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Tag Archives: Horror for children

As we come to the end of this series, I’d like to tell a rather unusual story.  A story of a decades-long search that only recently came to fruition.  (I debated whether or not it deserved its own blog post, as the subject is decidedly not Lovecraftian in nature.  But at the end of the day, this little internet niche is my personal dictatorship, so here it is, and there you go!)

Anyway.  When I was firmly in the grip of adolescence (ages 12 to 14 or so, I’d say), there was practically nothing I liked more than going to Tower Books and Records, a sadly now-defunct store 30 minutes away from my house.

I was a fan of bookstores in general, but Tower Books and Records was uniquely…lord, I don’t want to say “edgy”, but edgy is really the only adjective I’m coming up with right now.  It struck puberty-riddled me as punkish and irreverent and sexy.  Every time I went there, I stumbled across something that (at the time) seemed impossibly different and significant.  I remember reading as much of Please Kill Me as I could standing awkwardly between aisles, because there was no way in hell my parents were going to let me buy it.  Ditto multiple collections of Letters to Penthouse, and a slender volume that may have had some unifying plot beyond “Here’s a bunch of cocktail waitresses and all of the many and varied ways in which they have sex with their patrons”, but despite careful and close study I was unable to suss it out.

But I think what I remember most vividly (yes, even more vividly than Cock Tales, or whatever that book was called) was a graphic novel based on Struwwelpeter.  You’ve probably heard of Struwwelpeter before.

coverIt’s a series of German poems meant to instruct and entertain young children in the subjects of personal hygiene and behavior.  Light-hearted tales about how if you sucked your thumb, the Scissorman would come at night and cut them off, and how if you played with matches you’d be burned into a crisp.  Complete with illustrations!  Ha ha!  What fun we have!

kaspar2The little boy wouldn’t eat his soup, so he wasted away and died.  LOL!

But this version…this was an absolute nightmare.  Each chipper, boundlessly eager poem about the death and destruction of a disobedient child was accompanied by a finely-detailed, black and white drawing.  SStTitD had primed me to appreciate horrific illustrations, and these…these were something else.  They weren’t abstract and faintly terrifying through suggestion.  They were crystal clear, surrealistic depictions of terror that would have horrified Freud.

Even at the time, I had this sick, sinking feeling that I was witnessing something that would stick with me forever.  Something that I shouldn’t really be looking at.  But I read it all, as much as I could cram into my skull before my parents grabbed me by the collar and dragged me bodily out (as they usually had to do where Tower Books and Records were concerned).

I couldn’t find that book the next time I went to Tower Books and Records.  And then Tower Books and Records was no more.  I remembered that version of Struwwelpeter–oh, I did remember it–but I hadn’t remembered the author’s name, nor the illustrator’s, nor even the name “Struwwelpeter”.

Over the years, I told people about it, and they laughed or shuddered, whichever was more appropriate.  Occasionally I looked for it, but never got very far.

Which brings me to this very week, and to my previously mentioned problems with book-hoarding.  I mean, when I wrote about Mostly Ghostly…I couldn’t help but order a copy.  And that wasn’t too hard (despite the fact that Mostly Ghostly was apparently also the name a tweenage-Goosebumps-esque series, I was able to sift through the chaff pretty effectively).  And so, the thought kept nagging at me.  Could I find that horrific book of German verse?

Well.  It wasn’t hard to search for “horrific German nursery rhymes” to find out that the title was Struwwelpeter, but there I hit a dead end.

I have a very dear friend who is basically the Rainman of internet searches.  You can say to him (and I have), “Goddamn, I stumbled across this really weird clip of a man in a chicken costume stomping on balloons, and now I can’t find the clip or the movie it was from, and I’ve googled every possible iteration of “man” “chicken costume” “balloon” “stomp” and got nothing,” and within 40 minutes he’ll send you the original Youtube video as well as a link to watch the entire movie, in a legal-ish manner.  I do not have such skills.  I don’t type entire questions into the search bar, I don’t use Yahoo or Ask or Bing, but beyond that my internet-fu is pretty piss-poor.

So, I googled “Struwwelpeter modern” and came up with a modern artsy children’s book with a cheerful-looking cover.  No dice.  I googled “Struwwelpeter horrific images”, “Struwwelpeter graphic novel”, “Struwwelpeter re-telling”, and so on and so forth.  I even posted to the hivemind of Facebook, but got nothing.

