In 1981, a book would hit shelves across elementary school libraries that would influence an entire generation. It was just the first in a trilogy that would introduce the macabre to the playground, and plant seeds that would end up cultivating many nightmares. The title needs no introduction; I’m referring to Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. An anthology of collected folklore retold for a younger audience by Alvin Schwartz. The stories were especially memorable because of the artwork by artist Stephen Gammell.
This unique combination of image and text left an indelible mark on our young minds. We all raced to the library whenever we could, just for a chance to feel that proverbial chill down our spine. Each volume was significantly different form the other, but still enraptured us at a young age. The debut entry is certainly no exception to that. A good amount of the material Schwartz drew from could be found in old urban legends, children’s rhymes, (IE: The Hearse Song, Old Woman All Skin And Bone, and The Slithery Dee) and some well known ghost stories that had been passed down through the generations.
To refer to these stories as scary, is slightly misleading. They’re nothing close to some of the horror fiction you might have discovered at a later age. Although not entirely visceral or graphic, there’s terror here, and bit of tongue in cheek humor that could easily be found in the first installment. Considering the main demographic for these books were children, they had to be careful at how far they could take things. Considering their limitations and intention, I’d say Schwartz struck gold with his first prospect. After all, the book was banned in some places, and nothing sells like controversy.
The best part of the book, and certainly the most enjoyable aspect about it, was the group dynamic. This is the perfect companion piece for a slumber party or isolated campfire. A good amount of the stories ended in a ‘screaming’ jump scare. Whoever was reading the story would pause for a moment at the stories end, and then let out an “Ahhhhhhh!” If anybody listening was a little too wrapped up in the story, they would jump with fright, or at least find themselves shake a bit.
Aside from a few tales that would end in a primal scream, they also encompassed other themes, and as one of the chapters suggested: other dangers. There were tales of haunted houses, a hook, high beams, and a window washer who had troubles enunciating. No matter what stories you loved, or re-read several times, it’s impossible to ignore all the different emotions they would ignite within you. They were funny when they had to be, and just scary enough that you might reconsider the existence of the boogeyman. Not once did anything feel generic, contrived, or lazy. The first installment was the prefect introduction into a new world of ghoulies, ghosties, and eight-legged beasties. (The leg count might be off a bit)
Miraculously, this first entry holds up rather well. Even as an adult, I find revisiting it not just nostalgic, but wildly entertaining. The stories still have a charm about them, and Gammell’s artwork still creates a visual atmosphere not soon forgotten. To this day, we still find ourselves drawn to the image of skull smoking a pipe, sporting a sadistic grin. More importantly, this was only the start of a series that transcends any and all age groups.