The Horror Show: Tony Burgess on the most terrifying reading experience of his life

“Does a theory of what happened to me exist? I mean, outside of psychiatric journals?”

Canadian novelist and screenwriter Tony Burgess is the author of Pontypool Changes Everything, which was made into the feature film Pontypool by Bruce McDonald, as well as being adapted for the stage by the author. Burgess is also the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Caesurea, and the young adult novel Idaho Winter. His screenplays include Pontypool, Ejecta, and the gross-out opus Septic Man. In today’s guest post, Burgess talks about a reading experience that blurs the line between imagination and psychosis.

This is the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had reading a book.

I guess I was around sixteen or so, vacationing with the family in Scotland. For me it was a deeply unpleasant time. I felt alienated within the family, and utterly morbid, abject about who or what I was. Being tethered to a van as we rolled around the highlands only gave me a kind of psychic vertigo, a primal loss of place that made common things look strange.

So, to protect myself I read books, all day every day. In the back of the van. In the sitting room of a bed and breakfast. I challenged myself to not look up from books for days on end, continuously. It was practical cover but also allowed me to slip away into people and events that were only occurring in my imagination. I wanted to be lost inside being lost.

Bingeing it is now called, I suppose.

One of the books I grabbed in a bookstore in Inverness was something I had been meaning to read for some time: Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I decided I wanted to read it in a park. On a bench. In one sitting before returning for lunch. A lunch during which I planned to finish Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to avoid any conversation.

I remember every detail about this day – the way you remember any day shattered by a uncanny intrusion, that feeling of being suspended above a exhaustive inventory of everything said or done. Hyper-real light and shadow. I sat on this park bench in Inverness and began to read. The park sloped out from my crossed ankles. The grass more like lichen or frost. It was cool but not cold. A path of green stones ran down to my right. Treacherously slippery. Behind me, I think, was the High Street. There were a few people out walking the park. Someone did come close, passing in front of me.

I seem to recall wanting to appear like a punk in those days – stove pipe pants, Doc Martins, spiked hair. Buttons. And part of that uniform, for me, was the book. It was being young and romanticizing yourself, being all petulance and pretence.

The book started out with the infamous opening line and I settled in to see how on earth this wasn’t going to blow its own lead. I feared I would be bored by it. And then things started to happen.

Kafka played it very differently than I expected. It was played realistically. It was a banal and horrible thing.

And then the moment, the reason I’m even writing about this: I was suddenly seized by the sensation that the book was reading me. Not my mind, not in a psychotic sense – but that it knew, more than any other book, the exact nature of the thing it was making in the reader’s imagination. I thought there were things this book could do to me that were dangerous. That certain ideas, when presented in specific ways, with the correct sentences, could enter thought, anticipate thought and manifest as a kind of malicious person inside you. Kafka understood the medium of outlying consciousness in such a way that he was conjuring through a extra-literary experiment.

I know. I know. It does really sound like a psychotic episode. But believe me: it wasn’t. My reaction was to close the book. I couldn’t finish it. It was too fraught with real peril. If I wasn’t psychotic yet, then there seemed to me the real danger that reading on was to invite disaster.

I spent the rest of the morning walking through Inverness trying to calm myself. Afraid of the book I had in my possession. Wondering if I should throw it out, toss it in a bin. I also wondered if this phenomenon had ever been discussed anywhere. Does a theory of what happened to me exist? I mean, outside of psychiatric journals? The resemblance to something like paranoid schizophrenia is pretty persuasive.

Anyway, I did eventually calm and, though I missed lunch, I was back on Maugham for dinner.

I finished The Metamorphosis months later. I can’t remember the circumstances – where I was, or what I thought. It did eventually become just a book. A terrific and unique read to be sure, but, really, only a book with ink on paper, and a nice Penguin smell. That moment, however, on the bench by Loch Ness did and has stayed with me my whole life. It is the moment I have been searching for ever since.

The Horror Show: Tony Burgess on the most terrifying reading experience of his life
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