Finally, after some wretched combination of search terms, I found a slide-show for an art class project.  Basically, it was a sort of “Make Struwwelpeter your own” sort of thing.  I didn’t have much hope, but I clicked through it, and–what was that?  Yes!  YES!

heinrich-hoffmann-illustration-project-15-638

The images were still burned into my cerebrum.  I knew I had found my book.

I had a date and two names.  And I had Amazon Prime.  The rest was a forgone conclusion.

So, Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folk is on its way.  Were my impressions overly colored by adolescent angst and hormones?  Will the book terrify me as it did 15 years ago?  Time will tell.  But goddamn, I am so, so, SO excited.

And that’s more or less how I became the horror nerd that I am today.  I’ll be more Lovecraft-oriented on Friday, I promise.

The Cultist

First of all, I am all over this documentary like white on rice.  Topical!

But on to today’s topic…ghosts.  Generally speaking, I don’t find ghosts very frightening or compelling.  Even in my youth, long before I had heard of Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters, my fear was relegated to the following:

  1. Vampires: I was alternately reassured by the fact that you had to invite them in and terrified by the fact that they seemed to KEEP FREAKING GETTING IN.  However, all of the illustrations I had seen showed beautiful women sprawled out on top of the bed, which led me to the (admittedly overly-hopeful) conclusion that vampires would be absolutely confounded by bedsheets.  To date, I can’t really sleep if there’s not a blanket or a comforter pulled up over my neck.
  2. Skeletons: Not zombies, not reanimated corpses.  Skeletons.  This confounded my highly logical scientist father, who patiently explained to me, over and over again, that skeletons lack muscles and tendons, and as such are inanimate by design.  I appreciated my dad’s attempts, but he just didn’t understand how these things worked.

I say this because despite all of these things, the third book that I would deem to be the most influential in my youth was a slim purple-covered paperback volume called (simply) Ghosts, in the Usborne World of the Unknown series.

I had this book for most of my childhood, but somewhere along the way it got lost or donated.  This has surely happened to countless books over the course of my life, but I could never quite reconcile myself to the loss.  Finally, this summer, I realized that I lived in the golden age of the internet search engine and had Amazon Prime, and, with a little elbow grease, there was nothing stopping me from reliving my childhood.

Of course, I hesitated a little even after realizing that–much like realizing that Hawaiian Punch isn’t actually that good and Hostess Cupcakes are bland and stale-tasting, I was deeply concerned that the book would not live up to my remembered hype.

ghosts

I am very happy to say that I was wrong.  So wrong.  This book is absolutely excellent.  It’s short, but every page is crammed full of anecdotes, theories, folk-tales, and illustrations.  Bill Bryson described visiting the American History Museum in his youth, before it was slick and polished and well-organized; his delight came in part from the lack of organization, from wandering around and stumbling across random, delightful artifacts.  I felt similarly about this book.  There’s details on stagecraft (ever wonder how they showed ghosts on stage in the 19th century?), world legends (the Gibbering Ghosts of India!), and possessed animals (the possessed British mongoose named Geb?).

And now, for a brief bit of personal philosophy:

At the risk of sounding like I’m an aged, infirm individual (I am newly 28, and no, I do not think I am old), I’ve started to think more seriously about physical possessions, what I want to keep, what is worth acquiring, what is worth hanging onto.  Like most people, I tend to be a STUFF magnet, and I’m sorry to say that my horror collection is definitely part and parcel of this.  It’s so easy for me to justify new purchases–like, of course I need an illustrated copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories!  I mean, of course, I respect Poe, but I don’t particularly enjoy reading his stories that much…I mean, Fall of the House of Usher was great, sure, but he’s Poe!  I have to at least have one of his books, right?

This woman is helping me break that habit:

kondo

In case you haven’t heard of her, she is Marie Kondo, and she wrote a slim volume on organization.  Her philosophy boils down to: Keep only things that bring you joy.  I’ve been getting better about keeping that in mind, although I’m certain that my kitchen cupboards would make her puke and I still tend to compulsively buy books.

But anyway–this is a round-about way of saying that as soon as I ripped open the Amazon mailer and retrieved Ghosts, I knew that I had made absolutely the right decision.  I probably won’t hang on to that Poe volume (I know, I know, I know: Lovecraft immensely admired Poe, Borges thought Lovecraft was more or less a Poe slash-fiction writer, but goddamn it, I gotta be me, and I’m not a Poe person), but this time I won’t be letting Ghosts go.  No sir.

