Monsters of the Book
Like anything else, I suppose, it starts in childhood. Reading, that is, and wanting to write, and not always understanding what was going on with either impulse. I grew up in a large and verbal family, where we talked a great deal about almost everything. It is safe to say that not a single one of my siblings is shy. However, even in such a verbal cacophony, I remember endless hours of my childhood spent reading alone, or silently in a room with another silently reading brother, or in the case of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, while hiding for hours under the fig tree in the backyard, puzzling through the bewildering terminology of having one’s first period. I think I figured out in the end that your waist starts bleeding, and you wear a special belt to control it. Thanks, Judy Blume. I was equally confused by her Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, even though I’m pretty sure that one was meant for an older version of me.
I consider myself fairly outgoing and extroverted, someone who gains energy from interaction with others. And I do not even write for a living. Nevertheless, there have been times in my adult writing life when I realized I had not spoken to another human being for two or three days — an exaggerated version of myself as a child. There are still times while writing when I go 24 hours alone, researching, pacing, trying out phrases in my head, and, of course, reading. It is a solitary pursuit, one that can suffer for lack of interlocutors to provide some context.
When one reads without a real sense of context, or even any comprehension of what one is absorbing, there can be some unfortunate results. This is particularly true when you’re under the age of ten. For starters, you end up learned as hell about subjects far beyond a child’s ken, but with no idea how to pronounce half the matter you’ve read. I distinctly remember episodes of my childhood when I embarrassed the living shit out of myself while trying to express orally what I understood perfectly well in written terms. A game of Trivial Pursuit with several siblings comes to mind, a contest that despite its label was not trivial at all. Nothing short of victory would satisfy, and even victory was routinely met with an accusation of having memorized the cards beforehand. Yellow was my go-to color in those days of Genus IV, and I was delighted in the final moves of the game to announce triumphantly who was buried in Grant’s Tomb. Except you can’t sound out Ulysses in your head until you’ve heard it out loud, so one says the wrong thing. “ULL SULL USS GRANT!”
My siblings laughed at me, and refused to accept that mishmash of syllables as the correct answer, leaving me without my yellow slice of the pie. My sisters might claim that my answer was even technically “wrong,” in addition to being poorly pronounced, since apparently the wife’s buried in that tomb, too; those harridans were and are as wily as Ulysses. The next time around, I landed back on Yellow. All I needed for victory was to give the name of the line of fortifications built in vain by the French to fend off German invaders in the years before World War II. I knew, I knew, I knew — except no nine year old outside of Alsace can pronounce “Maginot Line” correctly. Maggie Not?
I don’t remember if I was given credit for that one, which probably means I was; had they robbed me again, I would still be recounting the slight at family holidays decades later. My lack of rancor regarding such incidents suggests to the adult me that it was all more or less harmless fun. Until the arrival of the vampires.
They came courtesy of Burbank Public Library, where my mother took us once a week during the summers. We were each allowed to check out five books, which she vetted before we could read them. I remember the vetting process in exquisite detail, because my favorite books were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels. Inevitably, the covers featured a scantily clad cave woman fighting off a saber-toothed tiger or a pterodactyl, the woman’s form a lithe whirlwind of prominent boobs and long legs. I would hand these books to my mother face-down, squirming and horrified at what she must think of me.
This memory makes me think that perhaps my struggles with the sexy bits of life started fairly young.
While the vetting process was not foolproof, it was fairly rigorous, as proved by the aforementioned Judy Blume. What’s this? Well, Judy didn’t just write books about children coming of age; she also wrote an adult-themed novel about a woman who grows bored with her marriage and decides to have an affair. Wifey made it home from the library in one of my sisters’ pile of books, but spent the next week in quarantine atop a high bookshelf. That I know of its existence testifies to the fact that I liberated it and read it in the backyard under the fig tree.
One week, my mother somehow managed to miss in my pile a huge book about the medieval history and mythology of vampires — a text that in hindsight was clearly meant for adults, not nine-year-olds. I was obsessed with vampires and werewolves that summer, and so read it cover to cover over the next week, understanding very little but gleaning some important facts. For example, medieval Europe was a fairly horrible place to live, all things considered. But I also learned some other things: First, vampires killed you by driving a stake through your heart. Secondly, vampires died in one of two ways; they were either sentenced to death or stoned to death. Neither method made much sense to me, but neither did a lot else, so I went with it. All sounded like terrible ways to die.
One of my sisters owned an absurd-looking doll, a macrocephalic nightmare with gigantic eyes and little in the way of limbs, vaguely reminiscent of those paintings of children one sees by Margaret Keane (no relation, though my Creator also endowed me with a comically outsized head). Its name, if I remember correctly, was Sally. And Sally became the victim of my explorations of these interesting new ways to end a life. “Sally’s been found guilty of murder,” I announced one day to my sister, brandishing the absurd doll over her as she read on the couch. “Her punishment is to be turned to stone!” My sister looked confused.
