Not long ago I did an interview for The Gingernuts of Horror, a wonderful site for those of a horror persuasion with book reviews added almost daily. There is also a plethora of interviews with various horror authors (I provide them with a dip in quality here).
But this isn’t some self-aggrandising vanity post, imploring you to read things I have said (well, actually it is but seeing as you’re here you might as well keep on, eh?)
No, what intrigued me about doing this interview was another feature of the Gingernuts site called ‘The Books That Matter‘; a section of the website where authors and others wax lyrical about the books that ‘made’ them, the books that wedged themselves between the folds of the brain, carved out their own little nest and laid their young. It is the cry of these young that you never really stop hearing all your life, if the book mattered that much.
It was difficult for me to choose one, but I wrote about a book that was pivotal in my development as a reader as well as a writer (you can find it here). But, as is the case with these things, the moment after I had submitted the piece, the writhing young inside eggs laid long ago inside my brain began clamouring.
What about me? What about me?
And as the time went by their voices were joined by more and more and more…
Well, I thought, I can’t start spamming poor old Gingernuts of Horror with any more of my drivel, this is what I’ve got a blog for, right? So, with gratitude and a doff of the cap to Gingernuts of Horror, I am going to use this platform for a spot of self-indulgence (not that sort you filthy beast!) and talk about the books that shaped me, that awoke something in me, that inner spark that gave me this need to write, that made me who I am today.
I will do this on a month-by-month basis and attempt to work in some sort of chronological order but will skip early childhood (with massive props to Where the Wild Things Are and everything by Michael Rosen)
So this month’s post without further ado.
The Books That Shaped My Life #1
Nothing to be Afraid of… By Jan Mark
I was quite a solitary child. My problem was that I didn’t really like other children, they scared me. Other children were unpredictable, they broke stuff, made loud noises, needed your attention when all I really wanted to do was get on with my own thing.
To be fair, I haven’t changed much.
One of my favourite things to do as a child (and this is going to sound a little odd but bear with me) was to sit in my room, listening to audio books and playing board games (yes, me against me, the battle of the great mind…!).
My parents were early pirates of the audio industry and for my 8th or 9th birthday had borrowed a a load of audio books from the local library and copied them onto TDK cassettes. They also cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines to create their own tape-covers; that sort of budget innovation is something to be admired!
By that age, I was on my way to becoming fully-fledged horror fanatic. My bedroom was filled with skulls and various macabre ornaments I’d acquired from junk shops and jumble sales. ‘Nothing to Be Afraid Of’ was a worthy addition.
I swear to you, though, I have no idea where my father found a drawing of a child tucked up in bed with some sort of demon made from black smog peering out from the corner of the room, but that picture haunted me for years.
The thing is with Mark’s stories, the majority of them aren’t strictly ‘horror’, they are about perception, written with aplomb from a child’s perspective from the sometimes terrifying but very real adult world around them.
A good example of this is ‘The Choice is Yours’ a story about a schoolgirl going back and forth relaying increasingly complicated and hostile messages between two teachers. Whilst in no way a horror story as such, what is does capture, exquisitely, I may add, is that feeling of powerlessness and confusion that children feel when trapped by the stark and unrelenting rules of school.
Horror enough I’ll say.
Many of the others, however, are immersed in the sometimes baffling world of children themselves
‘How Anthony Made a Friend’ is a crookedly charming story about a strange little boy constructing a strange multi-limbed guy for Guy Fawkes night. Another, whose title escapes me is about a slightly sinister next-door neighbour and her batty little sister who charms warts using potions she makes in her garden shed.. again, not horror in the strictest, but these tales are all about perception, how as children we still have one foot in the imagined world and that there is still magic tingling in our toes.
The title story is a smart piece of perception-tinkering; following a journey though a park with a small, mollycoddled boy and his older cousin. The cousin mischievously distorts everything around them, to terrify the youngster; they are being tracked by a leopard they can only escape by walking on their heels, they must run down a path called ‘poison alley’ “because that poison will burn right through your hat, right into your brains psssst.” But ultimately the experience opens the child’s eyes to imagination. The last line is the boy’s remark to his distraught mother who has chastisted the cousin for telling him such horrible things.
“I want to go to the park!”
When Mark does full-on horror, that’s when things get dark. ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ is remembered by many for ‘Nule’ a genuinely terrifying and clever story where some children personify their new house’s newel post with a hat and coat, gradually allowing their imaginations to take over. The power of this story is what you don’t see, but what the children’s minds conjure up at night when they hear the stairs creak…
I must have listened to these stories hundreds and hundreds of times over because as I am writing this more than twenty years later, having never read or heard them since, I can still recall some of the lines.
Some of the tales may read a little dated nowadays but what Jan Mark has done with this book is what many other authors have tried and failed to do and that is tap right in to the very root of childhood itself.
Whilst writing this, I have ordered the book again to read to my own son when he is old enough (but hopefully less of a strange loner than I was!) but doing a bit of digging i have found something else remarkable about ‘Nothing to be Afraid of’.
According to a comment on a blog post about ‘Nule’ (I found it after a google search of the book to jog my memory), the book was conceived after a long telephone conversation between Jan mark and her brother where they both recalled incidents from their shared childhoods in Ashford, Kent. Apparently all the stories have some basis in reality…including ‘Nule’ – unfortunately the house in which it was et was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a ring road.
But this just goes to show sometimes clichés are correct and the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Submission call (of sorts)
I would like to invite any followers/readers to send me a guest post about the books that made them who they are or influenced them in some profound way. Horror doesn’t have to enter into it and you don’t have to try and find the most high-brow book on your shelf; just give me 1000 words or so about a book, any book that has helped make you who you are. I will post the on the blog with any images you would like.
Drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put ‘The Books That Shaped My Life’ in the subject line.