Contents of a Nightmare: The Artwork of Stephen Gammell and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
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 during 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.
During 1990-1999, the Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark books were the number one most challenged. From 2000 to 2009 it still sat comfortable at #7 on the most challenged list, having lost a few notches thanks to Harry Potter who took the number one spot. Was there filthy language in these books? No. Were the stories of such a nature no child should be reading them? Not really.
It was the illustrations.
Page 30. No explanation needed.
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!!!
To Everyone's Shock and Horror...
A friend emailed me with the subject title, "I think you will be saddened by this..." I clicked on her link and my mouth dropped as I read the story headline: "Publishers destroy Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark's amazing artwork." The haters had finally won. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the series, the publisher decided to release a new edition...or let's just say a complete farce of an edition. I stared at the photo in the article displaying the new artwork in comparison of the old.
Gammell's spider girl on the left and Helquist's new rendition on the right.
What 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 parused 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
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.
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."
There's not much info around regarding Gammell's thoughts on his illustrations for Scary Stories, the public's reaction to them and the cult-like love of his artwork. He's almost as mysterious as his amazing ability to paint the DNA of nightmares onto paper. What was his inspiration for each drawing? Where did the ideas come from? Did any of the drawings shock even him when he stepped back and looked at the finished masterpiece? After a little digging, I did happen to find this comment from a blog about the books that sheds a little light on Stehpen's thoughts while creating these drawings:
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?
This bio written by Stephen Gammell for the Children's Literature Network is just perfect and gives a fan a little more insight into how cool this guy is.
"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
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
These four books feature some of Gammell's earlier "spooky" drawings and may have been what originally impressed HarperCollins for the Scary Stories series. There are some amazing illustrations in these books that are equal to the ones in Scary Stories.
1. Ghosts by Seymour Simon (The Eerie Series) published in 1976 by J.B. Lippencott
2. Meet the Vampire (The Eerie Series) by Georgess McHargue published in 1979 by J.B. Lippencott
3. The Ghost of Tillie Jean Cassaway by Ellen Harvey published in 1978 by Four Winds Press
4. Halloween Poems selected by Myra Cohn Livingston, published in 1989 by Holiday House.
5. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting, 1996
And thanks to my first comment from a reader I can add:
6. Leo Possessed by Dilys Owen, 1979.
7. Meet the Werewolf (The Eerie Series) by Georgess McHargue published in 1976.
The Writing of Alvin Schwartz: What Are Your Favorite Scary Stories, Memories and Reactions?
Along with the disturbing drawings, Alvin Schwartz had a way with these short, simple tales that made every hair stand up on your body. His stories had a believable quality to them, mainly because they were based on actual folklore and urban legend. Urban legends have that "this could be real" vibe to them because they are usually handed down with the preface,"A friend of a friend heard..." Sadly, Alvin Schwartz passed away from lymphoma at the age of 64 on March 14, 1992, hardly aware of the impact his books would have on a generation of reader's and budding artists prone to the macabre. At the time of his death, his New York Times obituary reported, "he had sold more than three million books." The New York Times also said, "that his scary stories appealed to, "a primal need to be
scared out of one's wits," and that, "these stories are the stuff
nightmares are made of."
This is a list of my personal favorite stories and quotes from the books along with various comments from bloggers around the Internet that have posted about these same stories and illustrations.
Illustration from "The Window"
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."
When I look out a window at night, I still feel like something is going to be looking in, thanks to Schwartz and Gammell.
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.
"One Sunday Morning" illustration.
"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."
Illustration from "The Bride" - No comment needed.
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 hear's 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.
Illustration from "Footsteps"
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.)
Illustration from "The Thing"
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.
"Illustration from The Haunted House"
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.
"Oh Susannah" Illustration by Gammell
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.
A basic search of Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark will deliver all kinds of anecdotes about how this person remembers this drawing, and this reader is still haunted by this image...and so on. There are even people who love the books so much that they have gotten tattoos of Gammell's artwork. I have to post this one hilarious comment and one poignant comment from another blog in regards to reactions:
"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 to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3
2. Three or more children
2. Read this particular story: The Haunted House in Scary Stories 1.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Let the terror sink in for a couple of hours.
6. 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.