Fear of the Unknown: The World’s Greatest Mysteries

In , for either Christmas or my birthday – the two being close together – my mother gave me a book which meant that I began the New Year in a state of despair and remained that way, more or less, until the end of the millennium. It wasn’t The Outsider – I didn’t read that till recently. It was called either The World’s Greatest Mysteries or (tautologically surely?) The World’s Greatest Unsolved Mysteries. It had an image of the Marie Celeste on the cover and contained accounts not of crimes and disappearances (the Jack the Ripper and Suzy Lamplugh casebooks I keep turning up in my attempt to locate a copy of this now-lost work), but of paranormal mysteries.

There was the story about the Jurassic rock in France which was dynamited to make way for a railway and split to reveal a live, coughing pterodactyl. There were ghostly faces of children on the floor of a cathedral, the Marie Celeste itself, the Curse of the Mummies and something about jinxed buried treasure  However in terms of the lasting fears instilled by The World’s Greatest Mysteries, these were, in ascending order of experienced terror, the following:  1.  That I would spontaneously combust. 2. That I would be abducted by aliens – or worse, remember that I was already being abducted by aliens on a regular basis. 3. That the world would end either in 1991 (and thus, I supposed, before I had figured out my look) or in .

The evidence supporting my predicted catastrophes varied in persuasiveness.  Spontaneous human combustion, famously the cause of Krook’s demise in Dickens’ Bleak House, in reality seemed a phenomenon dubiously based around a few uncovered charred human remains.  These were usually feet: the theory, I seem to remember, was that one burns downward like a candle, but more quickly.  One ‘documented case’, however, featured a woman who burst into flames in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s car – and managed to reduce herself to a pile of ashes in a matter of minutes without, it was noted, melting the dashboard.  The worst thing about being afraid of spontaneously combusting was that – unlike abduction – it could theoretically happen anywhere and at any time.  The best thing about being afraid of spontaneously combusting was that, at the moment of cremation, one could at least feel reassured as to that other great fear (heightened by the instalments from the book of the same name which my ‘friend’ was reading me over the phone in the evenings): being Buried Alive.

Long before Taken or the discussion of the topic on U.S. talk-shows or that weird boyfriend who was obsessed with Communion, The World’s Greatest Mysteries introduced me to the concept of staying awake all night waiting to find myself staring into the emotion-free eyes of a grey alien.  And long before everyone got worried that computers had no facility for the number 2000, and the world would capsize under a tsunami of technological mishap, I learnt that the number that mattered was ours, and it would be up before the Nineties ended. Mother Shipton (possibly, it now occurs to me, simply in order to rhyme) wrote: ‘the world to an end will come/ in nineteen hundred and ninety one’.  Nostradamus was believed to have written that in July ‘the great king of terror’ would come from the sky.  What he in fact wrote, apparently, was that from the sky would come ‘the great defraying king’. Neither of which particularly matters now: nobody came from the sky, either to terrorise us or sort out our expenses.  Everyone knows Nostradamus was a crank who wrote gibberish vague enough to mean anything, and that the sensations described by alien abductees are the product of sleep paralysis. We are rational and alive, and I have not yet spontaneously combusted.

What is perhaps the lasting mystery, then, is why my mother would give me this sleep-depriving material.  For one thing, I was actually fifteen, if only just.  For another, the unknown in the form of the spooky, the supernatural and uncanny, is ubiquitous and, it seems to me, relatively uncensored throughout childhood anyway.  Examples?  Darby O’Gill and the Little People (scarier than Ring).  Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (I watched it by accident at thirteen: it still freaks me out).  The project on The Mysteries of Fatima I did for school in second year (‘and then Lucy was shown a vision of the torments of hell…’).  The other mystery is what ever happened to the book, and all record of it. I’ve been trying to order in on Amazon to traumatise myself all over again.