by Gary A. Braunbeck
At the beginning of Peter Straub’s wonderful novel In the Night Room there is a quote from philosopher, publisher, and journalist Roger Scruton that reads: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”
Not to downplay Straub’s redoubtable achievement with this novel, but Scruton’s epigrammatic bit of wisdom knocked my socks off nearly as much as did the novel itself — and I am not one whose sensibilities are easily affected; it takes a lot to genuinely move me, and Scruton (Bad Attitudes; A Dove Descending and Other Stories) did just that.
To understand why this hit me as hard as it did, we’re going to go back to 2002 — October of 2002, to be precise — and join Gary during his stay in the nuthouse. (Okay, technically it was not the nuthouse, more of the pre-nuthouse holding facility, but why nitpick at this late date?)
Understand something before we move on: none of what follows is intended to be a ploy for sympathy; it’s not a pity party; and it sure as hell isn’t romanticized. I did not have then — nor do I now have — much sympathy for myself. I was weak, self-centered, and more than a little stupid. I could have turned to others for help, but I didn’t; it was far easier to allow myself to implode. In short: I’m not attempting to make you feel sorry for me.
As some of you know, the 16 months between June of 2001 and December of 2002 were not, to put it mildly, blue-ribbon days for Yours Truly. During that time, I lost, within 9 months, my grandmother (heart failure), my father (cancer), then my mother (emphysema); I’d moved to a new city, gotten divorced (my fault, all my fault), underwent surgery to prevent nerve damage to my right hand, and somewhere in there went off my anti-depression medication — yes, I know, stupid, Stupid, STUPID.
The result from all of this is that one week before Halloween of 2002, I found myself in possession of a lot of seriously strong and potentially dangerous medications taken from my parents’ house. (My sister, Gayle, had enough to deal with, so I went through all the rooms and cabinets shoving Mom and Dad’s medications into a box, intending to dispose of everything when I returned to Columbus.)
Bear in mind that though I am far from the brightest bulb in the sign, I am not (under the right circumstances) without a certain cleverness when it comes to finding ways to self-destruct.
I could not go for 5 minutes without thinking of my grandmother’s lonely last years, or seeing my father’s body, or the look on my mother’s face when I told her that I had come to the hospital to take her off life support, or the deep, deep hurt in my soon-to-be ex-wife’s eyes the last time we had seen each other.
I couldn’t sleep; I wasn’t eating, my writing production was down to practically zero because I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the People Who Weren’t There Anymore, and my right hand was becoming more and more useless (this was before the surgery). I was now surrounded by a circle of friends who were, on average, 15 years younger than me and with whom I ultimately had very little in common (I knew I was in trouble when I mentioned Harold Russell and not one of them knew who I was talking about), and I allowed my world to become more and more circumscribed by the handful of rooms in my apartment. If I could bring myself to get out of bed at all, I spent a lot of time sitting in front of the television watching re-runs of shows that hadn’t been very good the first time, but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t seeing them, anyway.
So it’s October, roughly a week before Halloween, and I’m not really here anymore; some empty, cheerless thing that’s wearing my face and using my body to get around has taken the wheel, and I don’t feel like fighting with it.
I have enough money to get a motel room for the night. I have more than enough medications in the proper dosages to ensure that the job will be done correctly (I’ve been researching this for several weeks). And I have recently purchased two packages of pudding cups so that there will be a way to ingest all these medications without causing myself to throw up. (The Shuffling-Off Cocktail Recipe ends here; just know that I had everything necessary to do the deed and knew how and when to take it.)
There’s only one glitch: all of the motels within walking distance of my apartment (I don’t drive) have no vacancies due to a Quarter Horse convention that’s in town. So, much to my disappointment, I’m going to have to do the job at the apartment and hope that my two roommates will still be able to live there afterward.
I’m walking back to the apartment and realize I’m thirsty, so I make a short detour to the neighborhood Giant Eagle to buy a soda. I’m standing in line behind a couple with several children, and the youngest child — maybe 3 years old — looks back at me, then turns to her mother and tugs her sleeve and says, “Mommy, that man’s crying.”
Damned if she wasn’t right. I’d had no idea, perceptive fellow that I am.
“Don’t stare,” says the child’s mother, but the little girl looks back at me, still gripping her mother’s sleeve, and says, “What’s wrong, mister?”
“I’m sorry,” I say to her sweet little face.
And then she starts crying.
Now everyone in this line and those on either side of us is looking over and trying to look like they’re not looking. Me, I’m standing there shaking like an alcoholic in the grips of the DTs, my face soaked, crying so hard that snot is coming out of my nose in buckets, and a police officer is coming toward me.
Oh, good, I think. Way to be inconspicuous, Einstein. Everyone’s staring at you, you’ve got roughly a thousand dollars’ worth of prescription medications in your bag, and now a cop’s coming. This is going to screw up the Shuffling-Off schedule something fierce if you don’t think fast.
The officer asked what the problem was, and I managed to force a smile to my face and told him that I’d just come from a funeral and I was sorry, this just sort of hit me unexpectedly, and he bought it, and I purchased my soda and walked back to my apartment, still shaking, still in sloppy tears. Pathetic.
