First, a note to those of you who know me in real life, i.e. we’ve inhabited the same physical space and spoken face to face and been to the same parties and gone to movies together and helped each other move and all that in real life stuff. Many of you folks have probably heard this story before. Maybe more than once, even. I was disqualified in the first round of Most Interesting Man In The World auditions, what can I say? I only have so many stories worth telling that are both true and that actually happened. I tell it again here because the movie/book that is the subject of this particular story came up on the Twitterator the other day and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to make a little internet data out of it. And so....
Ninth grade was my first year of book-learnin’ that occurred outside of a religious educational facility. I attended kindergarten through sixth grade in one Baptist school, then seventh and eight grade in another Baptist school. But once junior high was over and it was time for capital-H High School, my mom decided that I had gotten just about all the benefit I was going to get out of those kinds of places. Thank any god in the book in the book who had a hand in that decision.
So there I was, a freshman in a brand new school where I knew one, count it, ONE single solitary person with whom I had ZERO classes. Because I hadn’t gone to the public elementary and junior high schools, I didn’t even know the other kids from my neighborhood all that well. And not only was it a new school, it was a whole new environment. The building was, in my eyes, gigantic. The student body was no less than ten times what I was used to, and it felt like they all disapproved of my existence. Also, I was now being taught about this thing called evolution. Up to that point, the only thing I had been taught about evolution was that it was an idea borne out of the fires of hell, conjured up by Satan’s demon imp Charles Darwin to confuse and confound the children of God and lead them astray. Evolution, heavy metal, witchcraft, Darwin, Metallica, Catholics, they all fell into the same hell-bound bucket as far as my Baptist educators were concerned.
As you can imagine, I spent a fair amount of my school hours alone that year. I wasn’t busy socializing or vandalizing school property or having underage sex or anything, so I had plenty of time to do things like peruse the school’s enormous library. And there was this author I had heard about, one whose works were said to inspire terror and trembling, a writer who could play ever so skillfully with that feeling you get when you awaken in a dark room with the sense that your’e not exactly alone. He was, in my mind, dangerous. My interest: it was piqued. I took a look through the library’s catalog one day, and sure enough, there he was:
I remember staring at that shelf lined with his work. They’re right here in front of me. I can take any of these books I like and walk out of here and nobody will stop me. They’ll encourage me, even. I don’t know if I realized it then, but something was about to change.
Of course, the man’s name was all that I knew at the time so I had no idea which of his books I should start with. They all sounded fantastic. Then I spotted a familiar title. Hey, wasn’t this one...? Yeah, this one was a movie. So of course it had to be good, right? I pulled it off the shelf, took it to the front desk, checked it out, and that very night, I began reading The Shining.
I spent every free waking moment I had with my nose buried in those pages. I snuck in chapters by the beam of a flashlight late at night when I was supposed to be asleep. This book didn’t care about my bedtime. No, it had much more important things to show me. Just one more chapter, little boy, just one more chapter.
It was during one such late night flashlight-lit reading session that The Freshman Year Heart Stopper aka My Shining Moment took place. If you’ve read The Shining or/and seen the movie (which really, if you haven’t experienced at least one of the two? You need to get on that), you’ll recall that the old chef warns the boy, Danny, not to enter one particular room in the hotel, (217 in the book, 237 in the movie, nerds). The old man doesn’t tell him why exactly, he just insists that Danny absolutely not set foot into that accursed room under any circumstances. But his warning only confirms what Danny already suspected, that there is something strange about that room. From that moment on, we know his curiosity will eventually win out. He’s going to open that door. He’s going to find out what’s in there, and so are we.
It was the middle of the night. The house was dark and quiet. My mom was asleep down the hall from my room. I was sitting in my bed, flashlight beam trained downwards on the chapter where Danny finally gets up the nerve to go against the old man’s advice. It’s been a few years, but as I recall, it goes something like this:
Danny stands at the door of the forbidden room.
Danny opens the door...or is it mysteriously open for him?
Danny enters, his curiosity momentarily trumping his fear.
Danny looks around the room.
Danny sees nothing out of the ordinary.
Danny walks into the bathroom.
Danny finds the bathtub filled with water.
Danny finds the bathtub filled with water and, oh look, it’s the bloated corpse of a drowned woman.
Danny recoils in horror.
The corpse pulls herself up out of the water into a standing position.
The corpse stands in the tub, water dripping from her grotesque form.
The corpse steps out of the bathtub and moves towards Danny.
I’m relaying this as simply a sequence of events, but King’s telling is...well, let’s just say there’s a reason the man’s name sells millions of copies. As far as my ninth grade self was concerned, the rest of the world had faded to nothing. There was only this boy in this hotel room with this drowned woman shuffling toward him. Which I guess is why I completely leaped out my skin when, at that very moment, my bedroom door suddenly slammed shut.
Had I had even one of my wits about me, I would have shone the flashlight on the door. I would have seen that there was nothing there, no corpses, no axe-wielding maniacs, no creepy little kids beckoning me to come play with them forever and ever. But the sound of that door slamming shut and trapping me in my room at the precise moment that this dead woman’s bloated veiny form stepped out of her drowning pool and made a move for the book’s horrified little protagonist effectively drove all of my wits towards the nearest exit. The flashlight, the book, they both went flying and I screamed, which of course woke up my mother. She ran down the hall to my room, turned on the light, and demanded to know just what the hell was going on, a demand that I couldn’t answer exactly. Between the scare I’d just had and the fact that part of my mind was still back in the Overlook Hotel, I don’t think I was able to stammer out anything coherent before my mom realized that there wasn’t a thing wrong with me and that I had just woken her up for nothing. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that all lights were to be extinguished and I was to get my ass to sleep.
I don’t remember if it was while my mom was yelling at me or if it was a few minutes later while I was laying there in the dark trying to calm myself that I realized it -- the air conditioner. The stupid air conditioner had come on, sending air through the vent above my door and pushing it closed. It had done it before, even, just never while I was reading Stephen King.
I said it at the start, I’ve told this story before. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years too, which seems weird considering what a small simple event it was. A lot like Danny, I was striking out into unknown territory and I ended up getting one hell of a scare out of it. I’ve wondered sometimes if this moment of raw fear followed by the realization that it’s okay, everything’s okay, just breathe, nothing to be afraid of, if it did a little something to the wiring in my brain, causing me to seek out these kinds of scares, the innocent kind where there’s nothing there that can actually do any harm because it’s all on a screen or a page. As opposed, of course, to the real scary scares, the kinds that don’t necessarily startle you all of a sudden, but instead drag on and on, the kind that involve things like waiting on test results or consulting specialists or wondering what the Gulf Coast is going to look like when your kids are old enough to take their families to see it.
So there you have it. That’s the thing that happened this one time.