When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to a series of books that would become stalwarts of my bookshelf to this very day.
It was at one of those pop-up Scholastic Book Fairs (in our empty gymnasium, which doubled as a lunchroom and occasional Starlab set-up) where I first discovered Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories trilogy–Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3…More Tales to Chill Your Bones.
I don’t recall them being recommended to me; I don’t remember having seen them before that day. All I know is: I was a kid who loved anything remotely spooky, and when I saw the cover of the boxed set–that of a wide-eyed disembodied head–I knew I had to have them. (Plus, it couldn’t have been that expensive; my parents allotted me only so much money for the book fair.)
I’ve revisited the stories many times over the years. Some have held their heart-racing, fireside charm; others have lost their luster as I’ve gotten older and more desensitized. And some I’ve come to appreciate more as an adult than I did as a kid. It’s crazy to think that I was able to buy them from school at such a young age, considering Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was, at the time, a banned book–number one, in fact, on the American Library Association’s list of most challanged books from 1990-1999.
Since today is National Read a Book Day, I thought I’d make a list of my 10 favorite stories from the entire Scary Stories set. While the stories in the books range from terrifying to just plain silly, I wanted to focus on the ones that creeped the hell out of me.
Growing up in the Midwest, one of the things that creeped me out most about many of the stories in these books were their Anywhere, USA type settings. As the stories are essentially folklore and urban legends, the imagery used to describe the locations is steeped in timeless Americana: sprawling fields, empty parking lots, lonely post offices. Reading about two brothers who spot a dead man crawling out of a field across the street, when I myself grew up on a street surrounded by fields? That’s downright terrifying.
This is a classic urban legend. A girl buys a second-hand dress to wear to her prom, becomes dizzy at some point in the night, goes home, and is found dead the next day. The cause? Embalming fluid on the dress seeped into her skin and killed her; turns out the dress she bought was stolen off a buried corpse and sold to the shop she purchased it from. There’s just something so sad about it happening to an innocent, destitute young girl just trying to enjoy one night of her hard life. Her last words are: “I think I have danced too much”. Yeesh.
This is the first story from the second book, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which feels much darker than the first book. In fact, I think a bulk of the most unsettling tales comes from this volume. This particular story, about an amnesiac man wandering the streets asking for help–only to scare off everyone he encounters–is another familiar tale, even popping up in the Tales from the Crypt comic book (and later, its 1972 film incarnation, as Reflection of Death). The simplistic story–combined with Stephen Gammell’s etheral illustration–is truly haunting. It’s just a hell of an opener to an increasingly grim book.
Not much happens in this one. In fact, it’s only about five paragraphs long. There’s no twist, no moral, no comeuppance. Just a wedding night game of hide-and-seek gone wrong. A bride gets trapped in a trunk and her skeleton is found decades later. That’s it. I’m telling you man: these stories are dark.
Okay, this one gets my vote for most upsetting story from the entire series. Two young sisters live in the country with their mom and baby brother. One day they come across a little girl in a field, playing a toy drum. The sisters want the drum, and the little girl promises to give it to them if they go home and act bad. The sisters do as they’re told, and return to the little girl, who tells them “Oh no, you must be much worse than that.” This continues for a few days, each time the mother getting more upset, and each time the strange little girl telling the sisters to act worse than the last time. Finally, the mother warns the sisters, “If you continue to act badly, I will leave and take your brother away, and you will get a new mother–one with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” The sisters are understandly freaked, yet they act bad one last time and go visit the girl in the field, who reveals she never intended to give them the drum in the first place; “we were playing a game, I thought you knew.” The sisters return home, only to find their mother and baby brother missing. But someone with glass eyes and a thumping wooden tail is waiting for them.
A girl notices a creature staring at her through her bedroom window; it breaks in and attacks her, bites her on the neck. It runs away but returns a few months later, only this time the girl’s brothers chase it to a nearby cemetery where they find it in a mausoleum, sleeping in a coffin. What makes this one so creepy is they refer to the creature as a “vampire”, but they also hint that it might be just some guy who escaped from a local insane asylum. It’s never made clear, as the girl doesn’t seem to suffer any effects from the neck bite. Also: a great way to terrify any child well into adulthood is to somehow make them afraid of their own bedroom. Tell them something lives in the closet, under their bed…or outside their bedroom window. This story is pure creeps.
Speaking of beds by windows, The Bed by the Window is another bleak, unsettling story. Two old bed-ridden men share a room at a hospital; one of them has a window view and describes all the amazing sites to the other. Pretty girls, parades, excitement. Eventually, the other guy wants to see for himself, but he knows he won’t get moved to the window bed until the first guy dies–so he hides his heart medicine, and sure enough, the first guy croaks. The thing is: when the other guy finally gets the new bed, he discovers the window faces a brick wall.
This is one of the stories that makes me go, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably why this book was challanged by the ALA”. In it, a butcher gets mad with his wife and ends up killing her, turning her into sausage, and feeding her to his customers. The demand for this delicious new sausage leads to him killing a few locals and animals, and turning them all into sausage, too. The most insane part is where it details how he seasons his wife’s ground up flesh and smokes it in his smokehouse. This, coming from a book labeled “Ages 9 and up”!
This is one of those archetypical folklore stories–the kind that comes full circle, the kind I love so much. A young farmhand has a favorite horse; a docile pet named Bess. One day, he visits a fortune teller who warns him that he will be killed by Bess. Though he doesn’t believe the teller, the young man is still wary of the horse. Eventually, he sells Bess and forgets all about the warning. Sometime later, he runs into the man he sold the horse to, who in turn tells him that Bess got sick awhile back and had to be put down. The farmhand requests to see Bess one last time, as she was his favorite horse. As he strokes what’s left of her head in the back of a barn, a rattlesnake that had made its home in the horse’s skull shoots out and bites the farmhand, killing him and fulfilling the teller’s prophecy. Knowing that Death has a clock for each of us, and that we can’t avoid the bell tolling no matter how hard we try–that’s some heavy stuff right there.
Lastly, perhaps the most memorable character and story from any of the Scary Stories books, is Harold. This scarecrow-come-to-life tale is the stuff of nightmares. Two friends, alone on a farm, decide to stave off boredom by making a life-sized strawman out of canvas and hay. They put him out in the morning to scare off the birds and seat him at the dinner table at night. They also take to beating him when the mood strikes. Eventually, Harold stands up and walks out of their hut, climbs to the roof, and starts “galloping like a horse on its hind legs”. As if that imagery isn’t creepy enough, it gets worse: the two friends finally decide to leave, but soon realize they’ve forgotten some expensive milking stools back at the hut. One of them decides to go back while the other continues on. As the one walking gets to the crest of a hill, he looks back down at the hut and sees Harold on the roof of the hut again, “stretching out a bloody skin to dry in the sun”.
Looking at the picture below–me and my buddy, excitedly reading my newly acquired Scary Stories collection, the one I’d just purchased from the book fair–it’s clear the stories didn’t affect me too badly. I’d say they instilled just the right amount of terror. The kind that lives in the backroom of your brain and invites you to revisit every once in a while.