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!
Last week “back to the salt mines!” (a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s) popped into my mind in conjunction with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. I’ve been trying to figure out what the connection was until this morning when I had the good sense to Google it and found this feature from 2008 in which various New Yorkers briefly detail how they’ve spent their summer. Here’s how I would answer that question:
One of the nice things about working in downtown Madison, Wisconsin is that the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is a short walk from my office. The convention center, which overlooks Lake Monona, opened in 1997 and I had the pleasure of singing at the Grand Opening with one of the choral groups to which I belonged in high school. I had no intention of including that fact in this post, but I just remembered it as I was typing this. I can’t remember what we sang, and I’m not 100% sure which group it was—either the Madrigal Singers or the Men’s Ensemble.
Anyway, I’ve only been inside Monona Terrace a couple of times, but I spend as many lunchbreaks there as I can during the temperate months of the year. The rooftop has a large seating area and a promenade facing the lake. I usually eschew the tables and chairs for the little garden area on the west end of the roof where I sit DIRECTLY ON THE GRASS to the horror of out-of-towners who have come to look out across the lake and snap pictures that they will never look at again. I’m not the only person who does this, and it’s extremely annoying when I round the corner only to find somebody else doing reading or doing yoga or just sprawled out on the grass sleeping. How dare they!
Usually I go to read. Sometimes I grab a coffee or a sandwich, or if it’s Wednesday I’ll spend too much money on cheese curds at the farmer’s market. I’m pretty happy with my reading progress over the summer; I’ve probably read an average number of books, but I’m trying to get through my backlog of physical books as opposed to reading them on my Kindle (which is what I usually do). The act of finishing one volume and starting another feels productive. It takes me too long to read novels because I only typically read during my ten-minute commute and on my lunchbreaks, and I’m sure that I actually read faster when I can see the end of the book approaching. It’s certainly more satisfying than gauging it as a percentage. Here’s an incomplete list of my summer reading, in the order I consumed them:
That Darn Squid God by Nick Pollotta and James Clay — I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. A couple of Very British explorers keep a stiff upper lip in the face of world-ending madness. Might’ve been better in a shorter form.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole — Been planning to read this one for agrees, just because it felt like something I should have done by now. Otranto is the original Gothic novel and commits all the sins of the genre, but it helps to remember that they originated here. Notable in that it begins with a young Prince being crushed to death by a giant helmet which falls unexpectedly out of the sky, a bit like the 16-ton weights in all those Monty Python sketches.
Madwand by Roger Zelazny — This is actually the second book in Zelazny’s Wizardworld series, but that wasn’t immediately apparent from the edition I was reading, which is probably why new editions list the title as “Madwand: The Sequel to Changeling”. I dunno, I like Zelazny and I enjoyed this book, though I don’t think I could summarize it for you.
Changeling by Roger Zelazny — I was not, however, taken by Changeling, probably because the main points of the novel are either summarized or implied by Madwand. It’s probably better if you read them in the right order. Annoyingly, this was intended to be a trilogy, and the final chapter never happened.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier — After Otranto, I decided I should tackle another classic. I bought this one secondhand after having seen the Alfred Hitchcock film years ago, and should have read it sooner. An engaging, modern Gothic classic! Had a hard time recommending it to my coworkers who thought it was a romance novel. Well, it is, kind of, but it’s also a suspenseful thriller. I think I described it as “Jane Eyre but with more emotional abuse.”
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge — I won this book in an online contest more than a year ago, and feel bad about letting it sit for so long. What if H.P. Lovecraft was gay? No wait, what if he wasn’t gay, but one of his friends forged a diary to make it look like he was? No wait, what if… and so on. I don’t usually like HPL as a fictional character because authors like to turn him into an action hero. In this case it’s a different kind of action and work about a fifth of the novel to go, I gave no idea where its headed. I expect to finish it tomorrow and will be recommending it to everybody.
…and various short stories because I read a lot more short fiction than novels. I tend to bounce back and forth between several anthologies at any given time, but in particular I’ve been crawling for months through Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe which have been surprisingly unsettling.
Honorable mention: Vathek by William Beckford is another one of the original Gothic novels, and I made an abortive attempt to read it (my second, actually) because I have it in the same volume as The Castle of Otranto. I get bogged down in the fact that the edition I have is probably 60% footnotes. One day I will just read the damn thing and ignore the footnotes, and I may miss some important context but I think that’s the only way I’ll get through it.
Sooner or later Monona Terrace will close for the fall and winter months during which time I will read less and less because sitting in the break room always makes me feel like I should be working.
* * *
“Are you done?” my editor would say
“I asked you for a paragraph of text, not an autobiography.”
“You know what? It’s fine. I’m an editor. This is what I do. ‘I wasted all summer reading books at Monona Terrace.’ Good enough.”