When I was in elementary school in the mid-1980s to the early ’90s, there was ONE book fought over more than any other book in the library – especially in October. Kids would try to get in the front of the library line so they could be the first one through the library doors, dash over to Dewey number J398 and quickly snatch the book from the shelf, holding it triumphantly in their hands as if they had just pulled Excalibur from its stone. That book was Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark by author Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by the almighty master of disturbing imagery and highly mysterious and private, Stephen Gammell.
Imagine a child, excited with the thought of having a weekend sleepover with a couple of friends. He’s super geeked because he acquired one of the prized books at the library that day: Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark. The book is tucked deep inside his backpack and he can almost hear the gnashing of monsters and the wail of ghosts coming from the bottom of his bag. He can feel the creepy illustrations trying to escape from their paper prison.
Once home, his friend’s get dropped off, pizza is served, the sun sets and they are off to the backyard tent. Every kid in the tent has that giddy anticipation only a scary story prompts.The proud borrower of the book pulls it out of his bag and starts to read. Two hours later, every kid is knocking on the back door, terrified and screaming about monsters and ghosts and that they would prefer to sleep inside, where it’s safe.
The parent, only half awake, walks outside to survey the tent for “monsters” and finds the book lying open to page 30 (look at the illustration on the left if you haven’t already been trying to avoid it.) Now at this point in the parents night, they can chuckle at the thought of the kids reading ghost stories and becoming terrified to sleep outside and the great memories moments like that create. OR, they look at this book with its spooky pictures and decide their only goal in life is to make sure no child ever witnesses such drawings again for all eternity. They will make sure these books find their place on the…BANNED BOOKS LIST!!! Which of course is what has happened with these books over the years.
To everyone’s shock and horror…
What in the hell was the publisher thinking? Those drawings were what MADE that book! Fan’s of the books and artwork were infuriated when this new edition was released. It was blasphemy to the series and while no one is denying the replacement illustrator Brett Helquist isn’t talented, the drawings are not Stephen Gammell’s. There are abundant blogs ragging on poor Brett Helquist as if he had stormed into HarperCollins, made an executive decision to remove the drawings himself knowing he would incite fury everywhere and then forced his whimsical drawings upon the publisher at pencil point. Not quite.
Like any illustrator, he was simply commissioned to do what he does for the new 30th-anniversary release of the books and so he did just that (I’m sure they asked him to “tone it down” a bit). It’s just we didn’t want to see it happen to these particular books. And not on the 30th anniversary. There should have been a coffee table style book with giant, glossy pages! (One can dream).
I got my hands on the new copies and perused the artwork and the only illustration I can say was a little creepy was the drawing for “The Window.” It shows a dried up, mummy-like creature with sunken eyes looking into a window. It’s such a creepy story that I’d almost believe any illustration for this story would give a shiver.
Brett Helquist does have an amazing list of works under his belt including the very popular books, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. But regardless of Helquist’s achievements and talents, they won’t be as appreciated in these new editions. In a post on a website called The Fiction Circus, blogger Miracle Jones pointed out:
“These books [Scary Stories] are only successful because of the diabolical images that have burned their way into all of our brains over the past three decades, making several generations of children want to become illustrators of children’s books to own the awesome power of nightmares for themselves.”
A quick look at the new box-set featuring all three books on Amazon has a two-star rating with the majority of ratings a one star due to the fact the original drawings were omitted. After this, I’m wondering if the book will finally fade from the challenged book list now that the illustrations that were sure to send your kid down the wrong path, have been removed for future generations.
UPDATE: Hold up, What?
All that is wrong with the world has now been corrected. The publisher has reissued the original books with Gammell’s drawing as of August 2017. Prepare for world peace. Check out the Amazon link to the new box-set here.
So who is this amazing Stephen Gammell?
The self-taught artist has been illustrating since 1972, won the 1988 Caldecott award for his work in Song and Dance Man and won two Caldecott honors for, The Relatives Came and Where the Buffaloes Begin. The bio on his Wiki page is brief, but points out, “He is particularly well-known for the surreal, unsettling illustrations he provided for Alvin Schwartz‘s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
Comment by Katie Shutt on April 14, 2008
I’ve actually had the privilege of corresponding with Mr. Gammell, and after discussing his career as an illustrator, I’ve found that he is every bit as interesting a person as his crazy-intense drawings would have you believe. Ironically, his “Scary Stories” drawings were something he did largely with a sense of humor, and didn’t intend for them to be taken as seriously frightening as they were–which only impresses me even more, because how does someone create something so incredibly creepy without even meaning to make it as frightening as it was?
Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of lying on the floor in our old house in Des Moines, books and magazines around me, piles of pads and paper, lot of pencils…and drawing. Just drawing! 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.
Well, these many years later, here I am doing THAT. Drawing. Painting. Making art. Making books. What I wanted to do.
