Scary Sketches to Glimpse in the Dark
October 29, 2010 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Nearly three decades ago, folklorist Alvin Schwartz published Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the first of three horror anthologies that would go on to become the single most challenged book series of the 1990s. But most of the backlash was against not the stories themselves (which were fairly tame), but rather the illustrations of artist Stephen Gammell. His bizarre, grotesque, nightmarish black-and-white inkscapes suffused every page with an eerie, unsettling menace. Sadly, the series has since been re-issued with new illustrations by Brett Helquist, of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame. Luckily for fans of Gammell's dark vision, copies of the old artwork abound online, including in these three image galleries: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Interested in revisiting the stories themselves? Then don't miss the virtual re-enactments of YouTube user MoonRaven09, or the dramatic readings of fellow YouTuber daMeatHook.
posted by Rhaomi (47 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Oh god I had all of those and those illustrations have shown up in more than one Art school major I've run into.
posted by The Whelk at 8:02 PM on October 29, 2010

They scrapped the Gammell illustrations? BLASPHEMY!
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:03 PM on October 29, 2010

And I remember these books having some strong Kid Cred. Like being able to shove 6 super sour bombs in your mouth, it was a Thing.
posted by The Whelk at 8:03 PM on October 29, 2010 [11 favorites]

And yes, seriously, those pictures just summon up a bunch of childhood nightmares...oh GOD the ANTS STORY OH GOD
posted by The Whelk at 8:04 PM on October 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by The Whelk at 8:05 PM on October 29, 2010

seriously, those illustrations are a huge part of my childhood just looking at them and I'm in Port Reading trying to NOT read the finger story cause it was too scary...and annoying my Mom with the worm song.


posted by The Whelk at 8:08 PM on October 29, 2010

Oh, Suzanna...
posted by griphus at 8:12 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't own these. I had to read them at my best friend's house because my mother wouldn't let me have them. I still remember how freaked out I was by some of them.
posted by gracedissolved at 8:13 PM on October 29, 2010

Those are nicely creepy.
posted by Artw at 8:15 PM on October 29, 2010

My "favorites" from the three books:

The Thing, Succubus, Horse

Skull, Embrace, Journey, Reflection

Polyp, Scarecrow, Skeleton, The Dream, Boo, Ghost

(Btw, some of the images in the galleries were showing up partially blacked-out for me, but opening the image link in a new tab displayed the whole picture.)
posted by Rhaomi at 8:20 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, no, I bought the first one for like 10 cents at a public library sale and just chucked it in my classroom library last year. Maybe I should have taken a closer look.
posted by SheaCoin at 8:21 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hey, I was in a Borders the other day, and on the bargain shelves near the door they had a compendium of all three books for $9.99. It's an odd compendium, though; each book is numbered as it originally was, which means you get pages 1-100+ three times, and you have to find the contents page for each book separately. However, all the original illustrations happened to be here.

This is a great post! It's cool to learn its sordid history. The stories - mostly the illustrations! - haunted/traumatised me as a child, reading these via the school and classroom libraries (and I'm meaning "traumatised" here in a mostly tongue-in-cheek way). Finding them later in life, it really was amasing that they were somehow allowed in the classrooms, but I'm glad they were.

I was going to pass on buying the compendium/omnibus version, because why do I need this thing staring at me from the shelf, tormenting me?! But knowing that someone wussed out and re-illustrated it means I've got to pick it up now (and I'll double-check that all original illustrations are there, but I'm pretty sure they are). And then put it in a box. And lock it. And lose the key.
posted by curious nu at 8:21 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

wonderful wonderful stuff....
posted by HuronBob at 8:26 PM on October 29, 2010

Also, Gammell's artwork is especially strange when you find that he illustrates non-terrifying children's books as well (including some of his own). It still has that splotchy, mottled style, but it's more colorful and playful. Like a tumorous Dr. Seuss.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:29 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

What a great post!

