“We’re going to visit your brothers tomorrow,” my Mother announced.
Oh, no! My heart sank. It was 1980, I was 14-years old, and I had learned to dread these bi-monthly trips. Neither of my parents could drive, so a visit to my brothers meant we’d have to take a bus the 15 or so miles to the little Welsh town of Pontypridd. For a kid who suffered from horrendous motion sickness, this was the equivalent of spending an hour and a half on the most stomach churning roller coaster ride you could possibly imagine.
But this trip was going to be different – this trip was going to change my life. This would be the day I discovered Steven King.
Besides seeing my older married brothers (I’m the next to last youngest of a family of 8), the one other redeeming part of this hellish trip was a visit to Pontypridd’s indoor-market, a single story building that’s been the centerpiece of the town for over 150 years.
As I pushed through the double doors to the market, I was hit by an odor unique to these kinds of places: the smell of sawdust from the butchers’ stall mixed with the fragrance of a florist, the aroma of coffee and doughnuts, and the ever-present scent of wet humans forced into uncomfortably close proximity with each other by the narrow walkways. (It always seemed to be raining in Ponty). As I nudged my way through the crowd of damp bodies, I eventually came to a stall I’d never noticed before; a secondhand book vendor with row upon row of used paperback novels, their spines facing the ceiling and sitting in neat white boxes, each box clearly labeled by genre.
I’d been brought up on a steady diet of H.G. Wells, spiced with a liberal sprinkling of 50’s B-movies and Saturday morning matinees like Damnation Alley, at the local cinema. So, of course, I headed straight to the box labeled Sci-Fi/Horror. And it was here, amongst the other well-thumbed novels, that I spotted the book that was to have such a profound effect on my life.
Wait a minute!
This wasn’t a book; at 823 pages this thing was a tome. A lightning bolt bisected the cover and the image of a man, his eyes bleeding and his head morphed into the shape of a cross, instantly demanded my teenage mind’s undivided attention.
The Stand, the title read. Above that, in huge green letters: Stephen King.
I recognized the author’s name, he was the guy who’d written Carrie, a book I’d seen at my local library but never quite got around to reading. I flipped to the back cover and read the blurb: This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death.
Coooooooollll, I thought, and promptly handed the man behind the counter a one-pound note.
I sat down on one of the benches near the market’s exit and immediately began reading… I was instantly hooked. It took just over a week to complete my first adventure in King’s post-apocalyptic world. When I finished, I started it over again, reading it from cover to cover and savoring every finely crafted sentence.
I’ve probably read The Stand close to 15 or more times since then.
My fascination with the post-apocalyptic genre could be called morbid. After all, what is so interesting about imagining the death and suffering of billions of human beings? But as connoisseurs of the apocalyptic genre, we know it isn’t the death and destruction that draws us to these stories (well, mostly); that’s just a convenient plot device for freeing up the map for the real action. Post-apoc stories are about the human experience … us! How we face our own frailty and how we choose to define ourselves after all the rules of modern life are stripped away.
In every story of this kind, each of us is inevitably faced with the same question: What would I do?
When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand that concept. I was attracted to the adventure and the mayhem. The thought that I could have been one of those who died when Captain Trips swept across the world never crossed my mind. Such is the invincible heart of a naïve teenager.
Skip forward 23-years and I am faced with my very own apocalypse of sorts. I’d moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to be with my wife, but in 2003 fate conspired against us and we lost everything we owned. Gone was the beautiful house and cars, our bank accounts were empty. Our lives and our future had been erased and we were facing the very real possibility of a life on the streets. We decided to take a chance: we packed up our animals and the last of our belongings and moved out of California, heading to Nevada in the hopes of starting a new life.
With one-month’s deposit to put down on a rental property, no jobs and a few hundred dollars we had managed to save from a yard-sale, our future looked bleak. Much like the survivors in King’s story, those first few months were riddled with danger and uncertainty. The possibility that one miscalculation on our part, one wrong move or error of judgment, could bring our fragile existence crashing down on us was always present. A few months passed, my wife managed to find a job but I was still out of work and money was still so tight, I couldn’t even afford to buy her a birthday present for her 40th birthday.
Instead, I turned to what I do best – I wrote her a book.
It wasn’t just any book: this was a version of our battle, a metaphor for all the pain we had gone through and everything we had lost, set down in the form of a post-apocalyptic novel that painted a very different end-of-the-world scenario.
Towards Yesterday, was my gift to Karen. And while it painted a bleak picture of a world that seemed doomed to total annihilation, just like The Stand, it also offered the very real possibility that if we worked together we could overcome anything thrown at us, as long as we never, ever, lost sight of the one thing that mattered most – our hope.
I’m 44 now and our lives are finally back on track. The horrendous trips to Pontypridd has been replaced by an hour-long drive through the Las Vegas desert to reach the nearest bookshop (thank God for my Kindle).
What are the chances that I should live a stones throw away from the very city where humanity’s last survivors met for their final confrontation with Randall Flagg and his army? And what am I doing here? I’m writing my own post-apocalyptic novels that would never have existed if it hadn’t been for that chance encounter at a used bookstore so many miles away and so very many years ago.
It seems almost poetic, don’t you think?
M—O—O—N, that’s how you spell poetic.