Sometimes there is uncertainty about not getting on paper what I see in my mind’s eye, or wondering about how to achieve a certain effect, or even being puzzled about the direction an illustration is going, or should go. But never any dissatisfaction about what I am doing in life. I’ve alway felt, and I’ve said this, that a bad day at the studio is better than a good day doing anything else (with the possible exception of a wilderness hike, or watching a Laurel and Hardy movie).
So, still at it. Still on the journey. Still taking a perfectly good sheet of paper and ruining it. My thanks to all who enjoy my efforts. Hopefully we’ll continue to enjoy them together.”
Lesser Known Works of Scary Art by Stephen Gammell
5. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting, 1996
The Writing of Alvin Schwartz: What Are Your Favorite Scary Stories, Memories, and Reactions?
1. The Window – The concept in this story has always terrified me. The idea of looking out of your window and seeing something in the darkness that doesn’t belong coming closer towards you is unsettling. You know you’re inside, but the only thing between you and that unknown “thing” out there is a pane of glass. In the story, the girl looks back out toward the window and finds, “herself staring through the window at a shrunken face like that of a mummy. Its yellow-green eyes gleamed like a cat’s eyes. She wanted to scream.”
2. One Sunday Morning – This story could be everyone’s worst nightmare: finding yourself surrounded by dead people. This tale was just plain scary as a kid and the drawings of the dead people helped add fear to this tale. “She looked around again. As her eyes began to adjust to the dim light, Ida saw some skeletons in suits and dresses. “This is a service for the dead, Ida thought. “Everybody here is dead, except me.”
3. The Bride – A classic urban legend story, this was one of those eerie tales that made you think even as a kid, how awful this would be! It especially didn’t encourage you to hide in a trunk hidden in a dusty attic for any reason. The epic sadness of something like this really happening was disturbing and still is. If you don’t remember, the new bride is playing a game of hide and seek with everyone and puts herself in an old trunk in an attic. Of course, she’s locked inside and no one thinks to look in there and no one ever hears her screams for help. The picture of the skeletal bride with her jaw unnaturally set ajar was the perfect icing for this very short tale.
4. Footsteps – Now how disturbing is this picture? Not that disembodied footsteps is a comforting thing to hear, but it was the image of the spectral feet pushing through the ceiling that stayed with me and has continued to influence even some of my artwork through the years. The idea of familiar things pushing through objects that shouldn’t move or bend, such as a ceiling is so creepy to me.
5. T-H-U-P-P-P-P-P-P-P! – “It’s on my bed. It’s looking and looking at me!” Now this story ends “cute” you could say, with advising the reader to make a loud sound at the end to scare the audience, but it’s the picture that accompanied this story that I absolutely love! A comment on Tumblr from a user named lunarsauce, was talking about this very picture and how it stuck with them forever and stated, “Looking at those books was like, a test of bravery in my childhood. We are breeding wimps now.” (also in reference to the updated, replaced artwork.)
6. The Thing – “The night Ted died, Sam said he looked just like the skeleton.” Another creepy tale about something following you in the darkness. And if that “thing” looked like that thing on the right? Faint.
7. The Haunted House – “Her hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh was dropped off her face so he could see the bones and part of her teeth.” The illustration that accompanies this story is by far one of the most gruesome drawings in all of the series and is one of the most commented upon drawings. “Behold, the illustration that caused me to toss the book across the room,” stated paradoxiica, a user on Tumblr.
While not exactly a personal favorite, The story “Oh Susannah” from More Scary Stories is a top favorite for people and one I saw come up again and again on Internet blogs and posts. The story is based on an urban legend called “The Roommate’s Death.” And let’s face it, the illustration for this one is really messed up. I don’t even know what to say about it. Schwartz did a lot of research into urban legends and ghost stories. When we were kids, we didn’t bother looking at all the notes in the back of the book but any adult fan of the books will find these notes extremely interesting now.
“That sh*t damaged me. Honestly, that picture of the girl with baby spiders coming out of her face haunted me for years. I’ve always feared a spider bite, until I finally got one on my face a few years ago while I was sleeping. Four days went by and the bite kept swelling and I couldn’t get over that Scary Stories image – thinking that was going to happen to me. The entire time I was thinking that I was injected with a spider egg.” Brian Miggels, IGN
“These books were what got me into art, it wasn’t just the startling subject matter Gammell used it was the technique and how he executed it that really got me interested. I love that his work blurs the line between abstract and representational illustration because in between that line there comes the feeling of insecurity, fear, uncertainty, and it’s rather convincing that the horrors of the unreal are captured through Gammell’s perspective so well it’s quite disturbing and the books wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without those illustrations. They add moment’s of slippage and begin to plummet into a frightening take of reality. Marie”
Ingredients for the perfect nightmare. For adults to try on their kids.
Mix the following together only in the evening at the beginning of a slumber party (preferably with just a hint of a good storm brewing in the distance.)
1. Scary Stories 1,2 & 3
2. Three or more children
3. Read this particular story: The Haunted House in Scary Stories, book one.
4. Print out the above image to fit your face, cut it out and make a quick mask with two holes on the side and some string.
