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. As the battle wore on 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 Little 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 one section 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.

The Devil and Kevin Tanner (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 5)

Folklore and urban legends are fiction we choose to believe, enhanced by person-to-person transmission. If a novel or film can be said to be a window into another place or time, then surely some part of the mind recognizes the conduit of book or screen can be closed at will. Folk legends have a verisimilitude no found footage movie or false document fiction could ever match, because we receive them from real people in the real world; not peering at a page or a rectangle of projected light, but immersed in and surrounded by the great limitless sphere of everything we can see and hear and feel, and everything behind and beyond that. You cannot close the book against the horror of an escaped madman or the mystery of a vanished hitchhiker because it exists in the real world that we inhabit – if you choose to believe the tale, or are gullible enough to accept it without question.

I don’t remember how or why I started hanging around with Kevin Tanner, but I remember we bonded over stories of Bigfoot, flying saucers, and psychic premonitions of the Titanic sinking. Kevin and his gift for storytelling are central to one of the most cringe-inducing memories of my childhood.

I do remember I met him in first grade. We had the same teacher and rode the same bus, and by the time his birthday on Halloween rolled around, we were best friends. I went to his party dressed in a shark costume my Mom made. He was also the first kid other than my cousin Erin who came over to my house for a sleepover. Usually we’d play with some GI Joes, maybe Mom and Dad would take us to dinner somewhere or order pizza, we’d have a snack, watch a movie, and make a tent out of blankets. And, like normal little boys, we would whisper about alien abductions, the Kenneth Arnold incident, the actual guy from a long time ago who put sticks through people and might have been a vampire, and how you can be sure Bigfoot is real because the Indians have a word for him: Sasquatch.

What I wish I could remember is how the fuck did a couple six-year-olds know about that shit? How do two children barely out of kindergarten, learn about Betty and Barney Hill for fuck’s sake? I have no recollection. I do remember that as the next few years went by, Kevin outgrew those things but I didn’t. I did not, and they became an early wedge between myself and most of my classmates.

Our favorite discussion topic in those very first weeks of all-day schooling was the Bermuda Triangle. Bounded by Miami, San Juan, and Bermuda, tales tell of mysterious disappearances in this part of the Atlantic Ocean, possibly caused by magnetic anomalies, or by the submerged ruins of the once-mighty Atlantis, or by aliens, or perhaps by all three.

If you’ve heard any of these stories, you’ve heard of the disappearance of Flight 19. In December 1945, 14 men aboard five bombers took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on an eastward training flight over a patch of ocean that years later would gain the name “Bermuda Triangle.” The airmen lost their bearings and radioed for help determining their location. Their commander believed they had somehow ended up over the Florida Keys, and later that they were over the Gulf of Mexico. Intermittent radio contact over the next several hours revealed to personnel on land that Flight 19’s two compasses had stopped working and the airmen flew back and forth as the weather deteriorated, hoping to sight land and arguing betwixt themselves about which direction to go. In the last of their communiques heard on land, they planned to ditch into the ocean together as they expended the last of their fuel. The Navy sent rescuers to an area in the Atlantic a couple hundred miles east of Central Florida, where triangulation of their radio transmissions placed the planes. Among these rescuers was a bomber crewed by 13 men, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, which was lost to an apparent explosion. How did they get so lost? How is it that they never sighted land? Why did the compasses stop working? Isn’t it a big coincidence that one of the rescue planes was also lost?

I’ll grant that I have no explanation of why the compasses broke, and that losing a rescue plane too is a pretty unsual run of shitty luck, but Flight 19 fell into the ocean because they started out flying east, then got disoriented and thought they were somehow over the Florida Keys, and so started flying to the northeast hoping to reach South Florida – but in fact they were headed further out to sea. They never reached land while flying west because they were so far out over the ocean and didn’t go back far enough. As for PBM-5 BuNo 59225, the burning oil slick believed to represent it’s final resting place was far from the triangulated location of Flight 19 and not even over the Triangle.

Anyway. There are other stories like this, and many of them are similarly not so mysterious, but we’ll leave aside further discussion of Bermuda Triangle lore, because Kevin had additional stories about the Triangle of an entirely different and more frightening character. Stories that hinged upon its other name: The Devil’s Triangle.

