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.


11 comments on “The Book That Was Not To Be Touched”

  1. Allan Lloyd says:

    This reminds me of my own childhood. I grew up in a house with hardly any books (for which I have been compensating ever since), but there was a copy of Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Tales book, in cloth bindings which were falling off, and wonderful marbled end-papers. I was much too young to read the book, but the illustrations and the feel of the gold-edged pages were what gave me a life-long taste for fiction of the fantastic. Even though I never read it, it was for me what Gene Wolfe called “my Book of Gold”.

  2. Jay Mackie says:

    I bought this exact same volume Chris about ten years ago from a charity shop for pennies. My edition has a browny matt cover however. I’ve only ever dipped into a few stories with the titles which most prompted me to read more. But like you say, to my hardcore, well-developed mind of a diet of horror reading of the past 30 years, what I read wasn’t scary or shocking. But I think it’s the whole atmosphere of the volume – stories which have a slight, unnerving oddness, the mildly unsettling illustrations, which make it a worthy old world tome of tales for an fan of horror and strange fiction to have on their bookshelves.
    I think it would be a nice idea for all your fans who post comments on here to share their favourite stories they’ve ever encountered from the likes of the Pan books, Fontana and all the other millions of horror collections and anthologies out there….

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    “Mr Fowler,” calls a voice from the back of the audience, “do you think the atmosphere of that book has influenced your own work at all?”

  4. Wild Edric says:

    There’s a touch of the Keith Page in those illustrations or is it just me?

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    I thought Andrew Lang of Fairy tales and other collections fame died much earlier than 1937, The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy gives the author as Margery Lawrence. I could be wrong though.


  6. Helen Martin says:

    You may well be right, Wayne. Andrew Lang died in 1912. Some of us referred to those books as “the colours fairy tales”.

  7. admin says:

    I went from a specialist book website so I’m thinking Lang was a contributor now.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    We had this book in my Secondary school library, and I read it, as so many others had, over a few days. It disappeared, sadly when a new Librarian took over, who had a radical ‘New Broom’ approach – if any book was looking tired or tatty, then it went. Some were sold, others went in the bin (I got several ‘Biggles’ books from sorties to the bins), and new books filled the empty slots. Blast it, Chris, that’s another book that I’ll have to find now.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Ordered a copy now. Having looked at the contents on the ‘Vault Of Evil’ website, I was struck by instant nostalgia and memories of sitting behind the groundsman’s hut at school, reading this.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    We were taught how to weed a library. First we were told that unless we were in a specialist library and as school librarians we wouldn’t be, we were not responsible for keeping everything of historic interest – except of the school we were in. If no one had borrowed the book in over a year then there wasn’t a call for it so it should go. We were on-line with other schools in the district so some books went where there was a need. There were no bins; discards were packed in boxes, taped shut, and sent to the district office. The reason for no bins was that teachers were likely to go through to get their favourite titles, books that were outdated for many reasons and which had new titles that did the same job as the old ones. We didn’t like teachers doing the same lesson over and over for thirty years in the primary classes.

  11. Chris Everest says:

    Not quite the same but…. My dad had a beautiful set of Cassel’s (?) Encyclopedias – I think of historical subjects …. with engraved plates which had a protective sheet of glassine/tissue paper protecting them. To my 7 year old mind this was obviously Tracing paper (and the books like my Rupert Bear Annuals) were meant to be drawn on and painted…. My art and craft skills were NOT much appreciated. And I still live with the shame….

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