"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Schwartz, Alvin. Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. New York: Scholastic, 1981. 109 pages.

"Phantom footsteps! Ghostly wails! Creatures that go bump in the night! Turn the lights down low. Now get ready for the fright of your life. Here are chilling, thrilling stories that will make you shiver and shake -- and make your friends quiver and quake!" (from the book cover)

Overall Review: **** (four stars)

  • Length of Stories. The stories tend to be nice and short; perfect for both the attention spans of younger children and for reading aloud at sleepovers or around the campfire.
  • Historical Notes. The notes at the end of the book are invaluable.  Not only does Schwartz discuss the various types of ghost stories/folk tales presented in the book, he discusses his sources for the stories and presents reasonably comprehensive lists of references.  These notes enhance the interest of the collection for precocious children and older audiences.
  • Illustrations. Stephen Gammell's illustrations, replaced with more toned-down drawings in the latest edition, add to the ambiance of the book.  They are creepy and are what I personally most remembered of the book as I grew up (according to reviews on Amazon, the same is true of many readers).
  • Read-aloud-ability. That isn't a word, but the stories lend themselves well to recitation (as do most folk tales, being from oral traditions), and some include instructions on what the narrator should do while reading the story.  It would be a good way for young readers to practice reading aloud.
  • Subject Matter of Stories. This book and its sequels have been highly challenged over the years for the sometimes disturbing subject matter.  The stories are simple, but they are not watered down.  If you are the type of parent who objects to stories of ghosts and Sweeny Todd-style cannibalism, then perhaps you should monitor your child's reading of this book and its sequels.
  • Illustrations.  Gammell's drawings are, to quote The Horn Book, "ghoulish."  Creepy and disturbing are further appropriate words.  In some instances, the illustrations are more disturbing than the actual stories.  Of course, this is solved by the new illustrations in the latest edition.  Again, parental oversight is important when it comes to what children read.  For older children and adults, however, both the stories and the illustrations are likely to simply send good shivers down the spine.

I remember checking out this book and its sequels frequently as a child from the library.  I certainly enjoyed some stories more than others (urban legends have always genuinely scared me more than ghost stories, which are usually pleasantly creepy).   I re-read the book recently and found that the stories and illustrations were still creepy, all these years later.  I also noticed the valuable notes on the provenance of the stories and various references on folk tales, ghost stories, and urban legends at the end, which I'm sure I ignored as being dry and uninteresting as a child.  Now, I find them absolutely fascinating, particularly when discussing certain common types of stories.  In the years since originally reading Schwartz's work, I have come across many of these stories in other setting, and I always remembered reading his versions.

It was definitely Gammell's illustrations that made the books truly creepy for me, and I still find them disturbing.  If parents are worried about their children reading these books, I believe that the drawing s are more likely to cause nightmares than the stories.  I personally believe that Schwartz did well in choosing stories that just reach the limit of how scary things can be for children. Though the stories and drawings stuck with me, I do not recall being particularly scarred or traumatized by them.  As for the accusations of violence toward the book, I believe parents should recognize the violence, such as it is, is not graphically described.  Also, the malefactors in the stories tend to meet their well-deserved fate, or the hero escapes (if it is that type of story).  It is also important to recognize that these stories, both traditional and more modern, were often meant to be cautionary tales about safe living practices, and they can still be important in that regard.  I highly recommend them for teens and adults, and I recommend that adults read them before or along with their children, while recognizing that most children have a good sense of what is and is not too scary for them.

Related Reading:
  • Schwartz, Alvin. Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. New York: Scholastic, 1984. 100 pages.
  • Schwartz, Alvin. Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. New York: Scholastic, 1991. 113 pages.

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