Hearse and Home: How Stephen King Saved My Girlhood
Down the steps of the second-story apartment above the hearse garage and across the alley was the library. The only place I was allowed to go without permission. It could be seen from the living room window of the apartment, which was part of the reason it was sanctioned. The stepdad could watch me come and go every time. I was never out of sight.
I was thirteen and had just moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma from Las Vegas, Nevada. My one year in Las Vegas was an experiment in living with my birth certificate father gone horrendously wrong, and now I was back with my mom and stepdad. In the year since I’d last lived with them, they’d moved from a rural town in southern New Mexico, where the stepdad had been a mechanic, to Guthrie, where he was now a mortician. How that happened, I’ve never known. All I knew was I was suddenly living in a new town, a new state, in a new apartment above a hearse garage at a funeral home, and that I was about to start eighth grade at a new school. My third new school in as many years.
I was a voracious reader and I spent hours—as many as I was permitted—in the Guthrie Public Library. I loved the sensory experience of being surrounded by books. The way hardbacks felt more solid than paperbacks. The look of a beautiful cover. The way I could open some obscure book written in the 40s that no one had touched in years and hear the cracking of the glue on the spine as the musty smell of ancient paper wafted out. The library was my safe space. It was my refuge.
When I left my mom and stepdad a year earlier, I was a scrawny, nerdy twelve-year-old in a stick-thin, gangly body reading Edgar Allen Poe and Trixie Belden. When I arrived back into their keep a year later, I was curvier and taller. I went to Vegas a little girl, and in one day—one three-hour period—my birth certificate father thrust me unceremoniously into the new role of Woman, and my body scurried to catch up. But child-me remained inside watching the new, frightening, external Woman-world hasten by.
The library became a place to explore the worlds in between girl and woman. I was no longer interested in books about girl detectives who drove cars they called jalopies and thought the blonde-haired boys at school were keen. What really captured my imagination now was V.C. Andrews, who I’d begun to read after seeing Flowers in the Attic on Betamax a few months before I left Las Vegas.
One day, I entered the library like usual through the glass door that led to the entryway, then through another set of double doors that led into the small, one room building. I took a left past the checkout counter where the librarians, who were always kind and welcoming, stood sentry. I passed through the center of the library, past the periodicals, past the reference materials, and to the back wall labeled Adult Fiction. A friend had recommended that I read Stephen King, who I knew from the commercials on TV promoting him as “the greatest horror author of all time” and from the way my mom used to tease my sister and me by waggling her index finger and saying, “Mrs. Torrance” slowly in a creepy, creaky voice. I’d decided that day to move on from Andrews’s library to King’s, starting with his first book, Carrie.
I consumed Carrie in a single day and spent the night and the day after that lying in my bed, staring at my dresser with all my might and concentration, trying to will my hair brush to fall off the top. I was deeply frustrated when I couldn’t make it happen. Carrie and its eponymous main character consumed my thoughts for days afterwards. How I related to being the weird kid with the over-protective parent. How I related to being a skinny, red-headed, strange girl who the other, cooler girls bullied. How I absolutely dreamed of discovering I had psychic powers that could destroy an entire building with my fury alone. Long before Hagrid walked into a house on a cliff in the middle of a roaring sea in the middle of a violent storm and said the words, “You’re a wizard, Harry”—thus igniting a generation of children who wished and begged and prayed that this luck would befall them, too—Stephen King wrote a series of books about young women with psychic powers strong enough to destroy everything around them if they were ever fucked with and inspired a generation of women to hold a place for that kind of power to happen in them. From that point onward, Stephen King and his satisfyingly horrific worlds became a part of mine.
The stepdad had always been paranoid and violent. His terrorizing of my mom, sister, and me is part of what drove me into the nightmare year in Vegas, like running from a fiery building into a war zone. But when I showed back up tall enough to look him in the eye and with boobs he could hardly stand to think about, his paranoia became worse than it had ever been.
My sister and I weren’t allowed to have boys for friends, boyfriends, friends who had brothers, or friends who were allowed to have boyfriends. Every single day after work, the stepdad came bounding up the stairs to our apartment and burst through our front door all bug-eyed and frantic. We—all of us, even my mom—knew to be sitting in the living room when he got there. The first words out of his mouth were, “Girls, did you talk to any boys today?”
“No,” my sister and I would answer in unison, no matter the real truth. We knew to stick to the script. That was the quickest path out of the conversation and into our own rooms where we could be alone.
“Are you lying to me?” he’d say, every day.
“No,” we’d say in unison.
Sometimes the interrogation continued, sometimes not. But it always ended with, “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” we’d say, in unison.
“Are you lying to me?” he’d ask, every day.
“No,” we’d say, in unison.
Then he’d move on to taking off his suit and settling into his night, and we’d move on to our own spaces.