I can't believe they got rid of the Gammell illustrations. Those books were simultaneously my least and most favorite in my childhood library because of the pictures (the stories creeped me out too, though). One of my recurring nightmares is a humanoid shape sinking in through my ceiling, which is what happened in... Footsteps, maybe?
posted by codacorolla at 8:36 PM on October 29, 2010

Oh God. Those books. Those illustrations are for whatever reason a huge part of my childhood memories. I guess usually art so visceral is rarely a part of mainstream adult material, much less for children.
posted by threeants at 8:41 PM on October 29, 2010

Those books were so popular amongst the hip elementary set, you had to get on a waiting list to check them out from the school or public library. I remember finally getting my hands on them, and scaring my 10-year old self senseless. The stories were read aloud at slumber parties, usually after viewing "Goonies" or "Ferris Beuller's Day Off" on the VHS.

Just looking at those ink drawings, I remember each and every one. Yeargh.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 8:41 PM on October 29, 2010

Thank you so much for this post; I loved those books and the illustrations especially.
posted by Nattie at 8:43 PM on October 29, 2010

Oh, Jesus, those books used to scare the crap out of me as a child. And yet, I still read them all the time.
posted by 1000monkeys at 8:46 PM on October 29, 2010

Those images were my first experience of existential horror. The upper "skull" in the "Journey" image just...ack. We watched "Psycho" tonight, but that won't give me nightmares. This will.
posted by notsnot at 8:55 PM on October 29, 2010

I had no idea Alvin Schwartz was so famous, or so dead by the time I read Scary Stories. It's about time to relive my childhood and read that book again.
posted by spamguy at 9:18 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I loved those books to death as a kid. TO A HORRIBLE GRISLY DEATH WITH MAGGOTS AND BITS OF SKULL. *flashlight under chin*

I mean, I love Brett Helquist and all, but these belong to Stephen Gammell.
posted by katillathehun at 9:30 PM on October 29, 2010

Oh good. Free speech loses again. If they didn't want the books, why buy them?
posted by CarlRossi at 9:31 PM on October 29, 2010

Ugh, those illustrations used to scare the crap out of me when I was a kid. And yes, they were (and still are) very memorable. I remember the first time I laid eyes on one of those books - some other kid had dropped one behind the fence at school. I, bookworm that I was even then, picked it up and took it home.

Oh the horror. The twisted, insanely, yet brilliantly illustrated horror.

I'm glad to seeI wasn't alone in experiencing all this in such a way.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:40 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I loved these things as a kid! Thanks for reminding me!
posted by brundlefly at 9:54 PM on October 29, 2010

I'm not at all ashamed to say I used to cover up the pictures with my hand so I could read the text on the facing page.

I remember the horse-lady (22 in the first book) as being particularly unsettling, even though it's one of the least gruesome.
posted by theodolite at 10:00 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

My older brother had Scary Stories vol. 1 on our shared bookshelf, and I was terrified of it. Even at that age, I had a sense that there was something wrong about destroying a book, so it was left outside "accidentally" after a camp-out in the back yard. To my dismay, it survived intact and was returned to the shelf where it would continue to terrify me until I grew out of it. A good piece of work, though, looking back on it.
posted by Marty Marx at 10:31 PM on October 29, 2010

I read all of these books as I encountered them in elementary school along with any book of ghost stories I could find and a solid series on all the old movie monsters. While the notes in the back of the book were an awesome inclusion that was different from most collections, the illustrations in the Scary Stories books truly set them apart from everything else - Gammell's trailing, spidery lines made everything ethereal and ectoplasmic.

In each book, there was one or two illustrations that had a more powerfully jarring effect than any of the others, despite all being outstandingly creepy. I would approach these pages with excitement and more than a little fear. The adrenaline rush of turning the page and seeing it there didn't fade until after I got much older. Even now, those monochrome pictures have a greater punch than much of anything that could be offered in gruesome color by film, television or internet.

It's fairly dark in the living room of my apartment right now as I sit at my bedroom desk. In the gloom, the Scary Stories Treasury lies on a shelf, those powerful images lying in wait amongst the pages for the soul unwary enough to encounter them...

posted by Appropriate Username at 11:18 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

These books got banned from my elementary school library when Laura Green got nightmares and her parents made a fuss. This episode also caused her to immediately become the least popular person around for several square miles.
posted by GilloD at 1:14 AM on October 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember passing this around on the school bus.

