How Stephen King Pulled Me Out of the Deepest Depression of My Life

Well, it’s been a while. Oops. The fact of the matter is that no matter how well I think I have things going – and in general, I think I have things going pretty damned well – the slightest thing can bring me down. In this case it wasn’t particularly slight, if I’m being perfectly honest, but for the first time ever, I don’t want to talk about it in detail on this blog. At least not now.

To sum up the situation, as a much wiser person than myself said, the country seems to be at a cultural breaking point. In the weeks following the suicide of Robin Williams, awful thing after awful thing has struck this country, politically, philosophically, socially. It’s been a very dark time for the country – and the world – and of course, this affects us all. I’m not equipped to handle such stress, so I retreat into my own hobbies and interests in an attempt to avoid the politics and dramas of the real world. This time, they followed me in. I can’t stress enough that I care very very deeply about the issues at hand, or the things that are going on in my own culture and chosen circles, but the fact of the matter is that my only escape from politics is now swarming in them. Add to this the immensely negative event that I spoke of a moment ago, and I feel it’s fairly easy to see how I got knocked out of orbit just when I thought I had reached the perfect trajectory.

It’s slowly dawning on both my psychologist and I that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – with the key word being obsessive – is at the core of many of my major issues. I simply can’t let things go that I feel affect me, attack me, or make me feel strong emotions. Since I care very deeply about political and social things, being involved with them can do immense harm to my head. I just can’t stop obsessing. During the events of this summer and fall, I found myself unable to calm down or exert any level of control. I was in a state of constant near panic. My heart was pounding, and every single little stress signifier erupted all at once. I broke out in hives and acne, I had canker sores and mouth ulcers, I was barely able to sleep and my eyes were bloodshot. All of this exacerbated my big issues. I destabilized in a major way. I became paranoid and angry, lashing out at anyone and everyone, latching on to things more obsessively than ever.

This all culminated in me falling into an incredibly deep depression. It didn’t feel quite like the usual ones. I wasn’t down all the time, or bored by everything. I was, however, deeply, incredibly certain of doom. Utter and complete doom. When I’m feeling myself, I’m a very optimistic man. I believe the world will get better, and humanity will endure, and maybe even reach the stars. However, when things go off the rails, I can – and did – become utterly obsessed with death and doom.

I become obsessed with the facts and science of the situation, and to be frank, the current science says things aren’t looking good. Humanity has pretty well doomed itself through our actions and inactions, and we are not long for this world. I become obsessed with death, and the fact that the worst thing about life is that I will never know how things turn out. I’ll never know if we make it as a species, if we survive this time, the closest we have ever come, perhaps, to extinction.

It’s difficult to believe that that’s the case, when you look around. Humanity is prospering in so many ways. We’ve spread far beyond the numbers we should have been able to, technology is erupting into the realm of science fiction at breakneck pace. Despite the way the world is reported by the news, if you look at the numbers, we’re doing better than we ever have. The only official wars currently active anywhere are civil ones, or ones against groups, as opposed to other countries. Violent crime is dropping in many places, worldwide. Things are getting BETTER.

Yet the world IS in danger. The planet is drowning in our runoff and we’ve pushed the ecosystem just about as far as we can before it tips over and takes us with it. The fact is that the universe is not designed to support life. We are in a magic zone that shouldn’t exist, and it’s far more delicate than we expected. If the people who make the decisions can’t wrap their heads around that, we will be gone within centuries. Perhaps sooner.

Once these thoughts get into my head, if there is even the slightest crack, they seep in like so much oil, slipping deeply into my thoughts and feelings, and gum up the works, slowing the gears that turn my mind. Every thought I have, negative, positive, every feeling, every action, has to fight its way through this tarry sludge first, and nothing comes out the other side clean. At this time, there were not so much cracks as there were fissures, and the constant pressure and feel of attack only added to the damage. To put it simply, I was mired in the deepest pit of foul black sludge I have ever been, and I could find no way out. I felt doomed, and because I felt doomed, I was.

At this point, paragraphs in to this meandering, stream-of-consciousness post, you may be asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with Stephen King? He’s in the title, he’d better do something.” I’ve spoken before about how fiction and horror are deeply important to my life, and I gave brief mention to King, promising to return to him at a later date for a more thorough discussion, and I suppose that there’s no time like the present.

Stephen King is, in my opinion, the greatest living American writer. Perhaps the greatest American writer, period. Perhaps even the greatest that the world has ever seen. As bizarre as it may sound, when I look at this man and the work he does, I see a man who simply doesn’t get enough credit. “But Kyle,” I hear you protest. “He’s one of the richest authors who has ever lived, and everything he publishes is met with a resounding cry of joy!” I know this, of course, and I’m not arguing that the man isn’t famous enough, or paid enough, or beloved enough. To do so would be absurd. No, I say this because I feel like he is more often than not relegated to the role of “pop fiction writer” or “horror author”, when he is so much more.

I argue that though King does write pop fiction and horror, he more than once delves far beyond such things into genuine literature. I feel that he is contributing to the world of art in ways that are not truly appreciated. He writes of philosophy, addiction, love, sacrifice, darkness and pain. He writes of madness, and the ugly things in the world, and the ugly things in people. Above all, however, he writes of the light.

Almost every one of his major works has some force for good, some force, pushing and prodding the heroes in the right direction. They don’t always realize it. The pushes are subtle and gentle, but there’s something pulling for them. He calls it by many names. The Turtle, the light, Gan. In all cases, it works through these people, compelling them to take the actions that will lead to their salvation. This isn’t anything special, of course. The important thing to note is that someone who is considered one of the darkest storytellers of all time writes so often of the good in people.

