Hidden On The Top Shelf…

Reading & Writing

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?


29 comments on “Hidden On The Top Shelf…”

  1. Mike says:

    The Naked and the Dead, when I first read a swear word in print, I was about 11 at the time.

  2. Red Wolf says:

    Filthy English by Jonathan Meades

  3. snowy says:

    I don’t know what it was called, I found it in the larder under the stairs, at the very back, where you had to kneel down to avoid banging your head, hidden behind all the odds and ends. I knew it was forbidden because it wasn’t on the bookshelf with the other books, [all four of them].

    It was a strange tale, it seemed to involve the doings of a man called Xavier who went about upsetting women. He’d turn up to meet a woman, and after a short piece of dialogue he would do something to cause them to become upset. This was evidenced by them moaning, groaning and getting all hot, [though exactly what they were upset about never became apparent, there where a lot of Latin words starting with ‘v’ that I didn’t understand].

    [He must of had a very bad case of impetigo or eczema or something, because they kept scratching his back.]

    I don’t remember the exact year, but it was before Mother started throwing potatoes at dinnertime.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    Lady Chatterley of course! My father ‘hid’ it in the airing cupboard, under the clean bedding. I waited till my parents went out, and fetched it and read it. I was bored, quite honestly! When, a while later, someone passed Kama Sutra round at school, it was much more interesting (illustrations!). However, as someone who couldn’t even climb a rope or do a handstand, I was left a trifle bewildered at the mysteries of procreation etc.

  5. Frances says:

    “Forever Amber” by Kathleen Winsor. There was a small cupboard in the attic where Christmas presents were stored leading up to the big day. It had an old fashioned key so it also had an old fashioned keyhole. We used to peer through it every day in December but never saw more than wrapped packages. It was fun to try to guess what they were. I discovered that this cupboard also held a few books deemed worthy of hiding away and that the cupboard was sometimes unlocked during the rest of the year. I found this book and hid out in the attic reading it. I don’t remember what age I was and I probably didn’t understand all of it, although I understood enough!

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    The Hound of the Baskervilles. I was about 8. It was in the “adult library” on a shelf near to the penned-off “Junior LIbrary”. When I took it to the issue desk the dragon there told me I couldn’t borrow it because it was grown up reading. After I protested that I could read grown up stuff like newspapers she asked me to read a page which she picked for me. Satisfied that I could decipher the big words she let me take it home. I remember hiding it in my bedroom so my parents wouldn’t see it. “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” – still gives goosebump or two.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I don’t really know, to be honest. My dad gave me a copy of ‘Goldfinger’ to read, when I was about seven, and at home with tonsillitis. I must admit that some of the colloquialisms stumped me – my dictionary told me that a ‘dyke’ was an embankment used to keep the sea at bay, so how that applied to Pussy Galore (I thought she loved cats), I couldn’t imagine. But only one thing was off-limits to me: a magazine my father got – one for the road haulage industry – my dad had worked for an oil company, and then was a civil engineer for many years. This magazine, called something like ‘Road’, was full of pictures of vans, trucks, earthmoving machinery, and, to a boy, utterly irresistible. However, near the back, was a page with a skull on it. The pages that followed, were full of uncensored pictures… Of the ‘This accident could have been avoided’ kind, and showed wrecks, often with the victim in situ, and published to inform, and prevent further horrors. As it was an industry read, it was probably assumed that no six year olds would be flicking through it. But the lure of a cover showing a Thornycroft ‘Mighty Antar’ low-loader, with an impossibly large, and heavy load, edging through a village was too much to resist. And six year olds are always curious about the outcome of a Ford Thames Trader tipper truck vs. a man on a Vespa. Guess who wins. On second thoughts, don’t.
    But that was the only thing I was not allowed to look at – until dad ‘censored’ it, that is.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    A copy of Lady Chatterley was being passed around among the boys but when we asked when the girls would get their turn we were told Never, that it was definitely not a book we should be reading. Somehow I never did get around to reading it. Still don’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted at being left out.
    Ian, those pictures are definitely the sort to censor for kids. Talk about too much violence.

  9. Bronwen Rowlands says:

    “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was kept on a high shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet. I can’t imagine how I even knew it was there unless my mother said “There’s a book up there I want you to stay away from!” (More likely: “Away from which I want you to stay!”) Like Liz, I was bored. I kept thumbing through it looking for the good parts. There WERE no good parts!

