I remember it vividly, despite being in first grade and about age 6 at the time. It was the most coveted book in our small elementary school library. I remember so many times coveting the book, envying my classmates that had already checked it out themselves. Demand for this book was so high that sometimes students would check it out even multiple times before the librarian caught on and prohibited the practice.
Every chance I got, I would always make my way to that bookcase in the back of the school library on the very bottom shelf. So often I would leave that corner in disappointment, having found its place on the shelf vacant, yet again. But this time was different. There it was. Finally. It was mine. Even though I was too terrified to even dare flip through the pages, I couldn't wait to get home and begin reading...
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
The title, for me, still inspires simultaneous feelings of glee and apprehension. Written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, the original book would go on to become a collection of three with the addition of More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones.
To 6 year-old me, they served as extremely potent nightmare fuel. Case in point: The illustration for the story of The Thing. I'll never forget seeing that image for the first time and literally dropping the book to run to the other side of the room...
That lip-less mouth and those sunken,piercing eyes haunted me for years. To this day, that unholy creature stalks my nightmares and any time something goes bump in the night, I am convinced that it is this face that is watching and waiting for me in every darkened hallway. Even though I have viewed the image countless times, it still manages to send shivers down my spine!
The stories for the books were "collected from folklore and retold by" Schwartz. Despite being very old stories that have been told time and time again to countless generations, at that time in my childhood they were very fresh and very terrifying.
As good as the stories were, what this series will always be remembered for is the illustrations!
Stephen Gammell, using ink and water, so perfectly created a disturbing and haunting series of drawings that the images were burnt into the consciousness of the children who read them. The pictures are so hideously disturbing and yet so captivating and surreal and ethereal that throughout my life I have been inspired by Gammell's work.
With such terrifying images presented to such a young audience, it's little wonder that this series was so controversial (Personally, I was unaware of this until just a few years ago and having been exposed to these at a young age, I was quite surprised when I discovered this fact). Apparently the books were heavily challenged by parents at the time of their initial publishing and were actually banned from libraries in several states.
No doubt, however, the books did manage to "warp" the minds of countless youths. I was delighted to find that my wife had had similar experiences with these books in her elementary years as well. In fact, on one of our first dates we bought a treasury collection of the three books.
The legacy of horror continues...