Stephen King, more than anyone else I have ever known of, takes his inner demons and fears and tragedies, and somehow externalizes them, using them to weave tales that speak to the very deepest parts of humanity, the good and the evil. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are DreamcatcherThe Dark Half, and of course, The Shining. I could write for pages on the books individually, but I think I’ll save that for a later date. Suffice it to say that each one of these books has a deep connection to the man and his life, as well as his own experiences and personal fears. Dreamcatcher was written after he was struck by a van, largely while he was in the hospital, on painkillers. The Dark Half reflects events from his own life, spurred by the discovery of his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The Shining plunges deep into his fears about himself – he was an alcoholic struggling with a writing career at the time of its publication, just like Jack Torrance, the main character.

Again, it’s not that the idea of taking one’s issues and imbuing them with power by writing them into tales is new. Far from it. It’s simply that King explores his own depths in a way that few ever have, and finds ways to shine light on even the darkest parts of himself and even then, to show you the light that will overcome that darkness. It’s not what he does, per se. It’s the way in which he does it. His abilities speak to me, in particular, and always have.

Which brings me around to this fall. I make an attempt to read one of my very favorite King novels, It, every October. There’s no specific reason, of course. The first time I read it was in that month, largely in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my favorite place in the world. This time, I was in the deepest, most virulent depression of my life. I was unstable, I was damaged, and I was on the verge of totally falling apart. Then I finished It.

I ask you now, have you ever read or heard something that struck you to the core? Something that hit you in just the right way at just the right time, and then suddenly, as if from nowhere, you found yourself looking at the world differently, or seeing a new path? I was in the dark, I was lost, and then a quote from It plowed through the sludge that was drowning my mind from the inside out like industrial cleaner.

“Best not to look back. Best to believe that there will be happily ever afters all the way around – and so it may be; who is there to say there will not be such endings? Not all boats which sail away into darkness never find the sun again, or the hand of another child; if life teaches anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question.”

These words… these words struck me. I’ve read them a half dozen times, if not more, but I feel as though I never really read them before. They coursed through me, clearing the sludge from my veins, and suddenly, the wheels were turning again.

This isn’t to say that I suddenly believe in God. The jury is still out on that one, and probably will be right up until the very moment of my death. I don’t think, however, that one needs to be truly religious to see the significance and power of these words. They reminded me of something important: hope is real, hope is powerful, and hope can drive us from our pasts no matter what they may be. It’s time to look forward and to find again the things that I’ve been learning about myself and the world over the past few years, as I turned against my own demons, ready to take them on.

Somehow, some way, though all of his horror, and blood, and inexplicable coincidence, and strange use of parenthesis, and repetition and light, of all the people in the world, it was a horror writer from Maine who reminded me that hope is the light that lets us put the darkness behind us, once and for all. “Best not to look back.” Words to live by.

P.S. Forgive the messiness of this one. I simply woke up with the need to write, and the entire thing sort of stream-of-consciousnessed right out of my head in exactly this way. I feel like I’ve missed a LOT about what King is, and what he means to me, as well as missing out on an opportunity to do his books real justice. I think that you can probably expect me to write more on Stephen King in the future, because I simply feel like I haven’t successfully conveyed my thoughts here. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this, and if you’ve never read any Stephen King, I obviously can’t recommend him enough. Do yourself a favor and go pick up It or The Shining. You won’t regret it.

P.P.S It occurred to me that this sort of glosses over the contributions that my friends and family had to helping me through this garbage. Rest assured, I never would have been functional enough or open enough to see the quote in the way I did had it not been for their support. Thank you all.

Advertisements

Harry Potter and the Rejuvenated Life – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore

After I finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I couldn’t have waited more than twenty minutes before starting the next one. In fact, the first three books came out so close together (and came into my hands even faster than that) that, for me, there may as well have been no gap between them at all.

As Harry enters his second year at Hogwarts, a number of new, very important things are established, and both the world and the scope of the story grow larger. Again, the series approaches some very serious subjects in a way that’s accessible and digestible to children. In the same way Sorcerer’s Stone is about life, death, and finding strength to face them, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is about acceptance of people different from ourselves, as well as taking care with who you choose to place your trust in, and how. Right now, however, I’m going to talk about racism.

Now, I’m not going to go off on some rant about racism, its dangers, and the fact that it is still very much alive in the world. Far better thinkers and writers than I have had their say on that subject. What I want to do instead is give credit to this book and the woman who wrote it for approaching it so well, and examining it so closely while still making the book deeply entertaining. The lessons it teaches are some of the most valuable that can be learned, and they’re presented naturally, without feeling forced or preachy.

It is detailed clearly in this volume of Harry Potter’s story that Muggle-born and half-blood witches and wizards are reviled by small, vicious sections of the magical population. This, it seems, was one of the largest motivations behind Voldemort’s grab for power. To put it quite simply, he detests those he finds impure. Pure-blood wizards often consider themselves to be superior. Draco Malfoy (Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts, and I don’t feel that word is too strong in their case) and his parents are among the ones who consider themselves above the rest. His father, Lucius, was one of Voldemort’s greatest supporters during his rise to power, and only through a combination of trickery, bribery, and threats did he avoid a jail sentence. They would just as soon see all of the “mudbloods” – a nasty name for those who aren’t pure – wiped off the face of wizard society.

