Ginger Nuts of Horror
I’m 11 years old when I first step into the Marsten House.
But this is the day before that and, on my way home from school, I’ve stepped into Liverpool’s Wavertree Library. I’m bringing back... I don’t remember, but probably a Doctor Who book and an Armada or Fontana Book of Ghost Stories, something edited by Mary Danby or Christine Bernard or Robert Aickman, with stories by Algernon Blackwood or William Hope Hodgson or Walter de la Mare.
I hand my books into the librarian. Time has made her matronly in my memory but, in all honesty, I can’t really remember what she looks like. She takes the books and gives me back my library tickets...
My library tickets are more like small cardboard pockets, about three inches square. When you take a book out, they slot the simple, oblong ticket from the book into your pocket ticket, and then they put your pocket ticket into a wooden tray with lots of other pocket tickets. My tickets are green. Because they’re junior tickets. The label gummed to the frontispiece of children’s books, the label the matronly-or-not librarian stamps with the return date, is also green, and the cardboard ticket inside the book, the one they slot into my pocket ticket, is green, too. Green means junior. Green means children’s books. Green does not mean ‘go’. Green means wait. Wait until you’re old enough, mature enough to read grown-up books. The grown-up books have a white gummed-in label. The simple cardboard ticket inside the book is beige. The adult pocket ticket is the same size as mine but it is also beige. Beige, universally held to be the dullest of all colours, surpassing even grey in its wishy-washy lack of lustre, is the colour of adulthood.
Books handed-in, pocket tickets in blazer pocket, I make my way over to the children’s section; more specifically, to the Science Fiction section. The Science Fiction section is only small, just a couple of shelves, stuck in a corner, away from all the respectable books. The librarians, or their Overlords, appear to have decided that any work of fiction containing an element of the unreal is a work of science fiction. So, the likes of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Alan Garner are here, keeping Terrence Dicks and Terry Nation company. Various Armada and Fontana books of ghost stories are here, too, on the same shelf, but off to the right, separated by a gap big enough to fit a couple of copies of The Lord of the Rings. I gravitate to these shunned volumes, keen to see if there is anything there I haven’t read yet, but my attention is immediately seized by a thick hardback book. On the spine, it says, in red type with a blue drop-shadow, ‘SALEM’S LOT. Underneath that in orange type, Stephen King.
I slide the book out. The title and author are repeated on the cover, along with By the author of CARRIE. In the counter of the ‘O’ of LOT, there is a terrified boy’s face, cracked in two, like a broken plate. I flip to the back. The same boy is trapped inside a snow globe containing a small town that looks like something out of The Waltons. And I think: Weird, a book about a kid who gets stuck in a snow globe. I open the book and read the inside flap of the dust jacket.
It isn’t about a kid who gets stuck in a snow globe, at all. It’s about a writer returning to his childhood hometown. It talks about the disappearance of a child, a dead dog and the arrival of a sinister stranger. It talks about surprise, bewilderment then terror taking over the town. I want to read it. I have to read it. I close it and turn in the direction of the front desk. And stop. And open the book. And look at the frontispiece, with its gummed-in white label. White label. This is a grown-up book. I’m not allowed to read it. I’m not beige enough, yet.
I turn back to the shelf, to return the book to its recently vacated slot. But, again, I stop. Because the book doesn’t belong there. This is the children’s section and ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King is a grown-up book.
But why is it here? Why is a book I’m not allowed to read here, right in front of me with all the Doctor Whos and Mary Danbys? And because I’m 11 years old and still believe in some vague paranormal force at work in the world, I think: It’s here because I am meant to read it. I am destined to read it.
So, I take it to the front desk.
My hands are shaking as I place ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King along with my pocket ticket in front of the matronly librarian. And she’s very definitely matronly at this point in my memory. Matronly and fierce and child-hating and very possibly a cannibal or a witch or an alien body-snatcher. She will detect my transgression immediately, and then she will eat, curse or cocoon me. Maybe all three. She opens the book. The white gummed-in label, white, glares up at her, like a torch under the chin, making a Halloween mask of her face. Her eyes meet mine. The eyes bulge. The Innsmouth look. I wonder if it’s a criminal offence for a child to attempt to take out a grown-up library book. Bulging eyes look back down at the burning white window of the grown-up gummed-in ticket. She picks up the stamp and pushes it into the ink pad, forcing tiny green bubbles to the surface.
For a moment, I am convinced she is going to stamp my forehead with a date 30 days hence. This will be the date of my trial for crimes against Liverpool City Libraries. It will be a speedy trial, as the evidence is very much stacked against me. The punishment: death by a thousand paper cuts.
And then she stamps the book, takes the beige-is-for-adulthood ticket and slots it into my green-is-for-wait pocket ticket. She does not notice the incongruity of beige-on-green. She slides the book across the counter. I shove it into my school bag, quickly, in case she realises her error. And then I’m out in the street, and nothing is ever the same.
And sometimes I wonder if the matronly-or-not librarian made a mistake, at all. Maybe she gave me ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King at the entirely inappropriate age of 11 on purpose. And sometimes, I remember, or imagine, that she winked at me with one of those Innsmouth-looking eyes of hers.