Forbidden Tomes (Halloween Edition): UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR

Children’s genre literature is often dismissed, and for good reason – most publishers don’t seem to recognise that kids can handle scary stuff. But, there are some serious exceptions to this rule. Some children’s horror is even scarier than what they give adults. My favorite example of this is Chris Priestley’s UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR.

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The book is structured terrifically – a young boy listens to his spooky old uncle telling ghost stories, each of which increase in macabre nature. But as the house fills with noises and the uncle becomes distressed, the boy begins to wonder, what is Uncle Montague hiding?

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From the very start, Priestley’s word is full of the Gothic and the uncanny – a mist-shrouded path of gnarled trees, a dark house full of whispers, and a collection of tales all focused on children who meet horrific fates for their transgressions. He knows his horror, as evidenced simply by the uncle’s name, a reference to ghost story master M.R. James. It’s a deeply atmospheric book, liminal and chilly with a hefty dose of melancholy on top. This makes the overarching story just as compelling as the vignettes in between.

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Speaking of which, I was shocked the first time I read it by how dark they were willing to go. All of them center on child protagonists, who – usually because of mischief or disobedience – encounter the supernatural and suffer the consequences. From a demon bench-end that spouts murderous thoughts into the owner’s head, to an old woman who turns trespassers to trees, even a child-luring demon-cat, the tales are full of horrific protagonists. There is something gleefully classic about the stories, each set in the Victorian era and featuring a wicked twist. It’s a skilful throwback to the old masters like James and Poe. The illustrations, resembling the best of Edward Gorey, only make this homage more wonderful.

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As a young person’s introduction to horror, or just a seasoned fan’s autumn read, “Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror” impress and chill. It’s utterly perfect for reading aloud by the fire, to keep the shadows away.

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