AUNT JOHN SEZ: This is one of them there TRAUMAFESSIONS that first came over the transom as a NAME THAT TRAUMA! Here’s the first dispatch from Reader Steve G.:
I’ve recently finished a course in cognitive psychology that focused on the ways memory fails and is distorted, all the while becoming more firmly entrenched. So I’m even less confident of this recollection than I was a year ago. But I have the advantage of repeated exposure, so I think I can report some details that are probably not way off.
This is a literary request, and I can even give you the name of the book. “Ghosts.” Yes, this is kind of a needle-in-haystack sort of search. I don’t know the author’s name or the illustrator, but I promise you that this book is worth finding. It’s non-fiction, a collection of “true” ghost stories aimed at kids about grade-school age. It contains several of the classics: Fifty Berkeley Square in London, the restless coffins in that tomb in Barbados, and maybe half a dozen more, told in a fairly lurid style that doesn’t pulls its punches. And illustrated with…how shall I describe the illustrations? Black-and-white watercolor? A bit like the “Scary Stories” collections except more subdued.
Ah, except for one of the illustrations. And here’s where we come to the money shot. In the chapter about Fifty Berkeley Square there was one depiction of a ghost that I can only compare to the screaming, insane specter that you would get if you were to torture to death Eck, the nightmare-inducing thing from the OUTER LIMITS episode “Behold Eck!” Yeah, that guy. But even worse, because he’d be dead… AND COMING TO EAT YOUR EYES!
Phew, nasty stuff. There was a copy of this book in my grade-school library and I would terrify myself by sneaking peeks at that picture during daylight. I owned a copy of the book in paperback for awhile but had to give it away because it was really freaking me out knowing it was on my bookshelf. So I quite well recall the cover art and it may be the best lead, seeing as how the book’s title was so generic.
The cover’s background was dominantly a deep blue, and the foreground featured the silhouette of a “haunted” mansion prominently. You knew it was haunted because within the borders of the mansion (which was limned with a thin yellow border) there was a stylized face (cackling mouth and eyes) repeated several times. Not cartoony, but looking more jolly than scary. The title “GHOSTS” was printed in a frazzled kind of font, but quite readable, top center.
Man, I wish I hadn’t started thinking about that picture this late at night. I think I’ll maybe stay up til it gets light, just in case.
AUNT JOHN SEZ: Upon reading this, my mind went directly to prolific, elementary-school-oriented paranormal writer DANIEL COHEN, and I asked Steve if he was thinking of either this or even this. Steve responded right quick with this:
Seemed like a plausible candidate until I checked the publication date, 1992. I should have mentioned the time frame, of course. It would have to have been published at least as early as 1980 to have been available in my grade-school library.
I did some further Googling using the keywords “restless coffins.” I recall that the chapter about the Barbados caskets was presented in a rather matter-of-fact style, and used that odd phrase or something similar. Evidently that’s the “canonical” name for the events. That led to this card catalog entry.
Those chapter names sound familiar, and Amazon says it was illustrated and published in the right era. Might be it, but I can’t find a cover scan, even among the finished auctions on eBay, which is usually a good hunting ground. A used version is pretty cheap, so I’ll take a chance.
Thanks for the leads. If this turns out to be the one, I’ll send a scan of the nightmarish Berkeley Square illustration. The names “ghosts simon gammell” show up in plenty of library databases even today, so it wouldn’t surprise me if new generations are being traumatized still by this modest-looking book. Hooray!
AUNT JOHN SEZ: The same day Steve sent that, I set out to get my grubby paws on a copy of GHOSTS by SEYMOUR STEIN. While I was waiting for it to arrive via inner-library loan, Steve shot us this message:
It turns out that this was indeed the culprit. The copy I bought was a library edition, and guess what page it happens to fall open to?
Looks like I wasn’t the only kid compulsively returning to that godawful picture.
I had forgotten that several of the other illustrations were quite upsetting in their own right, such as the baby-faced coffin that appears in the chapter about Barbados. I probably could have saved myself a lot of work if I had realized that GAMMELL is also the illustrator of the SCARY STORIES books, hardly coincidentally.
It’s even mentioned on his CLN profile.
Now, time to track down that novel about cemeteries and alphabet rhymes….
AUNT JOHN SEZ: When I finally got a copy of this book in the mail, I had an intense flashback of wearing Toughskins and obsessively borrowing this title from my grade-school library.
I feel you Steve, seriously, and here are the scans to prove it: