Thursday, May 23, 2024

Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World

The Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World was first published in 1979 and comprised three smaller, separately published books by Usborne, all under the ‘Supernatural Guides’ banner; ‘Haunted Houses, Ghosts and Spectres’; ‘Mysterious Powers and Strange Forces’; ‘Vampires, Werewolves and Demons’. They were written and edited by:

Eric Maple -born in 1916, Maple was an Essex-based folklorist who, perhaps due to his lack of formal education, wrote books covering witchcraft, magicians and the supernatural which recounted stories as they were told to him from those who had either experienced strange goings-on or had been passed down the tales themselves from family members.

Lynn Myring – a regular writer for Usborne with a penchant for picking subjects that were far from straightforward: ‘Finding Out About the Sun, Moon and Planets’; ‘Introduction to Lasers’; ‘First Guide to the Universe’ for starters.

Eliot Humberstone -one of Usborne’s in-house writers, previously covering less mysterious subjects – ‘Things at Home’; ‘Finding Out about Everyday Things’ and ‘Finding Out about Things Outdoors’.

The books were ostensibly aimed at the younger market but were packed full of odd facts and stories from around the world, many of which certainly play to a wider audience. The books began with an overview of the subjects they covered and then proceeded to travel not only through time but also around the world, demonstrating the beliefs and superstitions of different cultures throughout the ages.

Whilst the books on ghosts and mysterious powers were very interesting and packed with information on the likes of hauntings at Borley Rectory (‘the most haunted house in England’) and ESP – a very 1970s obsession which seems to have all but disappeared –  it was the book on vampires, werewolves and demons which really held a huge allure for kids hungry for horrific facts.

The books were profusely illustrated, rarely with copies of existing works but completely unique, often rather stunning imagery, never holding back on depicting death and violence. The artists came from surprisingly varied backgrounds:

Derick Bown – Born in 1935, his works were largely watercolours and featured country or natural scenes, often including animals and birds

Oliver Frey – Born in 1948, the prolific Frey is probably the most famous name featured and is well-known for his horror and fantasy artwork, from the covers of magazines, from Zzap and Crash, to Fear. He also worked under the pseudonym, Zack, producing graphic artwork for gay erotica.

Terry Gabbey – Gabbey’s work can be found on the covers of latter-day Ladybird books, in particular, those covering works of classic literature

Elaine Lee – an acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi graphic novel illustrator

Seonaid Mackenzie – acclaimed for her highly-detailed pencil drawings of animals

Rob McCaig – his art work also featured on the covers of Pan paperbacks, as well as fantasy art for titles such as Brimax Book’s, ‘Timeless Myths’

Jenny Thorne – an illustrator of children’s books usually containing less in the way of fangs and entrails

Ken Stott – usually better known for illustrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’

Pat Thornton 

With such a broad canvas, the third book did not disappoint with sometimes rather alarming pictures of ghouls and beasts from exotic climes. To their credit, the authors backed these up with information which was both easy to understand and factually based, such as the bizarre adventures of Arnold Paole or the 17th Century wolf-boy, Jean Grenier. Despite a campaign, the volume has not been re-printed for decades and so now commands high prices online.

Daz Lawrence

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