Interestingly, Rowling does not approach the subject from a stark “pure-bloods are the bad guys” angle. The temptation to do so for simplicity’s sake is there, but instead, she chooses to be more flexible. The introduction of Arthur Weasley, Ron’s father, is incredibly welcome. He provides the series with a much needed counterpoint to the menacing Lucius. Fun, funny, good-hearted, and absolutely adoring of all things Muggle-related, Arthur and his family are also pure-bloods. Their dismissal of this fact is an incredibly strong point. They simply don’t buy into the concept that anyone is better than anyone else due to the nature of their birth.

The book’s examination of acceptance of other cultures and races goes far beyond that pair of characters and what they stand for. Nearly every aspect of the story touches on the concept that being different is not only okay, but a thing to be celebrated. Rowling introduces an entirely new magical race in house elves, a type of small magical being that has been enslaved by wizards for ages. Harry meets Dobby, an odd little elf who struggles against his orders (at great personal cost) to do whatever he can to protect Harry from harm at the school. Harry and his friends attend a “deathday party” for one of the ghosts that inhabits the castle, where they learn about the morbid culture of the disembodied spirits. They meet an intelligent, giant spider name Aragog, who was accepted and protected by Hagrid, despite his monstrous nature. Around every bend is a new lesson about accepting people for who they are and who they choose to be, rather than who we want them to be.

On a personal note, this book also introduces my favorite character in the entire series, one Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Good looking, famous, and wildly successful, Lockhart holds the hearts and eyes of many in the palms of his well manicured hands. Known the world over for his great deeds and heroics, he takes to the job with a great gusto… where it is immediately clear that he’s a buffoon with no real skills whatsoever. The man is a smarmy braggart in the extreme, and I find him ENDLESSLY entertaining. I could read about his particular brand of idiocy for hours on end. He lends levity to a book that is a step forward in maturity from the previous entry.

The story itself is more sinister than the first. A new threat faces the school, like none that Harry has seen, and for the first time, his fellow students are in danger. Someone or something is prowling the halls, petrifying people, and all that the students and teachers have to go on is an old legend about a hidden chamber in the school, said to house a terrible creature that will cleanse the school of impure blood. For a number of reasons, the evidence points to Harry himself as the culprit.

The school quickly turns to mistrust and fear of their one-time savior. Danger, real or only perceived, in a place where one used to feel safe can quickly bring paranoia bubbling to the surface. This is something I know all too well. In my adult years, my mental illness has been triggered by many things, and it can be something as simple as an unexpected sound in a place where I usually feel perfectly at home. This story can and has served to remind me that those fears and suspicions I feel toward the people and places I feel most comfortable with need to be taken with a grain of salt, and considered carefully before taking action. This is tempered, however, with a valuable lesson about who you should place that trust in to begin with. Without spoiling the story too much, at the center of the tale is the fact that a main character trusts too quickly and with too little thought, pouring their heart into the hands of someone who wishes to do them harm. Once again, Rowling’s lesson isn’t black and white, but complex and careful.

The book builds swiftly to an absolutely stunning climax, one that throws all of these philosophies together in one incredible scene, reaffirming all of the lessons learned. In the aftermath, Professor Dumbledore again imparts his wisdom to Harry (and the reader), saying a single fantastic sentence that binds it all together. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It doesn’t matter what you are born with, or who you are born to. You choose how to treat other people. You choose who to trust. You choose who to defend. You, and no one else, choose who you are, and all of your successes and failures are due to that choice. Make the right choice, these pages urge. Be a person you can be proud to be. It is a lesson that all children need to learn. I can’t think of a better way to learn it.

 

P.S.: This entry in my series is a bit shorter than the first. I imagine that Part 3 will be as well. This is because there wasn’t much to add about my own life at the time of release, due to the speed with which I devoured the first three books. When I hit book four, I imagine that the entries will soar in length and content, both because the books are far longer and more complex and because my life began to change far more rapidly as I grew up. I hope you enjoyed this, and stay tuned for part 3!

 

Harry Potter and the Rejuvenated Life

In the earliest years of my life, I became an avid reader. As I’ve mentioned before, I started reading very early, and never stopped. I read comic books, children’s books, and a few adult novels. When I was in first grade, they put me in the third grade reading classes, and even that bored me to death. There wasn’t much I could find that really held my attention.

When I was in elementary school, I found the Borrowers novels, and I read them hastily in a single night, absolutely enraptured by their fascinating world. I also loved the rats of NIMH series, and read all three books with a great hunger. Though I still feel a deep affection for those novels, as they helped point my path in life, what they have done for me pales in comparison to one single series. If I’m being completely honest, I have a number of obsessions and display a rabid fanaticism over a great many fictions, but they all fall aside in comparison to a single series.

Harry Potter.

What I aim to do in this probably overly massive seven-part blog is describe the feelings that these novels have inspired in me, and how the series grew up with me, and gave me something to believe in and hold onto at the very worst of times, as well as the best. As a child who was just starting down the road into a life that would be marred by mental illness and anxiety, these books were a tether to hold me to myself when the world slipped too far away, as well as an escape for when it became too overwhelming. This is an explanation and a message of thanks to J.K. Rowling, who created a world that has done more for me than any.

