On a tropical break, Steve Braunias muses about how it's always worth finding something horrifying to read on your holiday.
Our family have holidayed the past two years for a week in October at the resort on Fafa Island in Tonga. It's very beautiful, and I've spent both holidays feeling very afraid, quite close to nervous collapse. A good book can do this.
Two years ago, it was The 9th Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories (1975, edited by Mary Danby), last year it was Edith's Diary, a 1977 novel by the terrifying Patricia Highsmith. Neither are really among the best books I've ever read but both are definitely among the best books I've ever experienced. They made for such vivid and disturbing states of mind while loafing on the idyllic island.
Holiday reading is one of the great unsung subjects of travel. There are endless lists recommending books to read in the holidays, but that's as far as it goes; it's as though the sale is the only thing that matters, and the result is meaningless.
Hardly anyone ever writes about reading on vacation. But a good book can make a holiday. It gives it texture, another dimension. It can take you further than the place you've gone to.
A bad book will take you no further. There are seldom more depressing sights on an overseas trip than to see tourists with their nose in a guide book. Lonely Planet has a lot to answer for.
Helpful, informative, deeply boring, the series acts as a kind of substitute for being there. It replaces initiative and discovery; it maps things out, barks directions, turns its readers into robots, or sheep. Sleep there. Eat this. Stick that up your jumper, etc.
Of course the Lonely Planet books aren't actually books. They don't contain plot, wit, the pleasure of a nice sentence. They're instruction manuals. But there are worse things to take on holiday. The worst things are reminders of home and work.
"The more Swift code I write, the more I'm realising I need to understand Functional Programming a lot better," writes Natasha of San Francisco.
"So this holiday season, I'll be reading a few books on the subject, and figuring out how to best apply functional principles to my Swift and iOS code."
I found Natasha's insane note to self when I tapped "Holiday reading" into Google. I was hoping for personal and thoughtful reflections on the transformative power of literature while travelling. I was looking in the wrong place.
The best place to read about books is always in books.
One of the great delights of Paul Theroux's travel books are his notes on the novels he reads on trains; he has a fondness for 19th-century fiction, and shares his excitement on reading a good Dickens or a haunting Trollope as the outside world flies past his window.
The worst time to read Theroux is when you're in the same country he writes about. He'll take it over, colonise your own thinking. He's so observant, so lucid, that you won't have much chance of seeing wherever you are through your own eyes. In fact, I always avoid reading books set in the places I go to. It's partly for the same reason as avoiding Theroux, and avoiding Lonely Planet - I want to see for myself.
It's also because I love reading books set somewhere completely different to where I'm on holiday. It's like you're in two places at once - the real, exotic world, and the literary world of a book.
One world can lead to another. Most summers our family book a few days at the Bream Bay Motel in Ruakaka. It's right on the beach, and it's become our happy place - we always walk to the lagoon around the corner, we always visit the nearby Marsden Point Visitors Centre, with its vast, intricate models and its 1970s wood veneer.
Three years ago, I borrowed a book from the motel library at reception. Minerva Reef, by Olaf Ruhen, told the incredible story of a group of shipwrecked Tongans in 1962.
They were on their way to Auckland. The boat ran hard on a coral reef. They had fish, the Bible, shelter; but after 100 days, they began to die ... It was such a sad and physical book. I was half in Bream Bay that week, half on a reef in the Pacific.
When I finished it, I set about trying to find any living survivors. Six months later, that search took me to Tonga.
I'd never travelled to the kingdom before. The place was a knock-out - slow, hot, lagoony. I stayed one night on Fafa Island, and thought: the family would love it here.
Fafa Island is so small you can walk around it in about 20 minutes, or two happy hours if you prefer to dawdle and bathe and gaze at the fruit bats swooping in the coconut trees at dusk. The rooms are lit by lamps and a generator hums deep in the forest. There's no cellphone reception, wifi, TV. No one lives there except staff. It's owned by Germans who like it eco. There's a restaurant and some kayaks. There's also a library.
What to take to read on holiday? Nothing. Leave it to chance. I love the randomness and surprise of books left behind by guests in motels, resorts, and huts.
One hut I stayed in had a copy of Daniel Defoe's 1722 classic, A Journal of the Plague Year. Its sensational reporting of death and disease during the Great Plague of London was only kind of true, but it made for a powerful vision of end times. It was the perfect complement for where I was staying - in a hut at that bleak, deathly end of the world, Antarctica.
The hut was also stocked with the usual trash of Mills & Boon, Lee Child, textbooks on Swift code, etc. It was the same at the resort on Fafa Island. But like all second-hand bookstores, the informal libraries at guest houses around the world will almost always include some hidden gem, some work of merit and worth.
In 2011, at the Bream Bay Motel, it was Minerva Reef - I really should have returned it, but I took it to Tonga, and got two survivors of the shipwreck to sign it.
In 2013, at Fafa, it was The 9th Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. The anthology of 15 stories included a few second-rate pieces, but most were truly frightening. A theme emerged. The central anxiety in many of the stories was the threat of being trapped. Imprisonment - in crypts, in dungeons, in your own home - drove characters mad with fear.
I began to think that Fafa Island, too, was a kind of trap. Cut off, surrounded by water, at the mercy of staff ... I needed support. I put my 6-year-old daughter on my lap, and read the stories to her.
The most brilliant was The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933), by Evelyn Waugh, which he later expanded into his great novel A Handful of Dust. The scariest was The Silver Mask (1932) by Hugh Walpole. A rather pathetic woman of means takes pity on a poor painter, who slowly invades her home. The rooms in her house felt so dark and so narrow as I mucked around on Fafa, gawping at giant emerald-green crabs, scoffing delicious fresh fish at the outdoor restaurant.
I felt shaken by the stories. It was worse in 2014, when I plucked Edith's Diary from the Fafa library. Patricia Highsmith devoted her writing career to killing characters in nasty yet often rather casual ways. They just got bumped off, it couldn't be helped. It was an accident, like in The Blunderer; and it wasn't something that led to remorse, or capture, like in her Ripley series. I waited for the inevitable murder in Edith's Diary.
I waited while reading the book at night in bed under a mosquito net. I waited while reading in the afternoon in a shady hammock by the porch. I waited while reading the book on the beach with the sun flashing on the pale green water ... Things only got worse for Pennsylvania couple Edith and Brett Howland, and their only child, Cliffie. Cliffie wasn't right in the head. He told lies, and no one liked him much. He finished school and just stayed at home. He was like another invalid in the house - Brett's uncle George came to live with them, and was confined to his bed.
My daughter would ask during the week, "How's Cliffie?" I'd say, "Bad. Very bad. Something terrible is going to happen."
The fruit bats at dusk, the emerald crabs under rocks; kayaking around the island, floating on my back in the green lagoon; and, throughout, the Pennsylvania home closing in on Edith, trapping her. I waited for the horror, but no one got killed. The horror was already there, on every page, in the daily agony of Edith's life.
The fish in the lagoon, the blue skies, the low light of the lamp at night ... "What happened to Cliffie?" my daughter asked, when I finished the book. I said, "Poor old Cliffie." I really missed him. He had been such distressing, pitiful company in paradise.