Growing up, my siblings and I were allowed to watch: cartoons, H.R. Pufnstuf, Batman, and Little House on the Prairie. I was prone to nightmares, so this was probably a good thing. When it came to books, on the other hand, if the library had it, we could read it.
I have my copies of most of these and reluctantly revisited them for Halloween.
1. A Candle in her Room by Ruth M. Arthur
I loved books about evil dolls, but this was beyond the pale. Three generations of English girls face the their ancient family’s twisted past, centering around a horrible doll who seems to exert a supernatural control. 12 year old Melissa and her sisters Judith and Briony, leave their shabby London home to live in a big old mansion in Pembrokeshire. The mansion was left to the family by an old dead aunt, naturally.
“I suppose if we had not come to live in Pembrokeshire, Judith, Briony and I, this story could never have been written, for in another set of circumstances our lives might have run very differently. There would have been no Dido.”
Dido. The name nauseates me. Dido is not a doll who silky ringlets and petticoats, but a primitive, slim doll made of very hard wood, ageless, polished and smooth “like a chestnut.“ On the perfect smooth wood of her spine, was gouged DIDO”.
Little Briony finds Dido in a trunk in the attic and becomes obsessed with her. Melissa finds Dido’s expression to be frightening, “a curious mixture of wise, sly, enigmatic”, and when she touches her, “a strong revulsion” sweeps over her.
DIDO unleashes her wrath on the family until Nina overcomes her horrible spell. In true mythological fashion, she burns Dido in a fire. This was a precursor to Gothic novels for me – a big old house plagued by family secrets, in a romantic and craggy setting, sea and waves and salt and ghostly hauntings…you know, the whole Gothic package. Primitive, wooden dolls still repulse me and when I think of DIDO I still feel like vomiting.
The ghosts of murdered slaves haunt an old house. ‘Nuff said. Thomas and his family move into a huge and isolated house in rural Ohio, house which was once an Underground Railroad station (so naturally it is lousy with hidden rooms and secret passageways. And ghosts). Thomas describes the house as “bitter and frozen, separated from the rest of the land by something unkind”, with “watching windows”. The family discovers that 100 years ago, the owner of the house, an abolitionist named Dies Drear who sheltered runaway slaves, was murdered by bounty hunters. Two slaves who were hiding in the house at the time were also murdered. Sigh.
3. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward ~ Marjorie Flack
A gorgeous and lyrical book about a brave little country bunny with a cotton-ball tail who dreams of being the new Easter Bunny. It’s a feminist tale of a girl bunny vying against bigger, man bunnies for the coveted job. I was obsessed with the pictures of the golden halls, candy-colored eggs pouring from vestibules, and of the very special sugar egg, in which lies a magical scene.
BUT. There were intentionally horrifying pictures, too. Ones that I could barely look at. One was our little country bunny being scoffed at and ridiculed by the big, teenaged male Jack Rabbits – muscled and jackal-like in synched-waist trousers. These jack rabbits awakened in me a long-standing fear of bad teenagers.
Then there was the good and kindly grandfather rabbit, who was also terrifying, a giant, slant-eyed man. Stooping in a full gray suit and tails, he looked positively malevolent.
When he sneaks up behind little bunny in the dark woods, to offer up the magical golden shoes, he may as well be hiding a chainsaw behind his back, ready to slaughter her with it.
Just a feel-good story of an all-American Boy named Jimmy who blows out his eyes in a firecracker accident. This was the second in a series of blindness traumas – the first being Mary Ingalls – and the one that sealed the deal for my lifelong, mortal fear of going blind.
“The world exploded in a white flash. Deafening thunder smashed against his ears. Then the light was gone, and the sound was gone. Everything became very dark, very quiet.”
When the doctor removes the bandages from Jimmy’s eyes, his world remains dark. ”Go, on, doctor, take the rest of them off!” chirps Jimmy. The hospital room goes hideously silent. The doctor says quietly:
“They ARE off, Jimmy”.
35 years later, I’m still right there in the office of the housekeeping cottages in the Poconos, averting my eyes from this book on the one-shelf lending library. I want to throw up when I think about it. I manage to leave the house without welding goggles, but, God, this book messed me up.
