I remember my first book.
Well, not my first book, which was probably a Little Golden book, but the first book I chose. My first conscious choice about what to read, rather than something assigned me or given as a gift.
My first visit to Anson Jones Elementary School library is lost in the foggy shrouds of memory, but the library itself is as clear as a west Texas sun hanging just off the horizon. In the silence of that room, horse shoe-shaped, was a promise that if I chose a book, damn near any book, and consumed it completely, I would have the Secret Knowledge. As Young Trey of 1973, I desperately coveted such knowledge and feel the same fifty years later. Maybe, if I finally read Michael Allen’s Western Rivermen, 1763-1861, or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, or all 47 alternate endings to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, life will take shape.
The Anson Jones library wasn’t the only library in my life. It was the safe library. See, Mama had a library, too, and it scared me to death. It was sharp and treacherous, filled with Mama’s science fiction and horror and fantasy. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, The Stand by Stephen King, Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Her shelves held risk. Dangerous Visions? What the hell? Honestly, though, that title might be scarier now because of adult freight: cancer, poverty, black holes in our empathy and compassion, our inhumanity toward living things, people who preach against ‘the other,’ whoever that happens to be that particular time and day.
Mama’s books were unknown worlds that not only might be dangerous but actually were dangerous. As much as I wanted the Secret Knowledge, the titles and cover art scared me the piss outta me, no matter how hard I tried to conquer my fear and be grow’d up and manly. “Don’t be a pussy.” It was a standard exhortation back then, years before Midland, Texas had shaken hands with the word misogyny. In my head since then, the phrase has morphed into “Let your balls drop.” Slightly cleaned up language, I guess. You can take the boy out of West Texas, but the West Texas has irrecoverably scarred the boy’s inner landscape.
Choosing to read visions steeped in danger? Sheer madness. Plastic eaters? The hell that even mean? But that fear was seductive, too, and and some part of me was sure I would read Every. Single. Dangerous. Vision. The cosmic literary joke is that, as widely and deeply read as I am, I’ve never cracked Dangerous Visions, though I did meet Harlan Ellison once.
As Young Trey of 1973 became Slightly Less Young Trey of 1975 and ’77 and ’79, her library became less scary. I can argue that, like the Airport movies (Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concord…Airport ’79) becoming less disaster-scary and more been-there-done-that, I got both more comfortable with that fear and also closer to the madness of my own teen nightmares. By the time I entered junior high school and began to see my tastes change (I went from buying Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Do Run Run,” to Styx’s “Renegade,” when it came to 45s), Mama’s taste had gone from scary to mainstream. She’d left science fiction behind, mostly, and moved onto history and bios, where the titles were much less frightening. His writing is top-shelf and his grasp of history nuanced and intriguing but does Bruce Catton’s title The Civil War even begin to compare to Mutant 59?
See, I needed the Secret Knowledge; a shield and sword. In my elementary school years, the world was terrifying and confusing. My father was a chump, an abusive sperm-donor, and my stepfather was mentally unstable. Both were out of the picture and all I had was Mama working multiple jobs to keep my brother and me fed and clothed and out of the desperate clutches of child protective services. Mama had me involved in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program as well as counseling at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, but none of the counselors gave me any understanding of the World so I had to climb my own way out of the muck and books were the ladder.
Books, as I understood them early in life, were filled with spelling and math and history. Books had Normal Rockwell-style art of well-dressed young children who listened intently to well-built policemen with square jaws, mayors of Your City who explained how to properly place your hand over your heart when you recited the Pledge of Allegiance, so the first book I chose from the Anson Jones library was much like that. Katie and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton. Maybe because of the snow, which we had precious little of in West Texas. Maybe it was the giant machine saving the day. After all, my entire life later, I intently watch the 50-ton rotators on The Weather Channel’s Heavy Rescue 401. Or maybe, subconsciously and growing up with a single mother, the thought of a strong woman saving the entire town tripped my trigger.
I don’t remember any other titles from the Anson Jones library. Ditto libraries at my 5th or 6th grade schools. Neither those libraries nor those schools made much of an impression on me. Went to each school for a year as a result of the Midland Independent School District’s tangled response to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. MISD’s solution was to create three-school clusters of elementary schools. Each school would have 1st through 3rd as well as either 4th or 5th or 6th grades, too. That plan was built on chaotic lawsuits and court decisions, at least one of which (written by District Judge Ernest Guinn) blamed people of color for their own segregation: “The Court further finds that the racial concentration of Negros and of Mexican-Americans in the 1968 Plan was not caused by public or private discrimination or state action but by economical (sic) factors and decisions of the Negroes and Mexican-Americans to live in their own neighborhood rather than in the predominantly White (sic) neighborhoods.” I realize that was written in 1968 in a very particular place, but reading it now? Just proves how little progress we’ve made in those intervening years in terms of economic realities and the color of poverty.
