Johnny Restall recalls the terrors of his childhood with the Usborne Supernatural Guides…
Johnny Restall recalls the terrors of his childhood with the Usborne Supernatural Guides…
I vividly remember my first encounter with an Usborne Supernatural Guide.
I was a morbid child, irresistibly drawn to the dark and the horrible, in spite of the inevitable terrors they brought as the evening drew in (my parents swiftly learning to dread the thud of my frantic little feet as I ran to the relative safety of their room in the middle of the night). I was also bookish and shy, which meant that, if left unsupervised in a library or shop, I couldn’t help but drift towards the adult horror novels. Their exquisitely gruesome, tempting covers leered down from high shelves forbidden to small boys, promising a world of grown-up horrors I couldn’t even begin to imagine (though I tried and tried).
I must have been around nine when my sister and I went to stay for a few days in summer with my Grandma (probably to give my parents a break). She lived in one of the slightly over-planned-and-polite post-WWII new towns, an odd place looking back now, but only in the sort of staid, antiseptic way guaranteed to bore a child. Grandma knew I loved books, so, perhaps mindful that this was one way in which she could communicate with her odd little grandson, I was dispatched to the local bookshop for an afternoon, pocket money in hand.
The pokey, narrow rows of the shop were like a heaven for me, wandering the book-lined shelves speculating wildly on the worlds of adult knowledge, excitement and, of course, horror contained within their pages. Even now, a good bookshop remains an expansive adventure as far as I am concerned, with so many available possibilities that it still makes my (slightly more mature) head spin.
After a few surprised looks from older patrons and a stern reminder as to the direction of the children’s section from an aged employee, I retreated into more ‘suitable’ territory. I already knew I would never get away with a Stephen King or similar (and deep down, I was much too scared to actually try to enter such a grown-up world yet). Resigned to my fate, I started to scan the shelves for something suitably inspiring and grisly, something which would strain against the constraints of my age without alarming responsible adults too much.
Although most of their books were friendly and parent-pleasing, I knew that Usborne occasionally pushed the boundaries a little. I had already consumed their books on Norse and Greek mythology, particularly revelling in their vivid and often nightmarish illustrations (by acclaimed fantasy artist Rodney Matthews). But when I spotted Vampires, Werewolves And Demons by Lynn Myring, an Usborne Supernatural Guide, I knew they had excelled themselves. It was terrifying, and just the thing for my horrible little nine-year-old self.
The cover image, of a somewhat clichéd cloak-and-fang-wielding bloodsucker, was fairly tame – deliciously, deceptively so. Within just a few pages, there was a far more visceral illustration of a red-eyed vampire clawing his way out of the grave, and from then on, the gloves were off, with tales of victims being beaten ‘black and blue,’ stakings, decapitations, and blood-spattered all over the place. The following werewolf chapter was a positive orgy of cannibalism, shape-shifting, and gore. The brief final section on demons was perhaps the most strange and unsettling, containing some genuinely weird pictures (which still pop up in my bad dreams now and again).
The book was probably totally unsuitable in the eyes of most parents (certainly mine). It was therefore irresistible, and perhaps more importantly, obtainable. It was for children, and Usborne texts were usually educational and factual – so how could anybody refuse me it? When I returned to her house with my treasure, Grandma was not impressed, no doubt despairing of her ghoulish grandson. However, to her credit, she did not make me return it, and I carefully avoided showing off my new purchase to my parents when I returned home.
A few months later, I tracked down a second Supernatural Guide (to the dismay of my Mum). Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres by Eric Maple and Lynn Myring was perhaps even better than my first find. The cover image, of a soaring, sheeted spirit howling around the outside of a gothic-looking house, to the shock of the gesticulating witnesses below, certainly beat the somewhat tame vampire on the front of the previous volume. Although a little less gory (aside from the horrible tongueless lady of Glamis Castle), it was just as disturbing, introducing me to Borley Rectory, the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor, and an assortment of poltergeists. It even included a Ghost Report Form to record your own sightings (though I have never had cause to use it personally).
I was never able to complete the trilogy at the time with the final instalment, Mysterious Powers & Strange Forces by Eric Maple and Eliot Humberstone. I could only ever find it in the compilation volume Supernatural World (with its truly unnerving staring skull cover), which I was not allowed to buy as a) I already owned two-thirds of it and b) hadn’t I scared myself enough already? (No. Never.) Having tracked down a copy years later, I have to say that, while it has its strengths, it is probably the weakest of the three. I may be suffering from a little bit of nostalgic bias, having only read the book in full at a slightly less impressionable age, but its tales of ESP, pyramids and bleeding statues, though intriguing, somehow lack the sheer glorious fear created by monsters and phantoms.
Viewing the books again as an adult, I am very happy to say that they stand up very well, and are really quite exceptional things, in their own horrid way. They are beautifully written, using a simple and direct style which avoids ever being patronising or particularly childish. They report a huge variety of stories, sightings, and traditional beliefs from around the world in an almost journalistic style. The most outlandish (but factually based) tales are soberly recorded, never passing judgment beyond occasionally suggesting alternative explanations for the phenomena described.
Sadly, I have not been able to find out very much biographical information about the authors. Lynn Myring and Eliot Humberstone appear to have been regular writers for Usborne, more often covering science or astronomy than astral projection or the undead. Eric Maple is somewhat better known, particularly in the world of folkloric research, having published an array of adult books on occult beliefs, often with enticingly lurid covers. Unfortunately, all of Maple’s works now appear to be out of print, having become collector’s items in certain circles.
As for the unforgettable illustrations, the artists are only credited collectively at the start, with no individual details provided for specific pictures. I, therefore, do not know exactly who to thank for the many truly macabre, wonderful images which have haunted me since childhood, and still pack a satisfyingly strong punch today. Among those credited throughout the guides are Derick Bown, Oliver Frey, Terry Gabby, Elaine Lee, Seonaid Mackenzie and Rob McCaig, along with various others who worked on just one specific volume. Most of the illustrators appear to have worked extensively (sometimes solely) in children’s publishing, with the notable exception of Frey, whose fame amongst appreciators of gay erotic artwork (under the pen name Zack) made my search results considerably more lively than I had first anticipated.
The three Supernatural Guides were originally published by Usborne in 1979, and I can see from my copies that I must have discovered them on their reprint in 1990 (with a red or green lettered title, rather than the older yellow). They have been out of print for several years now although, judging from the prices they can command on auction sites, they are not forgotten. Indeed, I would be surprised if anybody who encountered them can forget the words and images used for the tales of Jean Grenier the French wolf-boy, the Walsingham Ghosts, or Liu the unfortunate teacher (“A vampire had stolen the head to finish his feast of blood”), to mention just a few examples.
Pleasingly, the books also have a strong cult following in Finland, having been translated and issued in 1983 by the publishers Tammi, collected into one volume under the title Noidan Kӓsikirja (Witch’s Handbook). Their appeal proved so strong in the country that a public campaign eventually led to the book being republished in 2018, having disappeared from shelves in the 1990s. Usborne has recently reissued two books from their similar World Of The Unknown series, with introductions from famous fans Reece Shearsmith and Jon Culshaw, following a campaign led by the company’s own Anna Howorth (director of global branding and UK marketing). For my money, the Supernatural Guides are even better, with a little more detail and depth. Happily, there is a similar petition to bring this series back too, which can be found here. I would love to see them in print again, ready to terrify a new generation…