Note: Some spoilers are inevitable, but even though this series is far past the expiration date of my personal spoiler policy, I shall do my very best not to ruin too much for prospective readers.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” ~ Albus Dumbledore

I blame it all on Brian Foster. I was a nervous, awkward child, who didn’t really know how to process my emotions. As I’ve mentioned before, I mostly went through my life trying to fake feelings, often at the cost of my own dignity. I didn’t do the best job in the universe of making friends. To put it simply, I was annoying and strange, and even those who I was closest to had long stretches of time where they could barely stand me. Compounded with the fact that I had recently switched to a new school, into a program for the gifted, it was a very unpleasant time in my life. I met Brian the first day in the new school, and although he got annoyed with me a lot, he was one of my first friends.

I would like to say that I saw Harry Potter coming, and that I picked up the first book on the very first day. I didn’t, though. I had heard the name tossed about for a few months here and there, but in the grand scheme of things, it never quite piqued my interest. The exact sequence of events that followed are a bit muddled. The first three books hit here in the United States over a period of about a year, give or take. Sometime between the release of the first book and the third, Brian was reading the books, and suggested that I catch up, and join in on the fun. I recall that I took a little bit of convincing, but before long, I was reading the first.

Of this, I am certain: I was transfixed from the very first sentence. I sat in the lunchroom at the school, reading it while Brian sat nearby. I bombarded him with questions, completely unable to wait to find out more (“So Hagrid is some kind of… magical biker giant?” “Just read the damned book, Kyle!”).

What I read took me away from my hectic, confused, distressing life, and showed me something I had never thought of before: a hero I could relate to. I had of course read many books with great heroes, adventurers galore, everymen and women who climbed in the face of adversity, and became more than they were. The problem was that I didn’t feel like an everyman. I felt like an outsider.  Harry Potter was a skinny kid with glasses and a scar on his face, just like me (The scars covering the right side of my face are from a dog bite when I was a toddler. They’re barely noticeable, but to a 12 year old boy just becoming aware of the fact that looks meant something, I may as well have been the Phantom of the Opera.). This boy was unsure of himself, and though the school he had just entered was a magic school instead of one for the gifted, he shared my fish-not-only-out-of-water-but-straight-up-on-the-moon experience there. This boy could have been me.

Orphaned as a baby, Harry had been raised by his magic-detesting Aunt and Uncle in a cruel, abusive home, forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs while his cousin was doted on so much that he was given two bedrooms. My own home life was nothing so horrific, of course, but I didn’t really identify with my sports-loving, non-reader parents, and my foolish 12 year old mind latched on to this as a similarity anyway. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it is revealed to him that he is a wizard, and will be attending Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he will learn to harness his magical abilities. He is also, as it turns out, quite famous in the Wizarding world already. You see, far from dying in a car crash like his Aunt and Uncle told him, his parents were murdered by a foul and evil wizard so feared that none would even say his name out loud. Lord Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named, as he was most often called, then turned his wand upon young Harry, casting a powerful killing curse. For reasons unknown, the curse didn’t kill baby Harry, but instead obliterated You-Know-Who, who hasn’t been seen since. The Boy Who Lived is looked at as a great hero in the wizarding world. Far from entitled, Harry’s painful upbringing had left the young boy humble and kind, with a firm sense of justice.

Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts was a fantastic, whimsical one. J.K. Rowling was quick with a joke, and brought a smile to my face on every page. The characters felt alive in a way that none ever had before, and I daresay that none ever have since. Don’t misunderstand. There are many, many novels which feel true to me, and which share that kind of power, but there’s something special about Rowling’s. Something I’ve never been able to put a finger on.

From the muggle (The wizard word for non-magical folk) loving, incredibly large Weasley family, to the full range of oddball and fascinating teachers, every single one had a life of their own. We followed Harry as he made friends and enemies, and found something that I had been looking for all my life as well – a mentor. As I mentioned in a blog a few weeks back, I adore my father, and am eternally grateful for the love and guidance he has shown me throughout my life. However, I was just starting to feel the real effects of my misfiring brain, and as I wouldn’t be diagnosed for nearly thirteen more years, I felt quite alone.

The headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Albus Wulfric Percival Brian Dumbledore, stood out to me immediately. I found myself drawn to his bizarre appearance and wisdom, and his sense of humor mirrored my own. He’s called both a genius and a bit mad in the same breath. Throughout the challenges Harry faces in that first year, from homework, to Quidditch (a wizard sport played on broomstick that sounds far more complicated than it is), to facing off against the greatest evil that the wizarding world has ever known, Professor Dumbledore is there to guide Harry, and keep him safe.

The book showed me a way to find strength in myself, and that even a strange, scarred, skinny kid could face down his past, and become someone new. I call on this same strength today, as I face down my illness and my anxiety. Perhaps more than ever, I owe my resolve in the face of darkness to these pages.

Not only were the chapters within a source of strength, and deeply entertaining, but they faced me with a level of respect that I had never experienced before in my life. Presented in these pages, beautifully told, and without the slightest bit of condescension toward the children the books are meant for, was my very first lesson about death itself.

Lord Voldemort’s ultimate quest, aside from ruling the wizard world, cleansing the earth of non-pure-blood wizards, and subjugating the blissfully unaware muggles, is immortality. He has gone to great lengths to become undying over many decades, twisting himself into something barely human. He returns, not truly alive, sustained only by the evil actions of a servant who still remains loyal to him, and seeks not only to be restored to life, but to life everlasting.

Harry staves him off, with more than a bit of luck and the help of his best friends at the school. It is in the aftermath of this confrontation that Professor Dumbledore speaks words to Harry that I have never forgotten and never will. “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but… …it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

Mortality haunts us all. The idea that it will all end some day is terrifying and painful. It’s also something we should never shy away from. One of the foremost themes of the Harry Potter series is mortality, and how we should not shy away, but confront it boldly, ready to face what comes next with dignity and hope.

