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 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).

When I read The Firm, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.  Seriously, I went to college originally on the pre-law track, double-majoring in history and religion!

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 Sheeley 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 Sheeley 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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A Reading Life (pt. 3): Peretti on a Ferry


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.

What ever happened to Christian fiction author Frank Peretti?  Perhaps he is still writing books; but, since I haven’t looked at a Christian fiction section at the bookstore in a while, I wouldn’t know the difference. What I do know is that, during the 1990s, when I caught snippets of God’s call on my life, Frank Peretti was a big deal.  It was hard to be an evangelical without running into his books along the way.

Frank Peretti was most famous for his “Present Darkness” series, including This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Both are takes on small-town America in the throes of larger-than-life spiritual warfare.  Peretti painted a world in which demons and angels are at war.  Humans are mere pawns.  We can only catch glimpses of this spiritual warfare around us, and it is only by prayer and God’s Word that we ward off evil spirits.

Peretti’s books influenced many people in the church.  They framed our life as a battle that we waged on our knees rather than with weapons.  They gave us a spiritual edge that provided a deeper meaning to seemingly random events that unfolded around us.  They added a spice to a stale Christian life that was quickly dwindling well into a booming Clinton economy.

At the time I read Peretti’s books, I was very impressionable.  I was a teenager, and I stood at the cross-roads of life.  During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I ventured to Manhattan on a month-long pre-college art class at Parson’s School of Art and Design.

I had my eyes set on art for a long time, but that summer I wasn’t so sure.  I was fulfilling a dream–to make art in the Big Apple, but things did not feel right.  I was torn between my dream of art and a rising call in my life to go into full-time ministry.  My trip to Parsons was, for me, a time of discernment.  Would I go to art school or a private Christian college to get a religion degree?

Since I stayed with my grandmother that summer, I had to commute from Staten Island to Manhattan five days a week. It was a 2 hour round trip.  It required two trains and a ferry. I had a lot of time to read.  I was reading Peretti that summer; it was Peretti on a ferry, for all practical purposes.

Peretti’s writing engaged my imagination as it did other Christian readers; and, with the art culture of New York, my imagination turned towards the spiritual environment in which I lived and moved and had my being. Peretti got me excited about ministry, and I thought that I had unmasked the spiritual darkness that a life of art certainly entailed. When I came home to Florida at the end of summer, my mind had been made up: I was going to apply to a Christian college, meet a nice Christian girl, and go into ministry.

I remember trying to explain this to my Italian teacher the following term.  She tried to talk me out of going to a private school.  I think she was concerned that I would not have the opportunities for a lucrative job; so, in trying to open her eyes to all things Peretti, I invited her to church.  I think she obliged to assuage my fears.  Looking back, I think she took pity on me.  She was a good teacher.

It’s been a long time since the summer of 1996.  I did end up getting a religion degree, a nice Christian girl, and a full-time job in ministry.  But I have matured as a Christian and I have moved past Peretti’s theology.   I do not read him the same as I did, but I do not regret leaving the arts behind though I miss it now and then.

I believe that God provides exactly what we need when we need it.  If I were to read a Peretti book today, I would probably toss it.  Back then, however, it clarified a call, which gave me some of the greatest blessings anyone can ever ask for, including the girl and two children!

A Reading Life (pt. 2): Choose your own Adventure

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By Joe LaGuardia

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

I rarely enjoy predictable endings. One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you can’t conclude a sermon without mentioning Jesus and redemption. Congregations do not like ambiguous endings; they are not accustomed to solving puzzles. If you don’t end a sermon with Jesus, then what is the point of going to church?

I once preached a sermon on Job that did not end with Jesus. Sure, God restored Job’s fortunes, but that did little to erase Job’s trauma after losing his children, their families, and most of his crops. Job said that life is not fair, and sometimes life is not fair. The sermon mentioned that we are not guaranteed easy answers, cliché religious sayings, or clean conclusions in life. After, a retired Lutheran pastor came up to me and said, “Joe, I did not like that sermon. Jesus was not mentioned.”

When I was young, I had similar feelings about television and books. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Scooby Doo hoping that the bad guys would win. The show ended the same every time: “I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” Just once I would like to see Scooby and the Get-Along-Gang get their just desserts for putting their noses where they didn’t belong!

Books were similar. My favorite books consisted of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These were the best because each book had multiple endings. It depended on your choices, and if you didn’t choose the right storyline, your hero or heroine could meet certain doom. That was exciting!

One of my Choose Your Own Adventure books was based on Indian Jones. I remember skipping to the back of the book and finding the ending in which Indie would be trapped or squashed under a big, rolling bolder. Once I spotted it, I went back to the beginning of the book and spent days trying to weave my way to that ending! I was a dark child.

What I did not know at the time was that my preference for ambiguity came from a deep intuition that life was more complex than my little, adolescent brain was able to understand. I had an easy life– both parents in the household with Dad’s steady job, clean clothes, good food, loving family, and supportive older sisters– but I somehow knew that life was not that simple. How could every day end like an episode of Scooby Doo where everyone lives happily ever after?

I always felt that this gave me an edge as a pastor. I never told people who faced trauma that “Everything will be ok.” I don’t make excuses for God when people are angry with God. I don’t feel the need to give cheap answers to complex questions. I am not afraid to tell my church, “I don’t know.” Sometimes not knowing is healthy–it acknowledges that life is mysterious, and we cannot domesticate God. God alludes us when we try to box him in.

My earliest books were most fascinating when they were complex and suspenseful. Predictable storylines bored me, and I loved to read things that kept me on the edge of my seat. But life is like that and, come what may, I am just glad that Jesus will “neither leave” me nor forsake me no matter what adventure life might bring. I can’t always choose my own fate, but I can choose to love God each and every day. So, I guess, it is hard to end without Jesus after all.