Phantasmagoria of the Library (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 6)

The library at John Tyler Elementary School was not a place of welcome. When I was in second grade, it became a battleground.

That’s a strange reminiscence from a librarian. My mom found it odd back then too that her son, who read everyday, loved the public library, and always left it with a pile of books, complained that he didn’t like the school library and couldn’t find anything to read there. I was quick to explain. There were books there that I wanted to read, but I wasn’t allowed to read them.

The school library was divided into three large sections. The low shelves under the windows held picture books and early readers for first- and second-graders. The floor-to-ceiling shelves facing the desk and lining the two alcoves across the reading area from the windows were for grades three and up, offering YA fiction and nonfiction. An additional wall of tall shelves on the east wall at the end of the reading area were off limits to everyone but fifth- and sixth-graders. And as far as the librarian Mrs. Huffle was concerned, those age restrictions were absolute.

I struggled all through first grade to find anything interesting at all during our class’ weekly visit to the library. I tolerated a lot of Barney Beagle, Nate the Great, and Amelia Bedelia that year. As second grade began, I asked about the books on the opposite side of the reading area, but as far as Mrs. Huffle was concerned, the first rule of reader’s advisory for children was “Grade level, not reading level.” When she tried to steer me to a Ranger Don book I responded that I had already borrowed the public library’s entire collection of Ranger Don books. My irritation was amplified by the fact that we were a split class of second- and third-graders, so half of my classmates were already allowed to browse the alcoves. Eventually I was unwilling to even try to find something on the low shelves.

Mom was informed of this, in what was probably an attempt to bring me under parental pressure to stop bitching and just borrow a book. It backfired, badly. In what was both a justified protest and an early example of the erosion of the parent-teacher alliance, Mom discussed the matter with Mrs. Carp, my teacher, and told her it was okay if I took books from the third-and-fourth grade shelves, because everything I read at home was above my grade level too. Mrs. Carp was left to square this with Mrs. Huffle. Problem solved, or so Mom was allowed to believe.

My next visit to the school library, I browsed around the alcoves and thumbed through several books before reaching an agonizing decision about which to borrow. I took my selection to the desk, where Mrs. Huffle harrumphed and told me that while she and Mrs. Carp had agreed I could look at the books for older children, I certainly could not check them out.

My mother never dealt well with being defied, but she would absolutely under no circumstances brook any deceit. While Mrs. Carp and Mrs. Huffle’s assurance that I could “look at” and “take books from” the older kids’ shelves was not technically a lie, it was certainly a weaselly semantic evasion, which in Mom’s esteem was even more shameful. It was not just deliberately misleading, it was spineless too.

A new round of discussions ensued in which Mrs. Huffle had to deal directly with Mom, the tone and character of which I do not know, though I have a good guess. Someone had the idea to rely on an upcoming reading assessment to settle the mater. When my reading level was determined to be fifth grade, Mom had the footing to assert that the entire library should be open to me. Even worse for Mrs. Huffle, my friend Jared Pettitte was also discovered to be reading three years above grade-level, so his parents joined the debate.

All of this took place over the course of weeks, but sometime after Christmas break Mrs. Huffle and Mrs. Carp admitted defeat and surrendered. The terms were unconditional. Not only could Jared and I borrow books from any part of the school library, but with exceptions made for two boys and all the third-graders in the class already permitted, there was not much pretext for restricting the other second-graders to the picture books. I don’t know if Mrs. Huffle abandoned her grade-level policy altogether, but for the 45 minutes a week our class spent in the library, the entire collection was open to everyone.

For readers, libraries are where we discover our heritage and inheritance.
For readers of any genre, libraries are where we discover our heritage and inheritance.

THE FIRST THING I DISCOVERED was the vaunted fifth- and sixth-grade stacks were merely a continuation of the YA nonfiction section that began in the second alcove. As a whole, the books there were no harder to read than those in third-through-sixth area. Mrs. Huffle’s rules were strange and fussy indeed.

The first clutch of books I seized upon during that latter half of second grade was the orange and black Crestwood House Monster Series. These were nonfic books about famous monsters, the subjects being a mix of Universal Pictures ghoulies, giant creatures, 1950s sci-fi villains, and famous literary horrors. The common thread was all of these monsters were either born in cinema or famously adapted into it. Each book focused on one monster, recounting its development from its conception and first cultural depiction, through film adaptations and sequels, and its legacy of other works and monsters it spawned. The pages bore a moderate amount of text and were splashed with publicity photos, posters, and stills from the movies. They were kind of like coffee table books for morbid children. My fascination with these books led me to draw werewolves and vampires during that spring’s rash of indoor recesses, and to ask my dad to take me to the video store to rent Tod Browning’s classic 1931 Dracula adaptation. Creativity sparked. Horizons broadened.