The breaking down and dressing up of such necessary concepts as mortality, finding strength within yourself, turning your weaknesses into strengths, and not just tolerance of those who are different, but acceptance and celebration of them are nothing new. Never before or since have they been discussed so openly, and respectfully, or so beautifully presented to children. This book finds a way to reach deep inside, and plant these seeds in your mind.

That’s not the truly incredible part, though. What’s amazing is what follows. The books continue. More of the story is told. The themes get darker, the tales grow more serious. The books get longer, and deeper, and more elaborate. Characters grow and change. You start out reading children’s books… and end up reading adult novels. The series grows with you, and feeds and nurtures the seeds it planted.

Never has this been more true than with those lucky enough to read these books within my own generation. I picked up the first book a twelve year old boy, unsure of myself and just beginning to seek an identity, and I put down the final book a twenty-one year old man, just becoming sure for the first time of who I wanted to be. I’ll be damned if that wasn’t J.K. Rowling’s intention.

These books have been especially useful for me as I grow older and find myself becoming further and further hindered by my mental illness. I reach out for them in times of trouble, and call on the strength they give me to find my way. No matter how lost or broken I feel, I can always reach out for these truly magical tales, and find myself rejuvenated, stronger than when I picked them up.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be re-reading them again, and starting today, I’ll be posting a blog of this nature for every book, exploring why it’s so powerful and important, and connecting it with the time in my life that I first came upon it. I hope to take those of you who love the books already on my own personal journey, exploring how powerful they’ve been to me specifically. For those of you who haven’t read them, I hope to show you why these books have become a phenomenon, and why I recommend them to everyone, of all ages.

Above all else, I want these blogs to say one thing: Thank you, J.K. Rowling. These books have changed my life for the better in so many ways that I can barely find the words. Thank you.

 

P.S.: Hooboy, this one got away from me. The idea was to do a fairly quick overview of the books, and why they mean so much to me. When I started writing, though… well… it just kinda kept going. The plan from here on out is to make this a kind of a recurring series. I won’t post them all in a row, and I’m not sure how long there will be between parts. I’m just going to keep working on them, and I’ll post them whenever the time feels right. I hope you all enjoyed this.

Homesick for Hyrule

“The Legend of Zelda is the closest thing I have to a religion.” This is a sentence that I’ve repeated often in recent days and months, with a note of pleasure and wonder in my voice. With the announcement of a new, massive, open-world Zelda game at this year’s E3, my excitement for the franchise has never been higher or more powerful. I’ve written before, years ago, about how I came to love the franchise, and the sequence of events that drew me into the land of Hyrule. Forgive me if I paraphrase myself here, because I feel like that history is important. I’ll keep it short, however, because what I’m really attempting to do here is finally find words to describe just how deep and powerful my adoration of the games go, and why. To that end, I’ll talk about the first real experience I had with a Zelda game. I’ll leave deeper examinations of the specific games and their content for another time and place, but more on that later.

It occurs to me now that some of you reading this might not know anything about Zelda, so I’ll fill you in. In a nutshell, the games are about a young man, Link, and a young girl, Zelda, who are the living personifications of courage and wisdom. They are reborn again and again throughout many thousands of years to protect the mythical land of Hyrule together from all sorts of threats, usually but not always driven by the living personification of power, the demon king Ganon. Each of the three represents and holds a piece of the Triforce, and ancient relic that, when united, will grant the wish of the holder. Link is the player character, and uses a wide variety of magic items and skills to defeat myriad monsters. There are gods and goddesses and alternate timelines and dragons and… just… just all kinds of stuff. It’s pretty great. Anyway.

I was introduced to Zelda first in seeing my Uncle playing the original, and then a few years later a friend of mine who lived down the street playing A Link to the Past on the SNES. The games got my attention, and I loved trying to play them, though at the time I hardly understood what I was doing and never really got anywhere. I didn’t really understand then just how much they would come to mean to me some day.

When you’re growing up, it’s incredible just how much difference a year or two can make. When I was ten, I never really grasped the concept of games that were more complex than the simple goals of Super Mario and Sonic The Hedgehog’s “walk to the right and jump” objectives. I played more complex games anyway, but the open, explorable locales in the Zelda games were daunting and intimidating, and I was never able to get the hang of them due to my limited time with them. By the time I was twelve, however, I was able to grasp the more complex concepts, helped along, I’m sure, by my increased love of written fiction. That’s when things changed, and I began to see the true face of the franchise.

I first saw The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time at a school friend’s house, VERY shortly after it came out. I had already been reading about it a bit in the relevant issue of Nintendo Power Magazine, and I was deeply intrigued. I watched him play it at his home, and was entranced. I didn’t play, that I remember. I know I adored it. I don’t really remember how or when I got my own copy of the game. Memory is odd like that, of course. What I do remember is the feeling that it brought me the first time I played my own copy.

My anxieties hadn’t really surfaced yet, but my mind was already buzzing with thoughts and misfiring feelings that I couldn’t express or explain or connect. I couldn’t relax or find peace. Video games of the time didn’t really help with it, either. They were always a flurry of activity. Even the previous Zelda titles had monsters on nearly every screen, constant pressure to fight or flee. Though I loved them, the constant stream of colors and sounds and images would overstimulate me, messing with my moods, and putting stress on me in ways I didn’t understand. I would become irritable quickly. It was like taking a busy intersection and introducing a second set of traffic lights that contradicted the first set. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, marked a change in the style of video games that changed that, and made them into a respite for me.

