I told you guys I’d be back to this blog shortly, and here I am. Before I get into today’s post, I wanted to acknowledge the horrible news I heard earlier this morning: one of Nick Cave’s 15-year-old twin sons, Arthur, has died in a tragic accident, falling from a cliff in Brighton. As I’ve written before, Nick Cave is a musical and literary hero of mine, and I cannot begin to imagine what he and his family are going through right now. For what it’s worth, I extend my most heartfelt condolences.
And now on to less soul-crushing subjects. It is perhaps fitting that I chose today to focus on childhood books I loved and that helped to shape my writing identity. These ten books, among the hundreds I read growing up, have stuck with me for various reasons over the years, and I would recommend any of them unreservedly to older children and adults alike. To make the experience more authentic, I even tried to find the cover art I remembered for each book, though I failed in a couple of circumstances, because the 60s and 70s were a long time ago, folks. So, without further ado, here they are, in descending order:
10. The Face of Danger by Willo Davis Roberts (1972)
I have no idea why this little trade paperback made such a lifelong impression on me, but such are the quirks of the writer’s brain, I suppose. It’s not strictly a horror story, being more of a gothic thriller/mystery type of thing, and it’s not really for children either, I guess, but after discovering it in one of the towering piles of books in my grandfather’s old house, I read it over and over again in total and abject fascination. It tells the tale of a homely woman named Sharlee whose face is so drastically disfigured in a car accident that plastic surgeons are basically obliged to give her an entirely new face, one that is strikingly beautiful. I was transfixed by the idea of a lifelong plain Jane suddenly being thrust into the entirely unfamiliar milieu of the beautiful people (and all their fabulous gowns, not gonna lie), and the struggles that ensued. Sharlee is whisked away to a remote mansion by her new, wealthy suitor, where it comes to pass that there’s some pretty shady shit going on with the family she meets there, relating back to the woman whose visage hers was modeled after. I haven’t read this in years, but I remember it being pretty harrowing in a “dark romance novel” sort of way. Fun fact: While I was researching this blog post today, I discovered that Willo Davis Roberts also wrote one of my other beloved childhood books, the profoundly depressing child-abuse saga Don’t Hurt Laurie. I was kind of a morbid kid, you guys.
9. The Ghost of Opalina, or Nine Lives by Peggy Bacon (1967)
I must have checked this out of my elementary school’s library at least a dozen times. I adore ghost stories, and I adore cats, so a book that combined those things was of course going to be like a magnet to my wee, nugget self. It’s essentially a frame story about three children who move into a rambling old house and find a talking ghost kitty with glowing opal eyes in the attic. Opalina, as she’s called, tells them all about her nine lives and the people who had lived in the house over the decades. Even though I was never a huge fan of “historical” fiction growing up, I was absolutely spellbound with this one, and I remember the illustrations (done by the author) being charming as well.
8. The Ghost of Windy Hill by Clyde Robert Bulla (1968)
This little blue hardback was a frequent resident of my backpack and bedside table after I bought it from one of those wonderful book fairs Scholastic periodically held at my school. If I remember correctly, there didn’t actually end up being a ghost in the story (and please correct me if I’m remembering it wrong), but there was a fantastic creepiness about it just the same: The old drafty farmhouse, the mysterious woman in white with her rag bag, the tragic Bruno and his horrible father. I have a vivid memory of the mentions of the spring house (which I had never heard of before and found intriguing), and the placing of bells on the doorknobs to try to catch the “ghost.” Good stuff.
7. The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1972)
More feline frights! Jessica is a cat-hating pre-teen who finds a blind, hairless little kitty she grudgingly adopts and contemptuously names Worm. But apparently there’s more to Worm than meets the eye, because soon afterward, Jessica begins behaving strangely, as if the cat is possessing her and making her do terrible things. Is Worm a witch’s familiar? Is Jessica projecting her own unhappiness and destructiveness onto the defenseless animal? It’s a fascinating psychological study that never clearly states whether there’s anything supernatural going on. As an aside, I believe this was the first audio book I ever listened to (on a series of cassettes, because I am old).
