When I was growing up in Ipoh in the 90s, the only good bookshops around were Mubaruk's, which specialised in textbooks (and still does), and Novelhut, the second-hand bookstore that used to be in Yik Foong (and maybe still is there, but I haven't checked in years since I prefer going to their Ipoh Parade outlet when I'm in town).
There was also a pretty good bookstore in the Parkson Grand in Ipoh Parade which could have been a Berita outlet, but I don't remember. This was in the days before they expanded Ipoh Parade into what it is today. (And temporarily causing the Convent school next door to consider moving.)
I recall this because I was thinking of when exactly I started reading "serious" fiction, trying to pinpoint the years when I moved from young adult/fantasy/sci-fi books into non-genre fiction. I still can't remember, but it brought back memories of a book I bought from a short-lived bookshop in Old Town.
Mum had brought me there, because she must have been looking for some rare exotic spice or ingredient that could only be found with the almost-forgotten Chinese traders in that part of town. Even back then the shophouses looked tired, with the cream white paint peeling from the walls, the rotten window shutters ready to drop in the next rainstorm, but business ran as usual. These were the wholesalers and they survived because they stocked what others did not.
I remember feeling a little surprised to find a newly-opened bookshop among these traders. Between the smells of dried fish and traditional Chinese medicine, there was this shop which offered a different kind of smell - the smell of musty old books. It sold both second-hand and new books, and mostly in Chinese. I browsed through the shelves and a small paperback caught my eye. It was purple and on the cover was printed a photograph of a ghostly white shape in the form of a woman.
It must really have been ages ago. I don't even remember the title but it was probably "True and Chilling Ghost Stories" or something to that effect. I read the first story. I was hooked. I had to bring this book home. So I asked mum to buy it for me. I read it all the way home in the car. I read it until it was time for dinner. I read it through dinner.
"Don't read while you're eating," Dad said.
Usually I'd acquiesce but this time I couldn't.
"But, I have to read this, Bapak," I said. "I just can't put it down. I just can't"
To my surprise, he shrugged and continued eating without saying a word.
That night, I couldn't sleep. The book, aided with the claim that the stories within were "true" scared the bejeebus out of me. But I couldn't stop reading it! I read it under the sheets in bed. And the next day, I read it in school, between classes. When I finished reading it, I read it again.
The fact that I couldn't stop reading the book, that somehow that was some mystic force pulling me in to keep reading it must have spooked me. Never before was I so entranced with a book. I became convinced the book was haunted. I started seeing things. Hearing things. When I was alone in the house, I imagined shapes moving in the corner of the eye, plates subtly shifting downstairs in the kitchen, phones ringing for no reason at all...
I had to get rid of the book.
I first tried lending it off to friends. No one wanted to borrow it, because I didn't have friends who liked (or could) read English. Then I tried to sell it off to the school library. The librarian teacher didn't want it but she borrowed the book from me anyway, wondering what all the fuss about the book was.
When she was done, I asked, "It was scary, wasn't it?"
"Ah, it was okay lah. I don't know why you're so scared about it though. It's just a normal ghost story book," the teacher said.
"No! It's cursed, I tell you! Cursed!" I said.
But the teacher just shrugged. "If you're so desperate to get rid of it, why don't you try selling it off to Novelhut?"
Now that was an idea. But I couldn't go there without my parents knowing, and if they knew I was going to sell a book, they would really get mad.
So, what I ended up doing was hiding it behind my wardrobe. And the curse was lifted. Temporarily.
Years and years later, when I was in Form 4, I decided to rearrange my room, and I rediscovered the book. The curse came back. I was overcome again by a strange urge to keep reading and reading the book. Though I wasn't as scared as I was when I was younger, it was still very creepy.
Fortunately, I was already old enough to go to Novelhut by myself, so I did what I could finally do - I sold the damned book off... and the curse was finally lifted.
I wonder sometimes whether I would still be spooked by the book at this age. Maybe, maybe not. I tell myself I'm too old to be scared of ghosts, but I'm still on edge whenever I hear something go bump in the night, and I prefer not to read horror stories if I can help it. Maybe the curse never was lifted...
Photo nicked without permission from Ghost-Mysteries.com