Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Magic Box

I've spent a lot of (virtual) ink talking about my Papa Burns' influence on my reading (and therefore writing) habits. There's no question he hardwired me from a young age to always think of story – and life – in terms of mystery. What I haven't talked as much about is my introduction to the world of science fiction and fantasy. That's due in large part to the fact that my love of all things fantastical came about almost passively. I was born into the era of Star Wars and Stephen King, the two being so ubiquitous during my formative years, it's hardly a surprise that I, a voracious consumer of any and all forms of entertainment, internalized them into my worldview.

But Star Wars and King were as mainstream as can be. If I'm to pinpoint the moment I tumbled down the rabbit-hole of hardcore science fiction and fantasy fandom, I've got to to give credit to my Grandpa Holm, and to a box of musty, yellowed old paperbacks, which I devoured by flashlight (fittingly, it seems, in this post-Harry Potter world in which we now live) in a cupboard under the stairs.

I don't remember the specific circumstances behind Grandpa giving me the box, or how the box came to reside in the cupboard beneath our finished basement stairs. (I expect he thought I'd reached an age where I'd appreciate them. If so, he wasn't wrong.) What I do recall is stumbling across it one day in my attempt to push aside enough boxes to craft a proper hiding space, and being enthralled by the secret knowledge those yellowed pages hinted at, and by the tacky promise of their lurid, ornate covers.

The books inside dated largely from the Sixties and Seventies, and ran the gamut from forgotten to disposable to flat-out classics. Paul W. Fairman, Terry Brooks, and countless authors too obscure for Google's reach mingled with Heinlein, McCaffrey, Asimov and Herbert, with Niven and Clarke and Le Guin.  Short story collections (all of the shocking-twist-to-the-tale variety) sat alongside massive tomes replete with maps, appendices, and glossaries. Space opera rested next to sword-and-sorcery. Dystopic paranoia tales were piled atop hardcore military sf. And I read every damn one of them, my impressionable young mind giving equal weight to each.

I write this post as news breaks that Anne McCaffrey has passed away. Her DRAGONFLIGHT, as I recall, was the first book from that magic box I ever read. How could any self-respecting twelve-year-old (as I'm guessing I was at the time) not fall victim to the siren song of that book's cover and all it promises?
Of course, it's been decades now since I cracked its cover, so who knows what adult-me would make of it, but at the time, it was one of the coolest things I'd ever read. And it sent me down a path on which I've continued to this day.

If I'm very lucky in this life, one day some nerdy kid will become enthralled with my own lurid, pulpy covers perhaps while hidden in a makeshift box-fort in a cupboard under the stairs and begin to read, with no idea whatsoever whether the book in his hands is a stone classic, or some throwaway bit of entertainment, long forgotten.

I only hope that he or she finds my story half as cool.