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    Being at school in the 80’s it was James Herbert, the sex scenes were passed around at big school in the 80’s along with a Guy N. Smith novel, The Slime Beast. Being at a grammar school meant it was not only the content but the fact it was low brow as well. By the 80’s we could have gotten away with Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

    I remember the Pan Books too. I think I’ve mentioned a particular cover.


  11. Helen Martin says:

    On a completely off topic we’re in mourning in Canada again.The Snowbirds, our air force aerobatic team have had a crash in Kamloops today and we’ve lost the pilot.The co-pilot is in hospital with serious injuries.The couple from the house into which they crashed escaped with their dog. We just lost 6 air force members in the Aegean Sea. They were performing across Canada as the Red Arrows did over Britain as a cheering up exercise. We were treated to a list of all the accidents and deaths there have been since the group was formed. I am going to have to check on the records of other countries’ teams to see where we fit in all that. The dead pilot came from Nova Scotia I understand so they’re hit again.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Helen, you are quite right. These were Ministry Of Transport, and Police accident scene photographs of real dead people, with real loved ones left behind. Monochrome pictures, of course – this was around 1969 time, but they were not published for general public consumption, but, presumably, to shock truck and heavy machinery operators into driving more carefully. Hopefully, it sank in with some people.

  13. Jo W says:

    I can’t think of one single book, but I suppose any book that was not in the childrens’ section of the library would count. Happily I had a Mum who was an avid reader and if she approved, she would get out books for me on her ticket. That was how I first read all the Sherlock Holmes books. Thank you Mum.

  14. David Ronaldson says:

    Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out

  15. Anne Billson says:

    Peyton Place. I heard my mother and an aunt discussing it on the other side of the room. I was apparently engrossed in a book and they dipped their voices so (they thought) I couldn’t hear, but of course I listened to every word, while pretending not to.

    “It’s not like the television series, you know. It’s… [searches for word]… crude.”

    Soon afterwards, I found it hidden (they thought) on the bookshelf in my parents’ bedroom, while they were out, and of course read it. What I remember now is a girl’s torn blouse and the description of her breasts, possibly rape or incest (I wasn’t very interested in this) but – above all – a scene in which a girl loses her arm in an unfortunate escalator incident.

    On the whole, though, I preferred James Bond.

  16. Anne Billson says:

    Only just now read about your health news, Chris. What exquisitely awful timing! But I am counting on you to turn it into a great story and looking forward to seeing you one day soon, when I’m allowed back in London. Big hugs from Belgium. xxx

  17. Brian Evans says:

    David R, mine was another of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic novels-“Strange Conflict” I remember reading part of it one Saturday night whilst parents were out. I was terrified and kept looking behind me. He was very popular with the lads at school. Sadly, I find him unreadable now.

  18. Richard Nordquist says:

    Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs. That was 60 years ago and there’s still something forbidden about it.

  19. chazza says:

    A book of Algerian war atrocity photographs distributed by the French government at the time of the independence talks. Probably belonged to one of my Dad’s employees. Funnily enough, I was offered another copy at a Book Fair which I bought. I still can’t look at it. My personal “King in Yellow” !

  20. My grandmother used to collect paperbacks for hospitals in the faraway days of the 60s before charity shops and her house was always crammed with bizarre old books.

    The ones I should not have looked at when 7 or 8 are : A Pictorial History of the Third Reich, Lord Russell of Liverpool’s The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes and The Scourge of the Swastika : A Short History of Nazi War Crimes. I can still see pages of them in my mind’s eye and wish I couldn’t.

  21. Andrew Holme says:

    ‘Skinhead’ and ‘Suedehead’ by Richard Allen. I wouldn’t want to read them now, though. Like Johnny Speight with Alf Garnett, Allen was constantly having to remind people that his main character Joe Hawkins was not a hero/anti-hero/role model of any sort. Kevin Sampson tapped into this style of pungent writing with ‘Awaydays’ in the late Nineties.

  22. Liz Thompson says:

    I liked Dennis Wheatley too. Dad had quite a few of them, The Ka of Gifford Hilary and The Devil Rides Out I remember clearly. I got more from Rugby library, probably after my run in with them over Rabelais (I won that one).
    Helen, you’d have been wasting your time with Lady C.!
    My son was 13 or 14 when I heard him laughing at Jo Brand on TV. I’d have been happier if he hadn’t tried to use his knowledge in a practical shortly afterwards……the girl’s parents weren’t amused either.