My next school library was at Alamo Junior High and I have only one specific memory of it. I’d been reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles during my English class while my teacher yabbled on and on. Allegedly, she asked me to put the book away multiple times but I didn’t hear her, or more likely I ignored her, and she came unglued. She stood over my desk, red-faced, hands shaking, spittle between us, seized my book and sent me to the principal’s office. The next day I went to the library (an ugly, industrial cavern of row after row of metal racks) to find another book. To my surprise, the librarian had the Bradbury on her desk, my marker still in place. She was silent but her slightly mischievous grin said, “Don’t do that again. Or…be more discrete if you do.”
By that time, my tastes had left Katy in the snow. The end of my elementary school career saw me reading about the American West with the U.S. Cavalry. As I entered junior high school, my tastes began to broaden to include all of Mama’s science fiction. The titles didn’t scare me anymore, they intrigued me, even as my interest in soldiers continued apace, updating into World War I and then World War II. The world of Young Trey of the 1970s had shifted into that of Slightly Older Trey of 1980, and it was a massive perspective change. Katy, reliable and indefatigable and hardworking, was gone…replaced by General Custer and soon to be replaced by Major Boyington and his profane, hard-drinking, lecherous fighter pilots.
My first bought book, remembered as clearly as my first checked out book, had a fiery orange cover and a beautiful, blue Vought F4U Corsair being chased by a Japanese Zero. When Baa Baa Blacksheep premiered on TV, September, 1976, with Robert Conrad and Red West and John Larroquette, I was agog. I had no idea how bad Conrad’s acting actually was, nor that West had been a songwriting partner of, and bodyguard for, Elvis, nor that I would one day adore the performance Larroquette turned in during season one of The John Larroquette Show but not really care much for the retooled remainder of the show.
Sometime after that show had gotten deeply into my soul, I found myself pedaling my bike around town until I ended up at the Dellwood Plaza mall. The pre-eminent mall in Midland in the late ‘70s. It had everything. Tires? Firestone. Clothes? Dunlap’s. Ice Cream? 31 Flavors. Lion’s Club Pancake Breakfast four times a year? Yes, as far as the nose can smell. I probably grabbed an ice cream before aimlessly wandering through various stores until I ended up in the bookstore. I probably casually scanned cover after cover, maybe even read a few back covers or flipped through pages in an attempt to be a sophisticated, discerning, book buyer, but without really having any idea what I was looking for. And then, as if someone had lit me up with a blowtorch, I saw that burning orange cover. Even more than the cover as a whole, I saw the plane—the inverted-wing Corsair—and the type: THE BLACK SHEEP SQUADRON: DEVIL IN THE SLOT. It filled the top third of the cover and hammered me. Threw me back against the wall and my blood not only raced but boiled. I couldn’t not notice the book. I couldn’t touch it for fear of getting a scalding, I couldn’t speak for fear of spluttering with imbecility. All I could do, for long minutes, was stare at this book I hadn’t even known I couldn’t live without until I saw it.
The TV series ran until April, 1978, but immediately went into syndication so I was still watching it when, a year later, May, 1979, the novelization by Michael Jahn hit the shelves. I read it immediately and was blown away that on those pages were the exact things I had heard the characters say. Chapter after chapter of Major Boyington and his guys doing what I had seen them do, saying what I’d heard them say, flying and shooting and drinking and it was all exactly as on the show. But not just what I’d seen…more than what I’d seen. What in hell was this guy, this Jahn guy, doing? Who’d he think he was, changing it all around? No clue at all that I was getting seduced by, to some degree, character and plot development. And when, a few months later, I found Jahn’s follow-up Black Sheep novel, The Hawk Flies on Sunday, it was the same. Ditto Mama’s Science Fiction Book Club edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. More of everything! Yet not just more…somehow deeper. More fully realized, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time.
What I did think was that maybe, just maybe, I was stumbling into some of the Secret Knowledge.
Jahn’s novels filled the summer before, and the year of, my 7th grade year at Alamo JHS. But in the summer of 1980, as my tastes continued to broaden, I hesitantly pulled someone I’d never read before from Mama’s library shelf: Stephen King.
