Jack of many trades Steve Gray (audiobook producer/narrator, tattoo artist, writer, aspiring filmmaker) recently invited me to take part in the debut of his new pod/vid cast “The Rock ‘n Roll, Horror Movies, and Tattoos Show.” During our talk, I delve a lot into The House on Creep Street and a little about The End of Summer, and I share details on the next book in the “Fright Friends Adventures” series Beware the Monstrous Manther! Pretty cool that I share some running time with Danny Hicks, an actor likely most famously known for playing hillbilly Jake in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. It was a good talk and Steve’s a good guy, so have a listen.
The awesomely named Ulysses Escobar of the Creative Crossroads tumblr asked me to take part in an interview featuring some not-so-obvious questions, pertaining entirely to my love of music and how it’s helped to shape or inspire my writing. He then assembled a playlist via Spotify featuring some of my favorite all-time songs. Be sure to check out the interview and do some reading/listening. And then let me know how terrible my musical taste is, you miserable trolls. (Just kidding, I heart you.)
The Halloween anthology has become a large part of my yearly October traditions – whether decades old or hot off the press, I’m always eager to snap up a “new” one and give it a read. These days it’s easier than ever to slap together an anthology, upload it to CreateSpace or whatever self-publishing medium, and unleash it onto the world. Amazon is dripping with e-books available for free download offered by hopeful authors, and like anything else that becomes saturated to that extent, it becomes difficult to find the truly special collections.
And here we have Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre, edited by Paula Guran. The cover sports names that I certainly recognize, but most of them do not ring a bell. I did enjoy Guran’s previous collection, simply titled Halloween, for the most part, and she was kind enough to lend me a copy of her second anthology to read and present as part of my October celebration.
Eighteen stories make-up this collection, and as I’ve mentioned before, anthologies by nature are a Rorschach test. For those of a less critical mind, I suppose it’s easier to find an anthology in which every story enthralls and entertains, but frankly, it’s tough to put out such a collection with different authors taking different directions that still manages to please everyone. That’s the beauty of the individual.
Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre is no different. Here are my favorites:
“The Mummy’s Heart” by Norman Partridge
Norman Partridge is an author with whom I am well familiar, as his novel, Dark Harvest, is frankly one of my favorites. (Read all about that one here.) His contribution here is hands-down one of – if not the – best in the collection. A story that begins with two brothers setting out for an innocent night of trick-or-treating and encountering a local kid named Charlie Steiner, who may very well have lost a little bit of his mind and perfected his mummy costume to the extent that he ordered water scum from the River Nile and cut off his own tongue. When the boys cross paths with this mummy, the story is legitimately eerie and upsetting—and it packs a rather hurtful revelation. Partridge is great with details, insofar as making each minor thing such as the moon or darkness seem alive and contain motive. He writes his story with such a realistic approach that it honest-to-gosh feels like it happened to him. At one point he even says something to the effect of, “Google it and see for yourself,” which I fully admit to doing.
The first part of “The Mummy’s Heart” seems like nothing more than haunted childhood recollection. You nearly expect it to end once the faux ending occurs, but there’s much more to this story – so much that it goes from a pulpy monster story to something much more haunting and heartbreaking. “The Mummy’s Heart” plays around with this idea of becoming someone else on Halloween night with the aid of a mask and costume, but what it really seems to be about is being driven to insanity by the idea that one is not happy with the person they are and wishes to become someone/thing else – and will do nearly anything to make that transition happen. And that’s just for the “villain.” It also plays around with refusal to recognize reality for what it is – to be haunted by dreams much more than nightmares. It’s the reason I continue to celebrate Partridge the author as years go by. He so easily writes about human emotion and longing that frankly it doesn’t matter what kind of ghastly device he’s using to frame his story – it’s always about much more.
“The Black Dog” by Laird Barron
Laird Barron continues this theme of love lost and found with a tale in which a young(?) couple meet on a blind date in a restaurant. They embark on witty banter and attempt fact-finding missions about each other – the usual first-date kind of stuff. But here’s the thing: Is she, in actuality, dead? Is he? Both, or neither? Under the All Hallow’s sky, these two lost souls meet and remember what it is to yearn again. Though it’s told primarily from the man’s point of view, the woman provides us enough insight that it’s clear she’s just as troubled and lonely as he is.
