“The Horrors of Travel”

Some of the scariest works I’ve read or seen didn’t come from a work of horror fiction, but from books about and accounts of historical disasters. The description of the sea suddenly overtaking an already flooded Galveston Island during the hurricane of 1900, as written in Isaac’s Storm, is as chilling as it is succinct. There are parts of Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire that are at least as terrifying as anything in the most affecting horror novels I’ve ever read.

While the above artwork from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, printed in September of 1865, isn’t supremely frightening, it is undoubtedly macabre. “[G]raphic, but by no means extravagant,” is how Harper’s described its illustration. The nonfiction book The Angola Horror–a recounting of the 1867 train wreck that occurred in Angola, New York–introduced me to “The Horrors of Travel.” The short article that accompanies the picture mentions the 1865 explosion of the steamship Sultana, and the drawing appears to reference it in the lower right hand corner.

In the upper left corner is a burning ship that might not to be a reference to anything specific, but the article is focused on accidents that occurred in 1865, even if it only mentions one by name. There were two other major maritime accidents that occurred in 1865: the Brother Jonathan sank off the coast of California, killing 225 people (92% of its passengers and crew) in July , and in August the SS Pewabic collided with her sister ship and took at least 100 people down with it in Lake Huron. The Sultana disaster was the deadliest maritime accident1 in world history to that point, and would remain so for at least half a century (depending on how one classifies the Halifax explosion).  It remains the deadliest maritime accident in United States History. The Brother Jonathan sinking was the tenth worst in U.S. history, and the Pewabic disaster was the fourth worst to occur in the Great Lakes. From April to August, a country that was barely exiting the Civil War witnessed three major marine shipwrecks occur along the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in the Mississippi River, near Tennessee. So while there was no major incident involving a burning boat in 1865, it’s understandable that Harper’s would want to include one more dramatic image of a foundering vessel in this illustration, driving home the point that these incidents were taking place all over the country in a relatively compact time frame.

The train wreck references are a little harder to explain, given the article’s focus on 1865. The year saw no major, deadly railway accidents, although the head-on collision from the Shohola incident from a year prior might account for the crash depicted in top center of this illustration. The associated article makes no mention of a specific train disaster. Even without a more recent, major wreck to serve as inspiration, however, the specter of railway disasters–a relatively new and seemingly grislier spectacle at the time–still loomed so large that this illustration makes it a centerpiece steered by Death itself.

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45-minutes of Horror Stories From the Freddy Krueger Hotline

For a relatively brief period in the 80’s and early 90’s, back before every entertainment enterprise had a dedicated website, 1-900 numbers were ubiquitous. While some people might remember the 1-900 numbers being associated with phone sex operations, R&B singerspop stars, teen idols and cartoon characters had their own hotlines as well. This latter group of hotlinesd blatantly targeted children, with their commercials often closing with, “Kids, get your parents’ permission before you dial.” One of the other hotlines for fictional characters that targeted children, somewhat inexplicably, belonged to Freddy Krueger.

And now, courtesy of Dwayne Cathey’s Soundcloud account and the adolescence of actor/director Taylor Basinger, we have a 45-minute long archive of Freddy’s phone nightmares, recorded by a 14-year-old on his Darth Vader speakerphone.

Freddy doesn’t feature at all in any of these stories and for the most part only provides canned, repetitive introductions.  The stories themselves play out very much like super-condensed old-time radio horror stories. Just as gruesome as the darkest that Lights OutThe Witch’s Tale or Quiet, Please used to be, but with more swearing than you could get away with on the radio. The voice actors are all committed and once you get used to the rushed performances you might find the material more charming and entertaining than you’d expect.

Given the decidedly R-rated nature of the Elm Street movies, it might seem odd for Freddy to have a phone line that kids would be eager to call, but the Krueger character was always more popular with kids than with adults. Likewise, the character was bigger than the movies that spawned him, which paying adults made reasonably successful, but didn’t turn into breakout hits. Even adjusting for ticket-price inflation, none of the movies in the original Elm Street run come close to touching Scream, the original Halloween, or even Friday the 13th or I Know What You Did Last Summer when you’re looking strictly at the numbers. Many of the kids who thought Freddy looked scary and “cool,” and who dressed up in a hat, sweater and rubber-bladed glove for Halloween, often had to wait for the movies to come to home video or HBO to see their preferred horror icon in action.

Or they could dial a 900-number to get their Freddy fix, and hope that their parents wouldn’t notice those extra charges on the phone bill.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…

Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.

This is from one of the “humorous” stories. Obviously…

Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two.  Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.

The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?

“Another big toe in the garden? You’d think it was June already.”

We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.

My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. In it, two young sisters living in a small village happen upon a toy drum owned by a gypsy girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.

Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.

The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?

I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Sleep well!

Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.

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