Stephen King was a god to me when I was a kid. I was raised by Bible-thumping Baptists in Virginia Beach, VA. Stephen King was a big no no. When procured, hardcovers were hidden under my bed on top of the wooden slats that supported my box springs, and paperbacks were stripped of their covers and glued inside the stripped covers of Christian books so I could get away with reading them without discovery. My life bore some disturbing similarities to “Fahrenheit 451,” and there was indeed a bonfire in our fireplace when a stash of King books was discovered at one point. Tears were shed and it wasn’t the smoke in my eyes from the blackened pile of ashes that used to be “The Stand” and “It.” » Read more
Category Archives: Guest Essays
‘Salem’s Lot isn’t my favorite Stephen King novel—that’s The Stand—but it may be the one that’s influenced me the most. It never made me cry the way some other King novels have, but it got under my skin more, cut me more deeply, frightened me more than any of the others. I suspect I could spend entire chapters delving into my psyche and finding all of the scars that ‘Salem’s Lot left behind, but I prefer to think of the imaginative fires it ignited in me.
I know I should remember my first Stephen King novel. It’s possible that in other places I’ve lied about this, but the truth is that I don’t truly recall which of his books I encountered first. I suspect it was The Stand, which I bought in an airport bookstore as a kid, on my way to Florida with my family. It might have been Carrie, which I bought used at a little shop in my hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. It wasn’t The Dead Zone, which I first spotted in the hands of a bouncer at Liam’s Irish Tavern—he was reading on the job. And it wasn’t Firestarter, which the nuns at St. Bridget’s heartily disapproved of my reading in the sixth grade.
It definitely wasn’t ‘Salem’s Lot.
No matter, though. Whatever else I read before it, I know I loved every word, but it was ‘Salem’s Lot that really woke me up. I’d spent a lot of time in southern Maine in the summers, so I fancied that I knew a little bit about Maine…and it didn’t feel too different from Massachusetts to me. There was an old house a mile or so from mine that we kids all called “the Lavolee Mansion.” I’m sure I’ve spelled that wrong, but you get the gist. The house had been beautiful once, with faux Doric columns in front, though in those days it was a fading, peeling, crumbling mess of a place with broken windows and overgrown grass. In the lore of the neighborhood kids, the house was—of course—haunted, and when we walked or rode our bikes past the old pile, we always picked up the pace. » Read more
Like a lot of kids who grew up in the Seventies and early-Eighties, I was introduced to horror fiction not through prose, but via comic books. The mid-Seventies were an especially fertile period for horror comics—the era of ‘The Marvel Age of Comics’ and ‘The DC Explosion’, among others, fondly remembered now as the Bronze Age. Every week, I’d peddle my BMX Mongoose bike down to the newsstand and grab the latest issue of Werewolf by Night, The Witching Hour, Tomb of Dracula, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and dozens more, including my personal favorite, Man-Thing (written by Steve Gerber).
It was Gerber’s work that first made me aware, at age eight, that writing was a job somebody could have when they grew up. And so, while every other kid my age wanted to be an astronaut or a police officer or The Six-Million Dollar Man, I was already planning on being a writer. I produced dozens of comic books, laboring over them with pencils and a box of crayons, scribbling them down on sheets of paper my father had brought home from his job at the paper mill, defective sheets with globs of pulp wood embedded in them. I invented monsters and superheroes of my own (including one in which an intelligent, amorphous blob from outer space attacks the Earth), but I did a number of pastiches, as well—writing (and less competently illustrating) new adventures of Captain America and the Falcon, Kamandi, The Defenders, Spider-Man, and more.
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I’ll preface by saying that I’ve got about a decade’s worth of college teaching experience, and recently spent nine rewarding years working at a private Baltimore high school, where I was also Chair of the English Department. I’ve also been a teacher and administrator with a well-respected academic summer program.
So I could say, in the words of Rage‘s school principal, Thomas Denver, that “I’ve been in the kid business” for more than 20 years.
That, and been a kid, too, as most of us can fairly say about ourselves.
And I write horror.
During those years when I taught at the high school level, I worried that the subject matter of some of my stories might cause trouble with school administrators, might raise concerns for a few cautious parents. After all, one of my stories implies at the end that a child is smothered by her father; in another, a homeschooled boy gives birth through his abdomen to Lovecraftian monsters.
In a recent collaboration with Brian James Freeman I wrote about creepy Halloween Children. And with Michael McBride I wrote The Narrator, about an eighth grade classroom that spirals into crisis due to bewitching stories they hear from a classmate.
Despite the usual gruesome subject matter, with protagonists who sometimes matched the age of students in my charge, I never received any criticism from the school community. In fact, my high school actually sponsored an event to celebrate the publication of my first book, and it was one of the most rewarding moments of both my teaching and my writing careers.
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R.J. Cavender is the managing editor of horror at Dark Regions Press, editor-in-chief at Cutting Block Books, and he is an Associate Member of the Horror Writers Association. He is best known for creating and co-editing the Horror Library series of anthologies. R.J. Cavender recently started organizing the Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat which is an author and artists retreat that is held at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (this year’s will be October 22nd – 25th, 2015). Guests of honor this year include Jack Ketchum, Richard Chizmar, Kealan Patrick Burke, Tom Piccirilli, Michelle Scalise, Josh Malerman, and Trent Zelazny.
