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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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I sat up with a jolt. I couldn’t sleep. It was in early August of last year. I could hear the rain pelting our tiny motel room. My wife and I were staying somewhere in Massachusetts; we’d stopped on our way back to New York after our first vacation with our then-six-month-old son. Put mildly, the experience had been strikingly different from previous, pre-baby trips. Sleep was something we talked about more than did, a mirage that flickered away the closer we seemed to get to it. Simple activities like getting out the door or down to the beach were suddenly complicated and exhausting. We were on edge—in a constant state of “What does the baby need now?” Of course, this vacation agita was interspersed with fun moments—walks on the beach, good food and great company. It was nice to experience these things as a family—as a trio for the first time. But it was different.
Having a kid is a seismic life change. It’s wonderful, enthralling and uplifting, for sure. It also drastically alters every aspect of what you do and how you do it, from the major to the minute. You are suddenly responsible for the survival of a small, worm-like creature that seems to be evolving into a person at an accelerated rate. The days of binging on favorite Netflix shows, grabbing a spontaneous dinner, and going to the movies are gone for a while, and, just a few months into our beautiful son’s life, were the furthest things from our mind. We were happy if he woke up under four times during the night and got a few naps in during the day.
Once-relaxing moments before bed, say winding down with a good book, were now fraught with palpable tension and anxiety. This was in addition to the underlying perpetual “Am I doing this right?” angst that most new parents can relate to.
So, there I sat, listening to the rain sprinkling over our nondescript motel, far from the honking horns and blaring ambulances of New York City. My wife was asleep, trying to sneak in as many winks as possible before the baby woke up to feed or just to say hi. The baby, thankfully, was dozing—worn out from a week of playing with his cousins, teething, seeing and touching new things and experiencing life on the outside. I pulled out my e-reader. I’d just finished a book and was looking for something new to read. Something different. Something to help me relax, I thought. I scanned and scanned but nothing jumped out at me. But then something did. A hand rose up from the depths of murky darkness to grab at my shirt and pull me down into the abyss.
I’d tried, a few years earlier, to read Stephen King’s classic horror tale of former childhood friends who have reconvened in their poisoned hometown of Derry, Maine, to take on a murderous being of pure evil known as Pennywise, decades after having defeated him for the first time. But, I had put the book down after reading a scene involving flying leeches. Not so much because I was scared (though, I was), but because I felt vindicated in my belief that these books were just not for me.
To backtrack: I missed the Stephen King train when I was a kid/young teen, which was when most of my friends had gravitated to his work. I remember reading Thinner, a gruesome tale of an evil man suffering from a gypsy curse that, no matter what he tries to eat, makes him get, well, thinner. It was one of the many books King wrote under the Richard Bachman pseudonym, and, although I liked it well enough, I was not completely wowed by it. I drifted back to my teenage obsessions—comics, Star Trek, true crime and gangster books—and figured Stephen King was just not for me.
I basked in the bizarre glory of this feeling for the better part of 15 years—this idea that Stephen King was just not for me. To be fair, I’d never been a horror consumer—movies, books, etc. I’d read a crime story where a guy gets his face blown apart, but talk to me about werewolves and vampires and my eyes would glaze over. It got to the point where, about a decade ago, I decided to basically hate-read The Shining, which, to me, felt like the most King of all King books. “If this does nothing for me,” I thought, “then what’s the big deal?”
But, it turned out, The Shining was scary as hell—and, simultaneously, a substantial and gripping read. There was some oomph under the shock value. But for whatever reason, my King examination ended there. Maybe the delayed realization called my whole aesthetic into question? I’m not sure. But I defaulted to my “King ain’t for me” setting and moved on.
Fast forward to February 2016. Our son is born.
The birth itself, like many, didn’t go according to our plan. But we got through it, and, on that gray February evening, we met a beautiful, healthy, and amazing little creature. I also gained even more respect for my wife, who showed a strength and fortitude I’d only imagined possible.
But underneath the manic euphoria that comes with welcoming a new person into the world lurked something else. Something dark and cold, slithering below the ice. Something I tried to push away because there were diapers to be changed, feedings to administer, and doctors to visit.
But that sinking, secret feeling? It was coming from inside me. I was scared. It was fear. And it grew louder and stronger, becoming a crippling shudder.
These days, we live in a curated world of Facebook Memories, Instagram Stories and Twitter Moments, where we can carefully select and arrange snapshots of our lives before externalizing them to our friends and families. Scroll through your Facebook feed and you’ll experience the entire spectrum of social media life milestones—“2 months today!” “I said yes!” “#momlife” “..started a job at…”—and it all seems, well, pretty great. Because, yes, babies and weddings and new, cool jobs are great. Parenthood, in particular, is supremely rewarding. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
But as joyous and satisfying as it is to be a dad, those early days can be pretty bleak. It’s the ultimate test of endurance and self. For every hooray-soaked picture or hashtag, there are an equal number of moments of sitting in the dark, staring off into space, completely exhausted and utterly afraid.
