I’m starting to think I’ve contracted an illness. The dreaded “bitten by the book bug”. It’s quite possible that it’s more of an addiction than an illness. Others will argue that an illness and an addiction are one and the same. I’m going to go with an illness. Because, I like the way it sounds better. An addiction invokes visions of a strung out junkie slumped over in a grimy back alley in a dazed, semi-comatose state with a hypodermic sticking out of his arm. Either way, illness or addiction, mine started at an early age.
Some of my fondest memories of childhood are going to the local bookstore. There were no polished Barnes and Nobles in my small town in those days. My little haven of choice was called Read-Mor Bookstore and it sat inside a block building next to the downtown area. It had an alley that ran between it and the neighboring concrete establishment. Which I can’t, for the life of me, remember what was in it. Anyways, the alley ran between the buildings to a small parking lot in the back that was hidden from the street. The back entrance was more like entering a carnival fun house maze than a bookstore. The wooden door was old and creaky and groaned like an old lady with arthritis when you opened it. You had to meander through a couple of back rooms filled as far as the eye could see with teetering cardboard boxes. The place smelled like dust and old newspapers. I’m sure OSHA, or whatever government entity these days that monitors public safety, would’ve had a field day writing citations. But for an eight-year old, wide-eyed kid, not only did it feel safe and secure, it felt like home. And once you weaved through the clutter, you emerged through the back entrance into the main room of the store. I’ve always thought it felt like Dr Carter entering the main room of King Tut’s tomb and being immersed in all the wonderful treasures around him. The place was a maze of bookshelves that seemed to stretch to the ceiling and where time didn’t seem to exist. The smell of printed page was intoxicating and I would get lost among the Choose Your Own Adventure, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators and MAD magazines. The two dollar-bills that my mom had given me earlier were beginning to smolder a hole in the pocket of my jeans. There were so many items begging for me to take them up to the front counter. But, my two crumpled George Washingtons only stretched so far. Alas, I could buy one and only one item. So, I had to choose wisely. If the new issue of MAD Magazine was in, then it would win hands down. But, since Alfred E. Neuman’s goofy gap-toothed grin only appeared once a month, this gave me other opportunities to peruse outside of the magazine aisle.
As I grew, so did my taste in books. Then, one magical day, I wandered down an aisle that I hadn’t paid much attention to. This was the aisle of adult fiction. The books were thick here and they didn’t have pictures. But, I was looking for something outside of my children’s section offerings. And there it was in the K section of the “grown-up” aisle. I don’t recall the book glowing or angelic harp music playing, but it should have. Pet Sematary by Stephen King was my first foray into horror fiction. My life was forever changed.
As junior high shifted into high school, my appetite for all things horror grew. You couldn’t feed the beast too much or fast enough. I spent my earning at a summer job on a VCR. My parents had a big ‘ol console TV with an enormous tower antenna that rose up alongside the outside of the house. For such a formidable thing that stretched up to the heavens, it only blessed us with three clear channels. This didn’t bode well for my growing craving for horror. So I called upon my newly purchased VCR and the local video store to unlock even more doors.
The 80s were a wonderful time for all things macabre. Stephen King ruled my bookshelves and I soon branched out into Robert McCammon, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Brian Lumley, James Herbert, J.N. Williamson, and Clive Barker. I simply couldn’t get enough. Then, college hit and my reading for enjoyment came to a screeching halt.
I’d like to think that my head was overloaded with calculus, organic chemistry and physics and that was the reason why reading for pleasure didn’t seem so pleasurable anymore. I’m sure that was a big part of it. I’m also sure that girls and beer every other waking second of my college life was another. I had replaced one sinfully enjoyable experience with another. I was cheating on my first love.
After college, it was a few years before I could look at a book. For some reason, the magic was gone. Looking back, I truly believe what Robert McCammon said:
“We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for god’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”
I don’t remember what the occasion was. I want to say that I was on one of my many travel adventures. I worked for an airline out of college and was fortunate in that I have and still do travel all over the place. I believe it was on one of these earlier trips that the newness and novelty of looking out of the airplane window began to lose a little of its luster. So, I wandered into an airport bookstore and slowly discovered that there was still magic on those shelves. The funny thing is the magic didn’t wash over me like a tidal wave as it did when I was 12 and was discovering Pet Sematary for the first time. No, when you’re an adult and you’ve been tainted and you’ve allowed the magic to wither inside of you, it can be a long, arduous process to get it back. It has to slowly seep back into your pores working its way back down into your soul. And the path can be filled with many pitfalls trying to slow or stop the progress of the magic. But, I’m a stubborn bastard and eventually the magic began to weave its spell on me.
Around the corner, from my apartment, was a used book store. For a starving, fresh-out-of-college-and-saddled-with-debt person, like myself, this little slice of Mecca tucked neatly in a strip mall was just what the doctor ordered. Wandering among aisles of yellow paged paperbacks with finely aged ink brought back that intoxicating feeling again. Two dollars here, a dollar fifty there. Next thing I knew, I had a stack that weighed as much as a small Volkswagen that I was trying to wrestle to the counter without them toppling over. From that day on, I was hooked – again! Used book stores, EBay, garage sales, and yes, even the shiny Barnes and Nobles, were calling me and I answered the call. Boy, did I. My bookshelves began to groan from the weight of the paperbacks. I dreamed of building a new house. And within it, my very own library that would rival the Library of Congress in size and capacity.
Then, technology began to reach its evil tentacles into our homes. The internet evolved into online shopping and my shelves groaned even more. Suddenly, e-readers began to pop up much like dandelions on a lawn. At first, it was only a few techno-yuppies with bulging bank accounts and an insatiable appetite to be the first to have the latest electronic gizmo before the rest of their friends did. When I originally noticed them, I thought they were that year’s version of the Palm reader – some overpriced heap of shit that no one really needed. I mean, who the hell wants to read a book off of a computer screen? My mind couldn’t fathom it. A sterile, cold computer screen couldn’t emit that wonderful smell of ink on paper. That warm feeling of a book in your hand. The list of positive traits stretched on and on. And then, much like an addicts first time, I can still recall the “pushers” words to me. “Oh you don’t have a book with you? Here, you can read one off of my Nook”. Oh you bastard. How dare you do this to me? I didn’t want to like it. I really didn’t. I resisted and thought, “Well, this isn’t my Nook. I’m only going to read off of it because I don’t have any of my books with me.” How naive could I be? This is how addictions start. By justification and denial, and I was slathering both on in thick layers. Reading in the dark was the first benefit that jumped out at me. I really liked that. Then, the ability to highlight a word and get an instant definition from the online dictionary. The list of benefits began to mount. Those tricky little devils. They’ve thought of everything. Next thing you know, I’m the owner of my own Nook and I was off. Since then, I’ve graduated to an iPad and I’m amassing that library the size of the one in Washington DC. Instead of making more bookshelves grown, it’s now clogging up my iCloud. At least my house won’t look like something off the TV show “Hoarders”.
I’ve come a long way from that crowded neighborhood bookstore where I first began my love affair with books. My journey continues as we speak. The online group, Horror Aficionados on Goodreads have expanded my knowledge of horror authors exponentially. I’ve also met some great people along the way and look forward to talking to many more while discussing, sharing and debating all things macabre. If this really is an illness or an addiction, I sure hope they never find a cure.