Kevin and his family had recently taken a vacation in Florida, and there he had gained terrifying new knowledge of the Bermuda Triangle and the cause of all it’s unexplained phenomena. It was worse than Atlantean ruins or alien plane-nappers. Kevin was playing on the beach when something caught his eye. He stood and looked out into the Atlantic, out into the Triangle, at an island not far from the shore. And there, on the island, in the Triangle, there stood the goddamn Devil.

Or so Kevin said.

A storyteller is loath to relinquish a rapt audience, and so Kevin went on and on over the next several days with tales ever more terrifying about diabolism in the Devil’s Triangle. The final nightmare was the worst and hit closest to home – because it was literally close to home, in Kevin’s own backyard. Once again, Kevin had been playing outdoors when the air began to warm and the ground to quake, before a fissure opened in the earth, spewing smoke and heat. The Devil emerged, huge and scaly, and chased my horrified friend. Kevin hid in a shed in his yard as the Lord of Darkness strode back and forth in search of him, his every hoof-fall jolting the ground. The shaking intensified then abruptly stopped, and after several long moments Kevin emerged from hiding. The rift from which Satan had emerged had closed, but for three things: The tips of his horrid pitchfork protruding from the scorched dirt. There the Lord of Flies waited, there where Kevin played daily, there close by his bedroom window where he slept each night, there Satan would remain until the time was right to burst forth again, red and blazing, his trident flashing, his lupine grin dripping slaver, to snatch Kevin and carry him bodily into the burning bowels of Hell.

And if Satan had ranged all the way to Ohio from … Miami, Florida … what was to stop him from roaming around my hometown? I lived less than a mile from Kevin, and our school wasn’t far off. In light of Kevin’s revelations about the infernal attack on his backyard, it was obvious that no place was safe.

I would have been at home in Salem perhaps, 300 years earlier, among Puritans who feared the tread of the Dark Man in the wilderness around them. Satanic Panic was in full swing, and despite neither my parents nor our priest being the sort who spot Old Scratch behind every rock, tree, and album cover, the moral panic about Devil worship had somehow seeped into my intellectual drinking water. That Satan is real is Catholic dogma. That he bursts from the ground sporting horns and a goatee to drag children away is not, nor is his alleged massive global – and paradoxically secret – network of worshippers who put backmasked messages in heavy metal songs. But that rotten stuff was in my head too. The Reagan years were Godly years in the Heartland, and even if your parents didn’t haul you twice a week into the First Southern Fried Holy Rollin’ Spirits on Fire Church of Lookit Over There It’s the Devil Again, you were nonetheless liable to get the distinct impression that Lucifer and his agents were everywhere. So Kevin’s stories played to that.

It also has to be said though that as a boy I had no guile whatsoever. I was an only child and the streets near our house were way too busy for anyone to trust a 6-year-old to roam the neighborhood without getting hit by a car. Consequently I spent way more time around adults than other kids. The idea that another kid would tell a lie just for the hell of it never occurred to me. So everything Kevin said, I assumed to be the truth. The lesson I was about to learn would prove invaluable a year later when a prize-winner named Jared Little arrived at my school.

Whatever the reasons, Kevin’s stories were real and terrifying as far as I was concerned. Prior to Beelzebub’s Backyard Brou-ha-ha though, I had been able to manage my fear. Not after, and terror seized me immediately. Kevin told me the story at lunch, as usual. Also as usual, an hour or two later I poked along changing clothes after gym and found myself the last boy in the locker room. If the Man in the Red Pajamas was planning to take me – and let’s face it, he definitely probably was – this was his chance. I yanked my clothes on, heart crashing as I fumbled with the buttons of my shirt. I laced my shoes and bolted from a crouch into the hallway, narrowly avoiding the Prince of Hell.

I was still composing myself when Miss Hough, our gym teacher, noticed something amiss.

“Why is your shirt inside out?”

To put a shirt on inside out is one thing. To fucking button it is another. Miss Hough was justified in feeling this was curious indeed. She told me to go back into the locker room and put my shirt on rightside out. I then did something I had never done outside of home.

“No.” I flatly defied an adult.

Miss Hough was taken aback. Another kid, she probably would have yelled at; Miss Hough was more than able to summon the requisite demeanor to compel insubordinate grade-schoolers to shut up and do jumping jacks, and was not above grappling with the occasional kid who refused to relinquish a playground ball or perhaps another child’s shirt.

“Why don’t you want to go back into the locker room?”

“I don’t know.”

“Get back in there. Fix your shirt.”