Little Bonnie is rich as Croesus, has loads of toys, black ringlets and petticoats, lives in a mansion called Willoughby Chase, and has parents who adore her. She has an equally adorable, poor cousin named Sylvia, who comes to live with her. BUT, when Bonnie’s parents leave Willoughby Chase for a sea voyage, Bonnie and Sylvia are left in the care of a cruel governess named Miss Slighcarp who locks them in the attic abuses them, dismisses their beloved servants, and sells off the furniture and toys. Miss Slighcarp sends Bonnie and Sylvia to a prison-like orphan school, with endless hours of drudgery and horror. That’s not the SCARY part, though. The entire Willoughby Chase landscape is literally crawling with WOLVES. Salivating, wicked wolves, packs of them, around every turn. Packs of wolves made savage and reckless from hunger, standing on train tracks, leaping through the windows of trains and attacking the passengers. During one particularly gruesome attack, a passenger stabs a vicious wolf in the throat with a piece of broken glass. Never would have thought much about wolves if I had never read this book.
Cindy loves her pony, a plump dun named Buttercrumb Cake aka The Crumb. Crumb is a humble “backyard pony” – he lives in a box stall that Cindy’s dad built onto the family garage – not a fancy stabled pony, like the ones she takes care of at the fancy barn where she works. I was midway through this book when I started begging my parents for a pony. I wanted to BE Cindy. She seemed to hardly ever be in school, spent all her time at the barn, got to travel to horse shows with her trainer and stay in motels, and won lots of silver trophy bowls.
One evening, Cindy is riding Crumb when she sees a strange, cherry-red horse trailer lurching through an old cow pasture, two mysterious men unloading a horse into an old hay barn, lock the door and leave. From inside the barn Cindy hears a mournful whinny. The next day, Cindy sees the stall is empty save some hay, a hypodermic needle and a pool of blood….
Before reading this, I never knew there was an ugly side to horse shows: evil trainers, height cheating, pony drugging…Cindy meets an evil trainer named Roger Hill, in glistening black boots, whose pampered clients ride elegant, impeccably turned show ponies who are totally jacked up on Bute. At a show during a brutal heat wave, Crumb is mixed up in a stall-switching, horse murdering plot and is electrocuted. I sobbed when I reread the part where Cindy finds her beloved pony dead in his stall.
“Crumb was dead. I knew he was dead the instant I saw him. The pony was stretched out by his side and the Doctor was kneeling beside him, shaking his head”.
Cindy stands staring at the dangling, deadly electrical cord, which Crumb had chewed on, standing in wet ground in his metal shoes. This freaked me right into a coma of horror.
7. The Royal Book of Ballet by Shirley Goulden
What a gorgeous book, what a cacophony of nightmares, totally unsuitable for children. Haunted ballerinas, malevolent forces, catatonic peasant girls, ghostly phantoms dancing on graves, Giselle, Coppelia, Petrushka, Human-swans and Puppet-people…
The moonlit glade over Giselle’s grave, surrounded by the pale blue ghostly female spirits of jilted brides, who rise from their graves at night and seek revenge upon men by dancing them to death….
The horrific Swan Queen rising up from the black over the doomed lovers who are compelled to leap into the lake…. Every picture was a nightmare.
8. Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp
Orphaned Jane is sent to live with an Aunt in – naturally – a huge old foreboding house. There, she establishes a psychic connection with Emily, a long dead child. Emily is evil and manages to control poor Jane to the point that Jane heads outside in a violent storm, gets soaked through, and becomes deathly ill. She is cared for by her friendly young governess and the governess’s boyfriend, a helpful doctor. Turns out, the cute doctor was friends with the malevolent Emily when the two of them were children. Emily had also gotten deathly ill in the very same way. Turns out, Emily made herself ill on purpose, because she was in love with the boy, and he refused to play along. Emily soaked her nightgown in ice water and sat in front of an open window. That is the image etched on my mind – Emily sitting in front of the window, slowly freezing to death, grinning. Emily effectively committed suicide. Which was kind of terrifying to me.
9. Oh, the Thinks You Can Think and What was I Scared of? by Dr. Seuss
Of aaaaalllll the things I was afraid of, evil dolls would be #1 wolves would be #2 and Dr. Seuss would be at the bottom of the list. Enter “Jibboo” and “Empty Pants”. Enter cognitive dissonance.
