Why The Uninvited is the most terrifying book I will never read
Tom Graham reflects on a book – or rather, a book cover – that traumatised him as a child. Clive Harold's The Uninvited...
A number of years ago, I saw an article on the BBC news website that horrified me. In fact, it provoked two feelings of horror, distinct from each other but intimately related.
The first sensation of horror came from the content of the article itself. It was about a Big Issue seller called Clive Harold. The article mentioned, almost in passing, that before falling on hard times Harold had once been a professional writer. This instilled in me a sense of horror because at that time I was just about (just about) scraping a sort-of-a-living as a professional writer myself. I was stressed. Life felt profoundly precarious. And so I saw my own possible future embodied in former writer turned Big Issue salesman Clive Harold. In Rome, there is a crypt constructed of the skulls and bones of hundreds of dead Cappuccin monks, above which hangs a sign telling visitors: What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you one day will be. You get the point.
That was the first sensation of horror I experienced. It was an ugly horror that was bound up with adult concerns over income and survival. The second horror I experienced was very different, and it wasn’t ugly at all, but beautiful. It was the horror evoked by the name ‘Clive Harold’. You see, I knew that name, I had known it for forty years, ever since I was nine or ten years old. And it was a name I had always associated with horror, with a genuinely delicious and enriching form of horror.
Back in 1979, Clive Harold had published a book called The Uninvited. It had sat on a shelf in the house I grew up in. I have no idea what became of it and haven’t seen that particular copy of (or any copy) for decades. But on seeing the name Clive Harold in the BBC article, I could picture the front cover of that book with absolute clarity as if I had it right in front of me. Indeed, the image sprang into my mind automatically and without effort: a dreary grey sky, a drab terrain of blown grass with a path or trail snaking across it, a line of leafless trees, a forlorn farmhouse with dark windows standing on an abrupt horizon, an atmosphere of loneliness and bleakness and unspecified threat. I saw all that in my mind’s eyes, and I even saw the strapline too: This story is true. You’ll wish it wasn’t.
Today, I doubt very much indeed if the story of The Uninvited has more than the tiniest grain of truth to it, if that. But as a child, I accepted it as gospel. It had to be a true story. It said so on the front. And what was that true story about? It was about a family living in the remote Welsh farmhouse depicted on the cover, and how they were menaced and attacked by disturbingly weird UFOs and aliens. It was, for me as a child, the most terrifying story ever told. The fear emanated from the cover of that book like radiation. The ten-year-old me had been endlessly drawn to it, fascinated, but also repelled by it, genuinely frightened. The Uninvited haunted my childhood, and – as the BBC article had suddenly and unexpectedly demonstrated to me – it was still haunting me today because I hadn’t forgotten any of it.
But the thing is, I had never read The Uninvited. Not a single page of it. I didn’t read it as a child and I still haven’t read it today. And I never will. I would like to say why.
My childhood was spent in a very safe and very ordinary suburbia. Nothing special happened and there were no particular traumas. But even so, I was terrified for pretty much most of the time because my little world was besieged and infiltrated by every kind of supernatural horror. There were the usual suspects – the generic ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, and demons – the stuff that we all share. But there were also a few local terrors that were peculiar to that time and place, such as the hooded Satanist I am to this day convinced I saw appear from a copse of trees and come chasing after me, the monstrous flesh-eating pike a friend assured me lurked in the local canal, and the abandoned stretch of overgrown railway where (so I was told) you had to beware of the dark and mysterious “man in the top hat”.
All of these things worked on my overwrought and childish imagination almost constantly so that, like some medieval peasant, I was basically living in a permanent state of supernatural dread. And somehow, and for some reason, I reified all this dread into that copy of The Uninvited sitting on the shelf at home. In my mind, that book – or more accurately, that front cover – embodied and expressed all the horror of the supernatural. I didn’t know then, just as I don’t know now, the details of the actual story of The Uninvited. But I knew enough. Isolated family – remote farmhouse – terrifying encounters – TRUE STORY! This, combined with the cover art, was more than enough. That copy of The Uninvited on the shelf in my family home became for me the physical embodiment of the terror instilled by every ghost, every UFO, every poltergeist, every nightmare.
As a child, I did not read The Uninvited because I didn’t have the nerve. Time and again I was drawn to the book, to its artwork, to the promise of its (TRUE!) story. But I could not bring myself to go further. But then why should I? I lived nightly with the mortal terror of ghosts or seeing aliens out of my bedroom window. I knew all too well how it felt to be terrified of the uncanny. The story of The Uninvited would offer me nothing new, just more of the same, but distilled and refined to the point of maximum potency. I would not be able to withstand it. It would be too much for me to handle. So, I stopped at the threshold of the front cover artwork and went no further.