There’s a beautiful ambiguity draped over every inch of “The Black Dog.” As the story progresses, you nearly want to race through every sentence to unearth the revelation that will hopefully explain the very odd circumstances in which these two people have found each other. A meal at a restaurant to a night walk across a bridge to sitting together in the woods – it’s a first date many would be consider to be ideal…except for that ominous idling van, of course. By my nature I’m attracted to things with a certain kind of sad beauty. It’s a reason why I love the works of Norman Partridge, and it’s also why I’ll certainly be checking out more work by Laird Barron, as well.
“For the Removal of Unwanted Guests” by A.C. Wise
A story about a man named Michael moving into his new house who must contend with the random witch who shows up on his doorstep telling him she’ll be moving in. Just like that. The witch brings with her a black cat, as well as every manner of magical skill – she knows that one of the steps in the house is made of wood taken from a shipwrecked vessel, or the answer to one of the riddles in the old crossword puzzle Michael is holding. (She’s a witch, after all.) At first Michael wants nothing more than for her to leave – he even finds a spell in the witch’s book of magic strictly dedicated to (insert the story’s title here) – but after a while, what should be an easy decision to make becomes one with which he wrestles, to the point he might even MISS her once she’s gone…
“For the Removal of Unwanted Guests” is wonderfully and addictively absurd, yet charming. It’s a quirky story that seems to become more so as the pages turn. It’s nice counter-reading to the other darker and more haunting stories. There’s nothing especially horrific about the tale, except of course for something Michael’s unwanted guest states:
“Life isn’t fair. Nobody gets to choose whether they have a normal happy one or not. If they did, do you think anyone would get sick, or have their hearts broken? Would anyone die? It doesn’t work that way.”
Still, it might just be the most horrific statement in the entire book…because it’s absolutely true.
“We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge
This tale breathes life into the scarecrow legend of Halloween, which may or may not be rooted in historical lore. The scarecrow has been associated with Halloween for a long time, and Hodge’s story concocts a perfectly appropriate scenario as to why. Every year on Halloween night, in the town of Dunhaven, townspeople gather objects that symbolize the dearly departed in hopes that, if left as an offering, the spirit of their deceased loved one will fill the scarecrow and share a message with the bereaved. Many townspeople vie yearly for this chance, and among them for the first time are Bailey and her young son, Cody, who wishes to see the resurrected spirit of his father, Drew. Also hoping to see the return of a loved one is a young woman named Melanie, whose sister, Angela, went missing several years before and was never found, so was presumed dead.
I rather liked this story, as it reinforces the idea of “maybe it’s better not to know.” Cody is eager to ask his father about the afterlife and what the “rules” are, while Melanie wants to ask Angela who was responsible for her disappearance and death. The story’s themes are open to multiple interpretations, but I prefer to think that existence, as we know it, is so terrible – lacking actual humanity amongst its humans – that the dead don’t so much as choose to come back as they’re forced to.
As you can imagine, I’m really fun at parties.
These aren’t the only stories in the collection worth a read, but they were my personal favorites. Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre, as they say, has something for everyone. I’m personally drawn toward the dark and bleak, and so stories of that nature were my own highlights. But the book celebrates every kind of genre and approach – real history is intertwined with lycanthropy; real international conflicts are explored through themes of cults, insanity, and vampirism; some stories are quirky, some are anything but. My one real complaint about the anthology (and it’s one I often have with Halloween anthologies) is that while many of the stories contain Halloween elements, they’re not actually about Halloween in any way. Werewolves and vampires are fun and all, but their only ties to Halloween are that they’re spooky and monstrous, and so is Halloween, and so therefore, a connection. However, I can’t in good conscience say any of these stories are poorly written because they’re not; they’re just not entirely what the title promises.
Still, I recommend Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre. The book itself is nice and weighty; its girth confirms you’ll be getting a lot of bang for your buck. It’s not quite as large as, say, October Dreams, but it’s certainly one of the larger anthologies out there that (mostly) celebrates this time of year.
