Our Reading Lives

Finding a Childhood Book from a Hazy Memory: a Ghost Story

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Content note: This article includes the summary of a story about the death of a child.

I can picture exactly where the book sat. The school library I used from first through eighth grade had a central area for gathering students and only a single aisle of shelves on either side. I found the book in the left aisle — that’s where the fiction was — most of the way back, on the right side, at shoulder level. I can see the sunlight streaming in from the window at the end of the aisle. That light faded the spines of all the books except those rarely found on the shelves, like Bunnicula and Sideways Stories from Wayside School.

I can’t go back to find the book. With no family or friends in that town any more, I have no reason to visit that library as an adult. I couldn’t even make a special trip if I wanted to; that library burned to the ground years ago, along with the entire school building. Like something out of a grade school parody song set to a Christmas carol, somebody set the principal’s desk alight.

The Pledge

I loved to be scared from an early age. That story in The Sneetches and Other Stories about the disembodied pair of pants? It both terrified and thrilled me. So naturally I gravitated to the scary stories among the meager offerings in my school library. And one particular book enraptured me. I can imagine my neat cursive on the checkout card. And I can recall particular stories that especially captured my imagination. What I couldn’t do was remember the title of the damn book.

Once I was off to high school, I ceased thinking about that book entirely. I had required reading to tackle, along with a steady diet of legal thrillers and fantasy novels. (Look, I wasn’t what you’d call a popular kid.) It wasn’t until years later, the summer before I moved to San Francisco, that the book sprang to mind again. I was reading House of Leaves, the baffling postmodern novel about a house that holds an endless staircase among other impossible and labyrinthine features. It reminded me of something I’d read before. That book of scary stories. There was one with a house, growing room by room around the clock until the owner’s death. It also had nonsensical features: windows in the floor and stairs to nowhere…

The Turn

A quick internet search revealed the Winchester House was the residence I’d read about. Even better, the house was in San Jose, California, a mere train ride from where I was about to move. My visit to the Winchester Mystery House, as it is known, followed shortly after. Walking about a mile inside a house was a rare treat, as was seeing the various rooms and architectural detail I’d so ravenously read about in my younger days. It intensified my desire to track down this mysterious book of scary stories.

There are plenty of books about firearm fortune heiress Sarah Winchester and her infamous house, but my remembered book never popped up in any search. And trying to find a niche book of scary stories for kids was futile, when the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark franchise so dominated the landscape. I had to dig deeper, remember more from a book I hadn’t read in well over a decade.

The other story with its hooks still in my brain was the scariest thing I’d read in my life at that point, right up there with Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” It was about a house haunted by a rhythmic thumping on the basement door. One day, the residents opened the door and a red rubber ball flew out, rolling away and disappearing into a shadow. They later learned that a child previously lived in the house. He enjoyed throwing his ball from the bottom of the basement stairs up at the door, and catching it as it bounced back down. He died tragically in a fall down those stairs. Honestly, I’m still freaked out merely typing these details.

Like grief, my curiosity would come in waves over the years. In a fit of pique, I would search a string of terms I hoped would lead me back to the book. “Rubber ball basement haunted house” or “Winchester house red ball book.” But the searches led nowhere, and frustration would force my curiosity to ebb away again for a while. After years of this cycle, I finally got a hit. Someone else enjoyed that story enough to mention it in a review, and I had my title. It was the Dynamite Book of Ghosts and Haunted Houses, a slim paperback from 1980.

The Prestige

There is real danger in rereading beloved childhood books, but I threw caution to the wind. I snatched up my long lost book, along with other titles by author Margaret Ronan. Her bibliography includes such amazing titles as ​​Dark and Haunted Places and “The Hindenburg is Burning!” And Other Dirigible Disasters. To say we share some sensibilities is an understatement. I’m happy to report I still love the book. And it still scares the pants off me (which may go walkabout Dr. Seuss-style, for all I know).

In retrospect, there are two lessons to take away from this hunt. One is that my tenacity was critical. I never let myself get too discouraged by one failed day of searching. The other is that I should have enlisted others who were eager to help. Right now the Goodreads page for the book includes a discussion topic by someone in the same boat as me, who remembered much more than I did and was also happily reunited with this odd little book. So don’t suffer in silence. We’ve got great advice for finding a book with only vague information.

While this seems like a happy ending, this creepy book haunts me still. That first copy I read was lost long ago, either to library weeding or the malicious (and still unsolved) blaze that engulfed the school. I found another copy, but oddly enough I’ve lost how I found it. I could swear the review mentioning the red ball story was on Goodreads, but it’s no longer there. Amazon reviews bore no fruit, either. No mentions of the red ball. The reviews do reveal plenty of people who shared my experience of this beloved book leaving their hands only to fall back into it. A little like throwing a red ball at the basement door from the bottom of the stairs.