Ken & Robin have an interesting discussion in the most recent episode of their podcast, on childhood fears. Specifically, they talk about childhood responses to horror stories and movies. I was inspired to write about my own childhood horrors.
Luckily there were no actual horrors in my childhood. Nobody around me was violent or insane or very ill or destitute or hooked on drugs. The years of low-intensity schoolyard bullying were painful but nowhere near my breaking point. Still, I was really scared of some stuff, starting with Selma Lagerlöf.
Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf is one of the giants of Swedish literature. The first big book I read on my own at age five was her delightful 1906-07 tome The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a tattered copy passed down for school use to my mother from her older sibs (I still have it). The book was originally commissioned to teach children Swedish history and geography. It does so by means of a fantasy conceit: the boy Nils gets shrunk to tiny size by the spell of a gnome and goes travelling across the country on the back of a migrant goose. But, having read Nils, I then unsuspectingly turned to other books by Lagerlöf.
The Löwensköld Ring (1925) is a ghost story about a nobleman who rises from the grave to reclaim a finger ring stolen from him at the time of burial. This really freaked me out, and not in a good way. But I moved on to The Treasure / Herr Arne’s Hoard (1904), and found to my dismay that this book starts with a gory description of a family getting killed by mercenaries. I never finished it and I’ve never read Lagerlöf since. A few years later a similar but even more graphically described massacre prevented me from finishing The Last Letter Home (1959), Vilhelm Moberg’s fourth novel about Swedish migrant farmers in Minnesota.
Another source of scares was comics. I read a graphic version of Dracula, and for years afterwards I didn’t like to look out of dark windows because I was afraid that the Count’s pale leering face would greet me. Particularly if it was on an upper floor, where of course only a vampire could peek inside. I wasn’t afraid of getting grabbed and blood-sucked by a vampire – just afraid that I’d see one. I did try sleeping with garlic over my bed once, but I made the mistake of peeling the clove and piercing it for a string, and the smell got too strong.
Then there was my buddy’s copy of the Swedish 70s horror comic book Chock. (I now find that it ran translations of Warren Comics from the 60s, apparently mainly out of Creepy and Eerie.) This particular issue contained Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and a story about an escaped convict manacled to a corpse in a desert, and it scared me silly at age ten or eleven. But the really silly bit was the soundtrack. While I read that comic book at my buddy’s house, he played me what must count as the lamest Swedish pop tune of the 80s, the 1983 Vikingarna cover of F.R. David’s 1982 hit “Words”. For years afterwards I couldn’t hear either version of that damn song without a serious chill running down my spine.
Round about this time I was also afraid that dead bodies might be hidden in the walls of our house. I think I understood that the walls were too thin for that, but still I kept thinking about it and shuddering. I was horrified when I came across P.V. Glob’s book on Iron Age bog bodies, The Bog People (1965) with its many ghastly photographs. Little did I know how desensitised to human remains my work would make me as an adult, or that I would be quite happy to excavate people’s graves.