Introduction: New Boo – Paula Guran
“Thirteen” – Stephen Graham Jones
“The Mummy’s Heart” – Norman Partridge
“Unternehmen Werwolf” – Carrie Vaughn
“Lesser Fires” – Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem
“Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story” – Jonathan Maberry –
“Black Dog” – Laird Barron
“The Halloween Men” – Maria V. Snyder
“Pumpkin Head Escapes” – Lawrence C. Connolly
“Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still “– Caitlín R. Kiernan
“For the Removal of Unwanted Guests” – A. C. Wise
“Angelic” – Jay Caselberg
“Quadruple Whammy” – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
“We, The Fortunate Bereaved” – Brian Hodge
“All Hallows in the High Hills” – Brenda Cooper
“Trick or Treat “– Nancy Kilpatrick
“From Dust” – Laura Bickle
“All Souls Day” – Barbara Roden
“And When You Called Us We Came To You” – John Shirley
Anonymous Halloween photographs from c.1875-1955 — truly haunting Americana, with a foreword by David Lynch
Another one from the Halloween shelf, and it’s delightful: a collection of photographs from Halloweens past, showing people in their costumes in the midst of October pageantry. Some are eerie, some are cutesy, and some make me yearn for decades long gone where Halloween was celebrated in a purer way. I’d been doing this already for years: scavenging Internet for old photographs of people in their Halloween best. Turns out I could have just bought myself the danged book.
The photographs in “Haunted Air” provide an extraordinary glimpse into the traditions of this macabre festival from ages past, and form an important document of photographic history. These are the pictures of the dead: family portraits, mementos of the treasured, now unrecognizable, and others. The roots of Halloween lie in the ancient pre–Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, a feast to mark the death of the old year and the birth of the new. It was believed that on this night the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin and ruptured, allowing spirits to pass through and walk unseen but not unheard amongst men. The advent of Christianity saw the pagan festival subsumed in All Souls’ Day, when across Europe the dead were mourned and venerated. Children and the poor, often masked or in outlandish costume, wandered the night begging “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers, and fires burned to keep malevolent phantoms at bay. From Europe, the haunted tradition would quickly take root and flourish in the fertile soil of the New World. Feeding hungrily on fresh lore, consuming half–remembered tales of its own shadowy origins and rituals, Halloween was reborn in America. The pumpkin supplanted the carved turnip; costumes grew ever stranger, and celebrants both rural and urban seized gleefully on the festival’s intoxicating, lawless spirit. For one wild night, the dead stared into the faces of the living, and the living, ghoulishly masked and clad in tattered backwoods baroque, stared back.
Haunted Air is a cool little book, and almost feels like it should be the official keepsake of Halloween, including its domesticated history. A large part of the appeal I hold toward Halloween is nostalgia-driven. I feel like I can remember every single year when I went out trick-or-treating, or the details of every party I attended, or what I spent every year doing with friends or girlfriends. It’s almost like an unending circle: Halloween is my favorite night of the year, and so I want to spend it doing the things I love. Those things live on in my memory and contribute to the fondness I have for Halloween in the first place.
There’s not much else that I can say about Haunted Air other than it provides a time warp back through your entire life, not just the costumed caperers in the photos. Every significant era of Halloween’s American history is provided in the book, so no matter what your age, at least part if it will easily trigger something in you and make you recall that specific time in your life – whether good or bad. Keep it out on your coffee table so that during the month of October, as you’re passing by, take a minute to flip through a couple pages and enjoy the mini-trips to Halloweens past when life didn’t seem so complicated – and when all that mattered was on the page, forever preserved by a single snapshot.
Isaac Asimov is a name that carries a lot of weight in the literary world, whether you’ve read his works or not. Personally, I never have, as his history of writing “hardcore sci-fi” just doesn’t appeal to me on a general level. But, when I randomly discovered a small book of Halloween short stories called Thirteen Horrors of Halloween compiled, edited by Asimov, who also contributes a story, naturally I gave it a shot. (That H words gets me every time.) What I found was a mixed bag; the stories that dipped their toes in the horror pool were fairly solid; those utilizing a safer genre (from mystery/noir to scientific espionage) were, sadly, less impressive. Though the day/night of Halloween was their constant, the stories’ tie to it were sometimes tenuous.
