A Child's First Cosmic Horror: Berkeley Square Number 50

You may know that I love hunting down old monster books from my childhood. A chain of research has netted me quite the find. I think it’s the first taste I ever had of cosmic horror.

I made a Tumblr of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That turned into tracking down the werewolf and vampire books that fear master Stephen Gammell had also illustrated. And, dear readers, it was exploring that series that returned a nightmare from my childhood to my hands.

The Eerie Series was dedicated to introducing kids to the mythology of monsters. There were plenty of other books that gave encyclopedic listings of movie plots, like the beloved Ian Thorne Monster Series from Crestwood House. The Eerie Series, however, used as many classical legends as possible. This was where, as I recall, I learned about wolfskin belts, the proper way to stake a vampire, and the werewolf fighting power of the simple apron.

Mildred Heavewater of Murder with Monsters has a thing about counting sesame seeds because of the Eerie series.

So I order the Ghosts volume and find the book that gave me nightmares. I had the hardcover burn itself into my memory . . .

. . . but I also like the weird "Let the Buyer Beware" of the paperback.

There’s a lot of classic ghosts stories and very faded photographs inside. Also, some wonderful Stephen Gammell art. That’s not important. What matters is the weird terror of chapter 2, “The Nameless Horror of Berkeley Square.”

I’d been able to recite it from memory since I was seven. Memories of the inhuman illustration (seen above) haunted me. I’ve used Berkeley Square #50 in a Call of Cthulhu session! Worry started to well up within me: would the tale be as gruesome as I remember?

Hell, yes.

Madness. Not just fear or terror, but out and out madness. That grab’s an elementary schooler’s attention. Oh, it’s on.

Ancient tentacled beings from within the Earth! This is so different than any other ghost story you could find in similar collections. The only tale that drips with almost the same amount of WTFery is the Annan Road appearances. I’ll have to give that one a write-up sometime.

None of this is parsimonious. Nothing hangs together thematically, just a steady stream of scary weirdness. That randomness is more realistic, in a way, than a story with a more coherent theme crafted by a writer. It made the Horror tantalizingly plausible for young me. It's messy, the way real life is.

“Don’t let it touch me.” Brilliant. Less really is more.

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And that’s it. There’s no reveal, no italicized Lovecratian whammer or (as A Podcraft to the Curious wonderfully said) a Jamesian whallop. It’s still there, children, and it’ll kill you in weird ways. No wonder this became my favorite ghost story of all time.

Maybe it was exposure to this that made me appreciate Japanese ghosts. The onryo, the "vengeful spirits" of Ju-On and later The Grudge, work for me. I think Ju-On 2 was the only horror film to ever make me scream. After all, the pale apparition Kayako doesn’t leave clues or moan out messages. She kills you in unknown ways for reasons that she doesn’t care to explain. Matt Alt gives them a proper treatment in his excellent book Yurei Attack!, and he pulls no punches. These are ghosts as a force of nature, a hurricane in ectoplasm. Jacob Marley will give you exposition. These spooks want your jaw.

Apparently Berkeley Square Number 50 has been quiet, the hauntings coincidentally stopping after the end of yellow journalism. One wonders if the Daily Mail could stir up some spirits. Still, when my wife asked me I’d want to travel in the British Isles, there was only one place that belonged in the same sentence as Loch Ness.

Update!

My Lovecraft-meets-John-Carpenter’s-Thing story will see print soon in Alban Lake’s Miskatonic Nightmares! I had submitted it to their “Miskatonic Dreams’ anthology, but quickly got the response: “Nope. This goes in ‘Nightmares.’” Check it out!