When I was in elementary school, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels were my absolute favorite books to check out from the school library–that is, when they weren’t already checked out by some other student, which was quite often. These books were legendary in the halls of Hickory Elementary School, as word of mouth spread from kid to kid about the sheer terror contained within their pages. I remember when I first got wind of an excited whisper proclaiming these to be “the scariest books you’ll ever read!” and how my eight-year-old mind spun with intrigue. I knew at that exact moment that I simply had to get my grubby little hands on these books.
Each book contains a collection of ghost stories, spooky poems, and musical compositions collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz–but most of them are pretty tame, even by an eight-year-old’s standards. No, the REAL TERROR in these books are the macabre illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which range from mildly disturbing to 100% nightmare fuel. According to the American Library Association, the Scary Stories series was #1 on the list of the 100 Most Challenged Books during the period 1990 — 1999 because of Gammell’s terrifying illustrations. It all makes sense now.
Reunited and it feels so good.
I recently picked up The Scary Stories Treasury (pictured above), a hardcover volume which collects all three Scary Stories books with all of their original illustrations intact. I had not laid eyes upon these books since a very early age, and skimming through these pages again was like recapturing a dark, seedy corner of my childhood–that secret, scary place I would retreat into with nothing but these books, a flashlight, and my too-vivid imagination. And of course, I never brought the disturbing imagery in these books to my parents’ attention.
Here are 10 of my favorite illustrations from the Scary Stories books, with a bit of their accompanying text. And just for fun, I’ve tried to rank them according to how much they used to scare/disturb me.
#10 — The Thing
He walked up to it and peered into its face. It had bright penetrating eyes sunk deep into its head.
#9 — Wonderful Sausage
No one knows for sure just what happened to Blunt that day. Some say he was fed to his hogs. Others say he was fed to his sausage grinder. But he was never seen again, and neither was his wonderful sausage meat.
#8 — “T-H-U-P-P-P-P-P-P-P!”
After Sarah went to bed, she saw a ghost. It was sitting on her dresser starting at her through two black holes where its eyes had been.
#7 — What Do You Come For?
No sooner had she spoken than down the chimney tumbled two feet from which the flesh had rotted. The old woman’s eyes bulged with terror.
#6 — The Ghost With Bloody Fingers
Soon the ghost appeared. As before, its fingers were bleeding and it was moaning, “Bloody fingers! Bloody fingers!”
#5 — The Dead Hand
They found young Tom Pattison by the willow snag, groaning and gibbering as if he had lost his mind. He kept pointing with one hand at something only he could see. Where his other hand should have been, there was nothing but a ragged stump of oozing blood.
#4 — Hoo-Ha’s
Some people call those shivery, shaky, screamy feelings the “heebie jeebies” or the “screaming meemies.” The poet T.S. Eliot called them the “hoo-ha’s.”
#3 — Is Something Wrong?
As he stood in the road panting, trying to catch his breath, he felt something tap him on the shoulder. He turned and found himself staring into two big, bloody eyes in a grinning skull.
#2 — The Haunted House
Her hair was torn and tangled, and the flesh was dropping off her face so he could see the bones and part of her teeth. She had no eyeballs, but there was a sort of blue light way back in her eye sockets. And she had no nose to her face.
#1 — “Oh, Susanna!”
“I’m having a nightmare,” Susannah told herself. “When I wake up, everything will be alright…”
Did you have these books? Do you remember being freaked out by them? And if so, wouldn’t you agree that we’re all MUCH BETTER OFF for having been exposed to such awesome, scary things at an early age? Challenged book list be damned!