Is this an exaggeration of how I felt? Not at all. What I am trying to recall here is the intensity, the purity, of that childhood fear of the supernatural. It was the emotional polar opposite of the intensity and purity of the excitement evoked by Christmas. That sensation of pure horror is only available to us in childhood. We only experience something close to it in adult life when the phone rings unexpectedly at 3 in the morning, or we feel growing concern for the whereabouts of a loved one, or we find a lump. But these adult terrors have a basis in real and present danger, in the possible proximity of actual pain and actual death. Adult horror is ugly horror, tainted horror. We cannot savour it, nor we cannot look back on it with fond pleasure and even gratitude for the fact that we had experienced it. We can only wish it were gone.
The pure horror of childhood is overwhelming, but it’s addictive. Once, when I was little, I recall watching a TV thriller which ended with a passenger sitting alone on a train at night; the train stopped in the middle of nowhere the passenger looked out the window, and a face suddenly appeared, grimacing in agony and streaming with blood. I’ve tracked it down on YouTube recently and it’s really rather silly. But at the time, it was traumatic. Profoundly so. I refused to go to bed that night. I went on strike. I wouldn’t negotiate. The terror had overwhelmed me. But despite all this, I was soon over at my local library checking out their copy of This House is Haunted: The True Story of the Enfield Poltergeist. I’m sure of this because I was always over at the library checking that book out, along with the one about the Borley Rectory. I needed more hits of horror, even though I always regretted it come nighttime. But I never dared take the ultimate hit, the hit to end all hits. I never read The Uninvited.
I suppose that by filling the ordinary, mundane, day-to-day world with ghosts and UFOs, that world is at once transfigured into a place where the domestic and the otherworldly meet and excitingly interact. Daily life is thus lived amid the possibility of danger, drama, and mystery. To be bored is to be blind. This, I think, accounted for my childish addiction to supernatural horror; the fear I felt was proof that suburbia was in fact a labyrinth of dreams and nightmares and bizarre fantasies. Who wouldn’t be drawn to that?
But that still doesn’t explain why focused all of these feelings so intensely on The Uninvited. I think it may have something to do with the style of the cover artwork. The scene depicted was not a safe and innocent about to be disrupted by the intrusive arrival of terrifying (and uninvited) visitors. Rather, the terror was already present, visible in the shapes and colours and contours of the farmhouse, the trees, the windblown grass, the sky. This was not a site wherein horror would occur; the horror was already and perpetually occurring. It existed not “out there” but right here, in the roof tiles and the windowpanes, in the walls and the little lean-to, in the winding path and the restless grass, in the strange and finger-like branches of the trees. I have come to think that the cover artwork of The Uninvited visually illustrated for me the notion of a domestic world infused with and enchanted by the presence of the supernatural. I saw here that my own childhood house (a suburban semi) was no less saturated with otherworldly horrors than this bleak and lonely farmhouse. The Uninvited was a mirror, reflecting back not the illusions that the grown-ups fed me (“Don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe, there’s no such thing as ghosts”) but instead the stark, naked, horrifying reality of existence.
Whatever magic spell The Uninvited once cast for me, I can never rekindle it except in memory. This is a hard but necessary lesson to learn. Those of you who, like me, are starting to get on in years will well remember seeing middle-aged Star Wars fans rushing like excited kids into The Phantom Menace only to emerge defeated and dead-eyed like soldiers on the retreat from Stalingrad. At a certain point in life, we must accept that childhood – true childhood – is no longer accessible to us. We can recall it, but we cannot relive it, not anymore. That’s why even if I tracked down a copy of The Uninvited I could not actually read it. And I stress the words “could not”. I could not read it because it would be impossible to do so. Sure, I could read the words printed on the pages, but they would not traumatize me – and a book that did not traumatize me would not be The Uninvited, because The Uninvited is the book that traumatizes. It is a forbidden book, off-limits, too hot to handle. If one has withstood reading it, then one has not read it. One can only delay or avoid reading it, one can be too afraid to read it, but one can never have read it. It is a story that works not in the telling but in the not-telling.
The Uninvited has probably been out of print for years, although you can most likely still pick up second-hand copies on Amazon. I don’t know, and I don’t care, at least not for my own sake (for Clive Harold’s sake, I hope they’re flying off those Amazon warehouse shelves). I’ve got my copy of The Uninvited, my own uniquely special copy, the one I’ve had since I was a child, the one I keep up here in my head, in my memory and in my imagination. I don’t need or want any other copy. I’m very happy indeed with the one I’ve got.
And I will never read it. I love it too much for that.