Anthologies by nature are usually a mixed bag. An anthology’s editor will attempt to compile great writers with different styles united in one common theme. Because of this, not every story will appeal to every reader. Kudos to any editor who ever broke that code, because I have yet to read an across-the-board anthological success. This collection is no different. Some of the stories are fantastic, some are average, and some, well…
Let’s get with the good.
“The Forces of Evil” by Isaac Asimov (Foreword)
This introduction is incredibly interesting as it delves into the history of Halloween. Most Halloween compilations feel the need to do this, so some of this information will be familiar, but some of it will sound quite new—like Halloween’s connection to 500 B.C. Persia…or even the bible. And did you know that in certain parts of the world there is a second Halloween—May 1?
Imagine the possibilities…
“Unholy Hybrid” by William Bankier
A rather simple story about a farmer named Sutter Clay, renowned for his keen ability to effortlessly grow the most impressive and even visually interesting crops in his small town. His crops are proudly displayed each year at the town’s autumn celebration; his fellow townspeople have come to expect nothing less. He’s a man who prefers a life of solitude, but one rainy night, a drifter knocks at his door asking for temporary refuge from the nasty weather. Described as a “homely” woman, she proves herself immediately useful by cooking him meals and cleaning the house. Soon it’s several months later and she hasn’t gone anywhere—she’s used to having a place to stay, and he’s used to having her cook and clean. Things get complicated, however, when one night she confesses to him that she’s pregnant—with a direct and unavoidable implication that it’s his—and he’s none too happy about that. Without a clear reason why, Sutter solves the problem the only way he knows how. And that’s when that thing begins to slowly grow out of his grounds and haunt him.
“Unholy Hybrid” is great Halloween pulp. It’s rather dark and bleak, and its plot rather simplistic. It’s like a scenario any burgeoning writer concocts in their own mind as a possible story idea to pursue before waving it off and rightly assuming it’s already been done. Still, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. And I like that, unlike most Halloween-set tales, this one actually begins months before the holiday. Entire seasons pass during Bankier’s careful yet momentary details, and it all leads up to Sutter Clay’s final terror—in the late hours of a new-born Halloween night.
“The October Game” by Ray Bradbury
Honestly, if you’re even reading this and showing an interest in Halloween-based literature, it’s likely you have read perhaps the greatest Halloween short story of all time. I’m not even sure how you could have missed it, as it appears in nearly every Halloween anthology I own. It’s a story about a man who has grown completely unhappy with his life – caused by his loveless wife, Louise, and who gains no feelings of fulfillment by the love of his young daughter, Marion. Forced to host a Halloween party for friends and their children, the story opens with him staring hard at a gun in his bedroom drawer and pondering potential futures before he plasters a fake smile across his face and begins to host the night’s festivities – including a rendition of a familiar Halloween party game involving a nasty story and pieces of food you’ll never forget.
Apropos for Bradbury, “The October Game” is as nasty and mean as it is darkly humorous. Bradbury is an absolute master and easily envelops his readers with the emotions of his characters. Bradbury is a man who loved life and remained wholly optimistic about it for most of his career, but his ability to write about despair, isolation, and sadness would make you think otherwise. The antagonist of “The October Game” isn’t a monster or a sociopath; he is the embodiment of a very real fear to which most people can relate – his life is the end-result of choices he wish he hadn’t made, and which has come to feel more like a prison than anything else. And he sees only one way out. “The October Game” ends with a wicked last sentence, which by itself is innocuous and even amusing, but takes on a much different meaning after having read the events leading up to it.
“Halloween Girl” by Robert Grant
One of the several tales in the collection that sheds the horror in lieu of something different. Timmy and Marcie became fast friends not long after Marcie and her family moved into town. The two discovered they have a lot in common – especially when it comes to horror. They love everything about the genre and have spent countless hours in libraries and movie theaters soaking up every dread-filled second. Naturally their most anticipated day of the year is Halloween and the next one is looming, but it’s also one that will prove to be incredibly unforgettable.
