I devoured books as a kid. But few works of fiction are as seared into my brain as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the book version of the new Guillermo del Toro film being released this weekend. Yes, Alvin Schwartz’s gory, violent, psychologically complex, bite-sized horror tales lifted from folklore and written for younger readers certainly haunted my young, impressionable mind. But it was the accompanying illustrations by Stephen Gammell that were truly responsible for the nuclear shadow left in my psyche. Not only did these illustrations scare the shit out of me, but those images were actually more important than the stories. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark wasn’t a book you judged incorrectly by its cover; the book was the fucking cover.
I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way. Released in 1981 by Scholastic, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark quickly became a fixture of school book fairs, the slim book calling to young readers from library shelves or the newspaper pages of the Scholastic Book Club signup sheet, thanks to its peculiar, chipped typeface, bold red border, and, most of all, the image of a grinning, clown make-uped head planted in front of a dilapidated farmhouse as though it were a ready-to-be-picked turnip, smoke curling from the pipe clenched between its teeth, single eye glancing sideways as if to dare someone to pick it up and fall under its haunting spell.
The ’80s and early ’90s had no shortage of compelling covers. The Animorphs series cover slapped (Is that kid turning into a friggin’ tiger?). The goopy font of the Goosebumps logo and its uncomfortable imagery was never not intriguing. Did anyone ever not stop for a second and consider The Face on the Milk Carton because of its art?
But the cover of the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark had another power altogether. What the hell? Is, uh, that a clown? Is it smoking a pipe? Is it growing from the ground? What could be waiting inside?
Inside the book — and it’s two sequels More Scary Stories and Scary Stories 3 — of course, were economically written tales that were genuinely haunting. Schwartz’s prose made them digestible for kids, but he didn’t lessen the dread. In “The Big Toe,” which appeared in the first collection, a young boy desperate to feed his family digs up the titular object and uses it in a stew only later to hear the rumbling of the earth as the bellowing call of “Where’s my toe?” grows louder and louder. “The Red Spot,” from Scary Stories 3 tells a tale of a girl who wakes up with a bump on her face that grows bigger every day. Is it a pimple? It has to be right? She’s just freaking out. When hatched spiders burst forth from it, you know it’s no pimple.
Meanwhile, everyone thinks “The Green Ribbon” — perhaps the most famous of all of Schwartz’s retold tales that concerns a girl who wears the ribbon until she doesn’t and her head goes plop — is from the Scary series. But, it’s not. That one comes from his earlier In a Dark, Dark Room collection; which lacks Gammell’s illustrations. The point is, the story is associated with the Scary Stories series because of a horrific image, rather than chilling prose.
Even if someone can’t recall the plot of the stories, they remember the black and white drawings that brought Schwartz’s sparse descriptions to life. Humans are drawn with wispy hair and mouths agape as monsters and spirits bear down on them; the creatures themselves drawn with frightening detail. Black ink drips down like blood.
“The Haunted House,” from the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not a particularly terrifying tale. It concerns a preacher who goes to an abandoned house and is accosted by the faceless, rotting woman wants her husband brought to justice. The accompanying image, however, is fucking hideous. It shows her from the neck up. She’s skeletal and almost featureless. We see her top row of large, horse-like teeth jutting out from a full-lipped mouth. We see her hair, thin and seemingly windblown. We see the deep gouges where her eyes once were, as though someone used her face to practice a few pitch shots and never replaced their divots. It’s abhorrent.
Then there’s the creature from “The Thing,” a story from the same collection. A corpse that shambles up to two boys one dark night, the creature’s face is all teeth, eyes, and rotting flesh but wearing a shirt so we know it was once human. We think? Gammell twists the knife, depicting him in a way that makes it appear as though we are looking up at this monstrous thing from the perspective of young children.
Sometimes Gammell’s illustrations didn’t really match the story. But that didn’t make them any less haunting. Consider the picture that accompanies “Oh Susannah”, in which a college-aged girl who was studying at the library returns to her room to hear the hums of that popular melody sung by her roommate only to realize her roommate has been murdered. Gammell’s illustration instead shows a man in a rocking chair holding a string, the end of which is tied to an inky black worm of sorts. He’s floating in what seems to be some dreamy in-between world as, in the space above him, a deformed, long-clawed monster lurches forth.
And who doesn’t remember the illustration of Harold the scarecrow the two young boys create in “Harold”, in Scary Stories 3? He hangs loosely from a pole, jeans ripped, eyes vacant, belly exposed, long hair looking sharp as a scythe. It resembles a serial killer lanced to a spear. It’s no surprise that Harold, which the boys construct to taunt, eventually comes to life and skins one of them.
In 2011, for the 30th anniversary of Scary Stories publisher Harper Collins hired illustrator Brett Helquist — who did the stunning illustrations of the Series of Unfortunate Events books and made Count Olaf so memorable — to reinvigorate the series. Big mistake. Helquist is good, but wrong for this series. His illustrations ruined the tone completely, more or less PG-ifying the content within. Fans were pissed, with the truly outraged saying the illustrations ruined the series. Harper Collins realized their mistake and reissued the collection in summer 2017 with the original artwork.
It’s easy to understand why the outrage ensued. Thanks to Gammell’s illustrations, readers immediately had imagery more sinister than anything their imaginations could conjure. They also implied endings to stories that Schwartz left unresolved. The staying power of the series, what caused generations of children to leave the light on at night and consider the creatures and evil things that might be lurking in the corners of their bedrooms, was that together, Gammell didn’t blunt Schwartz’s terror. He didn’t condescend or spoon-feed them happiness. He put the horror in plain view for young readers so they could consider and wrestle with the themes.
There was no running from what waited inside.