I shook my head.

That she didn’t tee off on me, I can only ascribe to curiosity at my extremely uncharacteristic and perplexing refusal. The boys’ locker room at John Tyler Elementary School, in my defense, was not a pleasant or soothing environment. It stank to high Heaven, for one thing. The building was then 35 years old – my Mom had gone to school there two decades earlier – but bore the hallmarks of having been designed in one era, and retrofitted for a new one with an eye on avoiding expense. So whereas boys might have used the locker room shower in the 1950s, by the mid-80s elementary age kids weren’t required to do so and the showers were closed off with chicken wire and piled full of junk that still hadn’t completely settled and was prone to crash and creak ominously. There were ragged holes here and there where old fixtures had been pulled from the walls. It had other charms.

My brass-balled yet chickenshit disobedience elicited interested stares from my assembled classmates in the hall outside the locker rooms. The whole episode was so damn interesting, in fact, that Miss Hough shared it with Mrs. Mello, my first grade teacher. Back in class, with everyone seated she asked me, amused, why I refused to go back into the locker room. I shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“Your shirt’s still inside out. Isn’t that uncomfortable?”

“No. It’s fine.”

“Why wouldn’t you go fix it?”

I looked down at my desk. “I was scared.”

“Why were you scared?”

I grinned a little bit, pointed, and cringed – kind of like I’m cringing now. I pointed at the floor.

“What’s wrong with the floor?”

“Not the floor. The Devil.”

My classmates were delighted. Mrs. Mello was at a loss for something to say to a child who wouldn’t go into the boys’ lockers for fear of the Adversary. Kyle turned around and gave me a sheepish grin, acknowledging that we both had some explaining to do, not unlike earlier in the year when he taught me the word “fuck,” which I promptly went home and said loudly in front of my mother while she was on the phone with Mrs. Mello.

This is Kevin Tanner’s last appearance in my life as a horror fan. That was a surprising realization for me. Kevin was the first really close friend I made outside my family. But I guess we weren’t close friends for all that long.

We were classmates again in second grade. I remember our class put on a fairy tale themed play that year, and Kevin and I were two of Old King Cole’s fiddlers three. I also remember we hung around together a little less. I was becoming buddies with Jared Little and Kevin with a kid named Jeremy Valen, though they fucking fought all the time, including one truly cacophonous shit-fit in the middle of their act in a class talent show, during which I was sure they were about to fistfight. Kevin’s Dad and stepmom divorced sometime that year, so Kevin, his sister, and Mr. Tanner moved into a different house, near a different school. When third grade started at Tyler Elementary, Kevin was long gone.

Kevin came over to our house a few times a year between then and fifth grade or so. Mostly we’d play GI Joes or Nintendo or watch a movie. I was never invited to his house for some reason, except for one birthday party in first grade. Only that once. Despite his interest in the paranormal, horror wasn’t really Kevin’s thing. In fact, during one sleepover he got heavily freaked out and had to leave the room when the vampire gets out of his coffin on a cargo plane during the kiddie monster rally Monster Squad. It was a little bit of turnabout I guess, but it would have been more equal if it had happened in front of 25 of our peers.

As the idea of “popularity” began to emerge when we were preteens, Kevin became sort of a dick. He was was chosen to be one of the cool kids, which made him confident and a bit mocking. I was not, and that made me moody and prone to self doubt. Kevin started to find ways of leveraging my insecurities against me. One time close to the end of the friendship he cowed me into a patently lopsided ballcard trade. Dad and I dropped him off at his house – because Kevin’s Dad almost never came to pick him up, either – and Dad asked afterward why Kevin left with one of my higher value cards. I had to explain, which was embarrassing. Dad frowned and growled, “Have you learned your lesson about this kid yet?”

I had. I don’t believe I ever hung out with Kevin after that. Or at least not by choice; Mom forced me to invite him to my 11th birthday party. To this day, I have no idea why she had some stake in whether Kevin was going to be at my party. The next summer I ran into him at a weeklong basketball clinic, where he and his newer friends laughed at me – literally right in my face – for missing a lot of free throws. Months later he called my house and seemed confused that I hadn’t talked to him in a while and didn’t seem interested in hanging out or doing anything.

We ended up in a few of the same classes in high school, by which time he’d actually become a cool, interesting guy; loved beat poetry and Siddharta by Herman Hesse. We’d talk about books in our English classes, but we were never friends again.