Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


And That's How I Fell in Love With Horror

Posted on October 16, 2013 at 7:20 PM

And That's How I Fell in Love With Horror

On this blog, you’ll notice I tend to talk mostly about movies, television shows and videogames and anything related to those. Occasionally some music. Occassionally some comics (or “graphic novels” if you’re insecure). Rarely things outside of that realm.

Well, with October here, I had to think of what I wanted to write about. The past few years I always try to do Halloween-themed blog entries and movie reviews. You can look at past blogs to find those.

So, seeing as I’ve already spent numerous entries in the past going through my favorite horror films and even favorite horror videogames, I wanted to discuss what actually got me in to those dark, scary things that go bump in the night in the first place. It might just surprise you. First up: This is supposed to be for kids?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you grew up in the 1980s, you didn't have nearly as many outlets for entertainment as you do today. Or even in the 90s, for that matter. You had a few television channels and books and action figures and that was about it. Somewhere in-between reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Highlights magazines, I came in to the world of spooky ghosts and monsters thanks to a book series called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

I can't remember when or how, but I remember being legitimately scared by them...and absolutely loving it. I was already in to the whole world of ghosts thanks to Ghostbusters, but I never really knew anything about "horror" stuff, like movies or Tales From the Crypt comics. The only thing I knew was Ghostbusters, Halloween and, a little after this, Unsolved Mysteries. I had yet to even know who Freddy Krueger was and seeing as this was probably 1987 or 88, that's blasphemy.

There were three volumes of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and they were all geared towards children in that wonderful old-school Grimm Fairy Tales in that it's probably not something you want to gear towards children. But it was, and I would stay up and read them. To this day, I can't remember how I even got them, I know I had all three volumes in paperback, but I did.

"You know...for Kids!"

But as much as I loved the stories here, the thing I remember most of all was the super creepy art. Good Lord, forget about the stories for a moment, which were already extremely dark and sometimes graphic, but the art was the single biggest impression. I remember skipping some pages because I knew some really creepy art, all done by an artist named Stephen Gammell, would scare the shit out of me.

The art was like a fever-dream, as though someone saw Eraserhead one too many times and were big Salvador Dali fans. Humans were often drawn unrealistically, as though they sat just outside reality.

"I said 'For KIDS!' Damnit, Gammell!"

I haven't read these since then, but there are still some stories that I still remember very well. They were all relatively short, but the adapter of all these stories, author Alvin Schwartz, was able to paint a very vivid picture and mood and tone in just a short amount of time. Room for One More is one I recall pretty well, about an elevator to Hell. The classic "The Hook" is the story we've always heard about one car door and one escaped lunatic.  The Big Toe. The Man Who Stood on the Grave. Cold as Clay. The Viper...I can go on.

But there's two that I remember the most vividly. One was titled The Hearse Song, and it is as it says: a song.  I won't post the entire song here, but the lyrics pretty much describe what happens as you decompose as a corpse including the line:

"The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,

The worms play pinochle in your snout,"

" What is this, Gammell? Is that an arm eating itself? What are you doing?"

The single one story I remember the most, though, was Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker. If there's ever a testament of how these stories from Schwartz can just capture a mood and a moment, it's this one. It's about a young boy and his dog. The boy is bet that he can't stay alone for one night in this old house in the woods. I think it was the woods. Either way it was isolated. Of course, it's rumored this house is haunted.

Now you're probably thinking "oh, he just sees ghosts and stuff."

Nope. As the night goes on, he starts to hear distant singing from outside. The line is, as the title suggest. "Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker." But it gets weirder, as it's just the boy and his dog sitting in front of the fireplace, is that the dog starts to respond. In verse. If I recall it went something like "Litchy Kitchy Colllie Molly Dingo Dingo." (it was jibberish, but scary jibberish). A little later, the singing starts again, only louder, and the dog response. It does this a few more times until it sounds like someone was on the roof. Then PLOP! A decapitated head falls down the chimney, the dog dies of fright and the head starts to move. It turns, looks at the boy, opens it's mouth and...

"And now he drew a severed head. Damnit, Gammell! You're not even trying!"

...and it ends. Yeah, wow. I haven't really thought about it in years and just got all nostalgic-goosebumpy writing about it. It's just about this slow boil of tension and suspense and you wonder what's going to happen...oh spoilers by the way...and then it happens and its so not what you thought would happen. Then it just ends with you wondering if the boy lived. Let me tell you, that left scars. Wonderful "I think I like scary stuff" scars.

I haven't really thought about these books in years. At least 20-25 of them, but a lot of my enjoyment of all things scary, all things Halloween and all things gross, nasty and suspenseful can really be traced back to them.

I looked up these books recently to see if they're still available for sale. Turns out they are, but they aren't the books I remember. The stories are probably the same, but for certain the art is changed entirely. Sure, the old stuff is creepy as all Hell, but you know what? It's one of the most memorable and unique things about it all. It has character and personality and even if it creeps you out, it's nothing that's going to ruin a child.

But no better example than the famously creepy "Harold."

Before on the left, after on the right. As much as I make fun of it being "for kids"...Come on! I grew up relatively fine, leave that awesome art alone!

Yeah, there's something lost there, but that's alright. I'm sure there's some old versions lying around because these books were written decades ago and I know every school library had them. From this stuff I went on to others, like Stephen King, and began to really enjoy horror movies, from the old Universal classics to the (then) modern slasher flicks. I guess I owe a lot to Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Gammell for shaping that (Schwartz passed away in 1992, Gammell seemingly retired) . They're probably two guys that don't get any acclaim or are heralds in any way, but they just went out there and did it. And yes...for Kids.

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