So, what was the first book you read? Do you still have a copy? Did it have an effect on you?
The first book I ever read all by myself was Bears in the Night. I was about three, I think.
I had had stories read to me, but this book I could read by myself. I got it from the mobile library which used to come around the village of Fressingfield, Suffolk, where we lived until I was six. I was entranced by the dark front cover. When the library came round again, I refused to give the book up. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but the library agreed to allow me to keep the book (I suspect my mum bribed them!) and I still have it. The pictures, the story, the spine-chilling
and the panic as the bears flee back down the hill, which always made my heart race and the skin on my arms prickle. I’ve never really come back down from that thrill and I suspect that Bears in the Night is responsible for my penchant for the dark, spooky and macabre ever since.
Another book from my childhood which sticks very strongly in my mind is the Ladybird Dracula.
The link above shows the original cover, but disappointingly the ‘look inside’ doesn’t show the Ladybird version at all. So I’ve decided to order a copy of it! It’s only £2. I remember very clearly, also, buying Dracula. I had been given some money for my birthday (I must have been age 5 at the time, as we moved a year later, and I think my brother had been born by this time. I went into a small shop in Harleston, Norfolk, and I picked up Dracula. My mum was not very pleased and said “Why don’t you get a nice book about dogs?” showing me one. But I didn’t want the dogs book. I wanted the Dracula book.
I do admire my parents for their decision to allow me to make my own choices. I don’t know if I’d have been so tolerant. I devoured Dracula. One picture which always sticks in my mind – don’t let me down, Ladybird! – is one of Dracula bent over Mina Harker on a bench. I read the book on the drive home, and again for the rest of the day. (Didn’t Ladybird books have fantastic pictures? So colourful and well-drawn and vital. They bring the story to life and are as vital to the book as the text.)
Anyway. That evening I was sent up to bed at the allotted time. I left my Dracula book downstairs, under a cushion. I didn’t tell anyone this, but I no longer wanted to look at it.
Our cottage, Churchill Cottage, was small and very old. The sitting-room had a fire burning in the grate. The stairs up to the next level were narrow and dark. I said goodnight to my parents quietly. I climbed up one or two stairs reluctantly, and then burst into tears. The fear was so strong I could taste it. I could not go up those stairs because Dracula was going to Get Me. It took me some time to get the words out but I was petrified. Again – I admire my parents for not saying “I told you so”. We talked about how the book was made up, and it all ended happily ever after (hmm) and that nobody was going to Get Me. But it didn’t work and in the end we burned the book, in a rather ritualistic manner, on the fire.
It took many years before I could get Dracula out of my head. I would always sleep with my duvet pulled right up to my neck, so that he couldn’t bite me. After a while I decided I might be alright if I slept on my front, figuring my neck would be too thick for him to bite through. I am pleased to say that I have now lost the very primitive fear, but I still can’t sleep without any sort of covering, even if it’s just a thin sheet, as I fee very vulnerable.
I never read the real Dracula until we studied Gothic literature at university. I loved it, and am desperate to visit St Mary’s Church in Whitby which so inspired Bram Stoker. One of my favourite bookmarks was a postcard my parents brought me back from the town which showed the church covered in snow, which I kept for years, but I think I threw it into the recycling by mistake. So, if anyone reading this is from Whitby, or happens to be going to Whitby in the not-so-distant future (or distant … I’m a patient sort), I’d be most grateful if you could grab one for me.
Agan, I think that the Dracula episode inspired in me this great love of The Dark Side. I’m not into the occult or anything, and I can’t bear ‘torture entertainment’, but I love being scared and spooked. I like things that Aren’t Quite Right, which hint at something supernatural and sinister. In my teens I wrote a collection of ‘odd’ stories which are some of the best thing I’ve written (though that’s not really saying much) and one of them came from a dream I had. I still read these back sometimes and think, perhaps someone would enjoy them too… but they are so close to me, they are like my children. I feel too vulnerable to hand them out to all and sundry. I wonder if other people who write feel like this too? As if when someone is reading something you’ve written, they have unzipped you and can see all your insides?
Anyway. That’s the story of how my reading developed. Dracula scared the crap out of me and has had a lasting effect on me – and I am so, so grateful to it.