Books fell into my hands from many places, when I was younger. There was a car boot sale at the football club, with rows of unwanted novels for five pence each. The local library, which seemed to be in no order at all to me, offered long shelves of unknown names on heavy hardbacks. My uncle knew a woman who wanted to get rid of an old bookcase, filled with dusty, warped spines, faded to the point where I couldn’t read the covers. I think those were the books I liked best, back then; I didn’t know what I was reading until I’d starting turning the pages.
The first surprise of finding darkness in those stories was an important one, for me. At first I didn’t know if I liked it – this sudden sense of everything not quite being right with the world, and the realisation that not all tales have happy endings, or even want to promise one to readers. It was like hearing a door, half-hidden in the shadows, creaking open, just a little. I was afraid, but I wanted it to open further. I wanted to know what was on the other side.
From Sax Rohmer to Stephen King, I began to hunt for that darkness.
Roald Dahl’s stories were, perhaps, my earliest introduction to that feeling. His books, even the ones deemed suitable for children, had moments that were frightening: people got hurt, and there was a delight taken in it that troubled me. Then I came across a tattered copy of Kiss Kiss (where did it come from? I can’t remember, but it found me at just the right, or wrong, age) and can remember reading the short story William and Mary, in which a domineering husband decides to live on after death, agreeing to a grotesque experiment, assuming that his beloved Mary will look after him from then on. Mary is a quiet character, and the realisation that she hasn’t entirely enjoyed being married to William hits both the reader and the husband at the same time. It’s brilliantly done, and it’s also the kind of ice-cold moment that won’t leave you alone once you’ve read it. What if other people are harbouring a hatred of you that you just don’t see? What if you are harbouring that kind of hatred too?
Just as I was starting to get my head around the concept of hate, I grew up just enough to find an interest in love too, and that really complicated matters. I had never heard of Daphne Du Maurier when a jumble sale turned up a box of books that included Rebecca; it had the most wonderful unrevealing cover that I loved all the more once I’d read the book. It still has pride of place on my bookshelf. The word ‘Rebecca’ stands alone, embossed in gold on the red leather hardback, with the first line of the ‘R’ slanting heavily, just as Du Maurier described that character’s signature. I started reading a summery romantic novel and ended up embroiled in abortion, suicide, and murder. I loved not knowing where it was taking me – the innocence of that nameless narrator was entirely matched by my own on that first reading.
Rebecca gave me a taste for Gothic literature that I never quite sated, and I read a lot of books after that which were, to be honest, a bit of a disappointment in terms of taking me to darkest territory. I wonder now if that’s down to the covers. The more the cover screamed its intentions, the more I found the novel did not live up to its black promise. (With a notable exception being James Herbert, who always managed to go to places even more disturbing than what I could predict.) Worst of all were those modern covers for Bram Stoker’s Dracula that gave me a brooding man to look at. I wanted no literal representation of the vampire; perhaps I would have liked it more if I’d come across it in one of its early editions, with nothing but the name to inspire my imagination.
To this day, I struggle with covers that give too much away, or bear the image of a character upon them. Genre-based marketing often give us horror fans a lot of black to look at, and I’ve learned that often those books aren’t for me. My taste in horror has never been about a book living up to the fearful expectations implanted by the front image, or the name, but about finding the darkness in surprising places. I think that’s why I love the novels of Graham Greene so much. They’re about inner demons, wrestling with conscience, trying to find the light, and the covers are often boring. I read The Heart of the Matter when I was a teenager (my version had a bland orange diamond pattern upon it) and was gripped by the moral dilemmas within. Can anybody be a good person, or is it beyond us all? A different kind of darkness lurked there, a subtle one, that began to appeal to me. Once you begin to look for them, horrors are everywhere.
I still hope for surprises in the books I read – a surprise like the Eden Book Society. I came across one of the novellas they published decades ago, in a box filled with Readers’ Digests, bought by my mother to feed my reading habit. It was from 1924, called Through the Belly of Baal, and it was written by one Anna Fellowes. I loved this disturbing adventure through a network of caves under the Houses of Parliament. I never came across another soul who had heard of it, or of the Society, for many years.
Now I know that Anna Fellowes was a pseudonym for – who? A well known writer who was contacted by the Society and asked to write horror on the very edge of sanity, I’d imagine. The Eden Book Society mailed out the stories it commissioned to a select group of subscribers; such behaviour is the stuff of which dark legends are made. It was always going to appeal to me. I’ve collected other products of the Eden Book Society over the years, finding them in all the places that familiarly hold darkness for me: second hand bookshops; car boot sales; old, creaking shelves. I don’t know what to expect about these reprints by Dead Ink Books. And that’s the best thing about it.
Further information about the Eden Book Society.
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