Tripping down (bloody) memory lane…

Today, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of unapologetic  nostalgia. The book-cover you see to the left, The 8th Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert van Thal, was one of those vintage tomes responsible for me getting into the horror genre in the first place, along with Elliott O’Donnell’s The Screaming Skulls & other Ghost stories, which I have written about elsewhere. Like the latter book, I distinctly remember the slim volume being on the bookshelf that was at the top of our stairs, just outside my bedroom door. I do remember reading it and doing so at quite an early age, too – by the time I was about seven or eight I was getting tired of children’s books and started reading ‘adult’ books (but not those kind of adult books, I hasten to add – I wasn’t that precocious). I have no doubt that, because of its subject matter, I felt that reading it was somehow dangerous and illicit. And I do remember being utterly fascinated by that cover.

And, just like the Screaming Skulls volume, to this day, I have no idea as to who bought the book – I assume it must have been my brother, simply because it wasn’t the sort of thing that either my mum or dad would buy, plus he was older than me by seven years, so he would have allowed to buy books like that. Dad was more into classic sci-fi (Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, Heinlein, et al – although his absolute all-time favourite book was the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which he read many, many times) and mum mostly read Catherine Cookson, I seem to remember. My brother was heavily into the sci-fi material, too, and so maybe horror was in the mix as well.

However, that was over 37 years ago now, and there have been a lot of books read, and memories built up, over the intervening years. The book has long gone, probably offered to some charity shop or other after I left home (along with my Dagon ‘zines, no doubt – that was my fault). I have to admit that I can’t remember anything about any of the stories, but that cover image has stayed with me, although I clearly remembered the severed head and not the hatbox (it was actually Johnny Mains who put me right on that one – I thought the head was in a wastepaper basket). It was one of the defining images of my childhood.

Anyway, I decided to try and find out what stories were contained in the book. And I found the table of contents at the Trash Fiction website (specifically here) and wasn’t all that surprised to find that most of the authors showcased I’d never heard of – except for one of course: Ray Bradbury. And, very appropriately (in light of yours truly’s current colourful appearance), the story of his that was included was ‘The Illustrated Man’. Unfortunately, however, just like all the other stories comprising the volume, I have absolutely no recollection of the story. I intend to put that right at some point in the future, however.

(As an aside, Johnny Mains will be writing a future guest-blog just prior to the reissue of the very first Pan Book of Horror Stories, which was originally published in 1959. Johnny has been hugely instrumental in getting this project off the ground, and the reissue will be released from the vault later on this year. Johnny also runs the Pan Horror Website, which can be accessed here.)

No doubt, even though I have completely forgotten them, those stories buried themselves deeply within the unlit recesses of my psyche, helping to shape the person I am today. I have always had a certain sideways outlook on life (aided and abetted by constant illness right up until the age of sixteen), a view that most of my peers at school failed to understand (and wouldn’t be interested in understanding, either). I was definitely one of the ‘uncool’ kids. I also have no doubt that it fashioned my subsequent tastes in art, music and film. In addition to that, like many who prefer genre literature and media, I have never particularly had a reality-based or earthbound imagination. I was always the one who was drawn to being an archaeologist (specifically, an Egyptologist), or an astrophysicist, or a specialist in some obscure topic.  And yes, I have always veered more towards the transgressive side of literature and cinema, often deliberately steering clear of and deriding mainstream popular culture.

And lo! these many years later, I still feel the same way, although to a much lesser degree  – getting older has sanded off the prickly, sharp spikiness of youth. I am still fascinated by the darker corners of life, the ones which people do their utmost to sweep under the carpet or do their best to deny. I have an abiding interest in social and cultural attitudes to death and dying in western society since the medieval period – if I could, I’d go back and study for an anthropology degree and delve into the subject deeper. I still read a great deal of genre material, of course, but I have also taken to dipping into other styles of fiction, as I am in love with (and highly valuing) the power of the written word.

Even so, I know my heart and mind will always belong to the bizarre, the odd, the weird and the horrible. It’s funny to think that where I am now was in all likelihood started by a small, cheap paperback lying on a bookshelf, in a home that is now a lifetime away. I suppose I have to be grateful to (and simultaneously blame) Herbert van Thal and Elliott O’Donnell for that.

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