My childhood consumption of “spooky” lit followed a fairly predictable path for its era. There were Hitchcock and Serling branded anthologies borrowed from the public library, collections of non-gory classics purchased from school book fairs, Twilight Zone Magazine tales of varying quality, check-out aisle digests related supposedly true tales of the paranormal and squicky passages discovered in my aunt’s collection of paperback horror potboilers.
Much of it went over my pre-teen head, either because of archaic language or crucial contexts which were beyond my comprehension. There was still plenty of nightmare fuel to be had, impressions of which still linger into the present day. Yet none of the fictional terrors managed to creep me out or capture my morbid imagination as intensely as Victor Miller’s The Book of Worries did.
I’m not sure where our household copy of the 1981 paperback came from, although factoid-filled vademecums abounded on the family bookshelves. Besides making for fine “casual” reading, they helped feed the “broad but shallow” knowledge pool my old man (and later yours truly) used a tool for performative mindfuckery. (It’s an easy way to make yourself look like a genius among folks too thick to suspect otherwise.) In any case, the book soon made its way into my grubby mitts and I dived into it with the gusto of a sensation-seeking doofus with zero understanding of what “anecdotal evidence” meant.
As the title suggests, The Book of Worries is a bleakly humorous collection of things to get anxious about. This being 1981, there was no shortage of material on that front — nuclear war/meltdowns, the energy crisis, economic woes, aviation disasters, terrorism, crime, health scares, environmental issues — all the fun shit which has since become part of the media’s background noise, but still had hot-button evening news novelty in an era on unending, cascading anxieties. (There’s no love lost between me and the Baby Boomers, but there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how much the diminishing returns malaise of the Seventies fueled their generational heel turn during the Reagan years. Narcissism and unrelenting panic are one hell of a cocktail.)
That material was “real” enough to give me seriously chills yet abstract enough to my kiddie-brain to compartmentalize. News footage and adult discussions aside, the prospect of a DC-10 crashing down in my neighborhood felt as remote as something out of Star Wars or a superhero comic. Even with shit like Woburn’s childhood cancer cluster felt someone removed from my day-to-day life, despite it claiming a childhood friend and a couple of kids in my Cub Scout troop.
Killer bees (and nuclear meltdowns and freak accidents) weren’t much different than ghosts or zombies, apart from the extra frisson of knowing they did exist, albeit well outside my little corner of the universe. I knew even at age nine that the Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t going to nab me while wading through the stream across the street, but there was extremely remote possibility that someone might have dumped their pet piranhas into it, and there resided the thrill.
Now that I’m older and have a clearer perspective of the world and its problems, those vicarious chills have largely evaporated. That shit doesn’t seem as abstract anymore, especially when it involves contemplating one’s mortality and anxiety about the future. I still enjoy spooky stuff for nostalgic and atmospheric reasons, but rarely seek out any truly unnerving material — not because it scares me, but because it just makes me depressed.
This mindset puts the The Book of Worries in a weird place for my middle-aged self. I tracked down a copy because it was an important artifact of my formative years (and dead cheap on the secondary market), but really can’t bring myself to browse through it. Given the state of things, I’ve little enthusiasm for adding more worries to the mix, even tongue-in-cheek ones from four decades ago.