The Nightmares Trilogy, edited by Mary Danby (Armada Books)
Bone collector: Pat Black
In the video nasties era, short story anthologies like this were as close as libraries got to hot property. Children of the eighties talked about them in the playground in the same bloodcurdling tones as the horror videos they boasted about watching. Even youngsters who didn’t read a lot of books took Mary Danby’s Nightmares series out.
What sets the three books in the series aside from their contemporaries - edited by the likes of good old R Chetwynd-Hayes, bless him - is that they were genuinely scary. They didn’t concern mopey vampires afraid of the sight of blood, werewolves whose ears could be tickled or safe retreads of the Greek myths. They depicted normal British kids, getting muddled up in the kind of gruesome business that might have befouled the pages of the Pan or Fontana collections for adults. Blood flowed, people died and there was a sinister atmosphere that you didn’t get in stories written specifically for the children’s market. They remain unique.
The original Nightmares appeared 30 years ago, and its memorable cover illustration alluded to the burgeoning popularity of American hamburgers at the time: a rat in a bun. It started the way it meant to go on, with Allison Prince’s "The Chicken". This wartime tale concerns a young girl watching her cackling neighbour twist off a chicken’s head for the pot. After the Luftwaffe drop a bomb on the scene, losing one’s head becomes a spectator sport.
Hobscabs! What a thrill to see that name. I hadn’t read it in 25 years or more, but I remembered Ian Stratton Price’s eponymous story instantly. "Hobscabs" is a shape-shifting demon which torments a young boy who is scared of the dark. Only granny can help, it seems… But there’s a price to pay.
The rest of the first anthology is a mixed bag, with stories ranging from alien invasion by giant spiders ("The Holidaymakers") to Mary Danby’s own entry, looking at millions of slugs taking their revenge on a pair of curmudgeonly farmers at their remote farm ("Slugs"). Things get sinister with Tony Richards’ "The Brother", a tale of a child and his imaginary sibling not taking kindly to the news that mummy is going to be bringing a new baby home. But the standouts are Rosemary Timperley’s "The Hat", where some bullying children are given a shock after messing with a strange old lady’s ever-present millinery, and Lucy M Boston’s "Curfew", an MR Jamesian story looking at an ancient evil disinterred by the ringing of a cursed bell which ends, literally, on a grim note.
Nightmares 2 followed a year later in 1984, and it had the most memorable cover – a snake, curling its way out of a toothpaste tube. And it might be the best of the three. Alan W Lear’s "Gruesome" opens proceedings with its examination of that grim kid we all recall who liked horrible things - and the boy who is unlucky enough to befriend him. One night, the friend is dared to spend the night in the funeral parlour the spooky kid’s family owns…
Celia Fremlin’s "The Babysitter" was a subtle tale which I enjoyed far more the second time around. It reverses childhood separation anxieties, placing them on the heads of the parents. The mother of the piece is nervous about leaving her daughter with a new babysitter, a huge, brusque German woman, while she goes to the theatre with her husband. She is discomfited by the girl’s terrified fantasies of "the chicken with the great big eyes". Why is it that the formidable Mrs Hahn reminds the mother so much of this childhood demon?
Alison Prince – one of the original writers on stop motion puppet show favourite Trumpton, believe it or not - returns with "The Loony". A young girl stays at a house with a cursed past, where a previous occupant ended up chained to the wall in an attic. Surely history can’t repeat itself?
Prince’s work has also appeared in anthologies for adults, and the same is true for Alan Temperley, who weighs in next with "Evening Flight". Temperley wrote some truly sick stories for Herbert van Thal’s Pan Horror series. Once "Love on the Farm" or the infamous "Kowlongo Plaything" are read, they are never forgotten. Here, he is on more sinister form, looking at a couple of public school sixth-formers taking residence at a seaside bothy one weekend. They’re 17, on the brink of adulthood, they’re both going places and everything seems very grown-up and exciting. A bottle of whisky is produced. One of them, the head boy at the school, is a keen shooter. After taking a skinful of booze he heads out into the late evening with his gun, intent on bagging some birds. Just as a sea fog comes in. With the tide following.
