I think I can speak for most Americans my age when I say that Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were the most frightening thing ever. Bar none. Absolutely, scalp-prickling, teeth-chattering, pants-wettingly terrifying.
Actually, it wasn’t the stories. It was those damned illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Mr. Gammell has been a prolific illustrator of all sorts of children’s books since the early ’70s, but his style is so unique and unusual, and so wedded in my mind to the Scary Stories series that even his most whimsical pictures scare the hell out of me. Those lines and spatters (roots? Hairs? Dripping blood or whisps of… what?) in his watercolor and ink illustrations surfaced over and over in my mind. They didn’t give me nightmares, but they were disturbing enough that overly protective adults all over the country spent the 1990s trying to get the Scary Stories series pulled from libraries. Kids are made of strong stuff though, and indulgence in horror of the pretend helps them safely test their mettle and blow off steam while building the tools they need to counter the horrors of reality. The most recent edition has toothless illustrations by a different artist, but if you ask a kid, they’ll take Gammell’s surreal terrors any day.
Anyway, the Scary Stories themselves were sourced from the vast folkloric traditions, and were intended to be read aloud though I suspect we spent more time paraphrasing them on the playground and in the cafeteria. The audio version (which I originally encountered on a well-worn vinyl record, thanks to the Stoughton Public Library) is beautifully narrated by George S. Irving who strikes just the right tone between horror and playfulness. This copy on YouTube must be taken from a CD because it’s missing the clicks and pops of a library LP. The illustrations are mercifully pixelated, but a Google Images search for Stephen Gammell will yield results that you are not emotionally prepared for.
Dim the lights, close your eyes, and don’t turn the volume up too high because seriously, the italicized, capitalized sentence at the end of every story WILL BLOW OUT YOUR EARDRUMS!