ESSAY Jim Perrin

NWR Issue 98

Along the Unthank Road

My father came in at visiting time that evening. It was Hallowe'en 1958, I was eleven, and in one of Manchester’s austere Victorian hospitals for a long stay. He was carrying a thick tome in a faded green cover, told me it came from the second-hand bookshop on John Dalton Street where I’d taken to hanging around on the way back from school each day. Its proprietor – a friend of the Manchester Guardian’s Paddy Monkhouse, who was often there and whose obituary I was to write for the Guardian thirty years later – took an amused interest in my precocious reading, often slipped me shabby, unsaleable reading-copies of Dickens and Hardy, Mary Webb or Mrs Henry Wood, even on one occasion a duplicate Nonesuch Swift that I still use and increasingly value. ‘The old chap said to give you this and get well soon,’ my dad explained, handing the book across. ‘He said it’s better than it looks – some good stuff in there.’

Paternal duty done, the place an oppression to him, he strode away down the ward and left me to heft open the green book. There was a faintly ludicrous death’s-head design on its faded cover like a Moomin from a Tove Jansson cartoon. A Century of Creepy Stories was the title, published by Hutchinson in 1934. It described accurately enough, though its register conferred few favours on the contents. Which latter were of remarkable and consistent literary excellence: Hugh Walpole, Arthur Machen, Elizabeth Bowen, Walter de la Mare, Defoe, Poe, Balzac, Wells, Lefanu, LP Hartley, DH Lawrence, Washington Irving and Mary Webb, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood – and four stories by someone with the odd name of Oliver Onions, an electively Welsh author who can be said to have reinvented the English ghost story.

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succinctly informative. More than half-a-century on, I’m still impressed by its
quality, grateful for the bookseller’s gift. It helped me through a bleak time.

       


previous essay: Storms
next essay: Lying Turks and the Pure Tongue of Eden



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