Do you remember the first scary story you ever read? Can you remember where you read it? I do. It was a fiendishly frightening tale titled The Calamander Chest by Joseph Payne Brennan, and it was in an anthology titled Ghosts and Ghastlies, edited by Helen Hoke (more on her later). The book was one I spotted on the shelf at my school library. The title caught my attention as I browsed, looking for something new to read. I pulled it from the shelf, and the image on the front cover of some ghoulish creature reaching toward me, with the title just under his outreaching, clawed hand, hooked me and I went straightway to check it out.
It was later that evening that I finally had the chance to crack it open and read. I was in my great-grandmother’s house, an old shotgun style house in Old Metairie, and I couldn’t have chosen a better location. The house rested on old, huge blocks of stone, about two and a half to three feet off the ground. It was high enough that one could crawl under the house with no difficulty, and indeed I and my cousins often did just that. It was fun to get under there and pretend we were down in a cave, or in a dungeon or something.
At night-time, the house creaked and groaned, and often there would come a scratching and scurrying inside the walls. My mother and I and my siblings lived there for several years, from the time I was seven till I was thirteen or fourteen, and it was there that I was introduced to horror fiction.
When I opened Ghosts and Ghastlies, the first tale in the book was The Calamander Chest. I sat in my bed, late at night, under a thick blanket with a flashlight, and read that story. When I finished, I sat there in my bed, looking around the room. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared as I was that evening, sitting in my bed and thinking about what I’d just read. The image of that long, white finger protruding from the chest, scrabbling and scratching at the wood, seared itself in my mind. I looked around my bedroom and my eyes fixed on the chifferobe in the corner, and I became convinced that something lurked inside. This was a problem. I had to use the bathroom, but to do so would mean getting out of bed, walking across the cold floor to the bathroom door on the other side of the room, and what if I came out of the bathroom only to see the door of the chifferobe standing open and a long white finger sticking out of it, beckoning to me?
The solution to my problem was easy. I screamed. Loud. I shouted for my mother, over and over again, till I heard her coming through the house to my room. She was not pleased to have been awakened in such a fashion and she let me know her thoughts on the matter. I listened to her, and then explained that she was going to have to go turn on the light in the bathroom and stand outside the door until I finished and got back in bed. When she learned about the story I’d read, I received a lecture about how I was not to read stories like that again. She was convinced that my mind would get warped, and that reading stories about ghosts and demons and monsters would only open the door for demons to enter my life. Hearing my mother tell me in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that horror fiction might possibly invite demons to come torment me accomplished two things that night.
One, I now had the certainty that there really were monsters out there. My mother was convinced demons were real, and after listening to her, I had no doubts on the matter. I followed that idea to its next, logical step. If demons were real, then ghosts must be real too. And of course, if there really were ghosts, then why not ghouls and vampires and all manner of other beasts and evil things that made strange noises in the night, and might come sneaking and slouching into my room to cart me off to some hellish fate. That thing under the bed, that lay there waiting for the dark and still of night to come reaching up and over to grab me and drag me under there with it, well, that thing might be real. Maybe it was a demon.
Oh yeah. There was no way I was getting out of bed. Not unless my mother stayed in the room and waited for me to use the bathroom, and not unless she stayed until I was safely back under the blankets. She groaned, and then promised me she would wait. I did my business and got back in bed and then she went trudging back to her room.
The second thing that her admonition about demons accomplished was to further instill in me a desire to read books and stories about all things scary and fearsome. If those things were real, then the more knowledge I had about them, the better. One simply must be informed. How could I hope to stay safe from their clutches unless I knew how they operated and what it would take to stop them?
Helen Hoke became my guide. She had many books she had edited, all about the strange and horrible and ghastly things out there, and I went on to read them all. They were part of a series of anthologies she referred to as the Terrific Triple Titles. Ghost and Ghastlies; Spooks Spooks Spooks; Terrors, Torments, and Traumas; Weirdies Weirdies Weirdies; Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts; and many others with similar titles. I read them all. Her collections mostly featured older stories, from authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Bloch, William Hope Hodgson, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and many others from their era. I loved them, and read them all, many times. When I exhausted my school library’s titles from Hoke, I went to the public library and devoured the additional titles they had. Then I went back and read through all of them a second time. Great stuff, those books.
Just last night, I was pleased to learn that one of Hoke’s anthologies had been released in a Kindle format. Spooks Spooks Spooks is now available under the title of Gray Barker’s Spooks, Spooks, Spooks: A Closetful of Supernatural Spellbinders. Oh, yeah, I purchased it with no hesitation and it is now at the top of my TBR pile. Here’s a link to the kindle book on Amazon if you’re interested. The new edition is from New Saucerian Press, and in the description, they mentioned some of the other titles that Hoke put out in the sixties and seventies. Keeping my fingers crossed that New Saucerian will go on to release the other books for Kindle.
In October of this year, I found an anthology on Amazon titled Thrillers and More Thrillers, and bought a used copy from one of their third-party sellers. The book contained The Calamander Chest, and I eagerly awaited it so I could read that story again. The last time I read the story was forty years ago, when I was ten or eleven, and I was curious to see if it was as good as I remembered. It was. As part of a Halloween tradition in my house, I read a scary story aloud to my wife and son at night through the month of October, finishing on Halloween night. On that night, we steer clear of scary stories and I read something humorous instead. My wife is convinced that on Halloween, the veil between the worlds is the weakest, and focusing on horror might lead to something emerging through that veil to plague and terrorize us. Maybe she’s right.
When I read The Calamander Chest to my family, I was pleased to note that it was just as spooky for them as it was for me, back at the young age I first encountered it. It’s one of the best and creepiest scary stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. If you’ve never read it, I highly encourage you to find a copy and give it a go. It shouldn’t be difficult to find a used copy of a collection on Amazon. The one I purchased is Thrillers and More Thrillers, selected by Robert Arthur. Here’s a link. The story can also be found on YouTube, read by Vincent Price. Here’s a link to the first part. When you go there, you should see the link to the second part of the story. He does a fine job of narrating the story, and I definitely recommend it.
That’s all for now. This blog post is the first of what I intend to be an exploration of my journeys through horror fiction and movies. Stay tuned for the next installment, Spiders Under My Bed. Thanks for stopping by!