A while back, I got into a conversation on Twitter with Simon Spanton (@SimonGuy64) of Gollancz about frightening books. In terms of 'frightening' I was right out of my league. It takes very little to make me put a book aside or cover my eyes. I know this so I avoid anything that will make me even mildly apprehensive. Some people like being frightened. I don't.
Perhaps I was frightened too young to gain any pleasure from it. There's a particular book which did the damage. I first heard it read when I was three and the horror it induced has stuck with me ever since. And it's so frightening I haven't dared even throw it away. It has a hold over me. If I got rid of it it would still lurk in my just-below-consciousness. I have to have access to it to check every so often that it isn't even worse than I remember. It isn't. But then, it couldn't be.
And the book has a life of its own. For all that it's important to me, for all that I could never give it away, it vanishes for years on end, then resurfaces. At the time of the conversation, I couldn't find it. I searched my bookshelves. No. Not there. Then, a couple of months ago I found it in a cupboard. I don't know what it was doing all mixed up with my art things and jam-making things and passports and ancient school certificates - but that's what frightening things do - they lurk.
The book? Toby Twirl and the Magic Wishing Well by Sheila Hodgetts. (There's a farm story in there too but we can forget about that.) The story is pretty dire. Toby Twirl (who turns out to be a pig in red dungarees but I was never sure what he was when I was little) has a Teddy Bear friend who falls into an induced sleep and is captured by the branches of an enchanted tree. They fold around him forming a cage which hoists him, comatose, high above the ground. Toby narrowly escapes the same fate, clothes torn by the grabbing branches. A Fairy Man takes him to a magic well and . . . . It's a complex tale . . . we'll leave it there.
This illustration may give you an idea of the terror involved. And when I say 'terror', I do mean terror. It still makes me tense up and worry.
Childhood traumas are well known for having the power to influence our adult lives - and many children undergo much more serious challenges than being read a frightening story about a pig, a teddy bear and a pixie. I'm fortunate I didn't have to face up to much worse. But, given that the fear remains, does it influence my relationship with trees?
Not at all. I'm not frightened to walk through a wood at night. I am energised by the wind when it makes branches dance and flail. (And there have been very high winds recently with trees bending wildly all over the place.) It's not a matter of gritting my teeth and facing up to my fears. The book and real life sit very firmly in different realities. (Fortunately!)
What is the most frightening book you have ever read? And can you let it go?
(Toby Twirl Tales 2. Sheila Hodgetts with illustrations by E. Jeffrey. Published by Sampson Low, Marston & Co. 1950.)