And so we come to the final day of our Halloween book club. What could we close with besides Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which scarred an entire generation of children?
There are so many collections of spooky stories for children floating around out there. Some of them are creepy, sure. But none of them match the sheer terror of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Author Alvin Schwartz plucked folktales and urban legends from sources like the Journal of American Folklore and reworked them into a chatty-but-chilling form appropriate for kids. But it's the work of illustrator Stephen Gammell that really made this book a classic. Because the pictures are amazing and utterly horrifying. The ghost girl with the empty skull eyes! The "thing"! Shit, the cover itself!
Madeleine Davies and I cracked a vintage copy open to face our childhood fears.
Kelly: So, what did you think of Scary Stories? Did you read it as a kid? I am not too proud to admit that even as an adult, it gave me the creepy-crawlies.
Madeleine: I did read it as a kid, even though my parents probably didn't want me to. I remember once getting so scared on a camping trip that I had to keep the book outside the tent in order to fall asleep. That's the power it had over me.
That said, it was very disappointing for me to revisit! The stories didn't scare me at all. The illustrations, however, continue to terrify.
Kelly: See, I found the stories still creepy, I think because they were so short. In particular "There's Room for One More" gave me the shivers. It's about a fellow who dreams of a hearse driven by a man who pauses and says, "There's room for one more." Couple of days later he's standing in front of a packed elevator and a man in the back tells him, "There's room for one more." He decides to catch the next one—and of course narrowly avoids plummeting to his death. Such a strange little story!
Madeleine: Ah, I see. For me, the shortness really worked against me. No time to build tension. And so many of the stories end with "and then he died" with nothing more. No details or anything!
Kelly: See, I like that, because it's like a very gossipy form of folklore. "Oh, did you hear about old Sarah So and So, up the way? Well, she saw a ghost and died two weeks later. True story."
Madeleine: Yeah, the stories do attempt a very conversational quality. There was one line that was like, "Well, it turned out he murdered her!" Well? Well?
Kelly: As one does! Murder! Just a regular thing that happens in America!
The illustrations, though. What on EARTH. How did this book happen? I just can't get over that one of the girl with the rotten face.
Madeleine: Ooh, maybe it's a political statement. These urban legends are all a part of the left-wing anti murder agenda.
As for the illustrations, those are fucking abusive. I have a friend who is a children's/teen librarian and she says that they get complaints about those books all the time and it's entirely because of the drawings.
Kelly: Now, normally, I am team Let the Kids Read Whatever They Want. But if my eight-year-old brought this home, I'd call his teacher and straight-up say, "Thanks, asshole, now I'll never get him to sleep again. Don't come crying to me when he flunks because of his night terrors." These things are the stuff of nightmares. Literally. Rotten faces and weirdly proportioned horses and spooky houses.
Madeleine: I was reading it on the subway and felt obligated to cover up the illustrations with my hands as a favor to those around me.
Kelly: And yet it's a Scholastic book. The copy we were reading is very clearly marked "This is edition is only available for distribution through the school market."
Madeleine: Scholastic has actually changed the illustrations for the latest edition of Scary Stories, and while the original drawings are too terrifying, the idea bugs me because it's the illustrations that make the book memorable. Who could be scared of the one on the right when you've seen the one on the left?
Kelly: I just had to restrain the urge to cover my computer screen with my hands.
The stories are fairly standard folklore stuff. It was the whole package that made Scary Stories a classic.
Madeleine: Yeah, the stories are the same stories you've heard a million times. Two teenagers in a car hear a radio dispatch about an escaped prisoner with a hook hand. A girl gets followed home by someone who keeps putting on their high beams. A babysitter gets terrifying phone calls. Yadda yadda yadda. Only way less people die in the Scary Stories retellings than in other versions.
Kelly: They get me every time (because I'm a scaredy cat) but they're not shocking. The illustrations, though—for an eight-year-old, they must be like clicking over to r/wtf. Why do you think kids read this stuff? As a kid I spent so much time trying to find scary horrifying reading material. What on Earth was I thinking?
Madeleine: I don't think it's a kid thing as much as it's a human thing. People love being scared!
I looked up Stephen Gammell, the original illustrator of Scary Stories, and was surprised to find that the majority of his work is equally unsettling and grotesque, no matter the topic:
Kelly: Good Christ. Murder burgers.
Madeleine: They all have that wispy, tuber quality. Like the stories, though, they sort of capture a primal, folklore quality.
Kelly: Even though, as an adult, I can see that Scary Stories is probably a massive pain in parents' asses, I'm disappointed on behalf of KIDS TODAY that they won't get the chance to know the terror of the original illustrations, barring getting their hands on old copies. I think of them as a landmark childhood experience!
Madeleine: Yeah, without them it's like, what's the point?
Kelly: Especially when you consider that if you're 9 years old today, the entire internet is right there. They can see scary horrible shit with less effort than ever.
Madeleine: Right, they have Slender Man for that now. "Cute picture book. I literally stabbed my friend."
Kelly: I also enjoyed that there are pages and pages of footnotes. Is that for teachers who are weighing the terror with the educational value of knowing those "THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE" stories?
Madeleine: What do you think the educational value of that is? "Never babysit. Or go in a car. Or wear a prom dress. Or stay at an inn. But even then, there might be a day when spiders break out of your face."
Kelly: I think the moral of this story is that even when you're too old to be properly terrified by Scary Stories, it still lives in your soul forever. And then you end up working on the Internet. Shout out to whichever teachers introduced us to this text.
Madeleine: Honestly, I'm fairly sure that the book just appeared in my bedroom one day. A witch left it there or something.
Kelly: Like a haunted doll.
Madeleine: YES, EXACTLY LIKE A HAUNTED DOLL.
Kelly: I do think it's interesting that it closes with a section of funny stories. Maybe the whole point of the book is actually that ghosts aren't real and it's all silly. Except the point is lost on kids who are too busy inventing rituals to keep them safe from vengeful spirits.
Madeleine: I think the point of the book is to scare you senseless, no lesson about it.
Kelly: Yes, you are right. And it is a crashing success. Final thoughts, ideas, opinions?
Madeleine: Yes… I've been dead this whole time.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.