The first novel of modern mainstream adult fiction I ever read was Stephen King’s Cujo. I was eleven years old and my mother bought it for me on the last day of the fifth grade. It was a paperback and the cover was red. Everything before Cujo was comic books, Poe, Irving, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson– pretty much whatever looked interesting in the library of Thomas Elementary. From King’s tale of a rabid dog I found my way to Cycle of the Werewolf, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Pet Sematary.
Not to quote John Mellencamp, but I was born in a small town and I was taught the fear of Jesus in a small town. King’s best works, or the ones I like the best, were slices of my hometown. Those stories were filled with everyday people I knew. I was even related to some of them, I think. I’ve always been able to find mystery and adventure in the back yard, and King’s works fueled that ability. Thanks to ‘Salem’s Lot, Castle Rock and Derry, I’ve always been able to scratch the surface and see the secrets of the little specks that dot the map of Tennessee and beyond.
From Stephen King and the movies (which I’ll discuss movie and music influences further in another article), I discovered Clive Barker. I received two important benefits from Barker: the knowledge that a writer can write about anything they want and the introduction to even more wonderful authors.
I read Barker’s The Hellbound Heart as it was the basis for his movie Hellraiser. Like a junky needing a hit, I read any and everything of Clive Barker’s works I could get my greedy little hands on. Everything the public library had of his, I read. Any Barker book or comic book I found in the stores, I bought. I feasted on The Books of Blood, Cabal, The Damnation Game, Weaveworld. Barker was a whole other level of storyteller (and remains so). It was like he dared you to read his work. He didn’t shy away from sex, violence or heavy questions, and it all came with his signature, boundless imagination, and he could do it in such lyrical, poetic prose. He made monsters human, and humans the monsters they were.
From a statement by Barker, concerning the authors who influenced him, I directly became a reader of William S. Burroughs and Anthony Burgess. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange had been an initial introduction to Burgess, but I hadn’t read him until my hero namedropped him. Incidentally, A Clockwork Orange, the book, is riveting.
Much more awesome is Burgess’ The End of the World News. Described by the author as “an entertainment”, it weaves together three different tales: the life of Sigmund Freud, a musical about Leon Trotsky in New York and a science fiction thread about a planet on a collision course with Earth. If you still want something different, try Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements, structured on Beethoven’s Eroica.
“Different” aptly describes all of Burgess’s output, from fiction to essays to music. As varied as his works were from book to book, they all displayed his sharp intellect and mastery of language(s). Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life, Beard’s Roman Women, Earthly Powers, A Dead Man In Deptford— all out of the ordinary, some riotously scathing, others brutal to a point. Teenage me didn’t always understand the jokes (or much of the narrative of Napoleon Symphony), but I appreciated them.
I don’t know if William S. Burroughs ever wrote a single story with anything resembling more than a trace of a plot. To this day I’m not sure if I understand everything that happens in his works, but I don’t think they are meant to be fully understood. They are a big picture: stand back and look at them as a whole.
Burroughs fried my mind. I went through a phase, when I was about fifteen- or sixteen-years-old, in which I was determined to read the books people said shouldn’t be read. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was at the top of the list. A simple description is that it’s the drug-fueled nightmares of a drug addict. Like all of his oeuvre, Naked Lunch is a nonlinear, stream-of-consciousness, experimental piece.
William S. Burroughs inspired me to write my first pseudo-novel. It was a blatant knock-off of his work (I even attempted his cut-up technique). Nothing in my story, which I titled London after the William Blake poem, worked. But Burroughs instilled in me a desire to not just write, but do something different. What I learned was that different doesn’t always have to be a destruction of the narrative form, especially if you’re not sure of what it is you’re trying to destroy or attempting to say.
Some of the other great authors and books I read during my Reading Rebellion which had profound impacts on me were Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses), Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) and Pauline Réage (Story of O). Before and after the rebellion, thanks to the Bedford County school system, I discovered John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and F. Scott Fitzgerald in my teen years.
Aside from the Bs (Burroughs, Barker and Burgess) and To Kill A Mockingbird, the single most influential work I read in those formative years was Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides. Experimental? No. Banned? No. Still, to this day, after multiple rereads, does it fill me with wonder and mystery? Yes. Its suburban gothic has influenced my need to write its rural cousin.
Reflecting on these books, I marvel at the fact my mother didn’t screen my reading material. The only criticism she ever had of my book interests was, “I hope you don’t murder somebody one day.”
Was Cujo age-appropriate for an adolescent? Probably not. Was Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night or Barker’s The Great and Secret Show suitable for anyone under the age of eighteen? Definitely not. My mother trusted me, though. If she had policed what I read, I’m sure this article would have been a lot different, or maybe even nonexistent. The same goes for every word I’ve ever written.
Stephen King suggested once that good writing can be learned, but he didn’t think it could be taught. I think I’ve done some good writing on occasion (Tom Petty once suggested that even the losers get lucky sometimes). In those instances where I’ve gotten it right, it’s because of all my mentors. I don’t know if they taught me anything, but hopefully I learned plenty.