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Back from the dead: Usborne's World of the Unknown Ghosts

Not many books published in 1977 become an overnight hit in 2019, but that’s what happened to Usborne’s The World of the Unknown: Ghosts. Out of print for around 20 years, it is now back by (very) popular demand, and will publish again in October 2019 with a foreword from BAFTA-winning writer, comedian and actor Reece Shearsmith – one of the key figures behind this story.

The Haunted House (from The World of the Unknown: Ghosts)
The Haunted House (from The World of the Unknown: Ghosts), inspired by the story of Borley Rectory – the most haunted house in England.

Bring it back! Resurrecting a classic

The Usborne World of the Unknown series has lived on in the memories of a generation – and when the original readers of the 1970s and '80s grew up, they wanted it back. Connected via social media in a way that they couldn’t have dreamed of when Ghosts was first published in 1977 (even The Usborne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond didn’t predict that!), readers began to discover that they weren’t alone in finding this book and its series companions deliciously and addictively terrifying.

They connected online, sharing stories of their childhood terror – and how discovering this book in those formative years influenced them. Many claimed that it had even had an impact on the careers they chose, with a handful of fans pursuing jobs directly linked to the paranormal world, but many more going into the creative industries, as writers and scriptwriters, working in books, TV and film.

However the breakthrough came when Nucleus Films, the team behind Ashley Thorpe’s animated feature film Borley Rectory (which stars Reece Shearsmith), called Usborne requesting an interview with the author of The World of the Unknown: Ghosts, Christopher Maynard. Almost by chance, they were put through to Usborne’s Anna Howorth, herself a huge fan of the book, who’d been “banging on” about bringing this book back into print for the almost fifteen years she’s been with the company.

“I’m a big fan of Reece Shearsmith so when I found out we shared a love for this book, I tweeted about it. He replied to say he’d write a foreword if we reprinted, and it snowballed from there”.

Anna Howorth, Usborne Director of Global Branding & UK Marketing, with the vintage Usborne books
Anna Howorth, Usborne Director of Global Branding & UK Marketing, with the vintage Usborne books

Anna adds: “I understood this deep-rooted sense of nostalgia for early Usborne books, because I’m one of those kids who were deeply affected by them at an early age. And I understood how loving a book as a kid can take you down a certain path, because I ended up working at Usborne.” Anna set up a petition to prove the wider interest to the publisher, and it quickly exceeded the target of 1,000 signatures. It was decided to print quickly to get the book out for Halloween 2019 and when the Amazon pre-order went live, The World of the Unknown: Ghosts went straight to number one in its category.

The Phantom Hound, from World of the Unknown: Ghosts
The Phantom Hound, from World of the Unknown: Ghosts

A haunted generation

The World of the Unknown series was classic early Usborne: magazine-sized, floppy paperbacks with a picture-strip layout that came from comics; vivid illustrations designed to compete with TV; the dead-pan tone of voice that spoke directly to children and the topics – Ghosts, Monsters and UFOs – that captured their imaginations. There isn’t much in the way of data going back to those early days, but we know that 30,000 copies of each of those books was printed in the first year, and that they stayed in print for twenty years or so before they were retired in the ‘90s. So it’s fair to say they were pretty popular with kids.

We also now know, thanks to social media, that these books left a big impression. They lived on bookshelves in bedrooms and libraries, terrifying their young readers. Many of them reported being scared even to look at, or be in the same room as, the book (but still incapable of looking away). Readers remember – vividly – reading and re-reading them, taking these books out of the library so many times that eventually a librarian gave them a well-read copy, or putting their names on waiting lists to get hold of one. Ashley Thorpe says: “Everyone went mad for these books. We were climbing over each other in the library to read them!”

For those kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Usborne books were something entirely new, created just for them, and it’s clear that Peter Usborne and his team stumbled on a rich vein when they started writing about the world of the paranormal. The World of the Unknown series led to more books on vampires, werewolves, haunted houses and more.

Anna says: “From a professional point of view (as brand director at Usborne) it’s also been fascinating to see how things haven’t really changed from those early days at Usborne. Peter Usborne’s passion and vision for the company is still the same; the way in-house writers and designers work together to make the very best books for children hasn’t changed; the ethos of never speaking down to children, making knowledge irresistible and putting kids at the centre of everything we do is just as it was in 1977. Usborne is still leading the way in creating books that spark children's imaginations and curiosity – and for parents who grew up with Usborne books themselves, that’s a really powerful message.”

The World of the Unknown: Ghosts

The World of the Unknown: Ghosts

First published in 1977, this cult classic has been reissued for a new generation of ghost-hunters. This book is for anyone who has shivered at shadowy figures in the dark, heard strange sounds in the night, or felt the presence of a mysterious ‘something’ from the unknown. Ghost stories are as old as recorded history and exist all over the world. Many of the different kinds of ghosts that are thought to haunt the Earth and their behaviour are described here. You will meet haunting spirits, screaming skulls, phantom ships, demon dogs, white ladies, gallows ghosts and many more. This book also explains the techniques and equipment of ghost hunting and tells how lots of ‘ghosts’ have been exposed as fakes or explained away as natural events. Also included are some theories that attempt to explain the possible existence of ghosts. With a brand new foreword by BAFTA-winning writer, comedian and actor Reece Shearsmith, otherwise the book remains unchanged from the original.


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Anna Howorth, Usborne Director of Global Branding & UK Marketing

Tags: inside usborne

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