This game was different. The music on the opening screen was soft and soothing, the moon rising in the night sky of a field in a beautiful canyon. A young man in green rode by on a horse, kicking up dust. As he galloped past, night turned to day, and the camera panned over to a walled castle, the drawbridge lowering over the moat. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.Image

 

Looking back now, the graphics are certainly archaic, but for me they still have that haunting beauty. 

The reason that this game was such a turning point is incredibly simple. It is, first and foremost, a world. This game brought me into the land of Hyrule in a way that I had never been brought into a world before. I explored Hyrule’s fields, I dove to the bottom of Lake Hylia, I climbed to the top of Death Mountain and slew a dragon. I journeyed through time. I fought hard and long, and saw many dangers, and persevered, and saved the world from darkness. All of that was amazing, and made a weak little kid who was just learning about how big and scary the world really was feel powerful and courageous. None of that was what drew me into the series and drove it deep into my soul, however.

As I wandered the land of Hyrule, speaking with people and visiting the towns, I found something. There were areas of the game with no enemies, no quests, no goals. There were options to break away from the pace of the game, and just explore the beautiful world it presented. There I found ways to make my own stories. I discovered secrets. Most important of all, I found peace. For the first time, I found a place where the incessant motoring of my mind couldn’t touch me. I could close my eyes, and listen to the soothing music, and imagine the wind sweeping through the fields, the smell of the wild grass, and I was there, in Hyrule, this beautiful world that I wanted to protect.

That feeling has carried with me for nearly twenty years now. I eventually rediscovered the games that came before Ocarina, and grew to love them just as deeply. There have been some missteps along the way, and a few games that I don’t much care for, but as a whole, the series has been amazing. More importantly than that, though, it has become a part of me. When I hear the music swell, or see the worlds play across the screen, I feel shivers up and down my spine. I feel it coursing through me, that call to adventure, the certainty that I’ll be needed again to protect the place I love.

One of the suggestions often received during therapy is to try and find a sort of “happy place”, and hold it in your mind, putting yourself there to calm the senses. Hyrule is the closest thing I have to such a place. My entire life has been informed by the feelings I have for this wonderful legend. The cool, quiet places in the world that I adore most all make me feel like some piece of me has traveled somehow to that mythical place. Even as I write this, I have to blink back tears, because I’m homesick for a place that I can never go.

I have no doubt that this sounds strange to a lot of you, and that you may never understand, or even ever want to. That’s fine with me. You can chalk this up to my mental illness, and call it an unwarranted obsession. I don’t care. I’ve been struggling for my entire life to explain to people just why these games so deeply affect me, and I don’t even feel like I’ve succeeded here today. The closest that I can come is to say that in fiction I found my god, and in Zelda I found my religion.

The new title in the series which was announced yesterday seems to genuinely be everything I could dream of in a Zelda title already. We know nothing of the story, or the gameplay, or the details of the world. Hell, there are even rumors flying around that the main character may not be Link at all. None of this matters to me as much as the fact that if the description Nintendo gave is accurate, it’s a truly open world.

Image

According to Nintendo, this is what Hyrule will look like, in game. You can explore the entire world you see. Traveling all the way back to the distant mountains and exploring them was specifically mentioned. When I saw this, my heart stopped. I stood up from my chair, and clamped a hand over my mouth. This… this is what heaven will be like if I get there. This is the closest I’ve ever been or likely ever will be to actually being in Hyrule. I can’t wait.

These games have been a constant uplifting force in my life. They make up the very core of the light side of my personality, tied together with countless other works of fiction. In light of my deep affection for the franchise, I’ve been playing through the games in sequence, in the order of the official timeline put out by Nintendo. I’ve set aside a blog, where I’ll talk in great detail about each game, what it means to me, what it means to the world of the games, and more. They’re bound to be in-depth examinations with a huge amount of emotion and care, and as such will take a long time to complete. When I finish the introductory post, and finally get cracking on it, I’ll post the link here. Until then, if you’ve never played one of these games, I can’t recommend them enough.

 

The Importance of Fiction

My life is ruled by fear. I sat here for twenty minutes trying to come up with a less dramatic phrase than that, but I couldn’t. From the minute I wake up to the minute I manage to fall asleep – usually far later than I intend to – I’m terrified. I have no doubt that this remains the driving force behind my absolute adoration of fiction. My entire life has been wrapped in stories, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It began early on, I can tell you that much. When I was a kid, I devoured storybooks like there was no tomorrow, and it wasn’t long before I was reading adult novels. I think that even then, I knew that someday I would love horror, though if you can believe it, I never really saw horror films or read horror novels until I was 16. When I was a little boy, however, a combination of two things put a lock on that door for quite a while. Firstly, I saw part of Child’s Play 2 on TV at a Halloween party a friend was having. Secondly, I couldn’t stop reading scary story collections for kids. Bruce Coville’s wonderfully creative little collections come to mind, and to this day I can retell some of the stories point for point, though I read them nearly twenty years ago. The one about the little kids who wish it would never stop snowing and get their wish, as the world was slowly buried in ice. The story about the boy who literally fell to pieces when his parents got divorced. One stuck with me more than anything else, though. I don’t remember the title, and I think to look for it now would be to ruin the magic, but it was a tale of a young boy, who, while asleep, had an out of body experience, floating above his bed. As he floated, amazed, a plane collided with his house, sweeping his body away, leaving him a disembodied spirit. He roamed the world, seeking a body of his own. The tale was haunting and beautiful, and I had never read anything else like it. To this day, as I think of that story, I hear the beautiful tones of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which played in my head during the entirety of the tale.

