Whenever the topic of book banning and censorship of children’s and teens’ reading material arises on my Facebook feed, it’s invariably accompanied by streams of commentators – almost all writers, many of them horror writers – who maintain that “I was allowed to read whatever I wanted when I was a kid, and it never did me any harm”. And I usually distance myself from the conversation, because although I would not advocate the outright banning of a book, I am a proponent of age-appropriate reading material. I don’t let my pre-teen kids have free rein over my bookshelf, and neither was I allowed such when I was a kid…
Except…hang on a minute. Now that I think about it, I actually was.
When I was a child, my siblings and I spent a lot of time during our school holidays with my paternal grandmother. She had a farm on the outskirts of a small logging town, and a house that in my memory was massive but wasn’t really. One of the features of this house was a study off the veranda, barely big enough to fit a single bed and a desk, the walls of which were lined in paperback books. My grandmother’s home seemed to be something of a halfway house, with a constant parade of people in and out, some staying for days, some for months, and I was never quite sure who was family and who was just a wayward child in need of a good feed and some honest farm work to keep them out of trouble. The library, as I thought of it, was a “take one and leave one” kind of affair; like the house’s inhabitants, some books were permanent residents, and some would be there today, gone tomorrow, its “bed” taken up by a newcomer.
We were left to our own devices a lot on those holidays (scandalous by today’s standards, but quite the norm in 1970’s New Zealand). Favourite activities included climbing trees, riding bareback on a slow and ancient gelding called Prince, riding pillion on the farm bike behind whichever teenage boy had the patience to drive us kids around (and burning my bare legs on the exhaust pipe – the not-so-much-fun part), shooting tin cans off the fence with an air rifle, and playing with the plethora of dogs and cats about the place. And reading. Lots and lots of reading.
Once I learned to read, it didn’t take long for me to make my way through the entire child-appropriate section of my grandmother’s library (mostly crumbling Secret Seven and Famous Five paperbacks), so once they were done, I started in on the others. Sometimes the adults noticed what I was reading – I recall someone observing, “She’s reading The Darling Buds of May,” and somebody else laughing, but I never got the joke. And nobody ever swooped in and took a book off me or said, “That’s not for you.”
I knew when a book wasn’t child-appropriate. I knew when it seemed like there was some hidden significance to the words that eluded me, like when I read in a biography of Rasputin that his penis was 12 inches long. (Was that big for a penis? Small? What difference did it make to have a penis of that specific measurement? All of these questions and more my ten-year-old self pondered.) I knew because of the uncomfortable feeling in my gut and the tingling on the back of my neck, like I was naked and someone was spying on me through the window. Just looking at the cover of The Eyes of Laura Mars made me feel a little creeped out in that way. I knew when a book made me feel physically ill, like Eat Them Alive.
But it didn’t stop me reading them.
As a child I was ridiculously responsible, a good girl and a rule follower of the highest order, so perhaps it was some kernel of rebellion that made me read what I really shouldn’t. Did it do me any harm? Hard to say. I don’t feel especially traumatised, although I’m always skeptical of anyone who says, “…and it didn’t do me any harm.” It’s entirely possible that those people are simply not very good at self-analysis.
Did my childhood reading habits influence my calling to write horror fiction? Now we might be getting somewhere; I do remember thinking of Eat Them Alive that the plot was flimsy, the gross-out descriptions gratuitous, and that if stuff like that could get published, then when I grew up I was going to write something just as scary but much, much classier. An informal study of horror writers shows that most of them, like me, read anything and everything when they were kids. Or perhaps it’s simply that a voracious appetite and a varied palate for the written word is a common trait of most authors in general.
And perhaps, along with Stephen King, Clive Barker and China Miéville, I should start listing Pierce Nace as one of my influences. Just not the kind of influence he might want to be.