The Fear of Stephen King and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

by Francis McGovern

The fear was mine, and the goal of this trip was to face it and honor it, by driving from Fenway Park in Boston to northern New Hampshire.  Then I would hike a bit of the Appalachian Trail and leave soon after nightfall, driving back to Boston.

Why? Well, the way I see it, everyone is afraid of the dark. At one point or another everyone fears that unknown thing that lurks in the shadows. For some, it is something from the past or someone who haunts them. For others, it is something unknown that has a rough shape or casts a phantasmagorical shadow.  We don’t know, so we imagine the worst is waiting for us.

I was afraid of Stephen King. Not the man, but his work. Unlike other authors, King has a way of knowing– knowing what is in the dark, knowing what can make us afraid and what awaits us in the dark.

For the longest time I refused to read Stephen King.

As a young boy, I was afraid of two things: spiders and vampires. Spiders I don’t know why, but vampires, because as a little boy, I had seen two vampires on TV that I have not forgotten to this day.

Though an avid reader at a young age, when I was about 15, in the mid-1980s, I absolutely pledged not to read Stephen King around the time when his movies became mainstream.  I was old enough to watch them and I liked them.  But I was still scared, too scared to read his books.

He had written Salem’s Lot, which had been made into a TV special, that I saw at nine years-old.  There was a scene in a kitchen where a black cape slowly rises off the floor to take the shape of a vampire, a ghastly bald creature with long fingernails and teeth.

This vampire from Salem’s Lot frightened me because I had seen it before in another form, even earlier when I was seven while watching the Leonard Nemoy series, In Search Of.  I believe the episode was about things that go bump in the night.

I remember sitting with my father on the couch in the early evening. We watched the show in a room of my house that we called the white room (the walls of the room were white with a black and white striped sofa.) This was my late grandmother’s room. There was a closet with old dresses, round hat boxes and things on shelves that I dared not touch for fear of upsetting my mother. Mary, my maternal grandmother, died when I was two. I didn’t remember her very well except for a picture of her in the backyard standing next to a rose bush by the back door. She was an older woman with friendly eyes and dark hair that looked Italian. I can’t really remember her or be sure if I just remember the photo.

The white room had a different feeling. I wouldn’t call it a presence but it was something and I believe that she might have even died in that room.

As we watched the show, I saw the eyes of the vampire on screen. I screamed in terror and was afraid to move. Every closet and every corner of my house held something dreadful and fearful. I slept in my room for months long after in terror, huddled stiff and still as though I was playing dead in the dark, afraid of giving the devil a moving target to take my soul.

It wasn’t until I was 16 that I really could admit that I enjoyed the movies based on Stephen King’s books. I thought I should start to read the actual books. Stephen King was in fact a genius and master of suspense as much as Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James. I heard King interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. King is a serious writer. I developed a literary respect for his work through his movies, but not through his books.

Now this was all taking place in the context of the 1986 World Series where the Red Sox lost in the most infamous fashion as the ball trailed through Bill Buckner’s legs. Growing up in New England, specifically the Boston area, the Red Sox just become a part of your life. You heard them on the radio on summer nights especially if you grew up before cable TV. Your parents indoctrinated you and told you about the 1975 World Series. You listened to the commemorative record. You were told about the catches Fred Lynn made, Carlton Fisk’s pointing to the wall, Yastremski and the legendary last at bat of Ted Williams. And then you became a fan and watched it and listened yourself.  If you were lucky enough to go to a game and see Jim Rice hit three home runs in one night as I did as a little boy, then you would be a fan for life.

Once I went to an autograph signing by Jim Rice.  I held out my baseball card to him.  He told me I had dirty hands. (I did. I don’t think he meant anything by it.) But I was devastated and I slinked away feeling the slings and arrows of being a Red Sox fan.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I understood how coming so close to greatness and failure went hand in hand. And, most importantly, I still believed.

So did Stephen King. While watching game four of the 2004 Red Sox playoffs with the Yankees, King was interviewed. As a season ticket holder and a known Red Sox fan, he predicted in the darkest hour (when no sane fan would predict a victory, even the announcers predicted the Yankees to win) that the Sox were going to turn it around. This was when the Sox were three games behind the Yankees.  No professional baseball team had ever come back from 0-3 deficit in a seven game series and only two other professional sports teams have. King knew this. His correct prediction was profound, eerie and supernatural, like a scene straight out of Stephen King novel.

So that’s where I would start my journey with Stephen King. I wouldn’t read a vampire book.  I would read a book about something I had in common with King. I would start with the Red Sox.

The Girl who loved Tom Gordon was a perfect place to begin.

