I can remember exactly where I was sitting when the Spectre of Newby Church first froze the blood in my unsuspecting eight-year-old veins. I was in my tiny, North-Eastern home town of Yarm, in the corner of Levendale Primary School library: a makeshift enclave of plastic shelving units between ‘Middle Band’ and ‘Upper Band’; an educational liminal space packed with Target paperbacks, encyclopaedias that fell suspiciously open at the ‘human reproduction’ pages, and an unseemly collection of Willard Price novellas.
“Look,” said Christopher Herbert, his customary aroma of guinea pigs and acute flatulence filling the room with a wafting, beige haze. “It’s a ghost”.
I peered at the book that lay open on his bony knees, and every vital fluid in my body instantly evaporated. My limbs felt cold and lifeless, my senses numbed in a split-second of sheer terror. It was a ghost. Unmistakeably. A towering spectral monk, thin and hollow-eyed, staring straight back at me from a bank of steps beside an austere church altar.
I barely slept for almost a week. The Spectre of Newby Church had looked directly into my soul. He knew me. Had seen me. My card was marked, and he would come for me during the night; floating up the stairs, passing effortlessly through my Star Wars-stickered door, and laying a bony hand upon my trembling forehead to claim me as the latest denizen of his dark and tortured netherworld.
Had I know at the time that Newby Church was barely thirty miles from Yarm, I might still have been awake at Christmas (Which, admittedly, I was anyway… 1980 was the year of the Palitoy Millennium Falcon).
And the book? It was, of course, Usborne’s legendary Ghosts book; alongside Monsters and UFOs, one third of a magnificent triumvirate of worryingly factual paranormal-themed volumes issued by this nascent childrens’ publisher under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown. This pivotal totem of the original “haunted” childhood was published in 1977, its 32 pages packed with stories of infamous visitations: from Black Shuck and Gef the Talking Mongoose to the specture of a decidedly deceased mother-in-law, lurking on the back seat of her unsuspecting son-in-law’s 1950s Hillman Minx. There were, of course, thorough debunkings as well… but naturally I paid less attention to those.
When I discovered – via Usborne’s Anna Howorth, and bookseller Tamsin Rosewell – that the Ghosts book was being given a 2019 reissue following a concerted fan campaign, I immediately pitched an accompanying feature to the Fortean Times. The resulting article, in which I met up with the book’s delightful (if somewhat bemused) writer Christopher Maynard, is the cover feature of the current issue, No 385, dated November 2019. It’s available now, and looks like this…
…. and on Saturday 19th October, I was delighted to be invited to a launch party held by Usborne and Haunted magazine, in the splendid location of Bosworth Hall Hotel, a rambling (and, of course, notoriously haunted) country pile nestling amidst the winding, shadowy lanes of Warwickshire. A treacly haze of autumnal sunshine was slowly descending as I arrived, and – as I rounded the corner – I was delighted to discover a blue plaque marking the birthplace of one of my favourite folk guitarists, Davey Graham. Awaiting me on the wide, winding staircase down to the hotel bar were Usborne’s Anna Howorth, the (still bemused but utterly charming) Chris Maynard, and writer Edward Parnell, whose new book Ghostland – an evocative travelogue of landscapes that inspired some of Britain’s most prominent writers of supernatural fiction – has an extract serialised in the same issue of the Fortean Times, a chapter exploring the Cardiganshire locales of William Hope Hodgson.
“I’m on the page after you,” smiled Edward, enigmatically.
Chris helpfully opened the copy that remained proudly tucked under his arm for the rest of the evening.
The party was a delight; an eclectic mix of the Haunted team – with editor Paul Stevenson an effervescent presence all night – eager ghost-hunters, writers, film-makers and dedicated enthusiasts of all matters spooky. I found myself sitting with SFX magazine stalwart turned novelist Nick Setchfield for most of the evening, as we discussed (of course) the nature of the 1970s haunted childhood, the oddly beautiful photographs of mushroom-coated graves that he’d taken in the hotel grounds, the lost 1984 single ‘London Story‘, and his new supernaturally-tinged Cold War novel The Spider Dance.
Also present was film-maker Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team, whose new feature Borley Rectory documents the somewhat chequered history of this notorious Essex vicarage, famously described as “the most haunted house in England” by 1930s psychic researcher Harry Price. We were treated to an after-dinner screening of this fascinating piece of film-making, preceded by a few words from its director – who explained the influence of the Usborne Ghosts book on his lifelong interest in the supernatural – and a specially-filmed introduction from star Reece Shearsmith. The film is boldly shot as a hugely evocative homage to the 1930s German Expressionist style, and tells the story of the rectory’s disturbing history concisely and entertainingly; Shearsmith plays diligent Daily Mirror reporter V.C. Wall, and I was delighted to spot Richard Strange, frontman with 1970s proto-punks Doctors of Madness, turning up as the house’s original Victorian rector, Henry Dawson Bull.
Afterwards, Edward hosted an entertaining Q&A with Ashley, Anna and Chris Maynard himself; still bemused that one of the eighty books he wrote during a twenty-year career penning childrens’ non-fiction had exerted such an influence, and gleefully signing copies of the reiussed version (with an effusive new Reece Shearsmith foreword) all evening. And then we decamped, en masse, to a darkened, upstairs function suite, where a random word generator on a laptop brought traditional table-rapping firmly into the 21st century, with requests for communications from beyond the veil being met with responses that included ‘PSYCHIC’, ‘CONTACT’, and – intriguingly – ‘KEITH’. A lively discussion about the nature of supernatural investigation could probably have thrived without my rambling thoughts on the hypnagogic hallucinations that occasionally blight my bedtimes (I usually see giant spiders, but on one occasion a World War 2 airman stood patiently at my bedside before fading into nothingness) but then I’d had a few bottles of the complimentary Peroni by this point, and had thrown caution to the wind.
There was still a bottle in my jacket pocket when this photo of Chris Maynard and me was taken at 1.35am…
Thanks to Haunted magazine and Usborne Publishing for a hugely entertaining evening. The reissued World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now, from – as ever – “all good booksellers”. And congratulations to Edward Parnell, who – the following day – revealed on Twitter that his other favourite supernatural childhood tome – 1975’s Haunted Britain by Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe – has a chilling entry on Bosworth Hall, urging visitors to be mindful of an “indelible red stain, which unlike most stains is said to remain damp.”
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, let’s blame Keith.