Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Countdown to Halloween Day 21: Anthologies - Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark... And More!

Welcome back kids and kid-ettes! Today I'm taking a look at a tried-and-true classic series of anthology story books: The "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell!

You remember these. Don't chew your fingernails and shuffle your feet and shake your head sheepishly no. I KNOW YOU REMEMBER THESE. All who have been children at some point remember these books. We fought over who got to take them home from the library at school. We loved looking at the pictures very briefly, and then flipping past the pictures as quickly as we could... so the pictures didn't see us back. Unless... we spent time just sitting and staring at the details of the pictures, letting each one corrupt our sanity just a smidge more.

Oh yeah, and there were stories in the books too. Like stories you could read.

It all started back in 1981 with this first book, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," which combines urban legends, ghost stories, and creepy folktales collected and retold by Alvin Schwartz with drawings by Stephen Gammell (as you can see on the cover, obviously. Not even sure why I typed all that out, honestly...). I can tell you from experience that kids were probably not picking up these books for Schwartz's gripping storytelling prowess. To be as respectful as I can, but still stay honest too, I don't think the writing is all that special here. Schwartz does a manageable job of recounting the stories... but not much else. There isn't much "scary" to his scary stories. With a different storytelling slant, that could have been much different. 

No, when we bought a ticket to this show, it was to see the horrific illustrations by Stephen Gammell. I honestly cannot FATHOM what the publishers were thinking. Such illustrations would never even be considered for a children's book these days. On the other hand, I have a deep, genuine love for these books and their contents that stems from being messed up by them so thoroughly as a kid. 

My youngest kids however, will not know that particular joy for a few more years yet. I don't remember how old my daughter was when she first encountered this book, but I DO remember the night that followed as we had a very scared little girl crying in her bed and telling us she couldn't get those pictures out of her eyes... which is kind of a creepy idea for a story in and of itself... but I digress. That was a parenting lesson. 

But you look at the pictures I collected just for this post and you get the idea. 

It really isn't the stories themselves. Stories like "The Haunted House," or "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave," or "The Hook," or "The Babysitter," have the potential to be scary, but not the way Schwartz tells them. There is no atmosphere, no spookiness, just a flat kind of rote repetition of story points and details that each have a beginning, middle, and end. If these stories had been published either without illustrations at all, or even with milder, less terrifying ones, we would have no memory of these books at all. This is demonstrated very clearly by the newer editions of these books that include illustrations by the very talented Brett Helquist. The illustrations are very capable and accomplished... but they are NOT of the same creepy caliber as Stephen Gammell for making these stories truly "scary." 

What's strange is that I barely remember the second book at all. It came out in 1984, and I actually had it confused with the 3rd book, which didn't come out until 7 years later, but which I remember much clearer, even though I would have been 13 when it came out. 

What surprised me about it now is that the pictures are much more tame feeling in this one, like Gammell really toned down the squishy-wet gore and the twisty-dry bone feeling of the first book. There are still small measures of it here or there, but most of the illustrations are of landscapes, animals, faces, and even what feels like a few surrealist pieces thrown in for atmosphere alone. Yes, they are eerie and yes there are still a few examples of skeletons or severed limbs in the book, but even these feel muted vs. the original book. 

I'm not sure if this was a publisher's mandate or some sort of self-censorship on Gammell's part, but I think this is the main reason the book stand out less in my mind. It just doesn't have the same sort of bite to it as the first collection. The stories on the other hand? They seem more edgy and dangerous here. Schwartz still has a bit of a dry storytelling style here, but he seems to know how to end his stories a little better this time around. The stories themselves feel a little... meaner too maybe? The story of "The Drum" really stands out to me as a particularly weird one. It doesn't really get creepy until the very end, but boy it really takes the wind out of your sails fast! The storycraft itself doesn't really get much better, but it feels like Schwartz is genuinely trying here to up his game by choosing even darker tales, and having more ambiguity in his endings.

