It's the 31st, which means two things: it's Halloween, one of my favourite days of the year, and The House on Ash Tree Lane is back and revamped. I said this site would focus exclusively on horror from now on, so to get us into the groove of things three horror buffs--one of my current favourite writers, my best friend, and yours truly--elaborated on how certain works in the genre have stayed with them over the years, and how their feelings toward them have changed. I present to you the first.
Cameron Suey, of The Josef K. Stories
I remember first seeing the second collection of Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark series in my elementary school book order catalog. I was an impressionable six year old, and a precocious, voracious reader. I had recently discovered, during a period of interest in alien abduction stories, the thrill of being absolutely terrified, and the creepy black and white and red cover tickled something primal at the back of my brain. I ordered both books--the new collection, and the original.
Sleep came fitfully for the next few nights. I remember, above all, the nearly physical desire to skip a page in the story "The Haunted House" to spare my eyes from hollow rotting face that stretched across the paper, staring eyelessly right at me. I wanted to read the story, but the presence of that face made it nearly impossible to focus on the words. I saw that face everywhere for weeks. Next to Stephen Gammell's phantasmagoric nightmarescapes, the simple, easily digestible campfire stories were like a brand new drug to me, something I couldn't wait to return to each night, even long after Halloween ended. When the summer rolled around, and I began backpacking with the Boy Scouts, I quickly established myself as the keeper of stories around the fire, collecting and seeking out more and more collections of short horror, exhausting both the school and city library.
The Scary Stories series was the first intentional horror that I every exposed myself too, and it's safe to say that I never really looked back. Within two years, I had passionately argued to my parents that I was indeed ready to read the Stephen King novels they were passing back and forth between each other, and it wasn't long until I'd talked my way into supervised viewings of The Exorcist and Alien. Scary Stories was the passport to a new land of horror, where I am now proud to be a permanent resident.
Recently upon hearing that the books would be rereleased with newly created artwork, more 'fitting' for a younger audience, I considered my fatherly duty to find copies of the old versions that had so terrified and inspired me as a child. I now have a hard cover version of all three collections, and the cover, in a disappointing display of unsubtle graphic design, is the rotted face from "The Haunted House." Having the book in my hands again, I reread it for the first time in a decade.
The pictures stand up, there's nothing that changed about my gut level reactions to Gammell's dizzying ink work. But the individual stories now are too simple, too dated, and too moralizing to have any real effect on me now. Each one fully embraces some trope or archetype of horror and folklore, and plays it straight. Additionally, the heavy focus on repercussions and lessons, where most characters are being punished for a transgression, be it sex, defying your parents, or daring to travel outside of your home, feels old-fashioned and safe to me. I now prefer horror that avoids these tawdry and conservative lessons. It's less scary when someone 'deserves it', and far more universal if the horror could occur to anyone, especially the best among us.
I realize I'm asking too much of a child's collection of folklore, but where these stories were hugely influential to me once, now they look like templates for tales, as opposed to complete stories. It's the notes at the back that now fascinate me, the origins and fragmentary history of these packaged and polished smooth tails are far more compelling. Full of knotty, unfinished textures and tantalizing absences, these notes hold hooks that keep me thinking, wanting to create my own versions of the tales, where I can invert, unfold and reinterpret.
The stories themselves, lacking any real complexity or rumination, exist now as a tourist pamphlet for those just visiting the realm of the uncanny, spelling out the bare outline of things you might see later on down the path, should you choose to follow it. But that's enough, and I am glad that I did. I have Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell to thank for it.
Cameron Suey posts his short horror fiction at The Josef K. Stories.