We’ve touched on this subject here in a number of different ways, but I thought I’d revisit it because the point has been driven home to me very recently. I’ve just finished re-reading “The Green Mile,” by Stephen King. I listened to the audio book, read by Frank Muller, whose voice I love to share miles and hours with. It’s a familiar story, but every time I go through it I find something new.
What struck me while reading this time was a connection that I hadn’t made before, and this sparked thoughts about the connections are words make with readers. They can be very arbitrary, very powerful, and are almost always different from reader to reader. While the overall reaction to a work can be the same through groups of unrelated readers, the individual connection points will always differ.
I started thinking about this as King described Mr. Jingles the mouse. This is an amazing mouse; he chases thread spools and walks all over arms and legs as if on cue. I have never had the slightest bit of trouble picturing this, but it occurred to me this time through that there’s a reason for this.
When I was young, living with my mom and my step-dad, an abusive, drunken barber, we had no pets. This changed dramatically, and left me with all the surreal baggage most encounters with my stepfather did. What he brought home, for reasons I’ll never understand, was a mouse. The mouse was brown with a sort of square nose. His name was Henry, King Henry VIII actually.
Officially the mouse belonged to my brother and me. We had a hanging rod along one wall for our clothes, and above this we had several shelves – plywood on angle irons screwed into the wall. We cleaned off part of the bottom shelf and put Henry’s cage there. That was the start.
I’d like to blame all that came after this on Bob, my stepfather, and his odd, controlling ways, but I can’t. Henry was no ordinary mouse, nor was those that came after. For one thing, from the start, if you called him, he would come to the door of his cage and get into your hand. When he was joined by a couple of other mice, we found he had figured out how to lift the door of the cage and hold it open for them to escape. He liked ice cream, but if you gave him chocolate, which he hated, he would pick up his dish (an upside down milk carton top) – carry it to the edge of the shelf – and drop it over the side all over our clothes.
Henry was followed by Princess, who grew enormously fat and mostly sat; Agatha (Aggie) who had asthma and used to ride on my mom’s shoulder, even when she went to the store (and once on an airplane flight) tucked up under the collar. I don’t have anywhere near enough space here to detail the oddities of these pets, or the oddities of our treatment of them. My mom worked for a university food service, and she knew veterinary students. We had some of the mice “fixed” which is tricky business for such a small creature, and when some of the mice developed tumors, they were operated on (successfully in most cases, I might add). If my mother could have gotten an inhaler for Aggie, she would cheerfully have done so and would have hovered around worriedly waiting for it to be needed.
So, the point is when I read about the mouse in The Green Mile, I took it all in stride. The other day I thought about this. I wondered if someone who’d never had any real experience with mice except to kill them in traps, or to see them in a pet store, or to feed them to a pet snake, would react as I’d done. I wondered if the mouse would be as important to such a reader, or if they’d be able to suspend their disbelief in the same way. I also noted that I’d gone into a daydream and probably missed a few details of the story as I thought about our mice, King Henry and his progeny, and how the university wanted to bring them in to study because they exhibited such intelligence.
I think all readers have moments like that. The words they are reading find a nerve and when it’s plucked, memory pours in. This changes the course of the act of reading in subtle ways, and becomes a moment that is now part of the reader’s life, and memory. Clive Barker once wrote that “we are all books of blood,” and he’s correct. We are also books of memory, and those memories are attached to nerves that interact with every moment of our lives.
I hope I didn’t miss anything in my brief daydreaming period, but even if I did, I got a few moments to relive things that were formative, and to look at them in a different light. It made me wonder about what I write, about scenes from my own life that I try to imbed with certain emotions with the hope of invoking planned reactions. Do I ever get that just right, or do the memories invade every time and make a new story, a story that is as unique to each reader as it is to me?
It’s all about connections, you see…