The local library was one of my favorite childhood places. I developed a love of reading and an corresponding love of libraries at a very early age, and when I was old enough, I made the short journey from my house in the Lincoln Village subdivision of Columbus, across Route 40 (the old National Road which spans the entire United States and which is called Broad Street in the Columbus area), and to the Lincoln Village Plaza branch of the Southwest Public Library. I made this short journey at least once a week in my middle school years, and often more. It was a rather small and poor library as libraries go, but it seemed huge to me. I discovered many things in this library, many of which fit squarely in the spooky category: the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series of anthology books, the Crestwood House series of monster movie books, the Jaws: The Revenge novelization (yes, I read it, along with the Robocop novelization). Perhaps the spookiest, though, was a series of books called Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.
There are three books in the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales To Chill Your Bones. These books were the work of folklorist Alvin Schwartz, and they basically contain retellings of various folkstories, some of which are ancient and others of which are more modern. Most of the stories in the books are very short; one page stories are common, and three-or-more page stories are rare. A few songs and poems are thrown in as well. Many of the stories are jump stories, stories in which the tension builds, only to be broken as the storyteller suddenly screams at a listener, causing him or her to jump. Several of the stories are well-known; the hook story is in there (a Lover’s Lane couple hears reports of an escaped killer with a hook for a hand and hurry home only to find the hook stuck in their car door), as is the bright lights story (a female motorist is disturbed as the driver behind her keeps flashing his brights and later finds out he was doing so to keep a killer in her back seat from attacking her), and the calls from inside the housestory (which became the basis of the film When A Stranger Calls). A lot of the stories cover very mature material, surprisingly mature material for books in the juvenile section, such as murder and cannibalism, and yet they cover them in such a way that they almost seem normal or unremarkable. And most of the stories carry what I consider to be the Halloween feel the feeling that there is another, darker world which often breaks through into our world, that there are places and times when the barriers between these worlds are thin that there are dark things in the woods just beyond our homes.
Now the stories are themselves scary enough. The titles of the books do not lie; these stories scared me as a child. The art that accompanies the stories, though, is even scarier. Each of the books featured artwork by Caldecott Medal winner Stephen Gammel, and let me tell you, that artwork is messed up! The stories no longer scare me, but the artwork, which depicts decayed corpses and grinning ghouls in the most ethereal and horrific way possible, still does. That artwork, in fact, is the most memorable features of the books, the thing that makes me remember them today when I have forgotten so many other, similar books.
Sadly, I never got to tell these stories in the dark, as Schwartz undoubtedly did, nor was I ever told them in the dark; my cousin did chase me around the house, tormenting me with one, but that was as close to the in the dark experience as I got. But I did read them in the dark. And every now and then I think about them in the dark. Them and that messed up artwork.
There is one more thing about these books, though, that makes them memorable to me. There is a poem in the first book about worms eating a corpse. It contains the line the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out… Now I read these books soon after the death of my grandfather. And while I could easily see that all the others stories were fictional, I realized that this poem was very real, the my grandfather was even now decaying in the grave in a similar way. It wasn’t a happy thought; it was devastating, actually. But perhaps it was a necessary thought. Perhaps that poem and these stories are necessary, necessary to prepare us for the death that we will inevitably face in one way or another.