And now I am a goth.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:33 AM on October 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Remember when the two little girls were bad, and their mother told them they better stop being bad, or else she'd go away and they'd get a new mother with black eyes and a wooden tail?

posted by brookedel at 2:42 AM on October 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

These books absolutely horrified and fascinated me for years. They rank up there with Calvin in Hobbes in my childhood canon. There were certain illustrations (most notably, 'the thing' in the first book) which I trained myself not to open to after dark. Absolutely beautiful artwork and a travesty that it's being replaced.

The notes in the backs of the books, mind you, are full of lovingly collected variations and tidbits about the stories. Just a wonderful series throughout.

ps, my house is decorated with several charcoal drawings of near life-sized crowds done by my remarkable wife. For this year's halloween party, we blew up our favorite faces from this book and taped them onto the bodies. Awesome.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:35 AM on October 30, 2010

I for one am prepared for the onslaught of commentors who rightfully view the original illustrations as epic parts of their childhood!
posted by aletheia at 6:39 AM on October 30, 2010

so it was left outside "accidentally" after a camp-out in the back yard. To my dismay, it survived intact and was returned to the shelf

But ever after, the book has held a grudge against you --- it bitterly resents you for trying to bring about its destruction. It's been waiting all these years, and one of these long nights you'll hear its pages rustling as it crosses the room toward you in the dark.
posted by Elsa at 6:42 AM on October 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Those were horrifying; my dad got 'em for me when I expressed a desire for more books of ghost stories. Uck. Hated the illustrations.

Oh god I had all of those and those illustrations have shown up in more than one Art school major I've run into.

Yep. The art major I once dated was really into those.
posted by limeonaire at 8:34 AM on October 30, 2010

But to be clear, despite the fact that I was completely creeped out by the illustrations as a kid, I don't think they should've gotten rid of 'em. All kids should suffer like I suffered! Heh.

Also, I find it interesting that these were something a lot of you shared with others; I kept them on my bottom shelf, hidden away... I didn't actually know anyone else who read 'em. They were like a dark secret to me.
posted by limeonaire at 8:48 AM on October 30, 2010

Why is "Goosebumps" on that list of challenged books?

I understand why these books are on the challenged list -- the challengers don't like the pictures -- but I'm puzzled by the others because I strongly doubt the challengers possess the ability to read.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:04 AM on October 30, 2010

Did Americans have Fungus the Bogeyman? I bet he didn't go down big in your libraries either?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:05 AM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by valrus at 9:30 AM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm here to Vash and Vipe your Vindows mwahahahah
posted by 1000monkeys at 9:39 AM on October 30, 2010

As someone who works in the business of scaring people, I can say with certainty that Gammell's illustrations were an enormous, ENORMOUS part of shaping my path. I still have all of my copies, right here. I bring them out occasionally for reference. Gammell was able to tap into something very rare with those drawings, they felt *malicious*, as if somehow the drawing itself tapped into the horror it represented, and just by even looking at it you were caught in it's spell. Anyone involved in the medium of horror should study them.

Very, very disappointed and saddened to hear they are no longer included with those books.

Thanks for the post.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:46 AM on October 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh my god these books.

Nthing freaked me the fuck out as a kid.

I knew Alvin Schwartz was a serious folklorist (we have one of his songbooks too) but I had no idea that these books were this much of a cultural touchstone. This suggests something to do with my halloween...
posted by silby at 10:30 AM on October 30, 2010

Metafilter, not only have you brougt back horrible nightmares from childhood, between this and the costume post, I know what I'm dressing as for a party tonight...

....I'm going as a sexy Stephen Gammell illustration.

I am not kidding.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 10:48 AM on October 30, 2010

posted by Ouisch at 2:32 PM on October 30, 2010

Minnesota's own Stephen Gammell. He lives in St. Paul. I mention this because I suffer an excess of civil pride.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:04 PM on October 30, 2010

daMeatHook seems to think that "bridle" rhymes with "griddle".
posted by kenko at 6:29 PM on October 30, 2010

My oldest daughter loves these books with a capital LOVE. I imagine when her little sister is reading at that level she will too.
posted by susanbeeswax at 12:41 AM on October 31, 2010

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