The original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were legendary. There were three books, released between 1981 and 1991. Alvin Schwartz collected and retold traditional ghost stories, some scary, some funny. But what people really remember are the illustrations by Stephen Gammell, without which, I don’t think anyone would remember the books very much from their childhood. I am not knocking Schwartz’s storytelling, I’m just saying that the impact of the books relied heavily upon Gammell’s visual contributions.
I remember the first time I saw these books. My neighbor’s older brother had the first book. We would borrow it when he wasn’t home. It had an aura about it, a forbidden quality. It wasn’t the stories so much as the imagery. Stephen Gammell certainly had an interesting way of illustrating the stories. Twisted figures in the mist, rotted corpses, ghosts.
These have been causing young kids to soil their pants for more than 30 years. The illustrations for “The Haunted House” and “The Thing” creeped me out as a kid. Later, these were banned in many libraries, apparently people found them too scary. I can’t imagine greater praise for a book like this, people finding it too scary! And again, it’s the brilliant illustrations, moreso than the stories. The illustrations are what give the stories life.
In 2011, the illustrations were replaced with illustrations by Brett Helquist. While there is nothing technically wrong with his drawings, I think a lot of people felt this choice was crapping all over a masterpiece. It’s not Helquist’s fault, but replacing the drawings was a terrible, terrible idea. I am glad to see that the original drawings will be put back in to cause children to soil their pants in the future. And these aren’t just for kids. I go back and read them sometimes. I am so in love with the drawings that I have a few of them tattooed on my leg. I consider them a masterpiece of horror art. Adults can also enjoy reading through the end notes of the book, where Schwartz explains where the stories came from and how they’ve changed over the years. I consider this an important set of books for any fan of horror, ghost stories, or even weird illustrations. This is an excellent series that everyone should own, and it’s great that it’s available again with the original drawings. You can find a new box set released this month on Amazon.com.