I have no idea why such a huge gap came between books 2 and 3 in this series, but we jump 7 years from 1984 to 1991 and suddenly Gammell is back to full nightmare fuel mode.

We're a out of the early 80's and into the early 90's and the gore and thanatophilia are back baby! Look at the spiders and blood EXPLODING from that horrified girl's face! This book has scarecrows made of stitched up flesh, giant-headed flying monsters with oozing eyeballs, skeletal horses, and the most messed up looking "Mexican hairless sewer rat" that you've ever seen. The really creepy ones aren't that overt though. The strange, doughy, smiling woman with long lanky black hair, or the ghost that looks like a paper doll with its center scooped out... those are the pictures that really give me the heebie-jeebies.

Schwartz gives us kind of a mixed bag of stories here. We get almost as many "just plain weird" stories as we do truly "scary" ones. But almost all are fun to read. 

I picked up this collected edition of the books a while back, but found that I really missed owning the three individual volumes too. So now I have them all! Of course, I have to keep the cover of this book hidden most of the time, because I'm afraid it will creep out my kids. That does it for the "Scary Stories" books (for this post anyway... they will live on in our imagination FOREVER) but I have 2 more books to share, one involving Schwartz and one involving Gammell.

The first one is "In a Dark, Dark Room," by Schwartz, but this time with illustrations by Dirk Zimmer. This book hold a place of very early equal regard in my heart as the "Scary Stories" series, because it almost feels like it's a younger cousin to those books. Schwarz did another one of these "I Can Read" books with illustrator Victoria Chess, called simply "Ghosts!" but I've never really been a fan of that one for some reason.

Now, Dirk Zimmer is no Stephen Gammell. Let's get that out of the way up front... but he is his own brand of weird and disturbing to be sure. I couldn't really look at books that had been illustrated by Zimmer later on in childhood because I had such strong associations between this book and his style.

The stories are fairly tame... but not SUPER tame considering this book is really aimed at first-through-third graders.  We have talking corpses, long-fanged stranger danger, a woman's head abruptly falls off, and the book ends with a large, rather menacing looking skeleton. So again, it really is the work of the illustrator, this time again, to scare the kiddies. Maybe mot on the same scale as Gammell's work above... but it get's the job done. And speaking of Gammell...

Last Halloween I was thrilled to discover there was a book of Halloween poetry that existed that had been illustrated by Stephen Gammell, that seemed to be done in exactly the same style as the "Scary Story" books. And man, do I LOVE ME SOME HALLOWEEN POETRY.

It's a collection put together by Myra Cohn Livingston in 1989, and Gammell is at it right out of the gate! You can't even get pas the contents page without seeing a skull clown! (If that's meant to be a clown... it may just be a big, gross nose hole... either way, brrrr...)

There's a really nice assortment of poetry here, and Gammell's illustration do their job well. There are really only maybe three truly "scary" illustrations (I've included two of those here)  while the rest are just sort of off-putting. If you're a fan of Halloween poetry, or Gammell's illustrations, this is worth tracking down for sure. It is out of print, but you can find it on various online secondhand vendors as I did. I think I found mine in a store on Amazon.

Well that's it kids! Hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane... Hope you sleep well tonight! Heh. I'll be back soon with some Ghastly Goodwill Goodies! Until then, Happy Haunting!

Remember, I'm doing this countdown as a part of the official Countdown to Halloween, so be sure to pop over there and look and see who else is participating this year.


  1. Did you know there are audio adaptations of the Scary Story books?

    1. I never thought about it before ow, to be honest! Are they any good?

    2. They're ok. I listened to the first one and they're about campfire, holding a flashlight under your face level. A lot of them end with the narrator yelling/screaming to get a jump scare.

  2. You and I need to sit down and just talk about children's book illustrations because I know we could go on for days!

    1. Maybe a children's book themed episode of Eclectic Mayhem sometime in the future?

    2. I'll be happy to be regularly podcasting again soon. Let's stick a pin in that idea. Can't wait to hear what EM has planned for Halloween!


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