What is a book that has had an impact on you? What scenes from books have stuck with you? When did a book frighten you?
Questions like these make for stimulating discussions, whether between people you know well or those you’ve just met. When asked questions of this nature, most people tend towards literary classics – novels that portray the absolute characteristics of humans, the gruesome nature of reality, and/or the intricate perspectives intertwined within relationships. They tend to be books that you have read later on in life, represented by works that describe personal experience, tragedy, and trauma we may have personally faced. For most, a children’s book would not be one of the first works to come to mind.
Finding that I had a vivid imagination from a young age, I was one to spend a great deal of time on my own, creating stories and myths while wandering off in the woods, playing with action figures or stuffed animals in my room, or drawing with Crayola crayons and paper. Whatever I had read in books, seen on television, or experienced in video games flooded into my imagination, influencing the detailed and dramatic imagery that was conjured out of thought. Comic books presented me with the surreal, of mutants and superhumans dealing with their extraordinary abilities among normal humans; novels about war spoke of the harrowing lengths that people would go to for camaraderie, freedom, and personal growth; historical texts would illustrate worlds and civilizations I would never experience, resurrecting people and events along with their actions and consequences; science fiction rendered characters and storylines out of this world, both elaborate and extravagant. Alvin Schwartz’s stories and Stephen Gemmell’s illustrations within the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series left my imagination rattling – both frightened and intrigued.
Based off of American folklore, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were the retelling of longstanding myths, now presented to younger generations since 1989. As a young child, familiar most with the stories and illustrations of Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a significant turn from what I had once known. I still remember checking them out from the school library, reading them at home, folded over in the corner of a chair, left with an eerie coolness over the hair-raising stories and hideous artwork.
The timeless stories were certainly rewritten for their audience, well adapted for consumption by children. For myself, it was the first dive into the spine chilling experiences produced by horror writers. Among friends and others around the same age myself, the mention of the books will leave faces dour and eyes wide. Stories like “The Hook,” “The Hearse Song,” “High Beams,” and “The Red Spot” left youthful readers reeling, looking over their shoulders at night, or worrisome of everyday objects, sounds, and insects.
While I can still recount Schwartz’s stories, it is Gemmell’s grotesque illustrations that are still detailed and intense in recollection. Here are some examples if you’ve never seen them and want a glimpse, or if you have and want to relive the perturbation that comes with them:
It comes as no surprise that these images have stayed with me all the way from childhood. They are graphic and violent illustrations of rotting flesh stretched taught against the bone, erupting, swollen spider bites, subhuman beasts lurking among the shadows, and anthropomorphized men made of straw and cloth. After consuming the wholesome artwork presented by most children and adolescent books, these detailed, explicit drawings warped certainly warped my perception on the presentation of images – evaluating the monstrous and perturbed ways in which reality and hearsay can be portrayed through writing and visual art.
This was a leap into the horror genre, the first immersion into the explorations of what lies deep within the recesses of corners, shadows, and the void of night. With stories that left you chilled with fear or chuckling uneasily and illustrations that generated personal terrors, Scary stories to Tell in the Dark is a series that frightened me while still intriguing and influencing my imagination, for better or worse.