A Reading Life (Pt. 4): “…And the Gunslinger Followed”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I love scary stories. My first scary story, which my mother read to me nearly every night, was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree. I remember hiding under the blanket while Mom read about the Berenstain cubs running through the woods, between rocks, in caves, and up trees, only to return home again. I remember wondering what lurked in the trees beyond my window; I wondered what haunted the underside of my bed!

As I grew, this feeling stuck. I enjoyed books that gave a fright and movies that went bump in the night. I remember where I was when I first watched House (my uncle’s house) and Aliens (my aunt’s house)–the scariest movies I watched as a child. We stayed up late around Halloween to watch old Vincent Price flicks. We reserved Saturday afternoons for creature features– Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Godzilla, and The Blob were popular.

By the time I hit middle school, I stumbled upon Stephen King. I purchased Pet Cemetery when I was in eighth grade in preparation for a road trip from Florida to New York. I’m not quite sure why my mother allowed me to purchase a Stephen King novel. My guess is that my parents were happy that I was reading since that wasn’t one of the things I enjoyed in school. I read the book, and I was profoundly freaked out.

My love for spooky tales continued into high school. I did not read anything that my classes required, not for lack of reading, but because I was too busy reading the things I enjoyed. The high school library contained a number of Stephen King, Michael Crighton, and Robin Cook books.

A flashpoint came in the tenth grade. A friend recommended The Gunslinger, by Stephen King. I can still recite the opening sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I binge-read The Gunslinger and its two sequels over several weeks. I didn’t get much sleep, and my grades probably suffered. But those books–the first four in particular–were the best I had read at the time.

I followed The Gunslinger with Dolores Claiborne and Misery (bless Kathy Bates!) and several anthologies, though I never tackled the bigger King tomes such as It. Nor have I finished the Gunslinger series beyond the fourth book because I’m convinced that the sober King of the modern era is not nearly as good a writer as the King of the 1980s. I finally read The Stand about ten years ago; and I’m convinced that “The Mist” and “Word Processor of the Gods” are still the best short stories I’ve read.

Michael Crighton was next on my list of favorite authors, and I’m sure I read almost every title available in the school library. I laid on my couch for entire weekends reading Disclosure, Congo, Eaters of the Dead, and Sphere. When Jurassic Park came out in the theater, racking up millions of dollars, I read the book–and, boy, it did not disappoint! (I read it again in 2017 along with Dragon Teeth, and it was just as good; Dragon Teeth, not so much).

All of this brings fond memories, and I’m sure that some readers of this blog will agree that the 1980s was a great decade for books and movies of us horror fans. I don’t know why I like that stuff so much–my Christian faith never wavered from reading them–but my imagination and those scary times of listening to Mom’s rendition of The Berenstain Bears stuck with me. And, for all that fun, I never caught a singer slasher movie–to this day, haven’t watched Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street. Not my type of sub-genre.

When I had children of my own, I starting telling ghost stories. We came up with a resident ghost who lived in our backyard, whose full name was, “Flip Flop Flappy Jack, Give-the-dog-a-bone.” Flip-Flop (for short) was a pirate (and his dog) who haunted our property and ate children who stayed outside past midnight.

We told other ghost stories around campfires with neighbors and friends, and I am proud to say that I had at least one little girl, a 12-year old, who refused to sleep with her light off for six-months after that hearing one such story. You’re welcome.

My “niece”, my best friend’s daughter, still gets scared when she remembers the story I told of the boy who dug up a toe in his back yard, only to have its owner come looking for it that night (borrowed from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz).

My children are older now, but the allure of spooky stories linger in the LaGuardia household. We love sitting down to good, creepy movies. The Goosebumps TV series (from years ago) is streaming on Netflix and has been a great show. We just watched the live-action Scooby Doo movies for the first time this past summer–that dude who plays Shaggy is great!
We watch The Twilight Zone every now and then (also on Netflix). I recommend to bibliophiles the episode, “Time Enough at Last,” staring Burgess Meredith (pictured above), who survives a nuclear blast by taking cover in the bowels of his local library. I am looking forward to watching The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill– both Netflix originals–some time soon.

Horror books (what my family likes to call “Mystery Stories”) still play a very small part in my recreational reading. Recently, I discovered Mabel Seeley at our local used bookstore. Her book The Listening House is a classic, published in 1938. Its a pot-boiler about a young writer who stumbled on a mysterious series of murders.

I have another of the “Madame of Mystery” (as Seeley was known) books, The Crying Sisters, on my “to read” pile. I thank a certain Mr. George L., who acquired them in 1941, (or his family!) for donating them to the Friends of the Library bookstore. It brings me back to my King days–late nights huddled under blankets, reading deep into the night, waiting for a bony hand to reach out of the blackness to give me the fright for which I’m still hunting–and I am grateful.

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