Category Archives: Books

My Favorite SCARY STORIES

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.

“The Thing”, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“The White Satin Evening Gown”, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“Something Was Wrong”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“The Bride”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“The Drum”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the 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.

“The Window”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“The Bed by the Window”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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.

“Wonderful Sausage”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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”!

“Bess”, Scary Stories 3

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.

“Harold”, Scary Stories 3

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.

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Looking Back: The First Issue of TOXIC HORROR Magazine!

In the late-’50s, when the Universal Monsters were wrapping up their run and giant atomic monsters started to take over the horror cinema, Forrest J. Ackerman and James Warren began publishing the “world’s first monster magazine”, the highly imitable Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was, perhaps, the most important magazine concerning horror cinema ever published.

Naturally, a slew of spin-offs and copycats popped up soon afterward, all doing their best to cover what horror movies had to offer, all in a very similar style and tone.

But by the late-’70s, the type of horror that was showing at the local cineplex was vastly different than the fare that had been shown 20 years earlier: the kills were more violent, the sex completely uncensored, and the gore utterly gratuitous. The taste of the common horror fan had changed, and there needed to be a magazine which represented this new wave of cinema.

Enter Fangoria Magazine, “The First in Fright, Since 1979”.

From its debut, Fangoria pretty much dominated the horror movie magazine market. But by the mid-to-late-’80s, horror had become such a massively successful and popular genre, Fangoria decided to publish a few sister magazines to cover everything that was being released. In 1988, they debuted Gorezone Magazine (which I’ve covered before), a darker and more gruesome outlet which ran for 27 issues. And one year later, in 1989, they released the short-lived Toxic Horror. TH was canceled after just five issues.

Looking back, it’s clear that TH was the sort-of loosey-goosey experimental sibling to Fangoria’s trusted, name-brand output. Fango had fun, sure, but at times TH feels downright goofy. (Check out their fictional story, The Booger Man, below.)

Still, those of us raised on ’80s horror, we took what we could get when it came to paper mags which showcased the goopy, gory stuff. This was long before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye; so the more horror magazines, the better.

Without further ado, let us hop in the family car, head to the local grocery store, b-line it to the magazine aisles, and go back to 1989, where the first issue of TOXIC HORROR awaits us. Enjoy these scans from a few select pages of my own personal copy of TH #1 (and forgive any blurred edges!)

Looking Back: the First Issue of GOREZONE!

May 2016 marks the 28th anniversary of GOREZONE, the bi-monthly ‘sister’ publication of FANGORIA Magazine which made its debut in 1988. At the time, GOREZONE was intended to act as a sort of companion piece to its more well-known counterpart, covering the bloodier/weirder/more obscure stuff that Fango didn’t. Can you imagine? So many noteworthy horror films were being released, multiple magazines were necessary to cover them all. What a time to be alive!

GZ ran for a brief but bloody 27 issues, ending its run in 1994. Despite a short magazine stand life, it was a hardcore horror fan favorite. It was nastier, slimier, and darker than Fango, and it wasn’t afraid to showcase the splattery stuff, oftentimes as close-up and vividly as possible. Thanks to the powers of nostalgia, GZ was revived in 2013, albeit with one minor limitation – it is now only available via direct subscription. Continue reading Looking Back: the First Issue of GOREZONE!

Remembering… Cracked Monster Party & Monsters Attack!

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A small section of Dr. Jose’s personal (very used) collection.

Growing up, I’d say most of the things I was consuming artistically fell under one of the four following categories: funny, gross, weird, or scary. Funny like The Three Stooges, “Weird Al”, and MAD Magazine; gross like Ren & Stimpy and Garbage Pail Kids; weird like Liquid Television and Pee-wee’s Playhouse; scary like Fangoria Magazine and the vast amount of horror flicks I watched as much as I possibly could.

The most magical and exciting items from that nascent period were the ones that blended one or more of the aforementioned tastes. It’s hard to explain but to my developing and easily-awed brain, by combining such weird and creative preferences, it was as if someone really got it, somehow understood me personally and intimately, and was able to cater to my individual tastes. Things like the Garbage Pail Kids and Liquid Television, those were mine. Too weird and arcane to be understood or appreciated by the masses. Were other 9-year-olds enjoying those things, too? Of course. Adults, as well. But little me didn’t think that: there was no way other people — especially kids my age, my peers — could possibly be comprehending these things and enjoying them the way I was. I suppose this is the point when nostalgia starts germinating in our small bodies and turns into some sort of weird, protective ego in our adulthood. Or maybe I was just a screwball kid, who knows. Continue reading Remembering… Cracked Monster Party & Monsters Attack!