And he introduced me to Jack Torrance.
The summer between 7th and 8th grade, Mama and my brother and I headed to Colorado for vacation. We had an old, 1970s Coleman pop-up camper and we humped that thing all over Colorado, but other than Cripple Creek and Royal Gorge, that whole trip is just a smear of trees and mountains and KOA campgrounds. However, along with all our camping gear, Mama had packed a copy of The Shining, the paperback with the original yellow cover with the face staring out of the T. Yeah, that cover disturbed me for years but the book’s obvious premise…and old haunted hotel…was too delicious not to dive in. The real subject—alcoholism, isolation, distrust, madness—wasn’t obvious until later.
So the hard miles we pounded out between Texas and Colorado (with a quick stop in Oklahoma to see family) never touched me because I was lost in that book. It is still one of my favorites of King’s oeuvre and reading it, I didn’t see our 1976 Buick Electra 225 Limited, I saw the Torrances’s Volkswagon. I didn’t see Stillwater, Oklahoma, I saw Sidewinder, Colorado. I didn’t see the Harley-Davidsons on the highway, I saw the snowcats at the Overlook Hotel.
King is always good and frequently great and the chapters surrounding Room 217, specifically Chapters 25 and 30, were unlike anything I’d ever read. In Chapter 25 when Danny finally finds the courage to go into the room that he and King have been circling endlessly, when he pulls back the shower curtain and finds the rotting woman, I stopped breathing. I was scared to death and actually ran faster than he did to the room door to get the hell out. And when the door wouldn’t open? And the woman grabbed his neck? I died a thousand deaths.
So in Chapter 30 when Jack went to Room 217, I knew what was going to happen. He’d find the woman, she’d kill him or seduce him or booze him and it was going to be awful. Except King changed the pitch. This time, he emptied the room and the implication was that Danny was a problem child. Except when Jack left the room…he heard the woman who didn’t exist. She was fussing about behind the door just after he’d closed it. She was there and it was a revelation.
The revelation…more Secret Knowledge borne straight out of The Shining…was a deeper understanding of what writers did. Because I recognized King had played me. He had led me exactly where he wanted me to go, he’d made me feel exactly what he wanted me to feel. Had he suckered me? Sure, but I was good with the suckering. It was exquisite. Give the woman to me when I don’t expect her, take her away when I do. King wanted something specific from me and he had gotten it and I was in awe of that. Looking back with this sudden The Shining-inspired realization, I immediately understood all the writers I’d read, including Virgina Lee Burton, had wanted something specific from me and had gotten it.
Feeling what King wanted me to feel, being in the man’s thrall, was all I could think about. It was, almost, like when I fell in love with D* A* that same summer. She was tall, had a wide grin that reminded me of Carly Simon, long hair that caught the west Texas breeze easily, and clear blue eyes that seemed to reach as deeply into me as I was deep. Much like the long phone conversations she and I had, King and I talked, too. I studied each scene and every sentence, and puzzled out why he used this word but not that word. Somewhere during that summer, which included huge amounts of Golden Age Science Fiction in which men fought against all manner of obstacle, I realized I wasn’t just analyzing all those words, I was comparing them to what words I would have used.
Another realization. So I wrote a story.
Well, not so much wrote as straight-up stole from Jahn. The title was something like “The 168 1/2th Squadron,” because as an 8th grader, that was hilarious, though I have no other memories of it. Handwritten? Six or eight pages? I”m sure it went nowhere and did nothing; at best, a terrible copy of Jahn’s work. At the same time? I’d created something that made my friends laugh and mumble “Cool,” and that was intoxicating. It was one of the first times I’d felt noticed and significant and even a little powerful.
The problem was that story wasn’t really me. Yeah, I was into planes and those goofy fratboy pilots were fun, but my vision had taken a much darker turn, informed by all the SF, all the horror, all the magic realism and dark fantasy I’d suddenly begun devouring. That darkness was me and how I saw not only the world, but my world: dark and edgy and cynical, filled with the betrayal of fathers who were usually absent and shit-worthless when they were around, of bullies at school, of health issues, family members I couldn’t comprehend, of the violence that surrounded me growing up. The woman in Room 217 was how the world interacted with me so that’s what I wanted to read and ultimately write. Koontz and King, Suffer the Children, Ghost Story, The Haunting of Hill House, McCammon and Grant and Campbell.