  23. Steve Dempsey says:

    We had hundreds of books in the house and I read pretty much all of them, including the 20 volume encyclopaedia, the Bible and Shakespeare. However there was one book forbidden to me, among all the Dick Francis, Margery Allingham and Alistair MacLean, and that was The Bell Jar. I still haven’t read it, but I have heard the Radio 4 adaptation. On reflection it seemed a weird one to forbid me compared to The Omen, various books of ghost and horror stories, and all the death in MacLean.

  24. Jay Mackie says:

    Well as a relatively small child, it would have been one of our home medical encyclopaedias for some interesting pictures a child would deem as ‘rude.’
    My late father was a horror fan so anything ‘forbidden’ held more attraction obviously – largely due to the front cover.
    Any of the 1980s covers of Stephen King and James Herbert piqued my interest enough to read sneaky excerpts in secret. But out of context, these snippets weren’t nearly as interesting as the book’s covers.
    But it did do something for me – by 14 I was a fully fledged horror fan and now after 31 years and many books later, nothing has changed.

    I think my best memory regarding book covers was when kids in my primary school would bring in books and in certain secluded parts of the playground, you’d find a little group of boys who were deemed as unsporty (therefore unpopular) all gathered around a horror-themed book freaking themselves out looking at the pictures.
    I remember these books well and I spent a while tracking them down years later thanks to the net:
    The Unexplained , The Encylopaedia of Horror and The
    Hamlyn Book of Horror.
    Good old Hamlyn produced some great books back in the day which served my nightmares well with very memorable, scary photos to a 9 year old which always seemed at odds with the searingly hot lunchtime sun on a primary school yard.
    Nowadays kids would not be allowed to bring in anything like this and you wouldn’t be able to take it on the playground. But in the 80s there were no restrictions – I remember our death trap, loosely-gravelled playground itself was the cause of daily nasty accidents. And in the days before health and safety, not a first aid qualification in sight for the dinner ladies either!
    Btw Chris I have a brown copy of your forbidden book of mystery stories. Mine has a brown cover so I’m guessing it ran to a few editions over the years. Some little oddities within yes.
    Does anyone else remember kids bringing in ‘forbidden’ books into school?

  25. chazza says:

    Mine was the Barry Humphries edited book “Bizarre” – 1965 – a cornucopia of mildly erotic and the downright strange pointing in the direction of French decadence. The double paged “Playmate of the Month” was very popular with my school mates until the book was inevitably confiscated by a teacher and never returned. I heard from a sympathetic teacher it was very popular in their Common Room!

  26. Ian Luck says:

    The big ‘Teacher Baiting’ book at school, Jay, was Denis Gifford’s 1973 classic, the ‘Pictorial History Of Horror Movies’, which has some wonderful stills in it, including one from Hammer’s 1971 ‘Lust For A Vampire’, showing the star of the movie, Yutte Stensgaard wearing nothing but a blood soaked piece of muslin, and looking, for want of a better word (I’m old, cranky and completely unapolagetic about this), ‘Yummy’. Opening this book, or Alan Frank’s similar tome at this picture, would miraculously cause a teacher to appear, say a few sharp words, and the book to disappear. Amusingly, when, a few years ago, I ordered a replacement copy of this book, the copy I got was perfect, bar one thing – it would always fall open at the Yutte Stensgaard page. Who would have thought, eh?

  27. Ed DesCamp says:

    Probably A Naked Lunch in the 60s. We had a large family and everyone read to the younger ones as soon as we could. We were allowed to read anything in the house or the library, so nothing really forbidden until university.

  28. Porl says:

    Like Wayne, definitely James Herberts “The Rats” and then the Guy N Smith Crabs Series.

    Beyond Belief about the Moors Murders

    And copies of The Unexplained with the Spontaneous Human Combustion Dr Bentley leg photographs…..

  29. Lauren C says:

    When I was 10 or 11 I picked up my mother’s paperback copy of The Godfather that she had put down to check on something in the kitchen. I had just read that scene of Sonny and the bridesmaid going at it upstairs during Connie’s wedding and was trying to make sense of it when my mother’s hand suddenly removed the book from my clutches. I walked around for quite some time trying to parse what I read.

Comments are closed.