6. The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (Three Investigators Classics) by Robert Arthur (1967)
I was a big fan of the Alfred Hitchcock-sponsored Three Investigators series. They struck me as much cooler than the Hardy Boys books, which always came across a little too goody-two-shoes for me (I was also way more into Trixie Belden than Nancy Drew, but that’s neither here nor there). I read most of the 43 books in the series at one stage or another; I think I felt an affinity with chubby smarty-pants Jupiter Jones, and I absolutely fucking loved the idea of the investigators’ headquarters being in a trailer that was hidden under a pile of scrap in a junkyard and accessed through a series of tunnels. My favorites in the series included The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, and The Mystery of the Silver Spider, but Fiery Eye was hands-down my jam. I’ve had a long fascination with gemstones anyway, particularly rubies, and I was also enchanted by the busts of historical personages that figured prominently in the mystery.
5. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1972)
Snyder’s second appearance on the list. I first heard about this book on that old PBS show with John Robbins. Does anyone else remember it? He had one called “The Book Bird” and one called “Cover to Cover”, and he would feature a book or two on each episode (I distinctly remember White Fang, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Sea Egg, The Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting, and Misty of Chincoteague being highlighted). Excerpts of the book would be read and he would illustrate them. I loved the crap out of that show, and though I found a few episodes of it on YouTube, the episode lists on the internet don’t mention The Headless Cupid (or Ellen Raskin’s Figgs and Phantoms, for that matter, which I also swear I saw on there), so now I’m thinking my entire childhood was a lie and I don’t know how to behave. At any rate, this book had everything that preteen me loved: weird teenage girls, possible witchcraft, a ghostly mystery in an old house. The main character of Amanda, with her pet crow, crazy braids, and silver forehead triangle, was one of the aspirational figures of my youth. I thought she was the coolest chick ever.
4. The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St. John (1972)
I loved this book so much as a kid, and for a long time afterward I only remembered the cover and the general story outline, but not the title. But thanks to the miracle of Google-Fu, I was able to track it down and revel in the magic once again. A little drowned girl, a spooky blue rose, a cement owl with marble eyes, and that vague sense of ambiguity about whether the ghost is real all added up to a chilling read. Easily one of my childhood favorites, and one that still holds up when read as an adult.
3. Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense by Various Authors (1973)
I wrote a post about another of these Hitchcock-edited anthologies, Stories That Scared Even Me, right here, but this one got just as many read-throughs, and I still own a worn hardback copy of it. There are only eleven stories, but all of them are great, and I have to give it props for introducing me to what is still one of my favorite short stories of all time, “The Triumph of Death” by H. Russell Wakefield (which I discussed a bit here). Other standouts include a second Wakefield story, “Mr. Ash’s Studio,” a rare Raymond Chandler tale called “The Bronze Door,” a creepy undertaker yarn called “The Pram” by A.W. Bennett, and a horrific model-train story by Alex Hamilton, “The Attic Express.”
2. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
I liked all of Ellen Raskin’s books, but this one was my favorite by a mile. It’s more mystery than horror, but I was so delighted by it that for years I’ve been contemplating doing a similar puzzle-style story (it’s actually in the planning stages at the moment, though I still have a lot of bugs to work out). The characters are hilarious, the writing sharp, the mystery intriguing. I actually re-read it just a few years back and I enjoyed it just as much. A classic. Why hasn’t there been a big-budget movie of this again?
1. The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (1973)
If you read this previous post, you shouldn’t be surprised that this came out on top, because it’s easily my favorite young adult book of any era, and I don’t see that changing at any point in the future (sorry, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman). Again, it hit all the right notes with me when I first read it: There was a creepy old house with secret passages and randomly changing stained-glass windows, witches and wizards, a hand of glory, necromancy, a scary countdown to doomsday, and those wonderful illustrations by Edward Gorey. Everything about this book was magical, and every time I reread it (which I do, quite often), I am transported back to that time in my childhood when all I ever dreamed about was ghosts and witches and hauntings and delicious creepiness that I wanted to utterly infuse my life forever (which it has, to a large extent, so I’ve got that going for me). I just can’t recommend this one enough; I wanted to live in its terrifying yet whimsical world, and if offered the chance to do so now, I would not hesitate to move right into that wacky mansion in New Zebedee and pile ice cream on my hat. Just talking about the book makes me want to dive back into it and forget about reality for a while, so I’m off to snatch up my purple-globe-topped cane, peer into my history-reenacting egg, and resurrect the corpses of some evil, long-dead wizards. If I don’t bring about the end of the world through these activities, I will return with more of my nostalgic and rambling posts very soon. So until next time, Goddess out.