Scary Stories Treasury, collected from folklore and told by Alvin Schwartz (illustrated by Stephen Gammell), 1981, 1984, 1991
Published by HarperCollins
First line: “Pioneers used to entertain themselves by telling scary stories. At night they might gather in somebody’s cabin, or around a fire, and see who could scare the others the most.”
Book Rx: For a good nostalgia trip.
As a ’90s kid, I thrived on regular doses of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and a local film franchise called Shake, Rattle & Roll (which was honestly scary at first — flying blood-sucking witches! a fridge that ate people! — then got cheesy later on in the decade). I watched out for the newest installments in the Fear Street and Goosebumps series as eagerly as my friends did for Sweet Valley Twins and The Baby-Sitters Club. One of my most vivid childhood memories is reading Welcome to Dead House while nursing a fever in my elementary school’s old-fashioned infirmary, all alone and successfully (feverishly) scaring myself silly.
I suppose part of the thrill for me in reading horror was the fact that my mom banned them from the house. I remember buying, with carefully saved pocket money, a three-book set from the 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil series. My mom discovered the books and promptly confiscated them. It was years until I saw them again. Strangely enough though, my mom’s ban did not seem to extend to Gothic horror: she bought my sister and me an abridged collection of M.R. James’ ghost stories, which I eagerly devoured. Until now, reading ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ never fails to send chills up my spine.
Schwartz’s Scary Stories Treasury was a fundamental part of my growing-up days, as basic as Cartoon Network, Roald Dahl, and Ri-Chee Crunchy Milk-Flavored Chips. It’s a compendium of all three of Schwartz’s books in the popular series: Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales To Chill Your Bones (1991).
I’m confident most people my age will recognize these books, if not for Schwartz, then for Stephen Gammell’s creepy, morbid black & white watercolors — illustrations gruesome enough they’ve been known to make their way to many a nightmare. (And have resulted in the Scary Stories series being one of the most frequently challenged children’s books ever.) Gammell’s drawings were gross, yes, but they sure worked.
As the books’ titles suggest, a lot of Schwartz’s stories are urban legends or gathered from folklore, retold in simple language so kids would find them easy to read. The books cover a wide range of tales: a simplified version of Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo made its way to the first book, as well as The Babysitter which has a plot reminiscent of the film When a Stranger Calls.
Not all of the stories are serious scares: Schwartz spices things up a bit by including “jump stories” (meant to be read aloud to a group of friends), funny stories (check out ‘The Viper’ from the first book), songs, scary rhymes, and role plays (‘The Dead Man’s Brains’ recommends “a wet, squishy tomato” to use as brains — fun).
The Scary Stories books came back to the limelight a few years back when HarperCollins decided to reprint them in honor of the series’ 30th anniversary. The publisher decided to make one significant change though: it replaced Gammell’s chilling art with another illustrator’s, Brett Helquist. Helquist is quite talented, but based on side-by-side comparisons I must admit the series’ scare factor has diminished somewhat with the replacement.
I’ve since moved on to other authors and other mediums creepier and more sinister than Scary Stories. But, for all those early thrills and delicious childhood scares, Messrs Schwartz and Gammell hold a special place in my bookish heart.