By Mitch Gamburg
Newton South High School Class of 2017
I devoured books throughout elementary school. During lunch, recess, or class, my mind was lost within the covers of the novel I’d picked up the previous weekend at the library. At home I scrambled to finish my homework so I could jump onto my bed and fall under the story’s spell. With only a pale white lamp to illuminate the room, the words painted epic tales in the dark, ones that colored my small world and gifted me with the lessons of a million lives wiser and greater than mine. I couldn’t hear my mom’s shouts for dinner— she had to drag me down herself, and only then would I finally feel the hunger pangs coursing through me, the ones I had ignored to flip the page.
The first series I remember reading was Encyclopedia Brown— the middle school equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. Each short story would consist of some terrible calamity plaguing innocent schoolchildren— like someone stealing a pencil— and Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown delving into his ‘encyclopedia’ of a mind to fit the pieces around him into a complete picture. Leroy would announce to the reader the culprit, then ask, “how did I know?” The answers were at the back of the collection.
I would sit for half an hour puzzling my way through every story, drawing on my limited well of knowledge to divine something out of the scraps of hints littered throughout. Sometimes I’d get it right; usually I’d get it wrong. I’d flip to the back and either laugh with glee or shake my head— it was so obvious, how did I miss that? In Leroy, a kid only a few years my senior, I saw an intellect I could only dream of matching, but one I would strive to achieve regardless.
Harry Potter was my first foray into fantasy. The Russian folk tales I heard as a child burned deep into my soul and drove an insatiable hunger for more dragons and magic and evil— and more heroes to fight them. Harry Potter didn’t quell the flames— it fed them.
I brought a pocket flashlight upstairs, left over from Halloween, and hid it under the pillow until sundown, then tried my best to angle it away from the doorway and flip the pages as quietly as humanly possible. In the dark, Hogwarts exploded around me with wizard duels, spells, artifacts and relics, pure evil itself. I followed Harry as he grew from a weak boy under the cupboard to the Chosen One who defeats Voldemort and his cadre of Death Eaters. I knew I couldn’t cast any spells (yet), but I wanted to follow the same path, write my name across history with the influence and change I carried with me wherever I went.
But none of the fantasy books I picked up could compare to Tolkien’s novels. My father bought me a copy of The Hobbit for my 10th birthday; I finished it in a week. This was more than just set on Earth: this was something new entirely, a handcrafted universe molded to fit the story Tolkien wanted to tell. And what a story.
A short, uninteresting creature aiding a battle-worn band of dwarves with a powerful wizard to reclaim their kingdom and defeat the current occupant, the dragon Smaug. How such an insignificant being could bring victory was only possible with Tolkien’s hand— and with his hands came the power to shake and seize the minds of every reader that observed the handiwork. How a tiny Hobbit or Tolkien could have that power— I could only dream.
The following year I found It, a thick volume among the complete works of Tolstoy and Lermontov in my dad’s office. I pulled it out, and on the dust jacket I saw a green hand pushing out of a drain pipe. That book gifted me more sleepless nights than anything else I’ve read, be it late nights delving into the next chapter, or imagining Pennywise dancing at my window, pointing and sneering at me. I couldn’t find the same uplifting morals I’d encountered earlier here, but the story was human. Not only could I see myself in each member of the Loser’s Club, but their unique struggles gave new light to my own challenges.
I read my first science fiction story in seventh grade. Mr. Golden, my science teacher for the year, pulled me aside after class. I’d passed many classes trying my best to hide my book underneath the desk. Instead of scolding me, he told me a story: “Imagine everyone had to leave Earth in rocketships, he said, and we were on track to find a new habitable planet. But instead we crash land on a radioactive planet, and almost everyone dies. During the day it’s brutally hot and everyone is burned alive, and in the night it’s freezing cold and everyone freezes alive, unless they’re hidden in the caves scattered around the planet. And, worst of all, people can only live for seven days. But there’s one rocketship left, just visible at the top of a hill far into the distance. And one child, Sim, wanted to try and escape.” Mr. Golden wrote down the title and handed me a slip of paper: The Creatures that Time Forgot. Mr. Golden’s slip of paper never left my mind the rest of the day. I rushed home and bought it online, and three days later I’d already finished it. The seed Mr. Golden planted grew deeper— an overwhelming desire to find another brilliant story or idea.
Lovecraft: what a bizarre extension of horror and science fiction. I saw his name mentioned among others in a list of sci-fi authors, his emphasis on horror a unique surprise. I started with The Ghoul, about a man who after years of solitude rejoins the world, only to scare away all the people he meets— only when he finds a mirror does he scare himself, finding the namesake in front of him. The prose was unbearable, intentionally vague and convoluted without purpose. But the stories were more captivating than the prose was challenging. Next came Dagon, and then The Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft spun tales of inevitability, of the uncaring nature of the universe and humanity’s irrelevant place in it. It was both shocking and impossible to put down.
A few hours after finishing one of Lovecraft’s collections, every book I had ever read came rushing back to me. I was a different person after I’d read each one, the characters and stories imprinting their loss, their growth, their greatness. Imagine the mark I could leave. I could create my own characters, craft my own narratives, give voice to my own message hidden beneath it all. I could present my world and my experiences to everyone else, so that they might have the same midnight experiences I had.
A few months later I met my writing tutor, Lander. In the first lesson, I tried to tell him everything I’d ever read, everything I loved and hated, all of my experiences with literature and movies and TV and every story I’d ever heard. It took the full two hours to cut through the mess of my mind. And I’ve spent every Friday night since trying to absorb all the wisdom he imparts on me. We started with very short stories, writing 500 words, then cutting down to 250, then 125, then starting over again. We would brainstorm individual ideas over multiple months and I would try to write what I could.
And now, after six years of practice, I have something I can publish, soon. If it fails, so be it. I will always pick up another book and I’ll always pick up another pen and start anew. That will be the mark I leave on the world.