Every time I read Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, I’m both afraid to put it down and to continue reading it! And invariably, I’m curiously drawn to reading it just after dark has settled, while I’m all by myself in an empty (and somehow now strangely creaky) house…
These are by far some of the most eerie and hair-raising tales I’ve ever read. It’s true that I’m not a fan of horror, but these stories are really scary because they are for children and about children. Their simplicity catches me every time, haunting the space around me with terrors of the imagination that weren’t there before.
So, if this Halloween you’re looking for a genuinely spooky, scary and haunting experience, just stay at home, dim the lights, and delve into any of Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror books. Plus the hardback editions come with David Roberts’ incredible illustrations. A truly horrifying treat.
“Mrs Sackville felt a giddy feeling flutter in her stomach and she moved to the garden door. As she opened it, the sound of Robert’s hammering could be heard more sharply.
‘Robert?’ she called, standing in the doorway.
He made no reply but took another nail from his mouth and hammered it home.
‘Robert!’ she called again, annoyed at how her voice cracked at this greater volume. ‘Answer me this instant!”
Robert hesitated mid-blow, turned and faced her; then grinned and continued. This brazen insolence riled even the mild-mannered Mrs Sackville and she stepped through the open door and began to stride across the patchy back lawn towards her son.
‘Robert? Robert?’ She demanded as she approached. ‘Robert? How dare you ignore me? What are you doing in there?’
Robert got slowly to his feet and turned. She had not noticed before how tired he looked. There were dark stains under his red-rimmed eyes and his skin had a sickroom pallor to it. As she approached, Robert stood back from his handiwork, the better for his mother to see.
On a long plank of wood supported at either end by two upturned terracotta pots was the most extraordinary collection of creatures.
In the dreamlike clarity of that first glimpse, Mrs Sackville could see beetles, worms, a frog or toad – she could not tell which – crickets, flies, butterflies, a mouse and several birds, one of which was still twitching horribly. They were all pinned or nailed to the plank and, judging by the twitching bird, had been alive when Robert fixed them there.
‘Good God, Robert,’ she said. ‘What have you done? What monstrous thing have you done here?’
Robert smiled horribly and she noticed that his attention seemed to be distracted. She followed his sideways glance to the wall at the back of the garden. There was something there. The mangy old cat was trotting towards them along the top of the wall.
‘He is my friend,’ said Robert, and then sensing that he had not given sufficient weight to this statement, he winked and said, ‘my special friend. I have done all this for him.’
Mrs Sackville stepped forward and slapped Robert hard around the side of the face; so hard that Robert has to take a step back to steady himself and Mrs Sackville was shocked to feel how much her own hand hurt. Robert rubbed his cheek and looked away to the wall.
‘What are you talking about?’ said Mrs Sackville, suppressing a sudden urge to vomit and following his gaze. ‘You are trying to say you did all this to please a cat?’
‘A cat?’ said Robert, genuinely confused.
‘Yes,’ said his mother. ‘A…’
But she could see now it was no cat, but something else – something not at all right. What she had taken for fur, she could see now was more like spines of some sort and this only partly covered its body, leaving patches of warty and raw looking skin elsewhere. The head looked like something partially skinned and cooked.
Mrs Sackville’s mind struggled to cope with what she was seeing as the creature leaned horribly towards her, its impossibly wide mouth opening and closing as if in silent speech. She lifted her hand to her chest to aid the flow of breath that was now coming so painfully slow. She clutched at the linen collar; at the cameo at her throat. The pin at its back pierced her thumb almost to the bone but she did not feel it. She dropped unconscious to the ground.
Robert was momentarily aware that he should have been upset to see his mother lying on the ground at his feet; her dying breath leaving her pale lips, her eyes still wide open, but he was not.
He looked up at his friend sitting on the wall and his friend’s mouth broke into one of those remarkable, warm, generous smiles. And Robert, once more, smiled back.”
Chris Priestley, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror
London, Bloomsbury, 2007, pp.109-13
Illustration: David Roberts