I would describe it akin to an itch and while it is one that’s very satisfying to scratch, along with the action of scratching comes an intrinsic knowing that the itch will never quite go away, or be fully satisfied. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, I think. It’s an infection of Curiosity and it has been present with me since birth. Those who are plagued by it as strongly can only hold hope that it doesn’t lead them to an end similar to the one it famously led the cat to.
Books to me have always been symbolic as a portal or access point to this curiosity realm of the imagination. When a book is consumed it acts as a potion; it influences the reader and transforms them. Not in the sense of a hypnotic command or control over the reader in conveying a strict a set of rules which is revealed during the act of reading and forever burdens the reader with responsibility to obey its dogma and doctrine… We may learn just as much by the level of our repulsion to content as we would from reading something that resonates, or seems to reflect our own thought processes. This is the fun and point of exploring ideas. Some books have more power than others in getting their readers to think, and some are more potent pieces of art which appear often to the ignorant as offensive, though I would simply call them a little portal to weirdness.
I went to a small community school with an open environment concept; the walls dividing classrooms were heavy framed structures covered in material, and they didn’t quite reach the ceiling. Everyone upon entering the building was reminded to use an ‘inside voice’. There was an exception to the open concept with two of the classrooms in the farthest end of the school, which were of much older construction. Of course students declared it the “haunted” end due to its age and cold feel, different from the rest of the building. Opposite to the “haunted” end was a wide space of tiled floor which effectively served as a platform given that the area between it dipped down a few steps – think of a carpeted but shallow and empty swimming pool – known as The Pit. All students in the school would gather at The Pit for the morning announcements and whatever odd ceremonies or presentations were to be had. Anyways, behind this open area were metal shelves filled with books of all shapes and sizes, so essentially sandwhiching The Pit between the front stage platform and the library. I would often secure a spot at the back of The Pit where I’d hope to avoid the gaze or scolding of a teacher and would grab a book from the shelf behind me when possible.
One day I grabbed a gem: The Very Scary Almanac written by Eric Elfman. I believe it was 4th grade when I first held this book in my hands, and it tickled the fancies of my 9 year old self, it was filled with information about ghosts, aliens, paranormal monsters, hauntings, magic sorcerers, witchcraft, witchcraft trials, “horrible humans” and their devices of torture and murder. The book was filled with wonderful illustrations by artist Will Suckow. I believe the back even had a few pages of hexes and curses. While I had previously entertained some thoughts to the world of the ‘weird’, this book had an allure which offered a deeper look into reality for my little mind and with the contemplation of the subject of magic it filled me with a sense that there was somewhat of a mystery to the air and that it was available always. The ability to toy with the manipulation of reality brought a realization of the danger and responsibilities inherent in such powers in how we wield them, all the while making me interested moreso. I knew I had to read more, so I stashed the book away effectively hiding it from others, and then promised myself I’d collect it first opportunity.
When the opportunity came, I had a friend who was trailing me, following me around. Collectively as a class we’d visit the library once a week or so for a period where students were encouraged to read and take books out that were of interest. I had distracted my friend and secured the book, knowing it was possible that he’d wish to remove it from my hands, that is if he was anywhere as drawn in as I was by it. I couldn’t risk that he’d rush off to the librarian to take it out before me. When he finally came to see what I had tucked under my arm, I claimed that I had signed it out already, and that it was mine. I then overplayed the sinister presence of the book and continued to play up for my friend who was easily influenced and offered amusing reactions. We continued marveling in our our mischievousness until it proved too suspicious a sight to the librarian, who promptly approached. She ripped the book from my grasp and then held it aghast.
A few pages of the book had shown cartoon illustrations of magic circles, Vlad the Impaler at a feast, Elizabeth Bathory using a skull to bathe herself in a tub of blood, historical torture devices; these were the some of the images the librarian would have seen as she flipped through. She was a strict woman and was most sternly fixated on the section about the topic of magic. She was flustered and shocked, speaking down of the material, saying that it was not fit for children and then she stormed off and placed the book under her desk/stand with a small pile of books set to be discarded. I felt awful knowing that I had blown my chance and wouldn’t get to spend time reading the material, so I kicked myself, and may have blamed my friend for ruining everything. However, I mostly remember being angered most of all by the fact that someone felt that they could decide what was appropriate for me. I was completely fine and interested in the book I was reading (which was quite rare for me). I had gotten quite offended that she could think so little of my intelligence; that I could not view a cartoon depiction of a vampire without wanting to impale others on the playground. (If you’re wondering, I ended up excusing myself near the end of the day for a bathroom break and the book ended up coming home with me, though this time I didn’t wish to tell anyone that it was in my possession. Don’t judge, I was young, and the book was going to be thrown out otherwise).
I sought out the title of the book when a nostalgic moment was sparked of it due to some correspondence I was having with a friend, so when I dug through the recesses of my brain it finally came to me and I entered a search for it on Google images. Sure enough I found a few photos uploaded to spark some memories of the illustrations and one led me to a blog post from the mother of a 10 year old who brought home the book (some 12 or so years after my experience). In this post the mother highlighted how she was angered that her child’s librarian didn’t remove the book quickly enough after lodging a complaint to ban it from being on the shelves. She wrote that she didn’t feel she was treated respectfully given how “inappropriate such content is for children to see”. (These illustrations are nothing more shocking than one would be exposed to on a Saturday morning cartoon line-up).
This children’s book touched upon so much that I can only label ‘Mystery’, and it made me re-assess the world we’re living in, and perhaps is responsible for planting the seed which made me always pursue knowledge in the face of fear or stigma attached to subjects. It seemed rather peculiar to me that ideas and concepts of magic could produce in reality monsters of men foaming at the mouth and calling for the torture of a woman for example, all because he feared she hexed him due to looking at him the wrong way. Or simply reading about people who are blood-thirsty and monstrous without reason. Reading about the horrendous nature of some individuals made me ask questions fairly early in life about where such behavior could originate. It was more troubling that societies have not only lived alongside such beings and barbarism, but seemingly throughout history it has in large parts been responsible for creating them.
Most importantly, and I think why I’m writing this piece is that the book instilled within me a certain affinity with the ‘awareness of mystery’, mystery which is always available and can provide an endless well of thought to tap from. This awareness of mystery being always accessible brings with it a sense of curiosity and a drive to conquer, then master that mystery. Thoughts of ghosts and things unknown bring fear perhaps with their initial discovery, but in the exploration of these ideas comes also a sense of courage to want to face them, and bizarrely enough in my case, to find an understanding of them.
It is interesting to me to this day, that adults would hold fears for their children being tainted by having access to curiosities. While the child can grow and mature with time to move their mind from the subject of spirits, invisible monsters, and from the fairy tale concept of magic; they eventually move into a more coherent and clear reality thanks to their exposures of scientific method and logical thinking. Though the reality of monsters doesn’t disappear. Monsters of the flesh within the world are unquestionably real, and what creates these monsters, or “horrible humans” remains an unanswered question as society would rather hide the ugliness of the world and its creations than inform its youth, and give them the tools to face the oppression and danger established before their time. Children who have evolved from time spent entertaining the pasts silly superstitions and the supernatural can then entertain the ideas of magic in the Crowlean sense, and perhaps with a worldly embrace of magic, mystery, education and exploration, we’d see the end too of the monstrous side of humanity.
I don’t think this article is appropriate for you to keep reading, so I’ll end it here.