As a child I had an abiding love for books of collected ghost stories and hauntings. At least once a week I would spend a lunch-hour in the school library visiting my favourite supernatural tomes, immersing myself in the images and details, rereading my favourite bits and forlornly wishing that I lived somewhere haunted. I particularly loved the book shown above and would withdraw it whenever I could (this was greatly dependent on whether or not the librarian had enforced a ‘stand-down’ period for my pathological late-returning of said book). I loved the photos of ‘actual’ ghosts and the matter-of-fact way it referred to ‘the most haunted regions’, as though there was absolutely no doubt that all of it was real – indeed, for me as a 6 year old, it was real.
In the weekends I would withdraw books of collected ghosts stories from the central city library and read them late into the night, hoping to find some truly frightening account of real-seeming phantasms and poltergeists. My preference was for British heritage ghost stories as they usually offered the most genuine terror – as opposed to just gore – and had the advantage of archaic-sounding language which helped to add an authenticity to the subject matter, in turn helping to heighten the suspense. Perhaps my only regret is that I didn’t discover Edgar Allan Poe until my teens – oh, how his stories would’ve frightened me as a child!
Returning to Poe now as an adult I’m amazed at how timeless his stories remain. ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ – all classics that still penetrate the spirit and unsteady the heart. There is a parallel for me between these and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle – both transcend time and age and continue to shape the landscape of literature and its surrounds. So much that wasn’t possible before was possible after these achievements. It is of interest to note that Poe’s pioneering stories of the first ‘arm-chair sleuth’ Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, were what made Doyle’s Holmes character possible.
The story of Poe’s that is, for me, the greatest and still the most disturbing of all is ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. After first reading it, I was completely overwhelmed and temporarily unable to breath or use cognition – a rare occurrence as a reader and not lightly forgotten. To this day, all I need do to experience the feeling again is to recall the image of the allegorical Red Death’s slow march through the rooms of the masquerade and the reaction of the guests when they discover and understand the meaning of his ‘true face’.
As the final line so ominously puts, ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all’
A true classic.