Ginger Nuts of Horror
‘How much is this?’ I asked.
‘2p,’ said the vendor, a large woman with a kindly round face and a pink shiny doorknob of a chin.
‘A bargain. It’s all there, see. Not a piece missing.’
I studied the coins in my hand, warm and sweaty. I could almost smell them. I mumbled an excuse and walked away. I did not know if I wanted a jigsaw depicting the Solar System.
I loved those jumble sales. A weekly ritual. A Saturday afternoon treat, almost an adventure, sandwiched between the waxy gloom of the confessional (‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned … I have lied, I thought bad thoughts …’ ) and Kendo Nagasaki versus Mick McManus on television. Or at least that’s how it feels now, as I peer into the shadows and corners of a suburban childhood that seemed as long and never-ending as the road from Forest Gate to Romford. But at least there was plenty to see on the Romford Road, especially from the top deck of the number 86. I never saw anything exciting from my bedroom window.
There were so many jumble sales back then, perhaps a dozen or so every weekend. They were listed in the local paper: I scanned the columns for events that sounded promising or venues I’d not visited before. Jumble sales seem to be a thing of the past, superseded, I suppose, by the entrepreneurial scrum of the car boot sale. (I have nothing against car boot sales. I went to one last week, perusing tables heaped with domestic detritus: viperish wires and cables, chipped crockery, naked dolls, phone chargers, hair tongs, souvenir postcards, elaborate steak knives and winded teddy bears. All of which looked like props from a horror film.)
Part of the pleasure of going to a jumble sale was visiting an unfamiliar street. There was a sense of anticipation as I walked past houses and churches I knew so well: the newsagent with a collage of scrawled postcards in the window; the clothes shop displaying its patterned cardigans and pleated skirts behind a sheet of amber film; an enemy school; and an unkempt, dreary house bearded with shadow, its garden overgrown, the weeds as tall as myself, perhaps the house of a murderer or madman, someone who would bring gory glamour to the neighbourhood. In my young mind (which did not think it would ever grow old or slow or sad), the suburbs seemed to stretch forever in every direction, an endless Sunday of terraced houses and parks smelling of mud and faeces; and yet I knew there was variation to be found in every step, on every corner. I never tired of walking those streets, for new thoughts and dreams bubbled up everywhere. Walking was a mode of thinking. And writing is a kind of walking.
I dreamed of unlikely discoveries at those jumble sales, unbelievable bargains: a 10p Atari console, the first issue of Roy of the Rovers, a signed Cup Final programme, a fossil or postage stamp worth a million pounds.
I look back at all this with what feels like fondness, or hope, as if trying to find a friend among the memories, a familiar face, and then I realise I am alone, still alive, still waiting, still writing.
Those venues. The draughty church halls, the rickety scout huts, the outhouses and annexes, forlorn community rooms of indeterminate use, often with grim gymnastic equipment – ropes, vaulting horses, stained and threadbare springboards - clustered at one end. The halls felt like places where bad things were supposed to happen, places of ghosts and weak tea.
You paid your money and entered. I could tell, almost immediately, whether a sale was good or bad, a carnival of bargains or a pile of tat. The smell of old clothes, a warm, knitted smell, as if the clothes were still alive and might rise off the tables, an army of unwanted shirts and jumpers looking for new owners – vampiric tank tops, parasitic slacks. Coffee and tea and sugary yellow cake. Floor polish, disinfectant, damp, sweat. A noticeboard, a curling poster, sometimes a portrait of the Queen, faded behind glass. I headed straight for the tables laden with comics, books, toys and games, the important stuff, while my mother negotiated tussocks of clothes.
How I remember those comics: Roy of the Rovers, Whizzer and Chips. Topper. Krazy. Shiver and Shake. I searched for annuals too. I built up quite a library.
It was at one of those jumble sales that I bought an evil book. Ghost Special Number 2. A sordid, frightening tome. I forget how much I paid for this Mephistophelian text. A collection of cartoons, puzzles, quizzes, true stories, photographs, film reviews. None of it was very scary. The cartoons were entirely whimsical, with ghosts that looked like deflated speech balloons. There was an article on a haughty ghost called something like the Grey Lady, which I found dull and unthreatening, and a piece on a headless horseman, another mediocre specimen, and rather ridiculous, too. (I wasn’t likely to see a headless horsemen clip-clopping down Ilford High Road, and if I did, I’d probably welcome him as an entertaining and wholesome alternative to the little bearded ranter with his Bibles and apocalyptic predictions.)
But there was a malevolent force at the heart of this book. A factual article on Borley Rectory, the ‘Spookiest House in England’. I had never heard of the place. It was in Essex, my county, and this only increased my fear and fascination. The photographs showed a melancholy, rambling red brick mansion, a classic haunted house. I remember blotchy photographs of supposed ghosts, as formless as smears or stains – shadows from hell or some other grim place. The longer I stared at the them the more I found, the deeper I went. A sorrowful face, a bleak frown. The murky, indeterminate nature of these photographs only served to increase my fear. I saw demons and death in the shallows and hollows of each black and white image. I read about objects thrown by unseen hands – violent upheavals and scrapings, things being smashed in the dark. I read about threats and messages appearing on the walls. There were mournful nuns glimpsed on landings. Black figures hovering on the stairs. It was old house full of ornate, sulking terror, a kind of angry melancholy. In every alcove or vestibule, in every airless corridor, on every squeaking stair, behind every door, there lurked some cruel, satanic entity. The old house was suffused with a sense of threat, danger, imminent madness. All this seeped from the pages. I was appalled. I was terrified. I was drunk with fear. But I could not stop reading. I soaked up the details, filled my head with the sickness. I needed this knowledge. I needed to know more about this minatory world peopled with unhappy, hostile souls, a world which seemed to exist alongside or inside the world of buses and school and homework. This other realm might roll like a wave through the night and claim me.