There were many, many others as well. A story about a grave digger with room for one more. An irish folktale about a creature who wanted his tail back. Murderers and thieves and monsters and things that defied description, I couldn’t stop reading about them if I tried. I had my mother take the books away and put them on top of the fridge, to keep them out of my hands until I was old enough, but it didn’t work. I would climb on a chair to get them back. Finally, I found the willpower to put these things away, by sliding from “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” to science fiction.

When the film of Jurassic Park came out, I was seven years old, and I couldn’t go see it. My solution was to read the book instead, which was, of course, far more violent. I loved it, and it marked a transition point for me. I devoured Crichton’s entire works, and rapidly moved on to Asimov and Wells. From science fiction, the transition to fantasy was natural enough. Tolkien, Pratchett, Pullman, Lewis, I read them all. The incomparable Chrestomanci novels by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones have been a guiding force in my imagination since the day I picked up the Lives of Christopher Chant on a whim. These, of course, lead me to Harry Potter, sparking an obsession that lasts until today. I would pick a genre, author, or story series, almost at random, and I would read voraciously, and with great speed. I read the entire Borrowers series in a single 24 hour period, not daring to shut my eyes for fear of losing the magic. I can honestly say that these were the best moments of my life.

Movies fascinated me as well. As my teenage years approached, I would ride my bike to libraries and rental places, pockets jingling with quarters, collecting cans and looking on the ground everywhere I went for lost money and change, and every single solitary dime was spent renting movies, games, and paying library fines. Ah yes, video games too! As technology advanced, it became possible for a medium that had once been reserved for Pong and Super Mario Brothers to tell stories of genuine depth and interest. The Legend of Zelda, with its bare bones technique, spoke to me of  a larger story I could only dream of. The Final Fantasy franchise gave me rich, fascinating characters and deep, sympathetic villains the likes of which had never been in any films. I soon learned that video game stories had far more in common with books than movies, especially since at the time, they had to tell most of the tales in text. It was around this age that I discovered comic books, as well, the so-called modern myths.

This sparked a fascination not only with Spider-Man and Batman that have pursued me far into adulthood, but with the true myths of ages long passed. I began rapidly reading books detailing different versions of every myth imaginable, from the tales of trickster gods, to the monster slaying, half-divine heroes of the Greek and Roman tales. The location of these books in the library lead me inexorably to books on cryptozoology, psychics, and other strange and spiritual tales of the modern world. All of this coming together got me through to the day when I saw the movie Aliens, the first horror film I had seen since I was a child. At the time, I was adamant that I would never read or see horror again. I knew that my fascination with the subject bordered on addiction, and that once I began, I couldn’t stop, even when I terrified myself into being unable to sleep for days. My best friend at the time talked me into it, and I watched it in his basement, white-knuckled. Even then, at 16, I was beginning to exhibit signs of the anxiety that would eventually dominate me, but it was far milder, and I was able to overcome it more regularly. I took a deep breath, steadied my shaking hands, and proceeded to watch the most awesome two hours of film I had ever seen. It turned out that I had been right to be concerned. From that moment, I was addicted. Within a week, I had seen every Alien and Predator movie, and I rapidly branched out, renting every horror movie I could lay my hands on.

That entire summer was spent in the basement, huddled around VHS tapes of the Friday the 13th series, Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers, Candyman, the list is endless. That was also when I picked up the single book that would affect my life the most deeply. Stephen King’s The Shining. The moment I read it, I was a different person. I attacked the King catalogue with an attitude akin to defeating an enemy. I HAD to read everything he had ever touched, and I tore into them, going for the kill. He lead me to Dean Koontz, who is another, admittedly smaller obsession of mine.

I’ll probably do blog entries on what individual series of all these things mean to me at some point in the future, but this is going to be more about the overall feelings I have toward fiction than any specific obsession. The purpose of that long, meandering, semi-stream of consciousness rant about how I found all of these things was simply to demonstrate one important fact. Fiction is and always has been the foundation of my life. The interesting question, and what I’m trying to answer even to myself by writing this, is WHY?

It’s easy enough at the start. As a kid, I was fairly awkward and strange. I didn’t make friends easily, so I resorted to fiction for entertainment and pleasure, as well as companionship. Stories couldn’t hurt me or betray me, and they were always right there waiting when I was ready to return to them. It remained that simple throughout all of high school. In the years that followed, however, I sank deeper into anxiety, delusions, and a lack of control, all brought on by the advancement of schizoaffective disorder and bipolar.

I reached a point, one I’m still basically at, though medication and therapy have provided some improvement, where all of my energy was spent in forcing my mind not to constantly worry about the future and the inevitability of endings in the real world. I’ve sought more and more fiction over the years, using it to recede from reality when it becomes too much to handle. The older I’ve gotten, and the worse my anxiety has become, the more I’ve become connected to two specific areas of fiction. Video games and horror.

Video games give me control that I feel I can never have of this life. They give me strength, and power, and allow me to relax a little bit, something I’ve never been able to do. People tell gamers to get a life fairly often. To this, the best response I’ve ever heard is “I have many lives.” Video games allow me to experience the impossible, and I can think of nothing more beautiful than every form of art we have coming together to allow someone to live a story, to BE the hero, to BE the villain. It’s a miracle in my eyes.