A short while later, in the first alcove, I encountered the durable Hardy Boys series. Frank Hardy and his brother, Joe, were teen detectives who were always butting into and ultimately solving the investigations of their police detective father, which had to be embarrassing for a veteran cop. Tyler’s library had the revised editions of the first two or three dozen novels in the original series. The plots were a little bit Scooby Doo and a little bit Encyclopedia Brown, the brothers dressed like Pat Boone, and the setting was pure mid-century Mayberry. Despite that bountiful wholesomeness, or more likely because of it, publisher Archway Paperbacks attempted that spring to update the Hardys for a darker era by launching a new series, The Hardy Boys Casefiles, which I discovered on the public library’s bookmobile. My eyes widened at the jacket summary for #3, Cult of Crime, in which Frank and Joe match wits with an apocalyptic death cult. I read it within a few days, and it retains its distinction as the only book I ever insisted on reading at the table during dinner.

The jacket illustration is anachronistic, as Joe's sideburns are not blocked off above the ear.
The jacket illustration is anachronistic, as Joe’s sideburns are not blocked off above the ear. It was 1987.

The school library had James Howe’s Chester and Howard mysteries; I had already been through the battered rag that was once my copy of Howliday Inn over a dozen times, but was finally able to read Bunnicula, which was no longer stocked by B. Dalton or Waldenbooks.

The library’s crown jewels, however, as far as I was concerned, were the works of Daniel Cohen, and the best of these was Superstition. Cohen was a YA author who specialized in writing about the paranormal and the occult for young readers. As careers go, it seems like the market would be narrow and the work itself liable to draw the attention of scolds, censors, and scrutinizers. And yet, Cohen wrote lots of these books. Often his tone was pretty light, and textually Superstition was no different. Despite his apparent fixation on legends and UFOlogy, Cohen was a skeptic, and most of this book’s chapters are dedicated to rational discussion of umbrellas, ladders, salt, and dowsing rods.

The cover is ominous. The illustrations are are cure for constipation.
The cover is ominous. The illustrations are are cure for constipation.

Then there are the consecutive chapters on witchcraft and devil worship. In the text, Cohen sticks to his discuss-and-debunk mode. Superstition actually offers, for a children’s book, a pretty sophisticated explanation of how the concept of witches and witchcraft changed over the centuries and ultimately led to the witch hunts of the late Middle Ages.

Whoever was charged with choosing illustrations to accompany the text, on the other hand, was not fucking around with all this “light and reason” horseshit. The first page of the witchcraft chapter is adorned with a hypnotically leering sorceress. It’s the unexpected, stomach-flipping drop midway through the roller coaster.

The plunge continues, with additional twists and dips, into the subterranean inferno of Hell itself. The images were far more impactful than Cohen’s measured words. A Goya painting of witches making treat with the Great He-Goat, featuring the painter’s gigantic, hideously bearded, and amply horned conception of Lucifer, occupied an entire page. The Baphomet provided a primer on the origins and significance of the “Satanic” pentagram that accounted for 80 percent of all graffiti in the 1980s. There was also a medieval woodcut of the Devil dragging a child away by his ankles while his bored-looking parents casually waved goodbye. Cohen explained that it was believed, in days gone by, that men and women desirous of material wealth might seek the succor of Satan, and promise him, in exchange, one or more of their children. I became preoccupied with speculation of how awful it would be to not only be hauled away to Hell, but to realize that your parents were permitting it.

Dear Mom and Dad, I'm having so much fun at camp...
Dear Mom and Dad, I’m having so much fun at camp…

The devil worship chapter was followed by an entire chapter about dowsing. What a joke, right? Could anything seem less consequential after all that diabolism? I always felt hollowed out and rattled, reading the dowsing chapter. I mean for fuck’s sake are we really going to fucking waste our time with all this piddling business about some dipshit walking around with a forked fucking stick looking to drill a well? Just get connected to the water main and save yourself the trouble, asshole. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, because as we’ve just seen, the Devil is a huge honking motherfucking goat sitting around in a circle of witches while one of them plays with a skeleton baby. Further, we were informed that if you speak of the Devil he shows his face – so he’ll probably be here any minute. Good luck fighting him off with your tree branch, you stupid witless bastard.

Published in 1971, by the time I encountered Superstition 15 or so years later Satanic Panic was in full swing. Contrary to Cohen’s intent to dispel irrational fear, for me Superstition became a critical epistemic support for belief in the existence of a global yet secret worldwide network of Satanists who had infiltrated every city and town in the U.S. and were looking everywhere for children to abduct and sacrifice. Don’t laugh at me, man, my only mistake was watching the news and listening to adults.

Was this the reason Mrs. Huffle restricted first- and second-graders from the higher reading level books? I doubt it. Acquisition of a book implies some level of endorsement; that it at least merits inclusion in the library’s collection. There’s certainly no point in buying books if you aren’t going to let users read them – for any reason. Also, librarians are champions of intellectual freedom. Lastly, if some previous school librarian had selected the book, or if Mrs. Huffle herself had and later changed her mind about it, there’s always the recourse of a quiet after-hours deselection. No, my best guess is that Mrs. Huffle didn’t like reshelving throughout the library after classes left, and the restrictions were meant to ensure that only a portion needed tending at a time.

I think about that little library sometimes. It was the first place I ever served a detention, for not completing my spelling homework. It was also where I learned terms that would hold meaning for me as an adolescent, like “extraterrestrial biological entity” and “bug-eyed monster” – again, thanks to Mr. Cohen.

A couple years ago I scored a copy of Superstition on HPB Marketplace. The illustrations remain chilling.

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