Stephen King is the Bob Dylan of novelists. Like Dylan, he is ridiculously prolific (over 50 books for King, over 500 songs for Dylan). Like Bob, he flails around a bit at times but, far more often than the rest of us, King hits the little red dot on the dartboard. Sometimes the dude's even perfect.
The first taste I had of King was through TV ads for The Shining. I wasn't much older than the boy in the movie, Danny, when I saw that elevator’s payload of blood rush at me in slow-mo. I remember Mom saying, "Ah, that’s just Kool-aid". (Good thing the director, Stanley Kubrick, didn't hear because he took a year to make sure that shot didn't look like Kool-aid.) I didn't get to see the movie, of course, (or the other one I really wanted to see in 1980: Neil Diamond's Jazz Singer) and back then, if you missed a movie in the theaters, that was all she wrote.
Four years later, though, a fellow Navy buddy handed my father (also named Stephen) a copy of The Shining novel. Not being a spy novel or theology, it sat on his shelf until I grabbed it. The night I started The Shining, my parents attended a shindig in Honolulu Bay. While they welcomed a Spanish armada and my dad set up a golf date with Pat Morita, I was into something every bit as exciting and full of promise.
They had dropped us off at the neighbors' house where, earlier, their hyperactive son, Chad, threw a backyard sprinkler high in the air. After it landed on the top of my head, I decided it was time to go inside and read. As Chad's dad watched Magnum P.I., I found a comfortable spot in a corner of the living room. I pried the paperback open, careful not to break its spine.
The opening scene was Jack Torrance interviewing with the Overlook hotel’s manager, Stuart Ullman. In the opening line Jack thinks that Ullman is 'officious'. I marked my place with a finger tip and asked Chad's mom and dad what ‘officious’ meant. They told me to use it in a sentence. "Jack Torrance thought," I read aloud, "officious little prick." They took my book.
That one mystifying sentence was all the Stephen King I got to read for years. It had to tide me over until I was in high school. And even then, my parents were concerned about my love for these banal, nonsensical horror books. The deal they begrudgingly made was that I could read him as long as I read five normal books per King novel.
I couldn’t help but adore all that early King stuff. No matter how horrific his stories got, Stephen King was always big on creating human characters, fears and struggles. He was just as likely to show people devoured by monsters as he was to show you how hard it is shake a bad reputation, how soul-sucking it is working for a bad boss or how swampy and treacherous were the waters of human love and sexuality.
When I first read "The Last Rung on the Ladder" I liked it, but it certainly wasn’t my favorite story in the Night Shift collection. I was far more blown away by "Quitters Inc." (about a mob-run program for people who want to quit smoking), "Children of the Corn", and the other story about treacherous heights, "The Ledge". The quiet, tragic brother-sister story of "Last Rung" didn’t really leave much of an impression, at least consciously. I was only sixteen. I wanted a sister but didn’t have one. It would be another twenty years before I had my daughter Lilly and my son Jack. Nevertheless, that sad, beautiful story was inside me all those years and, when I recently decided to adapt a Stephen King story into an animated short, I thought about "Last Rung". I couldn't remember its name or much of what happened in it, but I knew there was something there for me. I found it in my tattered copy of Night Shift. I reread it and I bawled. I hoped it was one the stories that King was currently making available as a Dollar Baby project. It was.