Hidden On The Top Shelf…
My parents owned a forbidden book.
I could see it from where I sat in the little reading chair they had bought me for my seventh birthday. On the top shelf of the bookcase was a massive brick with a heavy-looking matt-black canvas cover. The title was printed in silver 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 fragile child’s mind would not be able to handle its disturbing contents. It had sat up there for years, untouched and out of reach.
A red rag to a bull. Whenever my parents went out I tried the steps. They were never quite high enough. Two chairs balanced on top of each other nearly worked.
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 wondered what I was going to find. Was it about black magic, whatever that was? Was it filled with pictures of corpses? Worse, was it rude?
I removed the volume as if handling plutonium and carefully took it to my seat. There was an odd symbol on the cover, a stylised burning brazier with a whisper of smoke. Opening it, I saw red and white end-pages with a pattern that looked like interlocking ghosts. The frontispiece had a screaming baboon jumping on the back of a monk. The book was called ‘The Fifty Strangest Stories Ever Told.’ 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. The book had been published in 1937 and was a mix of rather pulpy odd tales with some brilliant true-life accounts. 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, not particularly frightening or subversive but very strange indeed. They stayed in my head for years. Why? Probably because it occupied a central spot in my brain much taken with the outlandish, forbidden, disreputable and unfashionable. It’s because of that book that I began writing short stories, and have eventually attempted to collect them all together in one place. Years later I found a copy again, faded to blue but the same edition.
I wanted to create such a book that would sit on a top shelf – a strong one – and be the subject of awful warnings from parents. Perhaps it will topple and squash a small child. Perhaps it will never be read.
Perhaps it will always be up there, watching and waiting.
Today’s question: Which book first made you feel you were reading forbidden material?