With the release of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in theaters, more eyes are on the classic books than ever before. It’s amazing to see something that was so fundamental to the childhood of so many fans get to have this kind of second life. In general, the ‘90s were a terrific decade for kids’ horror. Goosebumps was a great introduction but both on the screen and on the page, that was a stepping stone for something a little edgier and a little more genuinely horrifying. On the screen, that extra edge went to Are You Afraid of the Dark? On the page, it definitely went to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One of the things that has always been so fascinating about the Scary Stories books, though, is the fact that they were rarely ever original stories. Alvin Schwartz was a journalist and his research skills were phenomenal. These books were the product of that.
Schwartz researched American legends and folklore (as well as some worldwide legends), searching for the most frightening, most visceral or most often told versions of those stories and—amazingly—presenting them in an easily digestible form for younger readers without losing any of the edge or mystery that made them so fascinating to begin with. They were truly the perfect introduction to both horror and urban legends as a whole for young fans. They kick-started an obsession with urban folklore for me. Enough good things can’t be said about what Schwartz accomplished with the retelling of those stories.
Having said that, it is without a doubt the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that resonate the most with readers. They’re horrifying even if you’re seeing them for the first time in 2019, but seeing them as a kid is an almost otherworldly experience. The film has absolutely taken that into account, with the faithful recreations of Gammell’s artwork really coming across as the stars of the feature. Very few people would ever argue that the success of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is directly tied to Gammell’s artwork.
But Gammell was a professional illustrator. While they might be the images that traumatized a generation, these illustrations only stem from three books out of a career spanning decades. Anyone who’s ever read the Scary Stories books know that his illustrations are fantastic, deeply unsettling and uniquely his own. For those unfamiliar, though, there’s a whole largely unseen world of macabre Stephen Gammell art that’s just as grotesque and beautiful and disturbing as anything in the Scary Stories trilogy.
These books are worth focusing on, because most of them are really great and have been forgotten in a way that the Scary Stories books clearly haven’t. There’s a lot to cover, too. Because Gammell worked on so many different projects in his life, it’s impossible to cover everything. It’s a truly extensive body of work. With that in mind, we’re going to highlight some of the many different books that Gammell illustrated over the course of his long career that share similar themes or should in general be of interest to fans of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Gammell began his professional career illustrating a 1973 biography of Leo Tolstoy titled The Search. The first work that would be of interest for fans of what he would go on to do with Scary Stories, however, was a 1976 collection titled Ghosts. This was the first of Gammell’s work in the Eerie Series, which also included Meet the Werewolf and Meet the Vampire. All three were about folklore and stories related to the titular topic. All three, thankfully, were illustrated by Stephen Gammell. For a horror fan who liked weird, macabre art in general, that’s a great discovery. But for someone who was a monster kid and grew up on the Scary Stories books, that’s an absolute gold mine. To not only see Gammell’s illustrations of ghosts, werewolves and vampires, but to actually see three entire books’ worth of them is a true treat and it would be incredible to see these books get reprinted, as they’re not easy to come across now.
Much like the Scary Stories books, even though the Eerie Series were geared toward children, they pulled no punches. You’d find many of the same stories and anecdotes in these collections as you would in an actual historical book of werewolf and vampire folklore. The werewolf book includes real stories of cannibalism, medieval serial killers and men believing themselves in league with the devil and turning into wolves on a whim. The illustrations are expectedly terrific and almost identical to the work you’d see in the Scary Stories series.
The highlight of the Ghosts book has to be an illustration depicting haphazardly arranged coffins, one of which is open with a dead baby inside. It’s a deeply unsettling image. Meet the Werewolf has a few standout illustrations. There’s a fantastic one just depicting a wolf’s face in Gammell’s very distinct style, but the most chilling might also be one of the most subdued illustrations in the book. In a chapter on a French serial killer who killed local children in the guise of a wolf, then cooked and fed them to his unsuspecting family, there’s an image of the old man just looking down at a child’s hand held in his own. One really has to draw conclusions themselves as to whether the child whose hand is seen in the illustration is already dead or not. That, by itself, is truly uncomfortable.
Meet the Vampire has its own standout illustrations as well. Like Meet the Werewolf, it tackles worldwide folklore. This book is full of absolutely chilling, visually arresting art that makes it hard to even pick a favorite. Just googling the illustrations could leave you to get distracted for hours. One depicts an old vampire’s face, appearing almost normal, but with slightly sunken eyes and cheekbones. Another is a weird, haunting surrealist landscape that’s impossible to describe but is the kind of thing that Gammell would draw fairly often in these kinds of books. There’s a legitimately gorgeous illustration of a man bursting into flame in with birds flying overhead.
