One of the first horror stories I ever read was by Ruskin Bond, and it scared the living daylights out of me. A Face in the Dark was part of my school curriculum in Grade 4. At the outset, it seemed like a regular story from the hills about an Anglo-Indian teacher, Mr Oliver, returning to his school located on the outskirts of Shimla, late one night. In a very matter-of-fact way, Bond described the market and the forest, moving on to the teacher's encounter with a small boy. And then out of nowhere, he sprung the horror on you, leaving one petrified, with goosebumps all over.
I recently encountered A Face in the Dark yet again in Bond's recent book, The Shadow on the Wall, a compilation of his scariest hair-raising tales. And even now the story manages to evoke the same spine-chilling reactions as when I read it the first time. This book, published by Aleph Book Company, is a must-read for parents and kids alike. In fact, it's one of those compilations, which members of a family can read to one other, enjoying a good fright together.
My daughter read the book from the end to the front (strange are the reading styles of kids these days), and I followed the usual chronology. We ended up exchanging notes on stories that spooked us out the most. While she appreciated the gore in Chakrata's Cat, I preferred the wistful ones such as The Man Who Was Kipling. Whichever one you read, there is no denying that Ruskin Bond's stories promise to be a great gateway to the horror genre for young readers.
The Shadow on the Wall features 21 such stories, with classics such as Susanna's Seven Husbands sharing space with newer tales. One finds chance encounters with hill spirits, jinns, shape shifters and amazing characters such as Mussoorie's Bhoot-Aunty.
Bond has a unique style of writing horror. He doesn't build up to the moments of terror. There is no preamble to it. He starts by telling a regular story—, the tale, The Shadow on the Wall, for instance, could very well have been a simple diary entry about why a struggling freelance writer, in his early twenties in Dehradun, chose to invest in a lamp and a bottle of kerosene. And then when you have settled into the pace of the piece, Bond suddenly twists the narrative towards shadows forming on the wall and a shrieking woman's ghost, who simply doesn't like to be ignored.
The horror stories come packed with his signature style of imbuing humour in the everyday. In The Skull, the author is given a skull by his nephew, Anil. He is entrusted with the task of parceling it to the latter's medical college, and soon finds himself missing the troublesome skull. “It was company of sorts,” Bond says to Anil, who offers to get him another one. “No, I don't want another. I want the same skull. It had a personality of its own," he replies.
The ghosts in Bond's stories are not caricatures, with long nails, floor-length hair or blood-dripping teeth. They are almost regular people (just that they are no longer alive), who feel emotions and have a sense of humour. Take Julie, from The Overcoat, who is like any other young girl enjoying an evening party at a mansion in the hills. It is this humaneness that, perhaps, makes the stories even more eerie. These are ‘people’ you could encounter anywhere, in a quiet street, a park in the evening, outside a lodge on a foggy winter morning. Each piece makes you look over your shoulder, imagining faces in the dark. And that's what makes Bond such a master of the horror fiction genre.
The Shadow on the Wall, by Ruskin Bond; 172 pages, published by Aleph Book Company; ₹499