What a belter this was – not only a grim set of circumstances, but subversive, too. Temperley was making a statement about class-based hubris, I think. And is one of the boys a little too diffident when he’s asked what he thinks about girls?
Alan Temperley is now an established children’s writer, although it seems he cut his teeth on more grisly fare. Was this the moment when his career crossed over into work for children? It’s difficult to imagine the same man who wrote "Kowlongo Plaything" making such a leap, but this story provides a link between the two worlds.
Then there’s Terry Tapp’s "Heads and Tails". It begins with two Victorian waifs considering the pennies on the eyes of their mother’s body. When the bone collector shows up to take her away, things get properly grim. Like "Evening Flight", the story has a sense of helplessness that sets it apart from other children’s tales. The brother and sister don’t have much chance in life to start with, and with their mother gone, there’s even less. Things don’t improve when the crafty bone collector who slings the corpse onto his wagon takes up their offer of work. They are dispatched to the sewers, to pick pennies out of the filth. Soon they begin to get hungry…
August Derleth is probably the only superstar on the roster, and he contributes the Bradburyian "The Lonesome Place". What I liked about this was that it captured that chilly childhood feeling of being sent out on an errand after dark, and having to go past that one shadowy, overgrown spot in the neighbourhood where just about anything could lurk. I recall reading this and getting the shivers, sitting alone in my childhood home, knowing exactly what Derleth was getting at.
Philip C Heath’s "Creepers" was a nice plants-hate-you entry, but the best story in the book is the closer, Mary Danby’s "Arbor Day". Centring on an ancient springtime ritual which is parodied at a small town fair, this one looked at teenage jealousy. A girl, shunted into a supporting role in a play by someone she loathes, decides to sabotage her rival’s costume the night before the big event. It’s the kind of petty stuff that comes naturally to many teenagers - eager to catch the eye of that tall, dark stranger. This may be Mary Danby’s best ever story.
Nightmares 3 took a bow in 1985. Its astonishing cover features a fragmented eggshell, some runny raw eggwhites… and in place of a yolk, an eye.
The book opens with the story I remembered in the best detail out of all three volumes – "Clifftops", by Anthony Bennett. It features a boy trapped in an end-of-season seaside hotel with a bunch of vampires who hide out in the basement, and it was atmospheric, bloody and grim. Again, this kindled such a strong memory when I read it again. The thrill of realising there was a new Nightmares book, getting it out of the library and reading it at lunchtime during the school holidays. It’s the kind of story that makes you hyper-aware of the empty house around about you; every single creak and rustle, the ticking of the clock, the green eyes of the cat in her corner, the shadows lengthening on the walls.
"Dead Letter" by Alan W Lear concerned revenge from beyond the grave by a phantom postman, while Johnny Yen’s crusty seagoing horror "Barnacles" is about – you’ve guessed it – a whole tanker-load of the creatures in the title. Mary Danby’s "Old Wiggie" takes a look at a strange, yet familiar creature – the lonely old woman tormented by local kids for being a witch – while "The Shaft" by Philip C Heath added a horrific climax to the endeavours of two boys who decide to climb down a strange pit hidden away on their boarding school campus.
"Clifftops" is the standout, but only after a photo finish with Roger Mallison’s "Shadow of the Rope". This one looked at a young actor performing in a reconstruction of a famous fictional murder for a TV documentary. This one had an obvious finale, but it was beautifully done – and how brave of a story for children to address the horror of murderers, and what might go on in their minds.
You can pick up paperback copies of these books online for pennies. Whether you’re a nostalgia case like me, or simply curious, they remain a cut above anything else on the market for youngsters. A treat for big and little monsters this Hallowe’en.