When I was in elementary school during the mid 1980’s to the early 90’s, 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 door, dash over to Dewey number J398 and quickly grab the book from the shelf, holding it triumphantly in their hand 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, Stephen Gammell.
Imagine a child, excited with the thought of having a sleep over with a couple of friends one weekend. 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 tent set up in the backyard! Everyone in the tent has that giddy anticipation only a scary story can create.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. The half awake parent goes to survey the tent to make sure everything looks OK and finds the book lying in the tent open to page 30 (look now 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 not wanting to stay outside and the great memories moments like that create or they look at this book with it’s spooky pictures and decide their only goal in life is to make sure no child is ever witness to such drawings again for all eternity. They will make sure these books find their place on the (lighting strikes and thunders sounds)…BANNED BOOKS LIST!!!
What in the hell were the publisher’s 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 new 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). Its just we didn’t want to see it happen to these particular books. I got my hands on these new copies and perused the new 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, A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. But regardless of Helquist’s achievements and many talents, they won’t be as appreciated in these new editions. In a post on a blog called The Fiction Circus, blogger Miracle Jones points 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.
So who is this amazing Stephen Gammell?
The self taught artist has been illustrating since 1972, won the Caldecott award for his work in “Song and Dance Man” in 1988 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 Gammell
5. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting, 1996
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. It’s 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. Scan or find the above image online, blow it up to fit your face, cut it out and make a quick mask out of it 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 a couple of hours.
7. When the kids come into the kitchen in search of cookies, be hiding nearby in your .10 cent 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, don’t blame me.
If you really do this, write me and let me know how it turned out.
If you have memories of these books, please feel free to post your comments and stories to this blog.