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Tag Archives: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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

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.