Ginger Nuts of Horror
My first instinct when approaching this article was to discuss Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, a book I’ve written, rhapsodised and generally banged on about at some length before, but if we’re talking ‘the book that made me’ as opposed to ‘my favourite book’, then to do so wouldn’t really be right. ‘Salem’s Lot is still my favourite book in any genre, but it’s not the book that made me (although it is, perhaps, the book that taught me most about how to write a novel). My next thought was that I should write about Carrie, the first King book I read (indeed, the first horror novel I read, hiding from the family in my grandparents’ top room as the rest of the Unsworth mob bickered over the remains of a roast dinner), enjoyed across several long Sunday afternoons when I was maybe seven, or perhaps MR James’ collected ghost stories, given to be by my granddad when he saw my burgeoning interest in supernatural fiction, but neither of these is right either.
No, the book that made me is Usborne’s 1977 Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs (set out exactly like that on the cover, with no punctuation). I’m not sure when I got given the book, or who gave it me, but I think it was a gift from my parents probably for my birthday or Christmas in 1978, when I was 6, and I loved it immediately. The front cover, with a fire breathing dragon looming out of a background of flames with a be-shrouded spectre and three flying saucers framing it, is still one of the most eye-catching I have ever seen, and if the cover was good then my God! the contents were even better. It was, for me, precisely the right thing at precisely the right time, a collection of well-written, brilliantly and brightly illustrated mysteries and myths and facts, tossed into the tinderbox of a head whose imagination needed a simple spark to explode. The masterstroke of Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs (still there’s no punctuation) was that it used a mix of fact and legend, collecting together genuine history or information about, say, monster movies and setting this alongside the more arcane and ephemeral content and treating it all as being of equal value. Suddenly, my world expanded; no longer was it confined to 16 Reynard Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy (where the “This book belongs to” plate informs me I was living when I was given the book, my details completed in green ink in the looping scrawl I recognize from my youth and that I’ve never really lost) and the various other haunts of my childhood (school, my grandparent’s house, the swimming baths); no, suddenly my world was massive, and full of the most exciting, wondrous things, and they were real.
Here were giant squid, the mysteries of the Bertie and the Monongahela, instructions on befriending the ghost of a bear and how to drive a ghost from a locale using a whip and a loud voice, Gef the Mongoose, Black Shuck, the Kelley-Hopkinsville Goblin, Project Blue Book, corpse lights, spirit photographs, the frankly fucking terrifying photograph of a cowled monk and a host of other bewitching, stimulating stories. I mean, how could I not be lost to it?
I read and reread Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs in the years after I was given it, wondering amongst a myriad other things if I’d ever see a ghost or be able to investigate a haunted house, whether I’d ever have a need to fill in one of the detailed UFO Report forms (as helpfully set out on P. 84), whether I’d ever see a yeti in the wild (the answer to all these questions remains, at this point, a disappointed ‘No’, for the record). Each time I opened it I found something new, some tidbit I’d missed, and even as family and friends gave me more books with similar subject matters (Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and Strange Powers books, and the series that preceded them, were particular favourites), it was always Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs that remained closest to my heart and formed the basis on which the tower of my worldview was built. Looking at it now, the single smartest thing that Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs did was to not simply accept the mysteries it detailed and the things they suggested as real; rather, it showed how things could be faked, how mistakes could be made and interpretations be flawed. Like Fox Mulder, to this day I want to believe but, like Charles Fort, I need to be convinced by evidence, and I put this down to Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs’s level-headed approach to viewing not just this world but any world, an approach that I’ve tended to take ever since I first read the book.
As a horror writer, Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs has given me a huge funfair of ideas and imagery to play within. There are things mentioned in the book that I’m still determined to write about, or somehow incorporate into a story, ghosts that gibber, that have no legs, that eat a person’s soul through their shadow, monsters that could be soothed only by dance and burning feathers, kraken with slippery tentacles. I ask again – how could I not be lost to it? This stuff is gold, source material with all the fluff and crap removed. As I got older, and started to want more detailed information about the subjects I found interesting, I began to drift away from Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs, but I never completely forgot it. I lost my copy somewhen and somewhere, and although I never actively missed it, I remembered it with genuine affection, especially at those times when I was reading an article or watching documentaries about subjects I’d first come across between its board covers. That might be a great documentary about giant squid, I’d think, but it’s still not got quite the grab of that picture in the book I had, of the squid under the whalers in the boat rising up to attack them as they (presumably) rowed hell for leather towards safety. Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs, having weaved its spell, although not forgotten, was (I assumed) gone from my life
It didn’t turn out that way. In a sort-out several years ago, I found my old copy of Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs in my parents’ loft, and reread it in the back garden whilst drinking a beer, and you know what? It’s as great today as it was when I was 6. This is how children’s books should be, stuffed full of interest and fact and ideas, making the subjects they cover accessible but never dumbed down, opening up worlds and lacunae within worlds, making the space about us vast and exciting and, above all, so much more than the things we see when we look out of our windows. It’s beside me now as I write this, and after it’ll be put with my other reference books in my mancave, taller than some, thinner than others, less detailed than some but better than almost all of them. One day, I hope my son will read it; until then, I’m keeping it safe and keeping it close.
Ultimately, what Usborne’s Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs book did was to give me a map of places I wanted to visit, some actual (Pluckley, for example, with its 12 ghosts, including a screaming man, a black miller and a hanging schoolmaster to name but three), some imaginary or historical, accessible only through stories. In the years since I first read it, I have managed to get to some of these places but others still lie ahead of me, and I’m as excited by them now as I ever was. For this alone I will always love Mysteries of the Unknown Monsters Ghosts & UFOs.
It’s the book that made me.
Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 and is beginning to despair of ever finding proof that the world was awash with mysterious signs and portents that night. He lives in an old farmhouse miles from anywhere in the Lake District with his fiancée Rosie and assorted children and dogs, where his neighbours are mostly sheep and his office is an old cheese store in which he writes horror fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). He is irritatingly tall but after years of frowning is no longer grouchy, owns a wide selection of garish shirts, several pairs of cowboy boots, six bolo ties and a magnificent leather waistcoat. His beard is growing truly wild and he spends most of his life in need of a haircut. His collection, Strange Gateways, is due out from PS Publishing in 2014, following 2011’s critically acclaimed Quiet Houses (from Dark Continents Publishing) and 2010’s Lost Places (from Ash Tree Press), which was Pete Tennant from Black Static magazine’s joint favourite collection of the year (along with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough). His stories have been published in a large number of anthologies including the World Fantasy Award-winning Exotic Gothic 4, the Gray Friar Press’s Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of the Seaside and Where the Heart Is, the Ash Tree Press’s At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness and Exotic Gothic 3, Stephen Jones’ Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead and Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings and Lovecraft Unbound and Salt Publishing’s Year’s Best Fantasy 2013. He has been in five of Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and will make his sixth appearance in the series later this year, and he was also in The Very Best of Best New Horror. He has a further collection due, the as-yet-unnamed collection that will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint. His novel The Devil’s Detective is due out from DoubleDay in the US and Del Ray in the UK in early 2015.
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