I got back inside, walked up to my room, dumped all the medications and pudding on the bed, and just sort of … imploded.
I honestly don’t remember much about the next 12 hours — I have vague impressions of peoples’ voices talking to me, of someone holding my hand, of eating something, of sleeping for a while, of watching a movie — but when I finally came back to something like lucidity, I was being checked in to an emergency mental health facility here in Columbus. Two psychiatrists had been filled in on my recent history, both had talked to me (which I barely recall), and both had decided I was a danger to myself and to others.
I spent a week there before being deemed stable enough for release. I won’t bore you with the details of the intensive day-to-day routine of life in there, save for one thing: the book I had brought with me: Stephen King’s From A Buick 8.
Understand that I had given up hope. I had no faith left — not in myself, not in humankind, not in love, friendship, integrity, this ethereal whoseewhatsit called God, nothing.
And my writing career? — forget it. I was more than aware that a lot of readers considered my stuff to be too dark, if not outright depressing, I didn’t see my fiction becoming any more cheerful anytime soon, and as far as I could tell, the future was in no way bright enough to require my wearing shades.
Submitted for your approval: not a happy camper.
Still, I had already started King’s novel, wasn’t all that far into it, and God knows I didn’t have anything better to do with my extra time, so during those free periods — few and far between that they were — I read.
And something odd began to happen.
I started feeling … if not better, then no worse.
Don’t go thinking this is leading up to my describing some thundering, overpowering, Wagnerian epiphany, because it isn’t; I had no uplifting moment of realization; no heavenly choir began singing over too-loud, sentimental John Williams music as a beam of moonlight crept through the window and anointed my face and mind with the Silver Light of Truth and Inner Peace; I experienced no visions, no revelations, uttered no exclamations of “My God, the ghosts have done it all in one night!“
No, what happened was, simply, this: I became caught up in the story (which, for the record, may not be the the best-written story King has ever told, but is, I think, the best-told story he’s ever written). I wanted to find out what happened next. And because I read slowly, I was able to pace my reading so that I had only enough time to read a chapter or two in the afternoon, and the same later at night. (Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on what feelings I had “shared” with the group during any one of the five daily sessions that were held — and those weren’t counting the individual sessions.)
But here’s the important thing: I had something to look forward to. What was going to come crawling out of the car’s trunk next time? What was the deal with the lights and fireworks? Would the dog survive? (Dogs don’t fare well in King’s books.) Would King be able to pull off this round-robin of first person narrators? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Okay — I wanted to know. And that came as something of a surprise to me. Because all of a sudden, I cared about something again.
Admittedly, it wasn’t myself, but why nitpick? Something within me still held on to enough wisps of hope that it allowed me to become immersed in a story. And that immersion, that curiosity, that wanting to know what happens next, began to spread over into the way I behaved toward the other patients, the doctors, the nurses, and myself. I started to actually talk to and not at everyone else. What did I have to lose? If nothing else, I had Buick 8 waiting for me at day’s end.
Yes, I’m skipping over a lot of things — those times when I fell back into hopelessness; when something one of the characters said reminded me of something of my mom or dad used to say and I’d hurl the book across the room, only to retrieve it a few minutes later, smoothing out the cover and pages; those times I was too heavily sedated to focus on the words — because the point here is that as both a reader and human being I had found consolation in imaginary things, and knew it my heart that it was not imaginary consolation.
Looking at my trusty dictionary, I read the following about “consolation”:
1. a source of comfort to somebody who is upset or disappointed
2. comfort to somebody who is distressed or disappointed
3. a game or contest held for people or teams who have lost earlier in a tournament
Arguably, all of these definitions could apply (the third one falling more on the metaphorical side of the coin), but for the sake of this argument, we’ll go with the first two.
I remember something comedian Red Skelton used to say at the end of his television show every week:
… if by chance someday you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly little thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart … then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.
That is the kind of consolation I’m talking about, and it is the kind of consolation that I found in reading King’s novel at that time, and in that place. I honestly don’t think any other book could have done this for me, under those circumstances.
What I came away with — aside from three different types of depression medication that I have to take twice a day — was the knowledge that good storytelling can be a source of great consolation, and that this consolation can give back a glimmer of hope to a weary heart.
How many of you reading this have been lost in depression, or sadness, or lingering grief, or loneliness, or doubt, or any of the thousands of shadowed corners in the human heart where even the blackest darkness would look like a star going nova, and found some moment of comfort in a book or short story that you’ve read?
And, yes, you bet your ass that this can apply to horror fiction. I’m not talking about that old happy horseshit that says imaginary horrors help us to better deal with the real ones — we’ll get into that at another time — but, rather, how the very act of reading something that raises anxiety or provides a good chill reaffirms the immediacy and necessity of your own existence.
If some part of you is still willing to choose to be frightened, or disturbed, or repulsed, then this same part is embracing life by embracing fear: if you can still be scared, then you still think life has value and meaning; and if you still think that life has value and meaning, then there is still hope in your heart.
What greater gift could a storyteller hope to pass on to his or her readers?
So, yes, the consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation. Even if those imaginary things live in dark corners and aren’t sometimes particularly pleasant or uplifting.
As long as there is fear of the darkness, there will be hope.