Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 03 Jul 2024

The pleasures of cheap, sensational books

If you’re old enough, cast your mind back to the days when Woolworths or W.H. Smiths stocked a range of books targeted at an audience that wanted some thrills and a frisson of the forbidden for a price that didn’t break the bank. Glossy, hardback (the size of an annual), with an eye-catching cover illustration and a title that promises much more than it delivers. The publishers Hamlyn and Marshall Cavendish were masters of the art and delivered in a range of genres – monsters, ufo’s, horror, the supernatural and paranormal – all of which were cobbled together in a skilful recycling of content and stories that had done the round before.

I was recently lucky enough to stumble upon two excellent examples of this sensationalist output. The Horrific World of Monsters by Dulan Barber from Marshall Cavendish under the Golden Hands imprint takes the popular format of the alphabetical guide to the monsters of myth, folklore, film and literature. The full colour is reserved for the jacket of course – that’s the hook for this book because the word ‘monsters’ in vivid yellow shimmers out at the potential reader and Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man, King Kong, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature From the Black Lagoon all feature alongside a couple of non-specific dinosaur creatures as a sort of promise about what’s inside.

But, of course, inside is somewhat tamer for those seeking thrills because the A-Z covers plenty of more ‘academic’ so-called monsters like Greek Gods, mythical creatures from several cultures and even actual dinosaurs. They all get short but reasonably informative entries but I have to be honest and say the sensational quotient is not likely to register in the higher ranges.

The second, The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts in Fact and Fiction by Daniel Farson, is a much more substantial confection. The eye-catching jacket follows the rules – demented creatures in chains, burning houses, a ghastly hound in a graveyard – but inside there’s much more of an attempt to gather together a range of ‘ghostly’ stories even if that definition is very loosely applied. Real world stories and stories culled from fiction rub shoulders and, I have to say, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find several entries that merit a bit of reading time.

There are also plenty of illustrations throughout which are a mix of slightly hammy original drawings that mix with reproductions of older photographs and newsprint. But each page is a surprise and its very much the kind of book you’d be pleased to get as a teenager when you open your Christmas presents.

These are just two examples of this cheap sensationalist fun and I’m not quite sure when they bit the dust – although I think there may well be equivalents that crop up occasionally but don’t have the same eye appeal – or maybe I just no longer notice them. Whichever is true, I’m glad to keep these two in my collection as an example of books that were ubiquitous in my youth and which I somehow never bought then.

I suspect that these books were largely aimed at a teenage audience or at older readers who preferred movies to books but they remain something of a guilty pleasure of mine - and maybe one I’d have been reluctant to own-up to in my more po-faced ‘serious reader’ days. Most of the pleasure lies in the graphics and the jumble of pictures sourced from all over the place and the actual written content is largely negligible - which probably makes them closer to comic annuals than to reference books. 

I paid a couple of pounds for each of these examples and if you go to junk shops or car boot sales I’d be very surprised if you didn’t come across them at a similar price. You’d be foolish to pass them up.


Terry Potter

July 2024