These things terrified adults as much as children. I sucked in this secret knowledge, the black truth. I savoured the ghosts and violence, the sadness, the malevolence. But there was another feeling accompanying my terror. Shame. Guilt. I felt soiled by what I read. Sullied. I had done wrong in bringing this knowledge into my house, into my very bedroom. What if the book was somehow cursed? What if the evil of Borley Rectory leaked out and filled the family home? This was a very real fear. That night I could not sleep. I thought of Borley Rectory. I thought of death. I lay in the dark, attuned to the slightest movement, fearing the jigsaws and games on top of the cupboard would be thrown across the room, that the heavy wardrobe at the end of the bed would fall and crush me, that the crucifix on the wall would come flying at me. I would see ghosts and hear screams. Cold hands would grip my neck and squeeze. The house would burn down.
In the morning, I decided to put the book away. I hid it in the cupboard, under a pile of football magazines. Out of sight, out of mind. But later, when I went to bed, Borley Rectory came back to me. Another long night of sweat and guilt. The fear, the panic. It burned into me, this squalid knowledge.
I could not get rid of it.
So the next day I got rid of the book.
I did more than get rid of the book, I destroyed it. I ripped the pages into tiny pieces, a laborious but necessary process. The covers were more difficult to wreck. In the back garden I set fire to the remains. I doused the ashes in bleach. I then deposited what was left, a blackened mush, in the bin. I wasn’t going to have Borley Rectory and all its types of foulness in the house ever again. What was left of the damned book would rot on a landfill site in some obscure part of the borough.
I promised my gods that I would never dabble in the black arts again.
That night I went to bed and waited for the terror to arrive.
But it did not arrive. The exorcism, with flame and bleach, had worked. I was free. I was cured.
The memory of that book has stayed with me. Ghost Special Number 2 was, I think, my first encounter with the horror genre. But I have not sought it out in bookshops. I have a fondness for those two nights of terror and shame. Perhaps I have falsified them. Perhaps the passage of time has warped my recollection.
The internet is a kind of jumble sale. Every perversion and idiocy, every footling thought and dark lust is there for us to enjoy. I log on. I search for Ghost Special Number 2. And there it is, the article on Borley Rectory. Someone has scanned the pages.
I read the text. It is a rather bald catalogue of supernatural happenings. I can see how I was terrified. The prose is bland, matter-of-fact. And there’s the photographs. The only one that really strikes at my heart shows a pile of Borley rubble, mostly red brick. I remember studying this photograph. I do not know what I was looking for.
I come away from the computer. That Madeline wasn’t very tasty.
I did not watch horror films as a child, although I knew of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves, zombies, and all the other characters who lurked in graveyards and nightmares. I remember reading Peter Haining’s short story anthology, The Ghost’s Companion. I still have the book. It has a marvellous cover featuring a skull and a black cat and other symbols of the macabre. How old was I when I read book? I’m not sure. The Red Lodge by HR Wakefield petrified me. Some of the other stories left me bored or baffled. But The Red Lodge, like Borley Rectory, oozed an atmosphere of foul intent, of almost unbearable dread. A kind of soft terror, inescapable and insinuating, a mist of fear. For some reason, however, Wakefield’s story, although frightening, did not induce in me the kind of nausea inspired by the spookiest house in England. I did not have to get out the bleach.
At school, there were rumours of Ouija boards and of terrible happenings at the local mental hospital. A little older, I found some copies of Fangoria at a jumble sale. Now this was potent stuff, full of gouged eyeballs and sloppy innards, fangs and talons, busty women in blood-splattered gowns. I had to hide these magazines from my parents. Fangoria, despite its gore, did not scare me. The pictures were too explicit, too clear, too literal: they did not thrill or provoke my imagination. I simply grew bored of the slippery magazines and threw them away.
As an adult I began to watch horror films. I enjoyed them. Some more than others. But they’ve never engendered in me the fear I felt on reading about Borley Rectory in Ghost Special Number 2. Of course, adulthood brings new terrors. The evening news is a dark pageant of corruption, torture, murder, lies, corporate violence and sexual depravity. Children are murdered. Old people are abused and forced to pay for the privilege. Workers are cheated out of their pensions. The real horror is all around us. We vote for fools and liars who keep us in chains. The world is cesspit, a vast factory of enslavement and starvation. We are all guilty. The ghosts of Borley Rectory are quaint in comparison.
Do I exaggerate?
True horror lies, I think, in the crevices of the mind, in the ordinary, in the chat and shadows of everyday life, the weird and the eerie. My story ‘A Short History of Tedium’ in Dan Coxon’s anthology Shadow Booth is set mostly in an office. The jargon, the meetings, the other people. Life in an office is ritualistic, a kind of dull ceremony. Each day is the same as the last. Here I am at the photocopier, printing off slices of my soul. This is not really horror, it is not even particularly terrible. I think of that wonderful line in A Matter of Life and Death: ‘Some people would think it heaven to be a clerk’.
I don’t know where horror begins. Or where it ends. Perhaps it begins in the dark, in the black depths of night. But I find solace in sleep, in that temporary death with its outlandish dreams: the night is to welcomed, despite whatever lurks under the bed, for when we open our eyes we cannot escape the light and all its information.
Born in London, Stephen Hargadon now lives and works in the north of England.
His short stories have been published in a number of places, including Black Static, Structo and Popshot magazines, the Irish Post, and on the LossLit website. His non-fiction has appeared on Litro.co.uk (including a well-received article on the joys of secondhand bookshops).
He has recently finished a novel.
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