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. A condensed and very slightly modified version of the short story “The New Mother,” written by Lucy Clifford, it is a tale of two young sisters living in a small village who happen upon a toy drum owned by a nomad 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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5 Reasons Why I Love October

I was astonished… astonished I declare… to find out that some folks I know not only have no love for October, but actively dislike this splendid month. Granted, I live in Texas and have lived in south for virtually all of my life, so the coming of colder months has always been a bit of a welcome reprieve from the heat at best and a nice change up at worst. I imagine that if I lived further north the cooler weather would be an harbinger of months of gloom and snow-shoveling and ice-scraping to come. So to my brethren above the Mason Dixon I say… too bad! October is fantastic!

Kidding about the “too bad.” But really, here’s a quick list of reasons why I don’t just enjoy October, but feel invigorated by this time of year.

5. It is the Nexus of Major American Sports

The NFL is in full swing. Baseball enters the postseason (admittedly, the one time a year that I really pay attention to the sport), the NHL regular season starts (when there isn’t a fresh new labor dispute waiting to spoil the sport) and finally, just before October closes out, the NBA season begins. The entire month of October is a long Thanksgiving for sports fans. Feast and be merry, there is no other time like this all year.

4. Autumn is Awesome (From What I Hear)

I might need verification that this is as cool as I think it is…

Reiterating what I mentioned in the opening, I’ve lived in the south for almost my entire life. I’ve lived in Texas since 1994 and before that I spent most of my childhood in Mississippi, which is where I saw my last “real” Autumn. The leaves changed color and fell, the cool-but-not-cold days breezed through and – as a kid – the countdown to Christmas was pretty much on. After a month of being in school, autumn was a welcome sign that the seasons do indeed change, time does indeed progress, and the days of being stuck in the classroom would not in fact last forever.

In my part of Texas, autumn basically doesn’t exist. The weather gets slightly cooler, so highs drop from the upper 90’s to the upper 80’s and dip just below 60 overnight. It’s basically the second coming of spring which probably sounds lovely to a lot of people, but after the soul-sapping hell that is a South Texas summer you’re hoping for a bit more a drop in the temperature. Almost without fail, when the weather gets genuinely cool here it is accompanied by a storm, which dampens the mood. Pun unintended… (or was it?)

*Edit: The above was written before I’d had a chance to spend a few weeks of “mild,” snowy, 15-degree winter in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have since vowed to never ever ever, under any circumstances, complain about Texas heat again. I didn’t realize I had it so good down here. That is all.

So perhaps I am romanticizing the fall. I haven’t raked leaves since I was a kid, and while the Mississippi autumn at least exists, I’m sure it isn’t comparable to what people deal with up north. But until I actually experience a miserable autumn, I’m going to keep holding on to my nostalgia and presumptions that it is a magical time when nature gives itself a new paint job.

3. Cold Weather Fashion

I like clothes. You know what you don’t get to wear in the summer? Layers. Layers = more clothes. And, in case you missed that first sentence of this section, I like clothes. So you can see how it all relates.

While t-shirt weather is nice and enjoyable and has its perks, I’m a fan of layer season. Cardigans, pull-overs, button downs, zip-ups, light jackets, vests, scarves, gloves, beanies, etc.

This is the time of year I go out at night just so I can sport some new gear.

2. It’s Kind of Romantic, No?

I’ve long been a proponent of the the idea that the summer is the perfect time to meet someone, while the fall / winter is the perfect time to be with someone. Summer holidays are festive celebrations with fireworks and barbecue and beer. Fall and winter holidays are about togetherness, giving gifts and designating some alone time with someone close to you. I solemnly swear a woman’s perfume smells better in the cool weather. I do not know why. I do not suspect that there is a verifiable scientific explanation for this, but I swear it’s the truth.

So yeah, I look forward to this time of year as a reason to get close with a lady-friend. October is ideal for this because the Christmas fever has yet to strike. There’s no reason to rush anywhere or be concerned about things you haven’t done yet. Also, it’s cool enough to make you want to get close, but not so cold it makes you want to sprint inside the nearest heated building before you turn into a block of ice. It’s a perfect time to go downtown, take a walk, go to that restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, catch a play, try out that new cool bar – anything that’s a little different from what you’ve been doing, and do it with someone who you’ve been meaning to spend more time with.

1. Halloween, Of Course

It’s never as fun as it was when you were a kid, but really, whose fault is that? It seemed that joy randomly fell into your lap during Halloween when you were young. You got to wear a costume, consume all kinds of candy and talk to strangers. It was like you were being allowed to playfully misbehave. But it was all set up for you, right? So now you’re left to buy yourself the candy and the costume and you start taking it too seriously, or you forego the whole experience to spare yourself the hassle.

Halloween is what you make it, so why not make it fun? It’s an inherently enjoyable little holiday, and you sort of have to take the scenic route to not enjoy it. All the little “misbehavior” you got to do as a kid still applies as an adult, except now it’s even better because, you know, you’re an adult.  I encourage anyone who likes Halloween but hasn’t really enjoyed it the past few years to go make the most of it. Visit a haunted house (a real one), take a ghost tour, invite friends over to tell ghost stories over dinner, watch some good scary movies, go to some costume parties / bars / clubs and “talk to strangers,” attend a festival, attend an event, watch a Halloween themed theatrical production, go someplace where people really cut loose for Halloween. Treat yourself.

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