R.J.: “R.J.” or “Cav” (short for Cavender)…either is fine. I started going by my initials in middle school to clear up any confusion when there were four of us students all with the same first name in one class. And no I won’t tell you what my first name used to be. Haha! I’ve had a legal name change since then and the last living person who called me by my given birth name was my Grandmother and she’s since passed away. But yeah, “R.J.” or “Cav” is fine…–“R.J.” is my actual legal first name.
Robert: I’ve read that your favorite novel is The Shining. Why?
R.J.: It was the first novel I ever read by Stephen King and it made a hell of an impression. It set the bar high, too, I’d say. It’s a modern classic haunted house tale.
Robert: When did you first read The Shining and how many times do you think you’ve picked it up since then? » Read more
Robert McCammon’s official website posted a new 3,100 word essay entitled “My Magnificent Seven” yesterday and it’s a “must read” in our opinion.
In addition to some intriguing updates about what McCammon is writing at the moment, he also went into great detail about seven books that he revisits from time to time.
Here is what he had to say about The Shining by Stephen King (and also a wonderful aside about Omniscient Third Person, a topic that’s probably a little too near and dear to our hearts), but please be sure to read the rest of “My Magnificent Seven” on the official Robert McCammon website because he highlights some really wonderful books you need to read if you haven’t already!
An excerpt from “My Magnificent Seven” by Robert McCammon:
Number Four: The Shining, by Stephen King, published by Doubleday in 1977.
This is The Complete Book. It has everything. It captures a small space of time for a family in crisis, but it really encompasses the entire lives of those involved. The creation of these characters and this situation is absolutely magnificent, and this has the best scene of an alcoholic who is “on the wagon” seeing the “flaws” of being “on the wagon” that will probably ever be written. The malevolent spirits (and Guiding Spirit) of the haunted hotel aside, this is just a great book about a man trying to hold his life and family together. This is so rich in description, symbolism and themes that you’d have to write a book praising the book. And of course, one of the central elements is timeless, that of an Evil force finding a weakness and exploiting it. That was ever true and will be true until the end of time.
I will digress here for just a minute and say that The Shining would not work nearly as well without multiple viewpoints…the Omniscient Third Person (or “God”) viewpoint. On looking up “Omniscient Third Person” on the Net, you find a description that says this viewpoint technique is most identified with novels of the nineteenth century. In other words, according to this description, it’s considered creaky and old-fashioned.
What the &***???????
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I’d love to say that the first crime I committed was stealing a copy of The Shining, but in truth it was probably well along the list of crimes. It is the first thing I remember stealing, at least, although I want to add the critical caveat that I returned it to its rightful owner. That always satisfies the judge, right?
The Shining was the first King book I read, and I didn’t intend to read it. The book was in a neighbor’s house and while they were on vacation I was entrusted with a key in the hopes that I would keep their cats fed and not steal their literature. I batted .500.
I opened the book with only mild curiosity because I expected to know the story since I’d already seen the film, a decision of great controversy in my family and one that produced an all-time-classic memory of my parents. My mother was hesitant to let my sister and I see the movie; my father was convinced that “we were ready.” The vivid memory comes with Danny’s visit to Room 217 (er, sorry, 237) but it isn’t the awaiting horrors that make the memory stand out in my mind. It’s my mother shouting at my father to fast-forward through the (gasp!) sight of the naked woman, a sight that threatened the moral compass of her children – and one that clearly had a cost, because I was soon stealing from the neighbors. My father leapt into action and did as he was told, punching the fast-forward button. In the fashion of the old VHS tapes, two blurred lines appeared on the screen: one covered the woman’s face, the other her stomach, meaning that the image was now reduced to an advancing pair of faceless female parts. My sister and I will laugh over that one until the day we die.
But back to the book. As I said, I didn’t intend to read it. I certainly didn’t imagine that it would be one of the few novels I keep beside my writing desk today, a constant source of inspiration, a reminder of how much a reader can feel from a book. I intended to skim a few pages, that was all. But you don’t just skim a few pages of The Shining. King’s remarkable novel doesn’t allow that. The Torrances might not be trapped (yet) in the Overlook, but you are.
An element I remember from that first read was a sense of astonishment as I realized: wait, a minute – Jack isn’t crazy. Jack hasn’t lost it yet. In the film, the first shot of Jack Nicholson’s face assured me that we were traveling along with a mad man. The crisis of the story was clear: innocent family is en route to snowbound hotel with insane husband/father. The worries of the character I met on the page, however, the desperate man calling in the last favor he has in the world to protect the family he loves, a man battling the threats around him and within him, were jarring. I thought maybe I don’t know the story so well after all and set about making my theft, carefully hiding the book lest it reinforce my mother’s suspicions about the corruption of character that had occurred during that fateful family movie night. I had a few days before the neighbors returned; it did not take me a few days to read the book.
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“Jesus watches from the wall,
But his face is cold as stone,
And if he loves me
As she tells me
Why do I feel so all alone?”
— Carrie White
Stephen King’s Carrie was not the first horror novel I read, but it was the first horror novel that did more than frighten and disturb me, the first to reach a hand deep into my life, stir things up, and make me begin to look at things differently. It made me question … well, just about everything. » Read more