had Tim Curry’s terrifying face on the cover. I was scared just to hold it.
I was a voracious reader from a young age, but at 1138 pages, It was by far the longest book I had ever dared to read. I was already a fan of horror, having loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many of the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. King, however, was an altogether different kind of beast. King’s horror was more suburban in nature. It brought the terror right into my neighborhood, my school, into my own home even. And any child will tell you, that’s where the real horrors are.
I was bullied every day at school. The days when I went home without having been beaten, called a faggot, or somehow otherwise tortured, bruised, or bloodied were few and far between. Columbus, Indiana, was a small town, a lot like Derry. The people there were a lot like the people in Derry too. Kids could be monsters, and when the adults saw something wrong, they’d often just look the other way.
Even today, 28 years later, as I re-read the book for the first time since I was 10, I find myself looking over my shoulder. I keep checking to see who’s there, who’s coming after me. Then I kick myself and think, “What are you, crazy? There’s no one there.” But you know, I think they’re always there. Because they never really go away.
The horrors we face as children follow us into our adulthood. That’s what It is really all about. Even as a kid, I got that. It’s about those moments of real terror we experience in our youth that continue to haunt us for life, until one day we decide to face the demon, and with a little help from our friends, fight it. The entire story was such a brilliant metaphor, it made me want to be a writer.
And so, at the tender age of 10, I sat down at my father’s typewriter and began to write the great American novel. As it turns out, it was only about 2 pages long. There was plenty of blood though. I was pretty darn proud of “Murder On Washington St.” (so named after the street in Columbus my grandmother still lives on) and so were my folks. So much so that when I was given an assignment in class later that year to write a letter to the person we most admire, I decided to write a letter to Stephen King, and I included my story along with it.
I don’t recall putting the letter in the mail, so I think it must have been my teacher at the time, Mrs. Beecher, who had put a stamp on it and sent it off to Bangor, Maine. What I do remember is the day I came home from school to find an envelope in the mail addressed to me from Stephen King.
He was gracious enough to tell me how much he enjoyed my story, and how surprised he was that I was only 10 years old. What he told me after that is something that has never left me.
Never stop writing.
He also encouraged me to send him anything else I write, though he said he might not always be able to respond.
I ran to my typewriter and raced off a story about a deep sea fishing expedition where the boat breaks down and there’s a cannibal on board. I thought if he likes “Murder On Washington St.,” he’ll really dig this one! Next, I wrote one about a killer cat who was all too devoted to his painfully shy and socially awkward owner. The stories got better, and every now and then I’d get a response from King even if it was only a thank you note with a flyer to let me know what he was working on next.
Thanks to King’s encouragement, believe it or not, I became published soon thereafter. By the age of 15, I was a staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. (Remember Femme Fatales? …Remember magazines?) My career as a journalist was off and running, and so I abandoned my love of writing fiction for quite some time.
But I never stopped reading Stephen King. And I never stopped taking his advice. I kept writing, no matter what form that might have taken.
In 2016, I was asked to write a regular column for King’s limited edition publishers at Cemetery Dance Publications called “What I Learned From Stephen King” about the wisdom, life lessons, and spirituality in King’s stories.
Eleven columns later, needless to say, I’ve learned a lot from King’s books, but nothing has taught me more than that one response to a 10-year-old boy’s letter. Sure, it taught me to never stop writing. But it also taught me a lot about the kind of man I hoped I’d grow up to be some day. A man who, no matter how famous or critically acclaimed, would always find the time to share an encouraging word. A man who would be as gracious and kind as he is prolific and poetic.
Months ago, I was going through old boxes in the closet when I found that letter from Stephen King.
Never stop writing.
I looked at it for a long while, and something awakened inside. Some kind of magic, I guess you could say. His words of encouragement, all these years later, still affected me. I decided to sit down and try my hand at writing fiction, for the first time since I was a kid. The result was a short story called “Orange Grove Court.”
I guess the good people at Cemetery Dance magazine liked the story well enough, and I sure hope you will too. “Orange Grove Court” will appear in Cemetery Dance in 2018.
It’s crazy to think after all these years, I find myself being published by King’s publishers, when it was in fact King himself who inspired me to keep writing and become the writer I am today.
When I got the email from Brian Freeman about Cemetery Dance wanting to publish “Orange Grove Court,” I jumped up and down with excitement—just like I did the day I got Stephen King’s letter in the mail.
And just like that day when I was 10, I raced off to write the next story.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Sechrest’s official web site, SechrestThings.com, is dedicated to his musings on Stephen King and all things horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.