What Stephen King taught me about child abuse

“He knows what scares you,” said my friend Brad Moore of Stephen King when we were both in fifth grade. Brad was a precocious reader who read for fun, and he suggested I read “The Shining.”

And some of the images in that book, snow falling from an advancing hedge animal, a glimpse of a suffocated child in the playground, flashes of ancient bloodshed in the Overlook Hotel, left an impression from when I was 11 years old that I only appreciate more each time I read it.

But some things, like sex scenes, discussions of politics in academia, and concerns about money did not resonate the first time(s) I read the book. What struck me from the beginning, though, was Jack Torrance’s alcoholic rage at his son when the latter spilled Jack’s beer.

Jack wasn’t on the wagon yet, and he was either grading papers or making notes on a novel, and 3-year-old Danny accidentally spilled beer on Jack’s work. Discovering this, Jack yanked Danny away from the work, dislocating the boy’s shoulder in his anger.

I remember cringing when I read this, and saying that I would never get so angry that I would hurt someone.

“The Shining” was Stephen King’s third novel and one of my favorites of his; it really is a claustrophobic masterpiece. And there aren’t so many characters that the reader becomes aware of how much they all sound alike, which is a complaint I have about King’s ensemble pieces. Also, for some reason characters throughout King’s body of work are overly fond of throwing back their heads and laughing. I always think this is an affectation when I see it firsthand. No one is that funny.

But I also love “‘Salem’s Lot,” King’s second novel. It reminds me of “Spoon River Anthology” as written by Dracula or “Our Town” if Emily Webb Gibbs came back and sucked Grover’s Corners dry.

I am re-reading “‘Salem’s Lot” because of Paul Newman. Newman and Joanne Woodward produced an excellent version of “Our Town” in 2003 at the Westport Country Playhouse (with Newman as the Stage Manager) that was filmed for Showtime. When Newman died I rewatched “Our Town” and was reminded that the fictional town of Grover’s Corner’s was just one thin state away from the fictional town of Jerusalem’s Lot.

Furthermore, “‘Salem’s Lot” tells us the town was named for a pig, and we already know Grover’s Corners was named for a Muppet.

There’s a scene in “‘Salem’s Lot” in which a young yokel mom throws a milk bottle at her wailing infant. I reread the book this week, as a father, and the scene had much more impact and reminded me of Jack Torrance’s method of handling his anger.

I was drinking from a thermos of coffee at the time I thought this, and my 18-month-old son jumped up on the couch to hang out with me. In so doing, he bumped my thermos and knocked steaming coffee all over my lap and book, which happens to be a first edition hardcover.

What would Jack Torrance do? I thought.

“Whoops,” I said. “Hot.”

And my son threw back his head and laughed.

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