The Book That Was Not To Be Touched
My parents owned a forbidden book.
I could see it from where I sat in the little reading chair they’d bought me, on the top shelf of the bookcase. It was massive brick with a heavy-looking matt blue cover. The title was printed in gold and was too small to read from down here, and I was not allowed to touch it because it was for adults only and my child’s mind would not be able to handle its disturbing contents. It had sat up there for years, undisturbed and out of reach.
Well, a red rag to a bull of course. Whenever my parents went out I tried the steps. They were never quite high enough.
But I was growing taller.
One day I climbed on the edge of a larger bookcase below and reached up. This makes it sound as if my folks had acres of books. Most of the shelves were empty. They were only there because my father got the DIY bug and put unnecessary shelves, ledges, stands and mantelpieces all over the place.
I removed the book as if handling plutonium and carefully took it to my seat. There was an odd symbol on the cover, a stylised burning brazier. Opening it, I saw teal and white end-pages with a pattern that looked like interlocking ghosts and schooners. The book was called ‘The Fifty Strangest Stories Ever Told’ and was seven hundred pages long. The paper was thicker than in any book I had ever touched. With a thumping heart I turned to the contents…
Honestly, I could drag this out for several pages but let’s cut to the chase. It turned out that the book had been published in 1937 by a Scotsman named Andrew Lang, and was a mix of rather pulpy odd tales with some brilliant true-life accounts mixed in. Here were ‘Three Crusoes in Epping Forest’ and ‘Eight Days in an English Snowdrift’, ‘Smuggling Hashish’ and ‘The Moving Coffins’.
The volume that in my long-gestating fantasies was a secret handbook for a black magic ceremony turned out to be a ragbag of odd little mystery stories, strange perhaps, beautifully curated by an editor who knew exactly how to thrill readers, but to modern eyes neither frightening nor subversive. However, the stories remained locked in my head for years because they have a musty haunted and slightly unhealthy feel about them, and the disturbing illustrations that had been gathered together at the front of the book stayed with me. In the bottom illustration, for instance, the spectre in the chair turns out to be plucking the hair from a severed head.
This, for me, is part of the magic of reading. Not just the physical act of reading itself, but the joy of discovery and unfolding worlds.