Telepathy Not Required
(Author’s note: trigger warning for quotes from Stephen King’s It concerning sexual abuse.)
Looking back on my childhood reading habits, I realize that I was a terrible “girl.” As a young lassie growing up in the 80s, I should have gone to Beverly Cleary Elementary, moved on to Judy Blume Middle School, and graduated with honors from Sweet Valley High. (Full disclosure: I did read these authors. I read just about everything I could get my hands on.) But none of them spoke to me, inspired me to write. When I grew up, I wanted to write like Stephen King.
Stephen King is not a purveyor of fine “literature.” He’ll tell you so himself. Fancy prose and valuable life lessons are not the point (though there are some mini philosophy lessons woven into his tales if you’re paying attention.)
The reason I relate to his stories? Psychology. Inner voice. Often it’s more about what his characters don’t say than what they do. Thanks to italics, we’re privy to what they think: what’s motivating the girl chained to the bed, or the dad trying to save his son from the monsters that have overrun the supermarket. It’s why most Stephen King movies, honestly, kind of suck. Because what makes his books scary is about the insanity within.
I relate to this. When I can’t sleep at night, it’s the thoughts running through my head that keep me from dozing. During the daylight hours, it’s having to quell the impulse to do something utterly irrational that makes me wonder if I’m crazy. And it’s scary as hell.
An example, if you will indulge me.
Beverly Marsh, one of the characters in It, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father. He excuses his behavior by telling her he’s just “worried about her.” Bevvie’s mother is no fool – she knows something’s not quite right in her little domestic circle, but she’s not ready to confront it. In this excerpt, Beverly is also awakening to the fact that her father’s concern for her is more than just paternal love.
“Bevvie, does he ever touch you?”
“What” Beverly looked at her mother, totally perplexed. God, her father touched her every day. “I don’t get what you -”
“Never mind,” Elfrida said shortly. “Don’t forget the trash. And if those windows are streaked, you won’t need your father to give you blue devil.”
(does he ever touch you)
“And be in before dark.”
(worry an awful lot)
(It, p. 403)
King could have written in agonizing detail about Beverly’s thoughts and motivations. He did not. Instead, we get to experience what she is thinking directly. In my opinion, it’s more visceral, more moving than a paragraph of prose. It just works.
And it’s influenced me. In my novel (don’t tell me that you’re a blogger and don’t have at least the inner workings of novel or potential novel on your hard drive, or you can add “liar” to your c.v.), my protagonist is a teacher who wakes up one day to find that overnight the world has changed. Early in the story, she’s not sure exactly how – but it’s beginning to dawn on her that she’s a little different than everyone else. Here’s a brief passage in which she realizes she’s not in charge of her classroom anymore:
“Sit down, Mr. Frye.” He didn’t appear to hear her, but just continued moving toward her, the look in his eyes intense, and…something else… fear?
“Biggie, PLEASE return to your seat.” The buzzing got even louder, roaring, crashing, her head pounding in rhythm to the throbbing of the noise. Blackness started to creep into her peripheral vision. Hal’s dry, reasonable voice fled.
SIT DOWN DAMMIT OH GOD IT HURTS WHY WON’T HE LISTEN TO ME
The boy stopped as if frozen, and the buzzing cut off abruptly, switched off. That was when the laughter began.
There was no other way for me to write how Julia was feeling. Maybe it’s because of the way I read – quickly, pulling the gist from large description filled paragraphs in my haste to get to what happens next. Maybe it’s a reflection of my nature, impatient, mercurial. Or maybe it’s just mental release. Whatever it is, I’m heartened to know that it works.