For many in my age group, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was much more than a series of books. They were essential reading that helped cultivate a generation obsessed with horror. I was first introduced to them at the age of seven, and it’s safe to say that nothing’s been the same since. As a second grader growing up in Southern California, I was impressionable, and my imagination was always going. (Sometimes a bit too much.) Although horror cinema was something I wouldn’t discover until later, these books were my gateway. They helped me escape from my daily ordeal of social awkwardness and the trials and tribulations that come with childhood. Although the books were made for children, their appeal reaches far beyond that demographic. Alvin Schwarz packaged folklore into a digestible format, and Stephen Gammell’s illustrations seemed to reach out and grab you; like some sort of disembodied hand from the grave. As Clive Barker once said, “Time is kind to generic work.” These stories are many things, but they’re certainly not generic. Even at the age of 34 I’m still drawn to them.
My older sister owned the first installment, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I used to follow her around like a puppy, asking her to read me the stories at every waking moment. As one might imagine, I was overjoyed when I was allowed to get my own book. Not wanting to be a copycat, I decided to get the follow up, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I can still remember picking it up for the first time, my childhood excitement bursting at the seams. The image that graced the front cover was an indication of what I was in for. It depicted two girls walking down a forest path, the unknown before them. Specters loomed in the treetops around them, witnessing their journey. The image was from a story called “The Drum”, one that would leave an impact on me. More importantly, it was symbolic of the journey I was about to take. In front of me was a world I never knew existed, and once I entered, there was no turning back. Schwartz and Gammell were about to introduce me to a new chapter in my life, one that’s still being written today.
The first story in the book set the ominous tone for what was to follow. In a story entitled “Something Was Wrong”, a man in unfamiliar territory attempts to make sense of his surroundings. The main character, John Sullivan, finds himself downtown. People around him scurry about to get away from him, as if he’s some sort of pariah. Upon calling his house for help, he discovers he died in a car crash the day before. The story resonated with me because it made me think. Was John Sullivan really dead? Was it a dream? For a child unfamiliar with these topics, one short story raised more questions than it actually answered.
There were quite a few stories that dealt with death, and I was confronted with the subject for the first time. The first one that comes to mind is “The Man in the Middle.” As a young woman named Sally rides the subway home, three men board the train and join her. Two of them hold up their companion who can’t stand on his own. The two men eventually leave, and the man in the middle falls in front of Sally when the train takes a sharp turn. As she looks at the body, she notices a bullet hole in the back of his head.
“Wonderful Sausage” and “Oh, Susannah!” furthered my growing curiosity about death. The first story was about a butcher named Blunt. In his obsession to make the perfect sausage meat, he begins feeding children, their pets, and even his wife to a meat grinder. It’s almost fitting that years later I’d fall in love with a Destruction song entitled Mad Butcher. “Oh, Susannah!” is one of the shortest stories in the book, and its contents only fill up the space of a page. It’s about two college roommates named Susannah and Jane. While Susannah attempts to sleep one night, she can hear Jane humming the old tune very loudly. After yelling at her several times to be quiet, she goes into Jane’s room, only to find her decapitated. As the story ends, Susannah screams, “I’m having a nightmare…when I wake up, everything will be all right…” As a small child, I was plagued with bad dreams. To this day, I sometimes wonder how some of these stories affected that. 10 years later, I would become obsessed with Faces of Death (1977). It’s easy for me to look back and see where this fascination with the final curtain originated.
As I mentioned earlier, “The Drum” was one story in particular that left an impact on me. “The Drum” is about two young girls who meet a gypsy playing a mechanical drum. The three strike a bargain—if the girls behave horribly at home, the gypsy will give it to them. At the same time I was reading this book, I was also familiarizing myself with the poems of Shel Silverstein. There was one in particular about the gypsies, and how they would kidnap children. Many years later, I would see a movie about a gypsy curse called Thinner (1996). Everything seemed to tie in together somehow. It was the stories conclusion that terrified me at a young age. In the story, the mother of the two girls threatens to leave them if they don’t clean up their act–and get them a new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail. As a child, I took this at its literal meaning. I imagined an old woman, with beady eyes made of glass, and a wooden beaver tail. It never occurred to me that the words might be used to describe spectacles and a cane.
My introduction to the vampire of folklore was found in a story called “The Window.” Besides seeing Dracula costumes on Halloween, they were still relatively unknown to me. In the story, a young woman named Margret stirs in bed. As she gazes outside her window, she notices a creature slowly approaching her. It breaks into her room and attacks her, but is subsequently chased off. Later it returns to strike again, only this time Margaret’s brothers intervene and force it to flee into a cemetery. Margaret and her brothers seek help from a church official to open the burial vault where it ran off. The vault is described as “Broken coffins, bones, and rotting flesh…scattered all over the floor.” While the illustration that coincided with the story was only of a dark shadow obscured by fog, that particular passage burned an image into my young mind. All I could imagine was death sprawled about everywhere. As the group discovers the vampire lying in its coffin, they incinerate him in a massive pyre. It’s here where my search for images of the macabre and the fantastique took route. It’s no surprise that I would later immerse myself in Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood.
Death and darkness aside, there were also stories that were comedic in nature. The most remarkable one of these was “The Bad News”. It’s a harmless story of two friends who enjoy playing baseball. It all culminates in a friendly bet to see if baseball is played in the afterlife. The two friends, named Todd and Leon, decide that whoever gets to heaven first should come back and tell the other. Todd dies first, and soon returns to tell Leon the good news. They do have baseball, but unfortunately Leon is scheduled to pitch the next day. The funniest story in the book is “The brown suit.” A woman comes to bury her husband, but is dissatisfied with the undertaker’s choice of wardrobe. The undertaker simply exchanges the head from another corpse to fulfill her request. While neither story scared me at all, it laid the foundations of my appreciation for morbid humor.
Just two years after these stories captivated my imagination; I leapt at the opportunity to own the third and final volume. I was nine years old when I obtained Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Strangely enough, this book would coincide with my developing musical taste. But that’s another story…