I spent most of my time in my room, reading. Everything I did was censored—everything I wrote, read, said, and possessed. The stepdad believed he also censored my thoughts, but I learned to partition them, giving my most private ones to the little girl who observed from inside my Woman-self. Even the phone in our apartment was censored. It was part of a switchboard of phones with the main hub down in the funeral home. This was so, if there was a call in the night to pick up a dead body, the stepdad could answer it. This meant two things: one was that we girls (which included my mom) were unable to call anyone without the stepdad being aware of it. When we did make calls and he noticed the light on the phone indicating it was in use, he’d always pick it up and listen. Every time. But it also meant that us girls secretly pleaded skyward that someone would die. Someone’s death was always our freedom.
For a long while, I got away with reading Stephen King or any other book because the stepdad never thought to check up on what I brought home from the library. But as I moved from middle school into high school, as my sister and I grew into women, he became more maniacal. More watchful. One day, as I was lying in bed reading The Drawing of the Three, the second book in The Dark Tower series, the stepdad passed through my room on his way to the bathroom—an unfortunate architectural flaw in our apartment. I kept reading, avoiding looking at him at all costs, willing him to get through and out as fast as possible. But, as with the hairbrush, I held no such power. He paused at my bed and snatched the book out of my hands.
“What’s this?” he asked.
I sat up. “It’s my book!” I protested.
“Isn’t this some grown-up shit? Why’re you reading this, girl?”
“No, it’s not for grown-ups,” I lied. “I just like it.”
I didn’t think about whether these books were for anyone in particular, but I knew for damn sure I never wanted the stepdad to know I was reading them. King never fades to black in his books; there are scenes in many of his books that describe sex acts in dazzling, even comical detail. In fact, Stephen King was my first and primary sex educator. The fact that he’s written so many books with strong women—young and old—as lead protagonists only made my love of these scenes that much stronger. I was careless, for sure, in so boldly and openly reading these books when the stepdad was home. But I also had a false sense of security that I was safe inside of them. That my books were impenetrably, irrevocably mine.
The stepdad said, “Oh yeah? Let me see what you’re reading.” He opened the book to the scene that I was enthralled in when he was on his way to the bathroom, and my security came crashing down.
“No!” I shouted, trying to snatch the book back.
He was incensed. “Girl, don’t you fucking try to grab anything out of my hands. Now show me where you were.”
I should’ve turned to a different page. I should’ve lied. Instead, panicked, I did as he said. I opened up the book to the last page I was reading and handed it to him, starting to cry. He sat down on my bed next to me to read, and I scooted away, closer to the wall.
The scene I was in the middle of involved Detta Walker—a fragmented personality of a mentally ill African American woman named Odetta Holmes, who had just been pulled into Mid-world against her will—writhing in her wheelchair in a spitting-fury, thrusting her hips in a vulgar, extremely sexual way toward Roland Deschain, the main character, and calling him a “honky mahfah.” The stepdad looked up from the book speechless, disgusted, and unable to form words harsh enough to express the rage he was feeling. That’s when the yelling began.
He called to my mom, “Woman, did you know this kid was reading this shit?” as if she were responsible, but also to bring her into the battle. The yelling and fighting lasted too long, ending only when all of us girls were in tears. Then, there were punishments. One involved me getting a spanking—a ritual that involved me pulling my pants down to my knees and bending over so I could receive lashes from the stepdad’s belt, which continued even after I grew pubic hair. The other was that I was forbidden from ever checking out “a grown-up book” again and that the stepdad would check my bounty when I returned from the library from then on.
The next day, the stepdad dragged me, shame-faced and sulking, The Drawing of the Three in hand, down to the library to “have a talk with those people.” The stepdad aggressively accused the librarians of malfeasance for checking out “this trash” to “just a kid.” They listened like good public servants, but then explained to him that a public library is a public institution that guarantees the freedom of the press and the freedom to read, inalienable rights promised in the United States Constitution. They explained that any publicly available book in the library could be checked out by any member of the public who held a library card. The stepdad tried to argue this point, but they said there was nothing they could do. Rules were rules. He and I left, him in a huff, and once we got home, he repeated that I was not, in any way, ever allowed to check out “those books” again. He made me swear. I swore, while inside, the stubborn little girl observer-self waved a stiff middle finger at him.
The next day, before I went home from school, I stopped first at the library, entering through the opposite door so that I couldn’t be seen. I went right back to the Stephen King section, found The Drawing of the Three, which had been reshelved, and walked up to the checkout counter with it. One of the two librarians from the day before, the young woman, was there. I put it on the counter and asked, “Do you have to tell anyone if I check out this book?”
She looked at me with a cross between pity and kindness and said, “Nope. That’s private information.”
After checking out the book and placing it in my backpack, I went out through the same, unseen side of the library, making note to use it again, and went home. I immediately went to my room and put my contraband in my underwear drawer—the last remaining place in my whole, shrunken world where no one else went. And for the rest of the time I lived in that place, that’s where my Stephen King books remained. All of them.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.