Written by Jonathan Wojcik
"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" was a three-book anthology spaced from 1981-1991. The books collected traditional ghost stories, urban legends, paranormal reports and even creepy folk songs from around the world, introducing children to the classic roots of horror. The stories, however, aren't what the books are best remembered for - nor why the books were widely rejected by school libraries. It's Stephen Gammell's intensely haunting, brilliantly interpretive drawings that transformed these simple stories into primeval nightmares by sheer juxtaposition. Drawings that look like they could ooze right off the page, leak into your soul and decompose you from the inside.
It honestly saddens me that I personally didn't discover these books until I was ten or eleven years old - old enough to appreciate how cool the art was, but not old enough to earn any rad mental scars. If I ever had children myself, I know exactly what I'd wallpaper their nursery with. Do not allow me to have children.
#10: SHADOW DOG ON STAIRCASE
Starting off with one of the subtle ones, I really like how pitiful and even endearing this little guy looks with its gaping, empty eye-holes, but notice how it casts a larger, more menacing yet somehow pleading dog face on the wall behind it. While the lost canine soul is a harmless and sympathetic specter, it would be nothing short of nerve wracking to see this little black blob scampering down a darkened staircase.
The minimalistic, almost vestigial features of this ghoul are quite appropriate, as it accompanies an intro entitled "Hoo-has," describing some of the vague and indeterminate fears mankind has named throughout its folklore. Hoo-has, bogeymen, boggarts, boo men, bugbears...creatures whose details are left up to the individual imagination.
#8: A MEXICAN HAIRLESS
This marvelously putrid little beast illustrates the classic urban legend of a family adopting what they believe to be a stray chihuahua only to discover that it's a "sewer rat"...with rabies! (Not actually something rats can carry) This scabrous, slobbering abomination looks more like the telepod fusion of a human with a gila monster, and far too cool to have ever creeped me out. What I wouldn't give to have something like this for an actual pet.
#7: CORPSE WOMAN
This ghost is benevolent in her accompanying tale and helps bring her own killer to justice, but that doesn't soften the visual impact. It's just as disturbing to think about becoming this ghost (or a guy one if you are a guy, like me!) as being haunted by it. The eyes are what get to most people, but I was always more stricken by the pained and sickly way her rotting mouth gapes open.
#6: KNIFE SALESMAN
This one comes to us from a chapter of "comedic" ghost stories, the final punchline being that a creepy, knife-wielding stalker in a parking lot is just trying to sell knives, haha! We don't want any! Of course, his intentions would be irrelevant if he really looked like the cancerous, irradiated monstrosity Gammell decided to portray him as. Is that just a huge, disgusting boil or is there an extra eyeball peeking out of his hair? Imagine this face not only leering through your window, but pretty much filling it, considering how huge it looks on his little body. Even better if you're on the second or third story and there isn't any ladder or staircase out there.
#5: A CHEEKY GHOST
Another from one of the "comedy" tales, this one with a ghost who appears in a girl's bedroom only to stick its fingers in its ears, blow a raspberry at her and disappear. This is not less scary than anything else it could have done.
The more I look at this thing, the more I realize what a wonderfully unique and terrifying design it really is. Its almost waxy, melted anatomy is abstracted to an alien degree, yet it still screams "ghost." It's a real shame we don't see any spirits this outlandish in mainstream horror cinema...this would be ten times as memorable as any white-skinned Japanese girl or invisible demonic presence.
#4: SPIDERS ERUPT FROM A WOMAN'S FACE
"The Red Spot" is the classic story of a woman whose seemingly ordinary spider bite keeps growing and growing until it finally explodes into thousands of tiny young arachnids. Her exaggerated, ghastly face alone would be a creepy enough piece, but the spiderlings scrambling out of her oozing rupture are what make this one of the most loved and loathed drawings in the series. It's all in all pretty awesome, though I'm incapable of taking parasitic spiders seriously as a horror trope. There are no spiders whatsoever who incubate their eggs in living bodies; not even the bodies of insects. They are strictly predators, not parasites; to o a biology geek this is like a horror story about tiny flesh-tunneling mountain lions.
...Which of course would be more awesome.
#3: SOMETHING OR OTHER HAPPENING
This goes along with the story "Oh Susannah!" One of the creepiest tales in the book. In it, a girl's roommate keeps humming the titular song when they should both be asleep, humming louder and louder whenever she's asked to keep it down. When our protagonist finally loses her temper and flips on the lights, the roommate has no head. This weirded the hell out of me as a kid, and the picture didn't help matters. The story is probably only meant to imply Earthly murder and the drawing is only meant to represent abstract nightmare imagery, but my young mind immediately interpreted that flying, hairy glob as the missing head from the story, twisted beyond recognition in its mysterious journey to this murky limbo of skull demons and floating chairs.
#2: BEADY EYED WOMAN CREEPIER THAN SHE SHOULD BE
This is a popular one around the internet, especially after someone or other turned it into this animated gif. I should have probably warned you ahead of time about that, sorry.
The beady eyed woman is another benign but nonetheless distressing entity; the protagonist of her respective story dreams one night of an empty, decrepit room with highly unusual, ugly wallpaper. When a pale, chubby woman with tiny, solid black eyes warns her that the room is an "evil place," she awakens in a terror. The following day she goes apartment hopping, discovers the same exact room and sees the same exact woman standing in the doorway. I've had a lot of nightmares myself where nothing particularly threatening occurred, but I still awoke with a heart-pounding jolt of panic, and both the description and image of this subtly off-human woman hits really close to the goofy stuff that sends me inexplicably flying for the light switch, feeling stupid for being afraid of something so mundane yet unable to shake the sense of paranoia.
#1: A THING OF BEAUTY AND WONDERMENT
At last we come to not only my favorite image from the Scary Stories collection, but one of my favorite images in general. The combination of titanic skull, melting eyeballs and gnarled, withered little inhuman body makes for one seriously kick-ass monster design. I truly believe this floating nightmare puts thousands of cinematic monsters to shame; when was the last time you saw anything even remotely this imaginative in a horror film? When has Hollywood ever dared to be this outlandish? When it comes to fear, less is usually more. What they don't show is usually far scarier than anything they do. This is only because what they show us wasn't drawn by Stephen Gammell.
The best thing about this guy? He's from yet another of the humor pieces. The story tells of a "horrible thing with oozing eyes" falling out of a chimney in an empty old house where a man has sought shelter. The man explodes out the door and flees like lightning down the street until he may as well be out of town. Catching his breath, he feels a tap on his shoulder, turns around, and there's the monstrosity we've all been forced to picture as the one in this particular work of art. Having chased him the entire distance, the monster proceeds to ask: Pardon me, is something wrong?
Adorable. Once it became obvious that he didn't mean any harm, you know you would keep hanging out with this guy. Right? I mean, I would.
It kinda looks like you could dip chips in his eyes.
QUESTION TIME: since I crave comments but receive very few, speak up and leave your opinions! Did you read the Scary Stories books as a child? What disturbed you most? How did you interpret some of the more abstract scenes? If this is your first time hearing of the series, what on the list do you find the creepiest? You can leave comments at the bottom of this page!
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