The Cultist

Okay, I did think of a few other horror movies I’ve watched start to finish, and they were all vampire-based:

  1. Let the Right One In: I enjoyed this one, but I did cover my eyes at a few points
  2. Nosferatu: I was surprised–it’s so old and cliched now, but I did get legitimately frightened at a few moments.  The actor playing the vampire just moves SO slowly and deliberately.
  3. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula: I…do people actually find this movie scary?  To me, it was like they took EVERY possible vampire theme–creepy old guy/sexy young guy/ugly monster/steampunk/werewolf?–and tried to mash them all into a single, unified horror movie.  And it just did not work at ALL.  (And did anyone else laugh at the ending?  Not the actual killing of Dracula, but the part where Mina gives her little impromptu speech to all the vampire hunters, and after YEARS of fighting Dracula, they’re all just like, “Yeah, I guess we were wrong…”)  (Although Tom Waits as Renfield was an amazing choice.)
  4. Dracula (the original): I think I watched this when I was 9 or 10, and I was not very impressed.

But anyway!  I think Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was probably the first frightening book I read, but I also have extremely fond memories of Mostly Ghostly.

mostly ghostly 2

I had a hell of a time finding this book, because it’s also the same name of a series by R. L. Stine.

(Incidentally, R.L. Stine would probably be thought as an obvious choice for a blog post…but eh, I don’t have very strong memories of reading his books.  I mean, I definitely read a lot of them–that I know for sure–but I guess by that point my sense of horror was already somewhat dulled by years of exposure to pictures like this

harold

and this

oh-susanna*).

Written by Steven Zorn and illustrated by John Bradley, this book is IMPRESSIVE.  The version I had was hardcover and absolutely massive–just long and large, so it never fit comfortably even on my tallest bookshelf.  This was done, presumably, to make room for the art.  The illustrations themselves are less frankly horrifying than SStTitD, but they’re no less skillful.  They’re more cartoonish, but every one of them is vaguely unnerving in a way that I found absolutely compelling as a child.

mostly ghostly3

The stories themselves are based off of old famous ghost stories.  There’s one about a hanged murderer who doesn’t realize he’s dead, a funny one about a new aristocrat who doesn’t believe his enormous estate can be complete without a ghost, but I think the one that stuck with me the most is about a terrible clammy THING that shows up on a ship.  But this is where my adult knowledge and childhood memory fails me somewhat, because while I can remember a lot of the individual stories, I can’t remember who wrote what.  And while 8-year-old me certainly didn’t care about the source of these stories, it’s interesting in retrospect to realize that I was reading adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbit, and Ambrose Bierce.

The Cultist

 

*This illustration is a perfect example of exactly what I love about SStTitD.  The story it’s associated with is just a simple urban legend about a college girl annoyed by her roommate’s humming–she finally grabs her shoulder to get her to stop, only to discover that her head has been cut off.  Yeah, it’s definitely creepy, but what is going ON in this picture?  How does it relate?

oh-susanna

But it doesn’t matter.  It just conveys the impossible and the fear of the unknown in such a vivid way that it serves only to enhance the sheer terror of the story.

First and foremost!  The podcast is up, and I have not listened to it, because I hate how I sound in recordings!  But if you wish to listen to it (and please, lie to me and tell me I don’t sound like a moron, or at least don’t tell me you listened to it), it can be found here, the October 8th entry.

But anyway!  October is my favorite month for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that it’s the one period of the year when my love of horror jibes with the annual public zeitgeist.  (Can you use zeitgeist in that context?  I’m really not sure.)  Even Buzzfeed rang in October 2015 with a list of the best 31 horror movies streaming on Netflix.

Buuuuut…and here’s my dirty little secret, alluded to in the past but never fully embraced…

Start to finish, I’ve watched, like, 7 horror movies.  Ever.

  1. The Shining: I maintain that this is a wonderful movie, but not a scary one.  At no point was I scared.
  2. Rosemary’s Baby: This would have been so much better if they cut the last 15 minutes, so you’d never know whether or not it was all in her head.
  3. A Tale of Two Sisters: I don’t know if this really counts, because I spent well over 60% of the film with my face buried in a pillow.  HOLY SHIT is that one scary.
  4. The Sixth Sense: I saw this in Psychology my junior year of high school, after the AP exam.  The stunning twist had been ruined for me five or six years prior.
  5. Hellraiser: I watched the whole thing!  More or less!
  6. Piranha 3D: Saw this one in theaters, spent fully half the movie in tears.
  7. Alien: You know that scene where that one guy is in the ducts, and there’s a probe on him, and a probe on the alien, and you see the probes getting closer and closer together, and the rest of the crew keeps telling the guy that it’s heading right for him, and he’s like, “Naaaaaaaaah”, and then the alien jumps on him?  It’s the most forecasted jump scare in the history of cinema, and it made me pass out.  Literally.  I lost consciousness.