The highlight for me, though, stems from the book’s section on Vlad the Impaler. While it might be one of the subtler images in Meet the Vampire it is without a doubt the creepiest. The image depicts the victims of Vlad, all impaled in silhouette against a dreary sky.
Both during and after his work in the Eerie Series, Gammell would continue to do art for all kinds of projects. He lent his style to historical works like Thunder at Gettysburg, Stonewall and Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. He also illustrated children’s books of all types, like Wake Up Bear, It’s Christmas and Flash and the Dolphin. He would continue to do this even after the release of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in 1981, winning the Caldecott Honor for 1982’s Where the Buffaloes Begin. When looking at the general scope of his career, Scary Stories truly did not impact it much. He did dozens and dozens of other projects, both before and after.
On one level, that’s not surprising at all. Gammell was, after all, a professional illustrator with a wide range of interests who took any project that he could see himself providing his own unique style to. On another level, it almost is surprising that Gammell’s work was not impacted by the Scary Stories books simply because of their notoriety. And I’m not talking about now, when people fondly look back on these books from their childhood and remember how traumatized they were by the artwork. I’m talking about then, in the early ‘90s in particular when the books were at their most controversial peak. They were getting banned in schools on a regular basis, even becoming among the most banned books in elementary schools ever. The artwork was largely credited by school officials and PTA moms as the reason why these books should be taken out of the hands of children.
It’s funny to think about that, looking at Gammell’s career as a whole. While his other books might not have been quite as outright horrific, every school that banned these titles probably had numerous other books illustrated by the same man; even if they were about very different things, they were never much less creepy. Gammell always brought his signature style to everything he illustrated, no matter what the subject matter was, and seemed to be very aware of it. While he is an infamously private person, the recent Scary Stories documentary managed to dig up one interview with the illustrator in which he did admit that one of the largest parts of his process and one of the things that determined if he would do the art for a particular book would be if he connected with the manuscript and could find a way to fit it to his own style.
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were published over a period of a decade, from 1981 to the release of Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones in 1991. When the final book was released and the nationwide controversy from the American Library Association began, author Alvin Schwartz was already sick with lymphoma. He died the following year.
Between the publication of the three books, Gammell worked on several other books. Many of them featured stunning illustrations, but there’s one that’s definitely worth highlighting here to the point that it almost feels like a lost Scary Stories book. That would be 1989’s Halloween Poems, a collection edited by Myra Cohn Livingston. One glance at the cover and title are enough to know why fans of Scary Stories or great, creepy art in general would love this book.
As expected, Gammell delivers his signature style, exactly what you’d imagine from Scary Stories, but this time devoted entirely to a collection of poems celebrating the spooky season. This book should be a Halloween staple for its artwork alone. Not only do we see Gammell providing his own general macabre style, along with weird creatures that only he could imagine, but he’s also illustrating things like witches and skeletons that are such huge Halloween staples. While we’ve mentioned some titles that should be reprinted, I would go as far as to say that Halloween Poems absolutely needs to be reprinted. It’s a small little kids book at only 32 pages, but it’s the perfect way to get kids hyped about the Halloween season and it’s full of stunning, incredible artwork.
These books are truly only the tip of the iceberg, but looking over a long career filled with so much great art, these are the ones that should be on any Scary Stories fan’s radar. If you can find a used copy of any of these books, definitely pick them up. They tend to go for fairly cheap, but it’s always possible that a renewed interest in Gammell or his art could lead to more demand and cause those prices to skyrocket, much in the same way the original Scary Stories books themselves ballooned in price when the artwork was replaced a few years ago.
More than anything, though, this has been about highlighting the work of a true genius and showing off some of the gorgeous, horrifying, creepy and surreal images he created that never had anything close to the amount of eyes on them as the Scary Stories books did. Those three books are probably the things that both he and Alvin Schwartz will forever be most known for and anyone who’s read them knows that there’s good reason for that. But just looking at some of this other artwork, some of the incredible work he did on these other macabre and spooky titles might be as close as we could ever come to that feeling of picking up Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for the first time all over again.
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Author : Nat Brehmer
Publish date : 2019-08-09 19:51:01