Thursday, November 12, 2015

Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981)

Schwartz, Alvin, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, J.B. Lippincott, 1981
______, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, HarperTrophy, 1986 (my copy)

Rating: 7/10

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at Goodreads
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at ISFdb
     (view a list of editions, printings, covers, etc.)

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to its widespread popularity, the folk tale often lacks its intended wallop of surprise. Unless, of course you, are a youngster first encountering these tales. In my youth I was introduced to many such tales through reading young adult fiction (or as we called it back in the 80s, kids' books), including re-tellings of classic tales; one particular volume I recall having had a blast with was The Headless Roommate and Other Tales of Terror, collected by Daniel Cohen (M. Evans & Co, 1980). I don't believe I've before encountered Alvin Schwartz's popular volumes, and reading them for the first time now evokes mixed responses. The book is certainly fun and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are downright brilliant--unfortunately Schwartz's writing is at times indolent. His notes on these tales and their origins, however, are interesting, and it is great that he made the effort to share these stories with a younger contemporary audience, helping not only to spread them but to conserve them.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is divided into four distinct sections. "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" collects jump stories, tales that are strictly oral and require that the teller, at the moment of high climax, screams in order to frighten the listener(s) and perhaps elicit a scream in return. This is the weakest portion of the book and is intended primarily for fun, to pass along an oral tradition of frightening others. The narratives themselves are not actual stories, only premises, and it is not surprising there are so many variations of each one.

"He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs..." collects ghost stories of various types. Schwartz does well in selecting variety, including a wraith, an animal ghost in the form of vengeful wolf, a haunted house, and one of the many tales of guests spending the night at a house they learn the next day has burned down, while leaving physical evidence that they indeed were there for the night (for a twentieth century take on this idea, please see my note on Oliver Onions's "The Cigarette Case"). These stories are the basis for many classic ghost tales that appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the modern short story, still in its infancy, frequently recorded standard oral tales, or variations of these. "The Cigarette Case" is only one example, and the once periodically anthologized Frank Gruber story, "The Thirteenth Floor," is another variation. This chapter is the closest we come to modern narrative, and the tale closest to the modern short story form would be the enjoyable "The Haunted House." In fact, this would make a great classic ghost tale, and I would not be surprised if it has already been rendered into one back in the period of Mr. Onions.

The third chapter, "They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose," assembles a mixed batch of tales, from a death warning ("Room for One More") to a tale of the wendigo ("The Wendigo"). There is no distinct pattern in this chapter, nor is one offered by the author. I do like this version of the wendigo quite a bit, and its neat to see that the neat non-fantastical Twilight Zone episode "The Grave," which featured a powerhouse cast of character actors including Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and James Best (later known for his role on Dukes of Hazzard), had its basis in the folk tale here titled "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave."

Urban legends are collected in the next chapter, "Other Dangers," including the ever famous "The Hook," "High Beams" and "The Babysitter." We all know the story of the escaped convict/madman with a hook for a hand and the unsuspecting car that drives off with its grim prize. "High Beams" exists in various forms, and one version was filmed as the opening sequence of Urban Legend, while another tale with slightly different versions, "The Babysitter," was popularized in film via the Carol Kane/Charles Durning 1979 feature, When a Stranger Calls. Perhaps because of the twists, the creepy premises or simply the modernization, the stories in this section would seem more effective through the eyes of youngsters.

Image result for Schwartz, Alvin "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"Finally, "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" retitled from the first chapter, collects stories to make the listener laugh rather than scream. The humour is of course mingled with some element of spookiness, and whether one laughs depends really on one's tastes. Personally, I always liked the cats in "Wait Till Martin Comes," while "Aaron Kelly's Bones" is probably more amusing for the adult than the child.

As fun as these tales are, this particular collection is best remembered for its original artwork by Stephen Gammell. For a sampling, simply search for the art online as its splattered all over the internet (my tri-sampling here is minimal in light of the numerous art for a 111-page book). It's great that in 1981 publishers were not too concerned over distributing such disturbing images to young readers, while the readers were excited and often terrified by them: accounts of nightmares or covering up certain pages can be found on some Goodreads reviews. At some point the modern HarperCollins did feel the need to tone down the volume and re-issued Alvin Schwartz's text with brand new, and entirely different (essentially sanitized), artwork by Brett Helquist.

The complete table of contents:

1. The Big Toe
2. The Walk
3. "What Do You Come for?"
4. Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!
5. A Man Who Lived in Leeds
6. Old Woman All Skin and Bone

He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs...
1. TheThing
2. Cold as Clay
3. The White Wolf
4. The Haunted House
5. The Guests

They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose
1. The Hearse Song
2. The Girl Who Stood on a Grave
3. A New Horse
4. Alligators
5. Room for One More
6. The Wendigo
7. The Dead Man's Brains
8. "May I Carry Your Basket?"

Other Dangers
1. The Hook
2. The White Satin Evening Gown
3. High Beams
4. The Babysitter

1. The Viper
2. The Attic
3. The Slithery-Dee
4. Aaron Kelly's Bones
5. Wait Till Martin Comes
6. The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers


Mathew Paust said...

You surely were not indolent putting this together, Alvin! A good one to reprise for next Halloween. Enjoyed it.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you Mathew for the kind words. Part two is waiting to be read.

Unknown said...

Got into the books in elementary and jr high, found them at the public library and Barnes and noble as an adult (original spooky illustrations)

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