Horror, too, is all about control. I live in a constant state of fear. When suddenly seeing an unexpected bottle of sauce can send you into an irrational sense of dread, that fear can easily spread into the fear of BEING scared. I’m not just afraid. I’m afraid to do anything because I just know that there will be moments of fear within every action. It’s crippling. Horror lets me choose the exact time, nature, and location of my fear. It gives me control where otherwise I’d have none. I think I’ve instinctively understood this since I was a child, and that’s why it’s so addictive to me.

When I bury myself in fiction, I’m able to go on. Coupled with a powerful imagination, it gives me the ability to experience things that many people can’t even conceive of. It allows me to fight my way through the fog of anxiety and loneliness and feel truly alive in a way that nothing else ever has. When I read, I cease to see the page or the words. I’m there, in the head of every character, living what they lived, feeling what they feel. I catch myself acting moments of these tales out, exploring the words and motions, diagramming moments of action to see just how things worked. I’ve always had a huge difficulty accessing my own feelings, even though I know that they’re there and understand them quite well. Equally, I have difficulty connecting with the feelings of others. Even though I’ve always been able to sense and understand them, connecting to them, caring about them, has often eluded me. Books change that. I don’t know why, but for some reason I find that I’m able to access emotions that are otherwise lost to me when I read, and that gives me what I need to act and to feel. When someone I know is in crisis, I don’t necessarily feel for them. I feel for a similar character in a similar situation, even if I have to create that myself. Looking at the world through the lens of fiction is what allows me to interact with it.

Before my anxiety became too great, I used to couple this approach with my natural detachment and imagination to act. To me, it was the ultimate form of losing myself in fiction. I would be shaking, nervous, pale, deeply in terror, right up until the moment my foot hit the stage, and then I would be the other person. Kyle would become a gentle voice in the back of my head, and whoever I was playing would take over. I never for a moment felt like I was acting. It felt like tapping into some other world, and finding a new person waiting for me. I could be powerful, I could be popular. Using a fictional character as a bridge, I could feel. I still manage this often in my day to day life, but it’s simply not the same. The loss of acting is what I would consider one of, if not the greatest loss to my mental state.

Looking at it now, written down, my mind seems even more contradictory than it feels. I understand emotions, and can portray them better than most. I know this, because I fake almost all of my external emotions in day to day life, only able to connect to people through a lens of fiction. This is only possible, though, because of my lack of control over the ones I actually feel, and the detachment that results.

When I write, I exert that level of control on an entire world, which is intimidating to me. I reach blocks because I become concerned about the world I’m creating. I genuinely worry about the consequences for my characters. I find that this persists in other areas of my life as well. When playing an RPG, a type of game in which one traditionally controls a party of many characters, as opposed to a single one, I begin to feel bad that I’m underutilizing any given character. I want them to feel needed. It’s absurd, but it’s something I’ve never been able to shake. I feel like the worlds we create are every bit as real to the people within them as ours is to us. I feel like we may be background players in a story being told to someone else. From this, my friend Fernando and I have latched onto the concept of the Metashow.

The Metashow is the idea that we are characters in a sitcom or drama that some other universe somewhere is watching. Many people would argue that our lives aren’t particularly interesting or funny, but to them, I point out that all you need is 22 funny minutes a week. If enough interesting and funny things happen in your life and your friends’ lives to add up to 22 minutes a week (48 or so for an hour drama) then certainly you have enough for a show. After all, we never see the characters in Friends, or How I Met Your Mother, or Community on a commute, or doing their jobs without incident. It makes sense to me. After all, it’s mostly agreed now that there are multiple universes, and if they’re truly infinite, sure there must exist somewhere in the spectrum a world where I’m a character in a show. With this in mind, I often catch myself making decisions based on dramatic themes, or acting for laughs like I’m being watched when no one is around. It can be awkward and strange, and I often feel embarrassed for doing it, but mostly I just find myself thankful that we don’t live in one of the post-apocalyptic shows, or a musical comedy universe. Our world seems to be made up mostly of sitcoms and thrillers.

This concept is very similar to the one that drives me to believe in the supernatural and spiritual side of existence. Intellectually,  I know that ghosts, the afterlife, magic, fairies, leprechauns, and all things of the sort are likely total bunk. However, I find that choosing to believe in them, wanting to believe, to paraphrase a certain fictional hero of mine, makes life far more interesting and tolerable. If you go through life believing that at any given moment, a leprechaun may leap out from behind a bush, things just feel more interesting and magical. Of course, this can play into my paranoia and delusions, and make things far worse, as well. Which is why I keep a bottle of holy water in my room. It’s not because I believe in vampires. It’s in case I’m wrong about them.

This leads me to the most important thing about fiction, and why I’m so enamored with it that for all the negatives it can cause, all the downsides that have always come with it, I’d never change the fact that it’s so deeply ingrained in me even if I could. The world is beautiful BECAUSE we can so easily enter many more worlds. I don’t know if I believe in god or not, but I believe this: when it is said that he created us in his image, I am certain that it’s meant that we were granted the ability to create. To tell stories. We can take nothing and create whole worlds, and that makes each and every one of us divine. We can use incredible, absurd situations to tell human stories, and people like me can use them to connect to others when we may never have otherwise been able to. Fiction is both an escape from reality and a celebration of it, and that makes it the most sacred thing in this world.

 

Note: A truly, deeply heartfelt thanks to every author I mentioned here by name, and to all the ones I didn’t. I wouldn’t be who I am today without every single one of you.