I never wrote another plane story. In fact, I didn’t really write at all for a long while. Maybe I was gathering my literary strength. Maybe the dribs and drabs, the false starts and empty attempts, the random phrases and ideas jotted on yellow legal paper and ultimately put together in a blue English folder (which I still have somewhere) was me unsure of whether or not I could swim in a sea of words and ideas and books. Regardless of why, there wasn’t much of anything until my sophomore year in high school. Then my words exploded. So much so that Mama got irritated with typing my handwritten stories. She forced me to take a typing class and it was the best class I ever had. Now, suddenly, my fingers could keep up with my head. I won an award my senior year, even though all of my teachers were slightly disturbed at my brand of fiction: end of world apocalypses, murder stories, ghost stories, all manner of mayhem and madness but also, though I hadn’t yet realized it, one person against the World. The World was defined different ways in every story, but it was always a single man against everything.
I wrote and wrote and wrote, and while still in high school I started submitting those stories to Twilight Zone Magazine and The Horror Show. When I got to Midland College, I kept going but added Night Cry to my revolving table of magazines to which I sent my prose. After graduating Texas Tech and moving to Denver, I added Iniquities and Cemetery Dance to the list and then a plethora of small press magazines whose names are mostly forgotten. I still have most of those rejections—and there were hundreds upon hundreds—and somewhere along the line, I passed the million written words that Ray Bradbury opined was the mark of a true writer. Eventually, in June, 1994, I sold my first story. It was a zombie thing long before zombies were fashionable and it clocked in at a compact 150 words (it had been a challenge from Ed Bryant to write a beginning, middle, and end in under 100 words) and it sold to an Irish speculative fiction magazine called Albedo One. Ultimately, I sold those Irish lads a number of stories over the years.
All the while, I wrote novels; trying to do what King had done in The Shining and Peter Straub in Ghost Story and Robert McCammon in Usher’s Passing. My first novel, written as Robert E. Lee High School senior, was called Power Play. Had a bunch of characters that did a bunch of things and came together in a conflagration of death and destruction. I don’t remember much about it but I do know it used quite a few of King’s stylistic twitches. My second novel, written my sophomore year at Texas Tech, was called Razor King, set in a haunted amusement park and was just as shitty as the first novel.
Then, in 2004, after four failed novels, including a zombie rewrite of The Wizard of Oz and a short thing set during the Barbary Coast wars, I met Hal Turnbull. I’d had no idea he existed, or what his story was, but he pushed and pulled me, harassed and threatened me, until I told his story. Then he demanded we tell his brother’s story and then an ex-stripper’s story and finally the story of a young dead girl.
Welcome to 2,000 Miles to Open Road. My first novel.
That book, as bad, and in many ways good, as it can be, is both a pure distillation of what I had read since the beginning as well as a hard left turn. I’d gotten more and more into crime—2,000 Miles is a caper novel and a desert noir—and had begun to recognize the two themes I always seemed to come back to: one man against everything and one man in love (which, I guess, could also be considered one man against everything). The definitions of ‘everything’ and ‘in love’ continually shifted but those themes were in every word I’d ever written. 2,000 Miles, along with those themes had everything else, too: Katy was there, trying to save it all. Ditto Hal Turnbull. Black Sheep Squadron was there, each man fighting against something he might not even be able to see and which came at him hard and fast. The Shining? Only the entire psychological underpinning. The entire book is built upon the screech and shriek and whisper of demons, both emotional and spiritual.
It was the greatest thing in the world, the publication of that book. Yeah, yeah, I thought the literary world would kick my door in when they rushed to fete me and proclaim me the next Hemingway or Steinbeck or even better…King or Straub. That didn’t happen and it’s been a long road from where I thought my life as a writer would be to understanding and accepting where it actually is. 2,000 Miles only sold a few copies, not anywhere near enough for the publisher to keep me on the string. So the sequel, Exit Blood, and the third in what came to be the Barefield trilogy, Death Is Not Forever, never got published by the original publisher. They did get picked up by someone else and sold a few copies.
I can draw a straight line from Katy and the Big Snow to The Blacksheep Squadron to The Shining to 2,000 Miles to Open Road. My novel would never have happened without those other books and perhaps, ultimately, that’s the Secret Knowledge; not how the world worked, but how my world could work. Or maybe the Secret Knowledge wasn’t that I checked out a book in a school library on my own, but rather, started a multi-faceted journey by checking that book out, a journey I’m still on, as cornpone as that sounds.
The Anson Jones Library is still there, still full of books, and for all I know, some other little kid has found Katy and the Big Snow and grabbed themselves their own first bits of Secret Knowledge.
I wonder what they’ll do with it.