Grant’s tale is extremely sweet and melancholy. It’s about young love, death, and growing up over the course of one Halloween night. It does a fine job of keenly making the reader recall the same types of friendships from his/her own childhood and it works well because its own simplistic yet effective iteration of a shared childhood works in tandem alongside your own. The ending will bring a sad smile to your face, for sure. My fondness for this particular story led me to naming one of my own short stories after it, “The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings,” though my own girl is a lot less sweet…
“Night of the Goblin” by Talmage Powell
Told from the point-of-view of two fathers – one caring and thoughtful, the other anything but – two young children readying for a Halloween party will cross paths in a way where one of them is changed for good while the other will have no idea the part they played. And all it takes is one Karmel King.
“Night of the Goblin” is not horrific in an obvious way – there are no monsters or killers – but it does touch on themes of emotional and possibly physical abuse, and what a victim of said abuse is willing to do in order to save himself. And it uses an infamous Halloween urban legend to do it via a very clever re-imagining of “trick-or-treat.” There is a plot within the plot, masterminded by one individual. This is the trick. But this mastermind will be utilizing the most mundane thing in his candy bag to pull it off. This is where the treat comes into play. Though not a challenging read, Powell’s tale sets itself off from other Halloween tales in that focuses on something much more real and much closer to home. It’s likely the story you won’t think much about soon after finishing it, but will soon come back to fester somewhere in your mind.
“Pumpkin Head” by Al Sarrantonio
A little girl named Raylee, a shy introvert at a new school, is encouraged by her teacher to tell aloud a scary story during their class Halloween party. Raylee shares with her classmates the tale of Pumpkin Head, a sad and lonely boy born with a mutant head shaped like – you guessed it. It would seem Pumpkin Head could only take all the bullying of his students for so long before bringing something to the front of the classroom to show his teacher: a metal lunch box. And inside is a knife. “My lunch and dinner,” Pumpkin Head tells his teacher. “My dinner and breakfast.” Raylee’s teacher halts the story before its gruesome ending, but the kids seem to love it, anyway. One of the students smiles and invites Raylee to her Halloween party that night. It’s the last party many of them will ever attend.
“Pumpkin Head” has been printed in several different Halloween anthologies (just like Bradbury’s “October Game”) and there’s a good reason: it’s fantastic. It is a very clever and accomplished amalgam of Halloween traditions, present both in the upfront setting, but as well as on a thematic level. It’s about wearing costumes – obvious ones, not so obvious ones, and ones beyond our nightmares. It unfolds with suspenseful inevitability, but you’re not quite sure for whom you’re concerned. Is it Raylee, the introvert who just wants acceptance? Or is it her school mates, whose allegedly good intentions might actually instead be motive to make Halloween for little Raylee a lot more like hell?
“The Circle” by Lewis Shiner
A group of thirty-somethings continue their tradition of gathering together every year in an isolated cabin on Halloween night to share the scariest stories they could find – whether of their own creation or by a celebrated author. Among them is Lesley, somewhat pensive about attending this year’s meet after having a tryst with Rob, a former lover she had brought with her the previous October. Their romantic whatever ended rather abruptly and she hadn’t heard from him since, but she attempts to forge ahead. Once the member stake their seats, one of them takes out a letter from Rob, explaining that he would not be attending that year’s get-together, but requests the enclosed short story be read aloud. After a bout of silence, Lesley agrees to read it. And things take a turn for the worse when she realizes that events in the story seem to be closely mirroring real life—VERY closely.
“The Circle” is a pretty great offering. It’s brief, but packs a mean punch. Lesley is surprisingly fleshed out, given the brevity of the events, and it even manages to add a satirical bent, eager to go after what seems to be the target of literary critics. I can certainly get behind that! (Read the whole thing on the author’s website.)
“Yesterday’s Witch” by Gahan Wilson
A group of kids who one Halloween night tempt fate and knock on the door of Miss Marble, whom the children believe to be a witch. The yearly visitation of her house by neighborhood kids has become a Halloween tradition, but the most any kid was willing to do was knock on her door before hightailing it out of there. But this year, one particular boy has decided he’s going to knock…and wait for her to answer. And who should answer the door? The elderly and harmless Miss Marble, who invites them in for treats? Or is it a bonafide witch, like so many of the kids believe?
Written less like a story and more like a childhood recollection, “Yesterday’s Witch” ably captures the spirit of Halloween in a rather innocent fashion. It’s certainly one of the more PG offerings in the book, but still manages to chill you, should you let it. Gahan’s choice to recollect the story using a child’s memory strengthens the details and even catches you off guard with its wicked ending.