5. Read the story to them in the most spooky and animated way you can. After the story is done (hell, throw in a few others while you’re at it) tell them at 11:00 pm, there will be cookies waiting for them in the kitchen if they “dare” to venture out of their room.
6. Let the terror sink in for one hour.
7. When the kids venture into the kitchen in search of cookies, be hiding nearby in your printed mask and preferably a dark robe or cloak of some kind. Wait for the perfect moment to come out and when the kids scream and run the other way, pat yourself on the back for being part of the perfect nightmare and for making a fun memory they will talk about for years to come. If the children need therapy after this, I can’t be held accountable.
If you really do this, or anything similar, comment below. If you have memories of these books, please feel free to post your comments and stories.
I sit here on Halloween clutching my copy of SCARY STORIES, trying to decide if I should give it to the neighbor kids when they come by for trick or treating…and I discover I cannot give it up. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Stephen Gammell, or talked to him, but I remember visiting him in his studio in St. Paul and, along with a colleague taking him to lunch when he got the Caldecott.
I can’t give my copy of SCARY away. Perhaps some day, to my son, now a Boy Scout leader…
Wow!!!!!! That is amazing you got Stephen Gammell lunch after his Caldecott win! Hang on to your copy!!!! 🙂
Thank you. The information is great.
THE OLD VERSION HAS BEEN RE-RELEASED:
Scary Stories Paperback Box Set: The Complete 3-Book Collection https://www.amazon.com/dp/006268289X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_7EjIzb99XBRBT
Yesssssss!!!!!!! All is well with the world again.
Re: the feet through the ceiling illustration, I had forgotten about that one; but I visited a Portland, OR coffee shop a few years ago (hopefully it is still there) called Rimsky-Korsakoffee’s,and everybody kept asking me if I’d gone to the bathroom yet. I figured out something interesting must therein lie for everyone to be so concerned with my bladder status…the ceiling was painted like the underside of an underwater scene…complete with decorated mannequin feet coming down at you from the ceiling (a mermaid holds the toilet paper out towards you etc. etc., a fun theme), so it’s not done in the same spooky character but I would imagine for anyone that was impacted by that story/illustration as a kid, this might warrant a “trigger warning”.
LOL! Totally! That would be an epic ceiling if it were done “Scary Stories” style. Thanks for commenting!
Awesome! Thanks for commenting! His other artwork, although not meant to be spooky, still has his unique style and "eerie" style to it. I would love more than anything to see him illustrated something like "Scary Stories" again.
Reading "Old Black Fly" with my 5 y/o son triggered a crazy flashback. The style of the illustrations was eerily familiar and made me think of horribly scary images. I had to Google the illustrator b/c the memory was really bugging me! Yup. Stephen Gammell. I read the Scary Story books 20 yrs ago – apparently, those images never left me 🙂 I just needed a trigger to remember them! Awesome.
Thanks Joseph for sharing! I really enjoyed reading that and it further demonstrates what an impact this art had on people. Love it!
One image that moved me was from the story "Harold". Its kind of looks like if a person's body was hung up like a scarecrow. He bared, in my mind, a resemblance to a grown up Chucky doll from Child's Play. I remember I drew my own version of Harold/Chucky, trying to capture what it was that creeped me out so. I kept the picture in my closet because it scared me so. One night, I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about it, and I woke my parents up and told them about it. And I gave it to my dad, and we ripped it up, and put it in the toilet to flush it down to hell, but not before peeing on it. Only then did the power it had over me fade. And that may sound like a strong experience to have as a child, one that the publishers wanted to prevent with new illustrations. But it was a better lesson to me about the power of creation, about being able to create (or in this case recreate) something that isn't real but still impacts people. And i've been a tremendously creative person throughout my entire life for having learned lessons from sources such as these.
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Thank you for reading Javier! He's been a huge inspiration for me as well!
I liked your article, Im such a big fan of Gammell's work. I love drawing and his technique always trap me, I love his style and I'm trying to improve and hopefully, someday draw like him.
Greetings from México.
Thank you very much! It seems I have learned more and more since writing and posting this blog post that Mr. Gammell isn't too keen on the following these drawings have gained. But they really are part of pop culture and they are a staple ICON for so many kids who grew up with those books! I wouldn't be the same person without them:)
I love this article. I have hundreds of hits a day from my tribute to Gammel everyday and it isn't even a good article. This is awesome.
And I have heard he is a complete dick to people who talk about Scary Stories. That's too bad because it was such a great childhood memory.
Thank you for your insightful comment on Stephen Gammell's work! Your post adds a lot to this blog! These books and drawings do indeed have a cult following. His other illustrations are excellent as well and "Mudkin" is really adorable!
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Awesome! Thanks for letting me know that! I'll add those to the list in the blog and make sure to check out those books!
He also did some creepy drawings in Leo Possessed and Meet the Werewolf.