When I was nine, I swapped some Airfix paratroopers for the book Haunted Houses with Mark Lester. Mark was a tough negotiator, but this was one of few deals where I feel I came out ahead. Nine bits of green plastic for 64 pages that I read and re-read a dozen times was good value.
At the time I had no idea that some of captivating the illustrations were created by cult artist Oliver Frey, nor the text was written Essex folklore stalwart Eric Maple. The book existed completely in its own right. It was a portal into landscape where my home county was home to ‘the most haunted house in the world’ and the lanes around Braintree were plagued by phantom cyclists.
Besides being growth hormone for my imagination, it fixed in me healthy scepticism. Journalists invented ghosts for Wapping docks. The spectral White Lady of Hadleigh Castle was no more than a smugglers’ scare story. If I only had enough money for a camera and film, I could fake my own photographs of phantoms.
More than anything, it is the book whose inadequacies pushed me to forever abandon the children’s corner of the library. Intriguing stories and evocative, pulp pictures just did not cut it anymore. I wanted dates, names. I wanted enough so I could do my own research. How was I ever going to investigate the ghost lights of Silver Cliff or hunt for the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui with such shoddy information?
Now it is time for me to pass the book onto someone new. All I can hope is that the demonic mirror image of Napoleon’s Red Man and tales of the Ankou and his cartload of souls push some other child into looking at the evidence. All I want for the book as it leaves my home is all I ever want for my own non-fiction books – that what is written will inspire readers to go beyond what is on the page. The beautiful power of words is not just of themselves, but what they can become in action and thought of their readers long after they are dead to the author’s own memory of them.