Friday, September 30, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a Review

Perhaps the reason I've an affinity for dark & twisted art lies with a trio of books I read as a child.  Alvin Schwartz is most known for his collection of folktales marketed towards children.  His most famous books--Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones--were some of my most favorite reads as a lad, and when I recently happened upon my personal copy of SS3, I couldn't help but dive in.  I went to the library and checked out the first two volumes (not sure why I only have the third?), then promptly drove home and leafed through the pages.

It's impossible to continue without acknowledging Stephen Gammell's defining artwork.  In fact, I'm going out on a limb and saying that it's Gammell's work that makes this collection so cherished (and challenged*, for that matter).  I love the loose, spindly, flowy lines that add an ethereal feel to each work.  Everything has the tone of something horrific waiting to be loosed upon your mind.  I would love to see Gammell do some Lovecraftian illustrations.  Yes, it is Gammell's work that shines in these books, and they've no doubt affected my subconscious.  

Allow me to wax on here.  The illustrations are grotesque.  Magnetic, whereby they repulse the reader, but attract as well.  I feel as if Gammell has somehow captured the essence of a nightmare (or some hell) and then rendered it on us, and, in particular, young minds.  Frankly I'm surprised these books are read by kids, as I can easily see them getting utterly creeped out and running for Mommy in the dead hours after midnight.  Moreover, as I was rocking Avonlea to sleep the other night, I was reading the books and left them beside her crib after she went to sleep.  Keisha brought them to me later as I was brushing my teeth and said, "You can't leave those in there. If I look over there and see 'em in the middle of the night I'd be freaked out."

I guess I would, too.  I have this fleeting fear whenever I wake up during the night.  With the thick shadows and eerie softglow lights, coupled with the fact that I'm not wearing my spectacles, everything is blurred and skewed.  My mind deceives me.  My eyes tell untruths and distortions.  I see monsters and things unknown in the darkness, sinister and evil, things that would fit perfectly alongside these horrors Gammell's illustrated.

Still, there is more to these books than just the art.  Schwartz writes in an easy to understand form, especially for children.  To my understanding, the intention is for these things to be read aloud, and working with that assumption, these stories all do well.  However, if one looks too closely as the sentences, well, one gets disappointed in the simplicity.  It's anticlimactic at times, coming across as uninspired and flat out boring.  This is not prevalent, nor is it epidemic, but the way these stories are told is very weak when compared with other folktales.  (This seems fickle, as I'm comparing a children's book to adult, scholarly things, but what can I say?)  Nevertheless, I did feel like Schwartz dropped the ball several times throughout these three books, but if you're reading them aloud, it's not too bad.

If we look at the folktales and urban legends themselves, then these three books are a treasure chest of them.  Each tale spans from 1-3 pages (most falling at just over a page) in length, and because of that, there are a multitude of stories.  Many are familiar things, things we all know, things our grandparents swear are true.  But there are more than enough unfamiliar ones, too.  And to me, digesting a "new" folktale, especially one that's been around for years, is like cream cheese icing on a carrot cake.  Delicious.

I appreciate Schwartz listing a bibliography at the end of each book, as it's nice to be able to dig deeper (or see different tellings) for a story.  When things are from oral tradition, Schwartz lists people involved, too, or areas he collected from.  I also like how there are "alternate endings" or miscellany for the stories listed.

These three books are delightful little reads.  There's no doubt that they're heavily responsible for my taking to folktales, as I read these books for the first time in elementary school, but they're also probably responsible for my weakness for dark art.  I'm glad to have stumbled on my copy of SS3 the other day, and even more glad to find the library's copies were in the stacks and not checked out.  Halloween is the perfect time to read these books, and the RIP challenge just makes it more pleasant.  If you've never read the stories Schwartz tells, then you're missing out.  But even more, if you've not had your heart stopped by Stephen Gammell's horrid illustrations, you're really missing out.  I strongly recommend remedying this as soon as humanly possible.

*Not only was this series the most challenged during the 1990s, it was also the 7th most challenged between 2000-2009.  I'm assuming 


contemplatrix said...

His first one, at least, makes the lists for challenged/banned books. N saw it and requested it from the know, for RIP. thanks for the heads up on the images (I see what you mean about repellent and yet unable to look away), will make sure the daughter reads them aloud during the day lit hours and tucks them under the bed at night.


celawerdblog said...

Those are some very disturbing images. lol

contemplatrix said...

natalya picked up a volume with Brett Helquist illustrations; though atmospheric, not nearly as frightening image-wise. Will have to hunt down this volume.

logankstewart said...

@L: Aye, I saw that there was a re-issue of the series where Gammell's illustrations were replaced. How disappointing. Hope you find the original versions. Maybe an inter-library loan?

@celawerd: Disturbing indeed. Particularly the dead-eyed wispy lady thing.

Kailana said...

I think the artwork would make the book. That's silly that they would take them out... They are very mood-setting!

Carl V. said...

I keep meaning to pick up one of these every year about this time. My family enjoys being read to and they seem like just the sort of thing they would enjoy, as would I.

logankstewart said...

@Kailana: Yes, to me Gammell's artwork is inseparable from Schwartz' work. Choosing to change artists was a poor move, in my opinion.

@Carl: They are intended to be read aloud, and ideal for this time of year. Plus, as short as they are, the book can be finished in a half hour.

Anonymous said...

I started reading them in elementary school and would stay up way past my bedtime. It had gotten to a point where I was reading it to my youngest brother (in kindergarten at the time) and he was believing every word I said. My uncle got the books banned for anyone under 4 grade. To this day, that ban is still in effect and I still can not see a scarecrow. ��