“Why would she be turned to stone? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Time for the crushing news:
“BECAUSE SHE’S BEEN STONED TO DEATH!”
“You,” my sister said, returning to her book, “have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I had the presence of mind not to admit it (I’ve never admitted such a ridiculous notion), but still had to slink away, thwarted in my plan to traumatize her with the grisly stoning of her doll. Was there some step in the process of stoning someone to death I had missed? How could she be so nonchalant? When I had killed her goldfish by putting my filthy Fisher Price speedboat in their tank, she had all but suffered a stroke in her rage. Clearly it was time for even more terrible action. My chance came one afternoon when she was reading in our father’s office, mere feet from the desk holding his massive IBM Selectric typewriter. Such machines were no simple collection of manual levers. If you remember the Selectric, you know it had a gigantic typeball, a sphere of letters and symbols that replaced the traditional striking arms of its non-electric predecessors and looked exactly like a medieval torture device. The typewriter weighed about a ton. I suppose I should mention that we were strictly forbidden to touch it. Whatever.
I hunted down Sally, and raced into the office. It was time to show my sister an even more grisly punishment. “Ha! Look here!” I shouted as I jammed the doll into the innards of the machine and began pounding out thequickbrownfoxjumpedoverthelazydog on the keys. “She’s been SENTENCED TO DEATH!”
My sister laughed at me. Then she went off laughing even harder to tell everyone else what I had done. Hell of a way to treat death, I thought, and had I been reading Camus yet (whom I later asked a librarian about, pronouncing it Came-uss, and she laughed at me too), maybe I would have understood. It began to dawn on me that maybe I didn’t quite have a handle on these vampires. The only thing I was sure of was how they would come to kill me: with the dreaded wooden stake they would drive into my heart.
It was a long and insomniac summer, because every night I awaited the coming of those vampires to do me in. My only defense was to lie in my bed on my back with my arms across my chest, in the vain hope that my crisscrossed arms might fend off the first deadly blow. One night, it was simply too hot to close the window. And through the window the vampire would surely come.
I lay awake in terror, alert for the slightest rustle of his bat-wings at the sill. And sure enough, just a few minutes past ten pm, when the whole house was asleep, I heard a noise. I froze; I held my breath; I entertained craven and traitorous thoughts that perhaps his bloodlust would be sated if he found my brother first. And I tried desperately to believe what I had been told by the adults, that there is simply no such thing as vampires.
But something touched my elbow.
I lost half a decade off my life in that instant of sheer terror, in that moment of realization that of course the adults were all lying to themselves. Vlad the Impaler had come to drive his infernal stake through my heart, if it didn’t explode from fright in the seconds before. I tensed for the blow. Time expanded infinitely. Dear Jesus I always meant to be a good boy, I prayed, and sure mistakes were made but my god a fucking vampire? This is no way for-–
Then I felt whiskers touch my face, paws across my chest, and a swishing tail, as Mister Meow peered into my face. Of course, Mister Meow, our outdoor cat who liked nothing more than to sneak indoors. He had come stealthily across the sill in search of food, in defiance of orders, to sate his natural curiosity as to why one of his pets was trembling so seismically in his bed.
I slept soundly in the aftermath, having hurled the yowling imposter out into the darkness. And I suppose over the rest of the summer I still dreaded the vampires, though I devoted some of my mental energy to a low-level vendetta against Mister Meow as well, until he reached his own untimely end on the first day of the very next summer. Eventually I lost my fear of phantasms that go bump in the dark, probably because they were replaced in our childhood terrors by real-life killers like The Night Stalker, who sneaked in windows across Southern California to kill the unsuspecting throughout the long and impossibly hot summer I was eleven years old. Later there would be even more monsters, real and imagined, throughout adolescence and into adulthood: muggers on Philadelphia streets who would hold a gun to your back at seven in the evening for the $24 in your grad-student wallet; landlords who would prey on your empathy and then steal every penny of your deposit; ogre-like professors and abusive bosses and all the people you meet in life who can suck the lifeblood from your veins for the smallest of stakes. The windows can stay open now (I live 19 stories high, and my demons no longer have wings). But even now in middle age, there are real-life killers haunting me at night, bloodthirsty demons like high cholesterol and skyrocketing triglyceride counts.
I can read about these relentless killers, and I can write about them, but I understand them no more clearly than I did the vampires, nor can I usually pronounce or comprehend their consequences. They are all too real, my doctor assures me, and even though I don’t really trust him either, I know I should indeed worry about them at night. To disregard their stealthy approach could be nothing less than a sentence of death.
http://www.vocalone.com/Jim Keane is an editor at Orbis Books in Maryknoll, NY, and a columnist for America Magazine. He lives in Riverdale, NY. He earned an MFA at Columbia University in 2007, and an M.Div from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA in 2012.