While I took some comfort in knowing we weren’t alone in this, and that these feelings were common among new parents, that realization didn’t silence the fear. No one thing does, really. As a parent, I tried to learn as I went and eventually felt confident enough that I wasn’t perpetually freaked out. I got better at it. I formed habits and it gelled into a philosophy. But that’s just me. Every parental experience is different and challenging in its own way, I’d imagine. We all cope as best we can. And, as I climbed out of that particularly terrifying pit of anxiety on that August night, I found an unexpected tool that helped me get through the darker times. In the shape of a giggling, bloodthirsty clown.
While King’s It is a tale loaded with literal monsters, it’s also a story of legacy, the fear that comes with aging, and what we leave behind as we tack on the years. It taps into fears and regrets that are universal and innately scary. We all dread that one missed opportunity, or regret that friendship we never got to mend.
The novel confidently jumps between the kids’ original encounter with Pennywise and their adult selves reconvening to face off against him once more in a cataclysmic battle. It is a dense, multi-layered and rewarding epic; a disturbing and engrossing piece of work rife with unique and three-dimensional characters and cinematic visuals that burn themselves into your mind’s eye—whether it’s psychotic town bully Patrick Hockstetter getting slain by the aforementioned flying leeches or six-year-old Georgie Denbrough’s fateful quest to reclaim his boat or Adrian Mellon’s final fall, or the book’s controversial and best-ignored ending “sequence.” The novel showcases King’s ability to lay a believable, tangible foundation for his world, while at the same time carefully introducing the menacing and disturbing elements that have become his signature.
The book was disturbing, chilling, and, for some reason, exactly what I needed. The terror, misery and sheer torment these fictional characters experienced seemed to calm my own anxieties about helping to usher this little human through the world.
It was the spark that got me started, in the darkness of that desolate New England hotel, on a Stephen King reading jag that’s still going. The marathon has not been a wholly democratic or sequential one. I’ve avoided certain books—The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series, mainly because the latter hasn’t clicked with me yet—and I’ve found his core horror books to be the most immediately entertaining and effective in terms of distracting me from the apprehension of early parenthood—you know, the feeling that crops up when your kid’s fever cracks 103, they refuse to stop crying, or they take a spill.
When I think of King’s prose, having been immersed in it for the last year, the word that comes to mind is an odd one: soothing. King is a smooth but not overly polished writer. His work feels organic and natural. His words flow and don’t seem overwrought or strategic. His stories grow simply and instinctively, and without much ado you find yourself completely enthralled in the worlds he creates. His protagonists—often writers visiting or living in small, Maine towns and dealing with some kind of family problem—are flawed men or women unexpectedly thrust into the role of hero against things deadly and not-of-this world. They have to overcome not only the other wordly—an evil twin, vampires, an alien spaceship, a lethal super-virus, or a haunted hotel—but their own personal demons to get there. King’s heroes have drinking problems, are obsessive, insecure, and driven by their urges and vices, and they rarely survive his stories unscathed. King’s stories are rarely clean and tidy; they’re messy and gray, like life (with a healthy dash or two of the supernatural).
As I read novel after novel, visiting places like Derry, Ludlow, Jerusalem’s Lot and Castle Rock, I find myself relating to these broken people and cheering them on. I even find myself relating to them and to King, who I’ve never met, but who also strikes me as hardworking guy who’s just doing his best to put one foot in front of the other. Yes, he does it while writing bestselling novels and running a multimedia empire, but that makes it all the more challenging for him to come across as humble and genuine—yet, he does. His workmanlike guide to the craft, On Writing—ironically, a huge influence on my own writing habits before I’d even really spent time with King’s actual fiction—was the book playing in the background during those early drives to the pediatrician, and the insights gained, or chuckles elicited, from listening to King’s narration of the book made for some moments I’ll never forget. Like his characters—and, like me—King was struggling to make sense of his past and the world while still tightly holding onto what mattered most: his family, his partner, and his words.
At a basic level, King’s novels distracted me from the many stresses of new parenthood by just giving me something else to think about. Selfishly, King’s tales of terror also showed me that while things could feel pretty intense, they were also not as bad as, say, being cornered by a rabid, psychotic St. Bernard. Context is important. The books entertained me, and kept me thinking about the work of writing even during a time when my own creative output was derailed by the sheer force of our son’s presence. I was learning about my chosen craft and having a helluva time doing it.
I still stare into the great, big unknown of parenthood with some trepidation, but a little less fear. I think a little part of that is due to a stack of creepy stories written by a nice fellow in Maine. Thanks, Stephen. On to the next book.
Alex Segura’s latest Pete Fernandez mystery, Dangerous Ends, is available now from Polis.