The remainder of the collection offers stories either so-so or less so, and this even includes the contribution from the collection’s editor. “Halloween” by Asimov is a very brief mystery that takes place in a hotel on November 1. It would seem some plutonium has gone missing and the man who stole it is dead, his last words being – you guessed it – “Halloween.” There’s nothing horrific about this tale at all, and its ties to Halloween exist only to create a quick mystery before ably solving it. Even the most loyal fans of Asimov’s work regard this as a curious but forgettable piece from the author’s otherwise pretty expansive and impressive body of work.
Thirteen Horrors of Halloween hasn’t been in print for years, but used copies can be snagged at the usual haunts. It’s more than worth it, if only for a handful of great stories as opposed to an entire collection.
If we can take a break from typical October reading for a second…
Craig & Joan: Two Lives for Peace tells the story of two very real teenagers – Craig Badiali and Joan Fox – who killed themselves on October 16, 1969, in protest of the Vietnam War. Their hopes were that their deaths would make people see that life is cherished and shouldn’t be wasted. For such a drastic decision, their message was that simple. Love, and allow yourself to be loved.
While already pretty tragic, that this happened in my hometown of Blackwood, New Jersey, really knocked me back. Joan’s family lived two blocks down, on the same street, from where my parents would settle only ten years later and where I would spend the first quarter of my life. Caig’s family lived not too far from where I attended church and catechism in my youth. The place where Craig and Joan asphyxiated from car exhaust in Craig’s car, Bee’s Lane, was less than ten blocks from where I lived, and eerily close to where I attended elementary school.
The author, Eliot Asinof, had begun marking history of this event for what was meant to be a newspaper article – as Blackwood was besieged with reporters and journalists for weeks following the revelation of this event – but as real life tends to do, the story began to grow and expand; as he talked to Craig and Joan’s family members and friends, he began to get a sense of who these kids were. And not only are Craig and Joan explored and fleshed out into the real kids they were, but 1960s Blackwood culture is also put under the microscope. The various political movements going on at that time, in support and denouncement of the Vietnam War, are recollected. (Craig and Joan were participants in both.) History on the town of Blackwood is also provided, including a bit about George Washington donating to have the very first church of Blackwood built – and it still stands there today.
Probably the saddest thing about the book – on top of the already sad event of the kids’ suicides – is how utterly clueless and ignorant the many different facets of Blackwood culture acted in response. As could be expected, some institutions blamed Craig and Joan’s suicide on drugs; others claimed it was that hippie culture so much of the youth had been embracing. It was frustrating to read so many sources condemn this act but then dismiss it with a red-herring cause conjured strictly to lessen its importance or impact. And it’s especially frustrating when you read that the kids prepared specific suicide notes – a dozen each, if not more – and were intended for very specific people, and which very explicitly spelled out why they did what they did. Except for one or two, those notes have never been made public, nor even delivered to their intended recipients. That two non-hippie kids from normal, blue-collar households would willfully take their lives in an effort to achieve some kind of peace didn’t make any sense. The school system didn’t understand it, nor did their parents, nor did law enforcement. Disgustingly, the church didn’t even care, and one particular representative seemed intent on exploiting the family’s tragedy in an effort to get more people to attend his services – and to push the agenda of the church as much as possible
Craig and Joan: Two Lives for Peace is nearly thirty-five years old, and if there’s one thing to learn about our world after reading it, it’s that nothing changes. The obvious answers to so many of society’s problems are staring us all right in the face – folded cleanly and placed into envelopes with their recipients’ names clearly labeled. But because of one body’s decision to withhold the key to unlocking the whys of Craig and Joan’s fate, the world will always wonder. Their suicide notes are likely still sitting in an evidence room, perhaps in the Chews Landing Police Station.
Make no mistake that these kids were quite real. Their letters may have never been delivered, and their ultimate motivations behind their suicides may never be fully accepted, but they existed. They grew up together, loved together and each other, and are now interred next to each other in the Church Street cemetery in the same town where they grew up. Together, they shared their lives and their deaths – and their tombstones bare the same date on which they made the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit: October 16, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is today.