Jibboo is a grotesque, shadowy, birdlike thing with gnarled hands and long webbed feet, who haunted me, despite the fact that he only appears on one page. WTF was it?
An empty pair of ghostly lime-green pants is the source of terror in this book. The pair of pants, which are able to stand on their own, ride a bike, despite the lack of a wearer, stalks the adorable little Seussian protagonist.
I do not like these, Sam I Am.
10. The Lost Playground by Patricia Coombs
A sweet book about a little girl who loses her favorite toy was a family favorite. We checked it out of the library so many times we probably paid for it ten times over. Should not have scared me.
But. Mostly Frederick Sometimes Sam, a toy of indistinguishable variety, is transported in some sort of terrifying cosmic, mind-voyage to a dark and barren playground. The creepy playground is inhabited by toys, lost or discarded by their children.
The other toys in The Lost Playground were STORE toys, stuffing-proud snobs bragging about their sawdust or cotton or feathers or foam rubber. They hate Mostly because he was not STORE BOUGHT. He had been handmade by a mom for her sick child, and his stuffing was old socks and tattered underpants. It was the image of Mostly, sitting amongst the playground equipment, confused and alone in what looked like a terrible, haunted place that scared the stuffing out of me. My mother loved this book, so I could never tell.
For as creeped out as I was by this book, I read it over and over and over. I cannot figure out why I loved it so much when it was so dark.
Three nasty farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are determined to smoke a family of foxes out of their hole, after discovering that Mr. Fox has been stealing from their storehouses. The farmers are gross. Boggis is an obese chicken farmer who eats 3 boiled chickens smothered with dumplings, every day, 3 times a day. Scrawny Farmer Bean is a turkey and apple farmer who survives on guzzling gallons of cider. Bunce is a pot-bellied dwarf who raises ducks and geese and – get this – eats nothing but doughnuts stuffed with a paste of smashed goose livers.
The farmers’ greed and grotesquery nearly destroys the countryside and an entire animal network. Mr. Fox does what a fox does naturally – steal and kill. I got a sick feeling whenever I came to chapter 8: THE FOXES BEGIN TO STARVE. The image of the three farmers waiting, possibly forever, guns pointed at the fox hole, waiting for the starving foxes to limp from their den only to blow them way, is Beckett-like and bone chilling.
12. The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden by Mary Chase
Maureen, aka “Stinky”, a bullied girl, passes the crumbling Messerman mansion on her way home from school. She fantasizes she is Maureen Messerman - rich, privileged, and powerful. She finally breaks into the forbidden, boarded-up mansion.
In the hall are portraits of seven young women, creepy sisters with names like Lucrece, Ingrid and Maude.
They look rich, wear elaborate gowns and haughty expressions. Maureen taunts them. But these seven daughters of privilege are colder and meaner than Maureen ever could be. They are wicked, wicked ladies. Maureen she notices something horrifying. The figures seem to shift in their frames. One of the lines that scarred me for life came when Maureen reaches out her finger to touch the paint – just to make sure – and touches . .real . silk!
13. DINOSAURS and Other Prehistoric Reptiles
I remember exactly where this book was kept in our house because I spent a lot of time avoiding it. It lures you in with pictures of the gentle herbivores milling around. The peaceful brontosaurs wades in a pool and nibbles on big leaves.
Then you are cold assaulted with THIS:
There’s a Gorgosaurus grabbing a duckbilled dinosaur in its jaws without even breaking stride, nauseating conflicts between gigantic marine reptiles, the storm-lashed ocean reflecting the ferocity of the beasts. Swamp-bound sauropod tropes, spindly theropods squatting at the water’s edge, Corythosaurus and Parasaurolophus scuba diving into the black seas,
“they fill their hollow skulls with air [like an aqualung], and down they go to the bottom”.
Primordial monsters facing each other in preparation for battle, like in ancient mythology but with fanged monsters that were once really real. I mean, I know this was science, and therefore benign, but book created a lifelong fear and repulsion of all things reptilian and is the reason I feel like throwing up when I see a newt or think about snakes.
There is one other very strange and distressing illustration that I would like to point out. It is of a girl – basically my Colonial dream girl, in a lace-trimmed pink dress, golden curls peeking out from underneath a lacy bonnet.