“The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter.”
These opening sentences hooked me. I’d never thought of a month as a monster, of a season as a consuming force. I was in high school, somewhere in my sophomore year, I think. But I should start a bit farther back…
My mother loved horror. LOVED IT She shared her love of reading with me. By the time I was in high school, I’d read a ton of horror including John Saul, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. Then I read Clive Barker. And with Clive Barker came a bunch of firsts: the first time I’d been truly disturbed by a scene (not scared, really, but thrown off kilter entirely); the first time I’d read a book with no clear good guy (a protagonist, sure, but no one I’d considered “good”); the first time I knew that I probably shouldn’t be reading a particular book (I was a bit young). I’d read Cabal, The Damnation Game, the Great and Secret Show, and then I read The Thief of Always.
The final “first” that I got from reading Barker was one that stayed with me. The Thief of Always made me want to write. I wanted to craft sentences like that. In that moment, I wanted to be an author.
So, the fairy tale story goes, I ran right over to my desk, grabbed some college-ruled paper, and I wrote. Oh, sure, it took me a while to get organized, to finish things, and even longer to give them to anyone else to read. I wrote stories for both my high school and college literary magazines. I took creative writing classes in college, and pondered getting an MFA…
No. That isn’t what happened at all.
What really happened was this: I gave it a brief go, and decided it wasn’t for me. For some reason I couldn’t quite name, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I, a young woman, could be an artist. I kept creating stories—but never wrote them down. I worked on my high school and college literary magazines as an editor. I studied literature in college but took no creative writing classes. I decided to become an English professor, and I got my PhD.
The Thief of Always is a fantasy of retrieving lost time. When Harvey is whisked away to a world where it’s Christmas every morning, summer every afternoon, and Halloween every night, he doesn’t realize that each day that passes is a year until he escapes and finds out exactly how many years he’s lost. Harvey goes back and defeats the evil Mr. Hood, and he gets his years back.
In Barker’s book, the thief of always is a monster who steals time. I let sexism-laced self-doubt steal away more than a decade from me. I couldn’t get that time back, but with the help of friends, I refused to let any more be stolen. By the end of the book, Harvey asserts that
“Time would be precious from now on. It would tick by, of course, as it always had, but [he …] wouldn’t waste it with sighs and complaints.”
Time still ticks by for me, too, and I regret what I lose, but I refuse to be eaten by my gray beast of self-doubt. The Thief of Always is the book that made me want to be a writer, and as I read it over and over again through the years, it helped me refuse to waste any more time.