When I was in my early teens I spent summers at a lake-side, pine cabin nestled in a conifer forest in Bridgton, Maine. During the day, the sun found pathways through the nettled canopy of hemlocks. The slanting pillars of light looked heaven sent. There was a beautiful flower garden along the side of the cabin filled with marigolds, tiger lilies, and pansies. The flowers attracted butterflies and dragonflies.
The place was tranquil; disturbed only by the occasional slap of a screen door or the splash of a child jumping off the float at the beach. The serenity came in part from the cabin’s isolation down a windy, tar road nearly a mile long. On hot summer days, it was paradise.
But at night, the horrors arrived. The darkness swept in with the gloaming, deepening inside the forest first, and then crawling along the road, beach, and gardens like the tentacles of some hell-spawned creature. When the sun dipped far enough below the horizon, the darkness became complete.
Needles ticking on the tar became the click of claws. Foraging animals sounded like the heavy steps of a wild man who prowled the woods with a rusty axe. The lap of the lake water against the dock was the dripping blood from the recently decapitated remains of the neighbor.
I blame Stephen King.
In those days, I slept in the cabin loft devouring King’s early horror novels – Salem’s Lot, Dead Zone, Firestarter, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and the short stories in Night Shift. Who could sleep? When the clock ticked pass midnight, I would take my Buck knife with me when I needed to pee; creeping through the dark cabin with my ears trained on any and every sound.
I first met Stephen King in a bookstore in Paris, Maine. It was 1982 and he was promoting his new collection of novellas called Different Seasons. The bookstore was one of those cozy bookstores with high stacks and creepy floorboards. King wore baggy jeans before such a thing was fashionable and a t-shirt with the legend: “E.T. Phone Home.” King himself was shaggy, a bit hunched, and shambling like an upright brown bear. But he was gregarious and friendly, especially toward me, a shy and awkward 16-year-old.
I had written a book report on King the year before and had struggled mightily with the source material. After all, he wasn’t yet at the height of his career and critics had yet to analyze his prose – but I did the best I could. We noted that only the dead writers seem to get the most critical analysis.
King got a good laugh out of my story and inscribed in my book: “To George, don’t worry I’m getting closer to dead every day!”
In 1991, my future wife and I spent one of those magical “relationship” days in New Hampshire. The day was blue, clear, and warm – postcard weather. We spent the morning swimming and picnicking at a deep, secluded pool along a bend in the Swift River. We ate ice cream cones at an outdoor stand and spent the afternoon at the midway of a carnival in North Conway, riding the Ferris wheel and knocking over cans at the game booths. After an intimate dinner, we wandered over to the North Conway movie theater for the premiere of Terminator 2.
The theater used to be a single screen cinema, but had been divided into four theaters. The seats were lumpy and my knees banged into back of the chair in front of me. But it was summer and theater smelled of buttered popcorn and coconut suntan lotion. We sat directly behind Stephen King and his son. They devoured a large bucket of popcorn and seemed to really enjoy each other’s company.
Then we all watched Arnold Schwarzenegger tear up the screen. On the way out, I gave Stephen a sheepish hello, but he was so engrossed in discussing the movie with his son that he didn’t hear me. I experienced a sudden moment of jealousy. After all, the man next to me had been my favorite writer for most of my youth. He was the master of horror! I took cold comfort in the fact that we bumped shoulders at the exit.
Several months later, I attended a Dire Straits concert and had a rather copious amount of alcoholic beverages before the show. Shortly before the band came on stage, I wandered through the Worcester Centrum concourse in search for nourishment. At a condiment bar, I found Stephen King sloppily applying relish to a large hotdog.
King was dressed like he’d emptied his hamper, but the only detailed that stuck out was the thick, steel chain that connected his wallet to his belt. Emboldened by the booze, I zeroed in on him. “Stephen!” I bellowed, clapping him on the back. Drunk and nervous, I made some jokes about our paths crossing yet again blah, blah, blah.
He gave him a wide-eyed stare and I could almost hear him thinking: This is it. The crazed fan who rips my throat out. Who could blame him? After all, he had just written Misery. He muttered something about needing to get back to his seat and darted away through the crowd of people, moving with the skill of an NFL linebacker.
I, however, became convinced then that I had a cosmic connection to Stephen King. These chance meetings meant something! My future wife, ever the pragmatist, noted that it might not be a good thing to continually cross paths with the scariest man in America. It might be like having a black cat cross your path.
So I waited for the cosmic connection to shift into high gear. Waited for something to happen. Maybe King would crash by wedding (held under the hemlocks at that pine cabin in Maine) or call me up to invite me over to his summer place in Lovell. We could see a movie together at the Magic Lantern or watch the horse pulling contest at Fryeburg Fair.
But I haven't seen Stephen King again since.
I'm still waiting and wondering if Kathy Bates would have any good advice.
Labels: Essay, Stephen King