Casebook of Ghosts


Casebook of Ghosts

Back when I was a little tacker of twelve or thirteen and used to hang out in the school library—which got me labelled a ‘poofta’ by the footy guys until I started going out with the girl everyone agreed was ‘the best looking girl in school’—I would often borrow a particular book which, before I discovered girls, was better—‘the best book in the library’.

It had a particularly lurid cover featuring a malevolent green-eyed cat (later I’d remember it as a bat), and in its pages lurked stories of ghost-hunters and apparitions, severed hands and glowing eyes, floating heads and white ladies, with titles like ‘The House of the Bloody Cat’, ‘From the Cellar It Came’ and ‘The Eyeless Woman’. These grisly, ghostly tales were prefaced by atmospheric black-and-white illustrations, which like most illustrations around this time in my life, I found it easy to get completely immersed in, and which seemed to swirl with darkness, terror and the shadowy shapes that lurk at the edge of the candlelight.

They don’t write stories like those anymore. Now the stories are all horror, and vie with each other to be the most violent and repellent. The tales in this book were simple yet terrifying and seemed firmly rooted in reality—a very English reality and history, which to an Australian twelve year old was almost as mysterious and exciting as the ghosts.

Well, almost thirty years have passed since then, but for some reason the memory of this book retained its magic. Over the years I looked for it in secondhand bookshops and on the internet, but since I never knew the title, it seemed impossible to track down. I even once rang my old school library, but no book of that description existed anymore (I wonder, did it fall apart after so many years of being pored over by small boys with overactive imaginations, or did someone love it as much as I and finally take it home secretly in their schoolbag?)

Then, last week, I thought I’d try again at the source, and rang my old school with my strange request. Of course the book wasn’t there, but the librarian took down my vague description and to my surprise rang me back the next day to tell me the name of a book she had found on the library book database that might be the one. Armed with this information, it was easy to track down a picture of the cover on the internet.

Such is the power of memory that when I saw the cover a shiver went through my whole body and my eyes started with tears. Here at last was the book I had been trying to find for several decades! Immediately I ordered a near-mint first edition copy from a bookseller in Essex, England—and today it arrived.

Published in 1969, this personal classic gathers together a number of stories by Elliott O’Donnell, a noted ghost-hunter, pulp novel writer, lecturer and broadcaster who lived from 1872-1965. A quick search on the internet reveals that he wrote quite a few of books in this vein. The book comes from what seems to have been a golden age of ghost stories, the late 60s to mid 70s, just before the modern horror story took off. From my basic research it seems there were quite a few books published around that time featuring so-called ‘true’ ghost stories, either collections of local lore, or actual experiences of the writer.

Whether O’Donnell really did see the apparitions he claims he did in his Casebook is unimportant, though I like to think he did. The real magic in this book is how it brings back so vividly that twelve year old imagination, when there was no thought of questioning the veracity of the tales, only a complete acceptance that such things could and did happen out there in the wide world (and mostly in England, it seemed). A world full of echoing ancestral mansions, hidden galleries, midnight footsteps on grand staircases, frightening unseen presences, wide ancient cellars with bricked-up rooms—all those things that sent the most wonderful thrills of fear down my back.
Now, finally, I’m off to curl up on a couch with the best book in the library, to read my ghostly tales by candlelight …