My high school library was nothing much to shout about, but I spent nearly every lunchtime of my horribly lonely and awkward sophomore year there. A few weeks into my exile I discovered something wonderful that made that year, and many years since, suck far less.
You know the scenes in kids’ books where they find the magic tome that transports them somewhere wonderful and full of danger? The dusty cover creaks and light shoots out of the parchment. It felt like that, though the books were new. I’m talking about the Mysteries of the Unknown series and The Enchanted World series (which blend in my mind to form one giant encyclopedia of cool stuff) from Time-Life books. In our paltry library—otherwise full of books about pretty horses and clever babysitters and brave soldier boys and crappy, propagandist accounts of California history—these slim books caught my eye like a beacon from another planet.
Even as I write this, two decades later, I recall the glorious weirdness of it all as if it were yesterday. These books gave me my first taste of more unsolvable and bizarre urban myths, legends, peculiarities of nature and history than I can possibly enumerate here. Many of those juicy tidbits of curiosity lead to years of study. There are few things in life I relish as much as a documented oddity for which there is no conclusive explanation. Honestly, I don’t ever want to know for certain if the Loch Ness Monster exists, or if Saint Joseph of Cupertino actually levitated. The bliss, for me, is in the wild possibility.
Mystic places. Phantom Encounters. Cosmic Connections. The titles alone thrilled me. I devoured each one several times over in the course of the year. Heavily illustrated with creepy and lurid images, each volume presented bite-sized entries on everything from Atlantis to Zoroaster with the Lady of Shalott and plenty of ectoplasm in between. The covers, as I recall, were dark and bound in a way that reminded me of Dungeons & Dragons books. And for a guy who had practically memorized Deities and Demigods, that’s high praise.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read about orgiastic rituals and demonic possession, if the librarian had any idea what was in these books. Maybe she did. Maybe under her asexual polyester exterior dwelled a heart of black magic and naked sacrifice. One could hope.
Of all my discoveries in these books, perhaps my favorite is Spring Heeled Jack. Leaping here and there throughout Victorian England dressed as a gentleman or a blue-skinned demon, depending on the account, Jack’s identity has never been solved. How did he safely and successfully leap over buildings? And why? Some accounts say he assaulted people, but the sole ambition common to all his sightings seems to have been freaking people the heck out, which he accomplished with great panache. Was he an alien from a high-gravity world? A rakish marquis with a lust for practical jokes? We’ll probably never know.
Jack’s been the subject of several books, Penny Dreadfuls, plays and films. No matter how much I study him, I never get closer to unraveling the mystery. And that suits me fine. And if not for those lonely days in the library, I’d probably never have learned of him.
Incidentally, the first time I heard The Smiths “Panic” was on my brother’s borrowed Walkman while I read about Spring Heeled Jack. Ever since, the lyrics have been linked to Jack in my mind, even though, of course, they’ve nothing to do with each other. Still, “Panic on the streets of London / Panic on the streets of Birmingham / I wonder to myself/ could life ever be sane again?” fits nicely with thoughts of Jack jumping over bridges and houses and inciting chaos wherever he went.
I don’t know if, as an adult with twenty years further reading in mythology and folklore, the books would still impress me the way they did then. It doesn’t matter, really. Those books introduced me to countless topics that fascinate me still, and that’s enough reason to feel good about them forever.