Shelf Life: Night terrors between the covers

As a child, I suffered terribly from nightmares for a year or so. I can’t be certain about my age then, but in memory it seems to have been shortly after we moved to the house at Hawthorn Place, so I must have been five or six. I had the little box room at the front of the house, and would wake up with the terrors two or three times a week. My mother would come in and find me gasping, and she would sit on the edge of my bed until I calmed down and went back to sleep. We began a long habit of leaving the landing light on.

For a while, we weren’t sure what was causing the anxiety. And then my mother thought she had pinned it down – there was a bookcase in the room, and some of the novels had pretty lurid covers.

My father was working on the night shift at the Sperrin Textiles factory, and he and his workmates would swap all kinds of paperbacks through the week – so there was a revolving library of pulp coming through the house. Mostly thrillers, Desmond Bagley, Alastair Maclean and the like, but occasionally true crime (Helter Skelter, The Boston Strangler), war novels and horror.

There was no room for a bookshelf in mum and dad’s room, so the paperbacks would pile up on the shelves in my room, and I was fascinated by books, constantly examining them and reading the copy on the back. I don’t recall being tempted to read any of them at that age, but I was hooked on novels as objects nonetheless – things to be turned over and examined and wondered about. And since I was only looking at them and handling them rather than reading them, they entered my consciousness visually. For example, I always associate The Exorcist with the shadowy image of the young girl on the original Corgi paperback (see above), an image that predates the film.

Perhaps the worst of them all, however, were a series of covers for Agatha Christie novels. My mother loved Agatha Christie, and for some reason couldn’t seem to be persuaded to reach much else. In fact, in the years that followed, once she had gone through the Christie canon, her appetite for reading seemed to dwindle, and she became more interested in television.

Although Agatha Christie was pretty mild stuff compared to Helter Skelter and the rest, for some reason the cover designs for the Fontana editions – a whole series of beautiful, sinister paintings by Tom Adams - were particularly grim. And my mother reasoned that I had stared at the illustrations long enough to be horrified into nightmares by them.

She could have been right – I have no idea where the nightmares came from. Or where they went – my mother demanded that the books be taken out of my room, and claimed afterwards that the nightmares promptly ceased.

I was reminded of all of this recently when visiting the Foyle Book Shop at the Craft Village in Derry. There on the shelf were a couple of the Fontana Agatha Christies – including Lord Edgeware Dies, (left) which I remember particularly vividly. The letter-opener in the back of the head was especially clear in my memory. And another I hadn’t seen before, A Caribbean Mystery (above). If I’d had THAT one in my room I don’t think I’d have got a wink of sleep.

There was another one – A Pocketful of Rye, which I seem to remember featured a blackbird skeleton, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs had a cracked doll with an eye missing. Murder in Mesopatamia had an ugly, leering clay face and a strangler’s rope. Even today, I can’t imagine a publisher going so far with book designs. They’re a particularly creepy bunch of covers.