1984: the dreaded year that George Orwell warned us all about. It also marked the release of the second installment in the Scary Stories trilogy. The sequel, aptly entitled More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, reunited the pair of author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell. Once again, they would delve deep within the bowels of American folklore, and bring these stories to a younger audience, and a whole new generation. Judging from the title alone, one might expect this follow up to just be more of the same, and a further continuation of what we had read in the first book.
While it certainly had many similarities to its predecessor, it introduced new fears, new scares, and as always, plenty of things that go ‘bump’ in the night. It also happens to be the very best of the three, and maintains its ability to hold up, even today. Despite it being a product aimed at a child demographic, there’s a subtle form of terror found within its pages, one that will weave its way into your imagination.
Unlike the first installment, the second entry took us down a darker road with its storytelling. It still had its moments of comedy, but some stories dealt with subject matter that wasn’t meant to be funny. They explored subjects such as murder, accidental death, and even being buried alive. They still touched on themes of the supernatural and the traditional ghost story, and tales you might have heard around a campfire. For much of my age group, this was one of our early introductions into the world of horror, and the darker aspects of literature. In a strange, yet interesting coincidence, this entry would also hit bookshelves on Halloween…
Much like the first entry, there was a strong group dynamic accompanied with a jump scare. Clinkity-Clank, The Voice, and The Curse were all stories that relied on having a few friends nearby to yell at in a loud voice during the inevitable conclusion. How effective these vignettes were all depended on how great your storyteller was. Thankfully, this element was further downplayed as the series continued. It would still be utilized in the last book as well, but not overdone. The later books, including this one, found new ways to frighten, and didn’t recycle and reuse too much of what made the first one so memorable. One things for certain, it was good to read these by yourself, preferably late at night with a flashlight.
There were still plenty of moments that had a comical and lighthearted edge to them. There was The Bad News, which debated the existence of baseball in the after life, as well as The Brown Suit, which dealt with a last minute mishap at a funeral home. One of the final pieces in the book was Ba-Room! A charming shanty of two people lying dead in the same bed together. (All presented in the guise of an upbeat Irish folk song.)
Something to be said about More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, were the new adventures we were being taken on. Tapping into one of the traditions of classic American folklore, The Weird Blue Light and Somebody Fell From Aloft took us on journeys into troubled waters. An interesting approach to say the least, maritime horror has been engrained in American culture, ever since the mysterious disappearance of the Mary Celeste’s crew, in 1872.
We were also taken into the unforgiving world of death. One has to commend Schwartz for presenting this in such a way that was appropriate for any age group. They were scary in their own right, and you would remember them, even after you put the book down.
Death: the final page in the story that we call our lifetime. This subject matter was certainly addressed in many different ways and forms in this particular volume. Stories such as Rings On Her Fingers dealt with the fear of being buried alive, and revenge from beyond the grave. Wonderful Sausage told the tale of a mad butcher, and the methods he utilized to make a ‘special sausage.’ Two stories that stand out as confrontations with the final curtain are The Bride, and The Man In The Middle. The first being the story of a bride who goes missing during a game of hide and seek, and the former being the discovery of a body on the subway after an apparent mob hit.
Stories such as The Drum tapped into age-old xenophobia about the gypsies, and One Sunday Morning raised the dead for their morning church services. The Drum is my personal favorite from the book, mainly because of the artwork that Gammell created for it. The painting of two girls walking down a empty path, into the fathoms of the unknown still catches my eye every time I see it. Not surprisingly, it also happens to grace the cover of the book. Old wives tales regarding the travelling bands of entertainers are just about as old as the hills. This story is more of a cautionary tale of the importance of good behavior, and not trusting strangers. It did give me the chills as a youngster around the age of 5.
Gammell’s artwork, like the stories they accompanied, became more baroque, much to our childhood delight…
One thing that’s noticeable is the duration of the stories, themselves. Many of them are short, and straight to the point, lacking any unnecessary filler. They never drew themselves out for too long, they brought you inside their world with only a few sentences. You were introduced to what was there, the situation, and then brought to a conclusion just as quickly. Case in point, Oh Susannah! A story of two college roommates, one of whom loses their head in the middle of the night, and the other must decide if it’s a dream or not. The story isn’t even a page long, and yet it still delivers so much, in such a short time span. Perfect for any introductory reader, or just a casual glance in ones spare time.
At the end of the day, that’s exactly what this book is, quality over quantity. There would be one more installment before the series reached its proper conclusion. This particular volume raised the bar set by the first, and managed to blaze new trails for our young minds to wander aimlessly. Clive Barker has always said that ‘time is kind to generic work.’ This whole series were many things, to a great deal of many different people. They were definitely anything but generic or mundane.