Conversely, the number of horror movies I have failed to complete could fill a fucking book.  Here are a few samples:

  1. The Ring: Made it to that cutaway scene of the girl’s corpse in the closet.  You know, that cutaway scene that happens 10 minutes into the movie?
  2. The Thing (the 1981 version): Made it until the dog gets back to the base and starts acting funny.  Not even transformed.  Just funny.  I knew what was coming, and couldn’t take it.
  3. Hellraiser II: I made it until the guy in the asylum starts scraping his maggot-covered arms with a straight razor.
  4. Re-Animator: Tried it twice, the second time I made it exactly halfway!

To date, in my opinion, this is one of my most grievous personal failings.  I would LOVE to watch horror movies.  I love reading their summaries on Wikipedia.  I read reviews avidly.  Goodnight Mommy is coming to theaters soon, and I am rabid to watch it.  It’s getting incredible reviews.  Will I watch it?  Will I even come close to watching it?  History says no.  I have a vivid imagination, and I have a tremendously exaggerated startle reflex.  Therefore, every movie–horror or not–I watch is tainted by my fear of jump scares, which seem to lurk around every corner.  (Which reminds me!  If you can think of a horror movie that has ZERO reliance on jump scares, add it to the comments.  I’ll be on that like white on rice.)

But I’ve loved horror for as long as I can remember, despite these innate limitations.  How did I get my start?  How ought a horror lover to be raised?

For the next few days, instead of talking about classical or modern weird fiction, I’ll head back to my roots.  And so, to start, I’ll be tremendously unoriginal and say:

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.  Alvin Schwartz is a folklorist proper–every book in the trilogy is concluded with an extensive series of sources and notes on the particular horror tradition, regional variations, etc.  Stephen Gammell may very well be the King of the Damned Incarnate.

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I mean that in only the kindest and most loving way.

scarystories2-scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-has-found-an-adaption-director-to-traumatize-the-youth-of-today

The stories were okay, a few of the ghosts were spooky, but the illustrations captivated me in a way that nothing had ever done before.  And now, 28 years old, well into the age of the internet, I see that I’m very far from alone.  Every person who loved SStTitD loved it because of the illustrations.  The illustrations make the books.  The stories minus the pictures are only mildly scary, even for a children.  And I feel like everyone who loved SStTitD had an illustration that came to define the books in their mind–it was the epitome of horror, so terrible you couldn’t look at it for very long, or maybe you had to avoid the story altogether.  Maybe it was the girl with the boil on her cheek, staring in horror at the explosion of baby spiders and eggs.  Maybe it was the disgruntled, all-too-human scarecrow named Harold.  For me, it was this:

scary stories to tell in the dark

Jesus.  I know, right?

The story, eh.  I can tell you it by heart.

Haunted house, no one stays overnight, then a pastor stays, he hears ghostly footsteps, compels the wraith by invoking the bible, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost*, the wraith appears and tells him she was murdered by her boyfriend, skeleton underneath the house, put her pinkie bone in the collection plate at church, a man touches it and goes crazy, he admits the murder, he’s hanged, the wraith appears one last time to tell the pastor where her money is hidden, he finds it and donates it to the church, her ghostly fingerprints are forever singed into his jacket.  The end.

There’s really not much to it, alone.  But my god…that picture.  It burned itself into my skull.  I memorized more or less where in the book it was, and skipped around it for years because I couldn’t bear to look at it straight on.

I don’t think I was a particularly masochistic child.  I think that some kids–maybe all, I don’t know–like to be scared.  It’s a way of putting the self to the test.  A mountain climb for the myopic, pudgy, and asthmatic (okay, maybe that was just me).  The void is there.  Can we face the void and come back unscathed?  When it keeps us up at night, trembling, terrified of feeling its fingerprints burning into our covers, will we have the strength to come back and face it again the next day?

For me, at least, that feeling was addictive.  It’s morphed into something more subtle with age, but even now, scrolling back up the draft to stare at THAT FACE fills me with a shock of something primal.

Stephen Gammell, I salute you, wherever you might be, and whatever you might be.

The Cultist

*Despite being born and raised an atheist, I memorized this well, in case I ever needed to confront the undead.