This book is set on and off the Appalachian Trail in northern New Hampshire towards the Maine border. Nine year-old Trisha McFarland is an avid Red Sox fan and the child of a recent divorce.  She gets separated from her mother and brother who are bickering during a six mile hike on a moderate stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Trisha has to go to the bathroom, steps off the trail and slips down a hill then tries to take a short cut and gets lost for nine days in the woods and swamps of the White Mountain National Forest.

Trisha has her Walkman so she can listen to games on the sports radio station (WEEI) in Boston that broadcasts the Red Sox. As the days pass, she eats berries and starts to hallucinate, thinking her idol Tom Gordon (a closing pitcher for the Red Sox) is accompanying her through the woods. Yet a mysterious presence follows her. She hears things and envisions The God of the Lost speaking to her, stalking her as she takes wrong turn after wrong turn and feels it getting closer and closer.

My route would be to drive from Fenway to Storrow Drive onto Route 93 which would take me into New Hampshire past Manchester and Laconia up into the White Mountain National Forest. Then I would take Route 302 (the Kangamangus Highway) to route 16, near or at Pinkham’s Notch.  I planned to walk along the trail briefly until night fall and head back to Boston.

I arrived at Fenway around 1:30 in the afternoon one October. Even though there was no game scheduled, it still feels like you are part of a spectacle. Fenway Park is one of the last great ball parks left. A few years ago there was a great discussion in Boston about scrapping the park and building something new. More seats equals more money. That idea did not fly with the community and baseball traditionalists in Boston. The park was renovated and continues to be updated. Now if you are lucky enough you can sit in the Green Monster seats which are the new “celebrity” status seats high upon the left field wall.

There is a hopeful possibility in the air standing outside the park, for baseball is a great dream sport. You can feel the collective dream hover over the park, even when there is not a game. It’s a sport you can play at an early age and understand there is some invisible magic involved. It’s probably the sport to play if only for the fact it allows you the best chance at hero status. At a park like Fenway you can believe in the dream.

I parked on Brookline Avenue, the main street that runs from Kenmore Square behind the third base line, and walked down Yawkey Way. Yawkey is named after the infamous long time owner of the Red Sox.  Yawkey Way is at the heart of the park and sits behind home plate, the concession and souvenir shops where there are entrances to the best box seats. The street is closed on game days. That day there was a steady stream of tourists heading in and out of the street, buying shirts and heading to the bars and restaurants in anticipation of the 2010 World Series (San Francisco Giants vs. Texas Rangers). As I meandered through the crowds, I thought of Trisha McFarland, who was the perfect age to be a Red Sox fan and the perfect character to be lost in the woods.  Nine years-old is an age when you can still believe in a pitcher, or closer, or in a team.  She has spunk and knows her unsteady place in the world. She has a serious crush on Red Sox reliever Tom Gordon, and she follows her Red Sox like a true and bitter fan.  I felt the same way, wandering through a crowd of believers who had hope for the next year, promise for the next season.

It was about 3:30 p.m. and I had been on the road about two hours. I was nearing the turn off for the Kangamangus highway. I wanted to make it back as night was falling. I felt it was important to spend some time at night on the trail, although that was in truth the last thing that I wanted to do.  Yet I wanted to see how Trisha felt on the mountain trails, in total darkness, on rainy nights without the stars.

I slowed down as I thought I saw a black bear but couldn’t be sure. The God of the Lost is actually a large black bear that slowly stalks Trisha, and by the ninth day, she is exhausted and delirious. The bear slowly catches up to claim her.  It confronts her and with her last bit of strength, she winds up and throws a pitch with her Walkman. She strikes the bear in the nose, as if she were Tom Gordon closing the ninth inning. The bear is startled. At the same time a hunter who stumbles out the woods fires a shot striking the bear’s ear and he runs into the woods while Trisha passes out from exhaustion.

Was there a black bear in the woods somewhere out there? I had the urge to speed up, but I had forgotten how slow traffic crawled on mountain roads. The sky darkened to a blacker grey. Some of the bends in the road were high and steep. I could see the sky open as the dark spaces in between the mountains in the evening sky. I imagined things flying around the whole expanse of the night sky.

It was getting late, soon to be nighttime in a few minutes. I was getting tired. Slowly it started to rain, taking away most of my visibility. After another half hour of driving, I saw a sign for the Appalachian Trail though I expected to see more activity and more cars. I pulled over and turned around at what looked like an opening in the woods at what I figured must be the trail. I got out of the car.

The ground was soft as I started to head toward the opening in the woods. It was pitch black.  I could only see the outline of the trees. My eyes fixated on what I thought was a tree but looking closely, it appeared to be someone wearing a cloak. My heart went to ice.  I stepped forward and my foot sunk in mud up to my knee. I turned and slipped backward, falling down, pulling my foot out of the mud and leaving my boot behind. I ran back to the car and drove for three hours back to the safety of Boston.

I was no match for the woods, Stephen King and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

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