Craig and Joan: Two Lives for Peace is a sad and frustrating read, but also incredibly open and honest. And for a non-fiction book, it has the most gut-wrenching final line you’ll likely ever read – proof that history does, indeed, repeat itself.
I’m pretty sure, as a kid, you had these books:
I certainly did. They were as essential to my youth as the Goosebumps series and Wacky Wednesday.
The stories themselves were pretty basic and well-known urban legends. They were vague, to the point, and sometimes even silly (though trying not to be). And you can only read so many stories that end with “now jump at a nearby friend and scream!!” before you roll your eyes. But these seeming shortcomings were an added strength for the book. In most cases, illustrations are in place to serve the story. In the case of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it was definitely the other way around.
But, at the same time – at a young age, and in the right frame of mind – the stories were chilling, and even sometimes disturbing, due in no small part to the incredibly strange and often surreal illustrations by Stephen Gammell. His approach to illustration was very nontraditional – especially for children’s literature. To sound like an elitist hipster douche bag for a second, his work in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collection was very reminiscent of Dali, and Bosch before him. His interpretations of any particular story’s monsters were horrifying enough, but even human beings depicted normally within the confines of the tale suddenly became misshapen characters born from a nightmare. Occasionally there would be an illustration that had so little to do with the events of the story that it made the happenings that much more off-putting and unnerving.
For instance, in one of the most famous stories not just in the book, but in folklore itself, a girl named Susanna returns home to her college apartment to see that her roommate, Jane (in their shared bedroom), is sleeping. Susanna quietly undresses in the dark and slips into bed, only to be jarred awake several times during the night to someone singing “Oh, Susanna.” She repeatedly tells Jane to STFU. Yada yada yada, skip to the morning, and someone is still singing that song. Susanna flips out, jumps out of bed, and tears the covers off her roommate to see that she is dead.
And the illustration that accompanies this tale?
Yeah. What exactly is that? But…it somehow works. At the very end of this story, when the poor girl is assaulted with the sight of her mutilated friend on a bed only a few feet away, and the impossible sound of singing still fresh in her ears, perhaps Susanna has gone mad. And perhaps what you see is Gammell’s interpretation of madness. Or perhaps he is suggesting that we’re not in control of our own lives, and are helpless to defend ourselves against the dark forces that look down upon us from unseen places.
Perhaps he is telling us there is only fate – not free will – that will determine our paths…and that we are doomed.
Either/or – the friggin’ creeps.
Flipping through the pages of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the pictures you see before you could very well instead be hanging in a museum – and you would never think twice about their inclusion in artistic history, alongside other famous works by other famous artists. One of my personal favorite illustrations of Stephen Gammell is below – one which accompanies a story called “The Drum,” perhaps the eeriest story in any of the three books. Two young children – a brother and sister – become terrible nuisances to their mother, at the behest of a young gypsy girl who possesses a strange drum for which the siblings yearn. Their mother threatens to abandoned them – to leave them with a strange woman, who has glass eyes and a wooden tail. The siblings, though fearful of this threat, continue to misbehave in order to finally possess the strange drum. At story’s end, the gypsy girl explains that it was all just a game, and she never had any intention of giving up her drum. The siblings rush home…and see their new mother waiting for them in front of the roaring fireplace – their new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail that thumps against the floor.
This illustration accompanies the story:
The painting below is entitled “Carnival Night” (1886) by Henri Rousseau.
The similarities, whether intentional or not, show that Gammell has not just a modern illustrator’s mind, but that of a classic artist.
As of this writing, Gammell still provides illustrations for childrens’ books, and though Alvin Schwartz, who compiled the tales for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, has long since passed on, perhaps a fourth book will some day come down the pike under new guidance. And with it will come nightmares for a new generation of dark-seeking children.
“I was four at the time, thinking that I really didn’t want to go to school next year… I just want to do this — just scare other children so bad it gives them nightmares for the rest of their lives.”
– Stephen Gammell
The masterminds behind the brand new Halloween and fall anthology, A Shadow of Autumn, have interviewed each of its authors…and it’s my turn on the firing line. Head on over to the book’s website and take a look, and check out the other author interviews while you’re there. Autumn’s team have assembled a great collection of folks to come together for a wicked Halloween party. I’m honored to be part of it.