Friday, August 8, 2014

Reads I remember

I am occasionally asked: “What books influenced you as a writer?” and the closely related question “What sort of fiction do you like to read?”

There is no simple answer. Like most writers—and readers—I found that my tastes and influences changed as I changed. What appealed to me twenty years ago, in other words, doesn’t necessarily appeal to me now.

Therefore, to answer the question, I am going to have to break my reading and influences down into stages.

Stage 1: My “Everything Star Wars is cool!” phase

My first real interest in storytelling was prompted by the original Star Wars craze. This was back in 1977, before most of the actors in the recent Star Wars films were even born. (And, perhaps, before many of the readers of this post were born.)

Star Wars has been with us for so many years that it is easy to overlook its initial significance at the time (a subject that I might return to at a later date.) More to the point of this entry, though, the film had a major impact on my nine-year-old self.

If you weren’t around in the late 1970s, suffice it to say that the first movie about Luke Skywalker and friends was a major cultural influence that no one could completely avoid. Star Wars—and Star Wars merchandise—was everywhere back then. (I believe that even the Carter Whitehouse made the occasional reference to Star Wars. If ever there was a president who was sadly in need of help from the Force, it was Jimmy Carter.)

But back to me. I not only wallpapered my room with Star Wars posters from Burger King, I also wrote my own nine-year-old’s version of the science fiction saga. Pretty bad and imitative stuff—but at least it wasn’t outright fan fiction: I created my own galactic villain: a stand-in for Darth Vader named “Karn”. I wrote myself and my family members into the protagonist roles. (Yes, I’ll spare you further details.)

Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, there were a large number of Star Wars comic books on the market. These were followed by comic books inspired by the original Battlestar Galactica television series. (I was an even bigger fan of Battlestar Galactica.)

I pestered and begged my parents every time a new issue of one of these comics appeared on our local grocery store’s magazine rack. Before long I had a massive pile of these books, most of which quickly became dog-eared and tattered.

I outgrew these around the age of ten. This was the time at which I began to read “real” books—defined as books that didn’t contain a significant number of pictures.

Stage 2: Detective Fiction and Ghost Stories

After science fiction, I suppose that detective fiction was the next logical step.

I was ten or eleven years old now. The Hardy Boys would have been the path of least resistance; but The Hardy Boys never appealed to me much. I don’t know exactly what it was—but somehow The Hardy Boys seemed passé even in 1979 or 1980.

Instead I became a big fan of the Three Investigators series. This series of books was similar to the Hardy Boys in concept: it involved a recurring cast of teenage sleuths. However, the plots, characters, and writing styles (the books were written by multiple authors) were more engaging, and less of a burden on the attention span of an eleven-year-old.

Most of the Three Investigators novels were already out of print even then. But I snapped up the ones I could and read them compulsively. (Today the Three Investigators books are nearly all out of print and almost impossible to find. So if you are looking for a great series of books to hand to your own eleven-year-old, you will have to look elsewhere.)

During this period, I also discovered my love of ghost stories and supernatural fiction. I read a lot of books in this genre, but one stands out in particular.

This was a collection of juvenile ghost tales (published by Scholastic, I believe) that contained one especially memorable short story called “The Demon of Detroit.” “The Demon of Detroit” was a yarn about a demon that haunted a bedroom in Detroit (no big surprise, based on the title). This story really spooked me out; and it appears that I’m not the only one. I have seen the story mentioned by other middle-aged adults in various places on the Internet.

Stage 3: High school and Stephen King

Throughout my early teenage years, I read very little. I was seduced by two other pastimes: football and rock music. I had only minimal aptitude for either of these: I sat the bench for one season of high school football. I also took guitar lessons; but I never advanced beyond the novice stage.

Then, in 1984, I happened upon an old copy of Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. I was working in my high school library as a student aide at the time, and I picked the book off the shelves out of boredom as much as anything else. 

I was blown away. I read Salem’s Lot in a matter of days. And I realized that it was time for me to return to that old world of stories—the one that I had loved so much in my early childhood. I had forgotten what it was like to fall into an imaginary world and get lost there. Salem’s Lot brought that all back for me.

I then began to methodically work my way through all the other novels that Stephen King had written up to that point: Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand, Firestarter, The Shining, Christine, Pet Sematary, plus his short fiction collections.

Stage 4: Others

After exhausting Stephen King’s corpus of work, I dabbled with other horror novelists, but few of them were able to capture my attention the way SK could. (King’s talent, in my view, is not so much his ability to scare, but his ability to create characters and situations that can instantly strike a chord with so many readers.) I got into Lovecraft for a while; but Lovecraft was not the world’s most prolific writer, and it didn’t take long for me to read every Cthulhu tale in print.

Nevertheless, that early interest in supernatural tales continues to be reflected in my writing. One of my first published works of fiction was a short story collection entitled Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen modern tales of horror and suspense.

Next I started reading other types of fiction. During my late teens and early twenties, I was especially influenced by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck. (These were writers covered in my high school literature classes that I happened to like.)

I am not much for rereading novels. Therefore, I am constantly on the lookout for new fiction to read. As of today, my favorite novelists include:

Cormac McCarthy
Stewart O’Nan
Stephen Hunter
Frederick Forsyth
Ken Follett
James Lee Burke
Tom Perrotta

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.

In the next installment, I will answer the second question mentioned above. (What sort of fiction do you like to read?”) I do, as it turns out, have some definite ideas regarding what fiction should be—and what it shouldn’t be.

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