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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The God of Terrors, and other nightmares

By Joe LaGuardia

The Bible says that God is love, but it also says that God is terrifying. In a recent study on covenants of the Bible, my congregation and I read Genesis 15 as a refresher on the promises God gave to Abram. The covenant ceremony which God initiated states:

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (Gen. 15:12).

We think that the promises of God are beautiful, that the land and offspring set aside for Abram was bountiful and blessed. We forget that the promise was just as much a nightmare as it was an inheritance whereby God assured Abram that the Lord would be a “shield” of protection (v. 1). Protection against what?

At the time, Abram was well on in years. He doubted God’s promise of offspring because his wife Sarai remained barren.

“I remain childless…you have given me no offspring,” Abram told God. And the biblical text is sympathetic. Genesis 16 begins, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children.” Besides, God said that Abram’s offspring was destined for slavery, not for one season, but for several generations–400 years. What kind of promise is that?

We spend many hours if not days avoiding those things that terrify us. We spend large amounts of money alluding death and vulnerability. We encourage one another, as if to exchange favors so that we sustain the illusion that we are not fragile, that life itself is not terrifying.

Perhaps, in all of this bluster, we fail to recognize that it is God who resides in the terror as much as in the celebrations of life. We do not sleep because we are afraid of the nightmares. We are afraid that God might answer our prayers and show up.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard quoted mystic Jacob Boehme: “The whole Deity has in its innermost or beginning Birth, in the Pith or Kernel, a very tart, terrible sharpness, in which the astringent Quality is very horrible, tart, hard, dark and cold Attraction or Drawing together, like Winter, when there is a fierce, bitter cold Frost, when Water is frozen into Ice, and besides is very intolerable.”

That is the writing of someone who has experienced the presence of God, an intimacy with God and an urgency of one who recognized his own fragility in the face of God. It is the writing of someone who also knew the hardships of cold winters–a season very much a part of God’s creation as spring or summer. It is the “know this for certain” of God (Gen. 15:13), a conviction that not every calling or anointing or divine intervention is set to the music of Chris Tomlin or Cheers.

Boehme’s reflection is not words crafted to talk about divine experience, but crafted to describe the experience itself, in its most honest poetic horror.

If God is not terrifying, then why avoid God as much as we do? Why not pray more or kneel more or intercede more? Why not listen more or dig deeply into God’s Word beyond the mere parts we enjoy reading, the ones that make us feel good or reinforce our preconceived notions of who we think God ought to be?

Perhaps it is because God is a God of nightmares as much as visions and dreams, that God is in the darkness as much as God is the “Light of the world.”

God is the “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” that passes in night, threatening to scorch those who get too close or wander carelessly into Presence with too much hubris. It threatens to consume anyone who yearns to domesticate that Fire and wield it to do her bidding.

It is easier to look at what we long for — our longings are safer than God. We find the Hagar in our household who can bear the offspring promised to us. We pass each other off as invaluable pawns to the powers and Pharaohs that exploit us. We laugh when God returns to us yet again, even when we pass on God’s promises to us. We are too old to birth something new, to raise a child. We are too frightened to tell the truth that the one we claim as sister to Pharaoh is in fact our wife destined for something greater than settling on the shores of the Nile.

We want to be left alone, but God does not leave us alone. God does not seem to have it or want it that way. So God visits again, and deep darkness settles upon the earth.

The Lord is our strength; whom shall we fear?

Be the first to identify this "master of horror" and win a prize: My undying admiration.

We all have fears.  Some of us have basic fears, like that of the dark or a spooky movie.  Others of us have phobias–physiological reactions to certain stimuli, like heights or spiders.  Some are paralyzed by fear, absolutely frightened by the unknown.

Fear can become overwhelming, but it can also become a powerful catalyst for spiritual transformation.

First, we must admit that fear exists.  I’ve heard it said that fear reveals an absence of faith, but the Bible is filled with situations in which fear plays a part.  Many psalms for instance, like Psalm 23, are prayers to God that result from fear.

The proclamation, “I will not fear,” does not mean that fear never existed in the first place.  Quite the opposite; we must know what fear is in order to be saved from it.

Nor does God rebuke us for having fear; rather, God meets us in the midst of fear and gives us reason to trust in Him.  Consider Psalm 27:  “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

How about Psalm 34?  In this psalm the author is fearful (v. 4), but then sees fear as something God uses in order to increase one’s respect for God: “Fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want” (v. 9).

I can remember the first time I experienced a fear of heights.  I was very little, and my father tried to put me over his shoulders.  I panicked and nearly knocked myself out of his arms.

Even now I have trouble in high places.  When I drive over a bridge, I have to stay in the center lane.  Yet, this same feeling of fear is what brought me to the Lord.  I feared death and eternal separation from God.  I feared not being able to see my parents and sisters in heaven.  I said the sinner’s prayer in a preschool Sunday School class because of my fear of hell.  In fact, some hell phobia can do us all good now and then.

Fear continues to linger for some of us; and it is, literally, a living hell on earth.  Our futures remain uncertain; anxiety and helplessness can get the best of us.  God seems absent in limping economies and deplorable tragedies.

Although I am not a counselor and cannot give any advice about clinical fears, I do have several spiritual practices that seem to work, at least for me.

Like psalters of old, I journal whenever I am afraid.  I write prayers about my worries and doubts.  I copy some of the Psalms and make them my own.  It lets me see the big picture of how my fears are no match for a mighty God.

Another spiritual practice is to sit in silence.  Psalm 46, which begins with the affirmation that “we will not fear, though the earth should change” (v.2), encourages us to “be still and know that” God is God (v. 10).

This practice can garner fear in and of itself because we do not know what to do when we quiet our minds before God.  We wonder what we should say or what we should think; we get concerned about all of the voices that creep up in our imagination.

Silence is simply a time to be.  It is, in fact, timeless, in that we come to God in the present without worrying about our past or our future.  We are with God without being distracted by our thoughts about God.

God is a “refuge” who meets us in the midst of our fears, not in spite of them.  If you are filled with fear today, trust that God will meet you right where you are and provides you with opportunities for healing.