Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Disturbing imagery and delightful tales

Authors. Writers. Books. Poems. Literature History.

I can still remember sitting under a blanket in my parent’s drafty old farmhouse and listening to my brother read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. It was a great way to spend a Sunday but also a terrifying way to imprint on a child’s brain—especially the darker and more sinister stories, of which there were many.

Today, being a rainy, dreary Michigan day in October, I thought I would pay homage to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by providing some background information on a book that undoubtedly altered my views on the macabre, and it also–especially on days like today–makes me thankful that my brothers and sister had the good fortune of owning a copy to share with each other while we hid under a blanket away from the monsters and specters that loomed at us from the page.

About Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

As stated, the books are authored by Alvin Schwartz, who was a journalist and author of more than 50 books. As it has been written, he drew a great deal of inspiration from folklore and urban legends, and he even authored many books about folk tales and legends aside from this sinister collection (as well as penning poetry about the same subject).  

The true selling point of this book outside of Schwartz’s excellent storytelling is Stephen Gammell’s drawings, which still haunt my dreams. Gammell has worked on many different projects and won the Caldecott Medal for US picture book illustration in 1989. In all three collections of scary stories, Gammell’s illustrations are truly something to marvel at because they are ungodly scary and so completely original, which is exactly what you want out of horror art.

Here is an article comparing Brett Helquist’s more modern drawings compared to Stephen Gammell’s bleak, esoteric ones. You can see the difference in visual impact almost immediately.

What’s inside

The original book was published on Oct. 14, 1981 and features 29 stories, including:

  • The Big Toe
  • Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!
  • Alligators
  • Room for One More
  • The Wendigo
  • The Hook
  • High Beams

The ones listed are certainly highlights but a book so wrapped up in nostalgia has endless highlights, so it would be silly to just list them all (though I thought about it). The stories range from horror to comedy…to just plain strange. I think there is a great variety in this book and they have that “folkloric” quality, which borders on urban legend (they could be true).

They are just astonishingly spooky all around.

Lasting impressions

This was a controversial collection (as were the other books) when it was published in Oct. of 1981 and was frequently challenged by advocacy groups for its disturbing imagery and dark content, even though that tends to be what kids love reading.

In an article written for The Argus-Press, an “enraged” mother states her concern about the content in More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

“This was way past being scary,” she said. “There were two stories in there that were really objectionable. One was really disgusting. It was about a man who murders his wife, chops her up, puts her through a meat grinder and sells her as sausage” (The Argus-Press)

The woman is clearly irate over the story “Wonderful Sausage,” which, I think, is an excellently wicked little story and was awesome to read as a young boy who was curious about the ins and outs of marriage. Though, I try not to get too worked up over some people’s censorship crusades because we all weren’t raised under the umbrella of horror authors like King, Lovecraft, and Straub, and we all definitely were not taught the same things about how art operates on an intellectual level, either….

Like, for instance, how horror gives us insight into our own fears, anxieties, and humanity, which is important for us to understand so we can make better sense of the world around us. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a great example of a book that does just that by facing the reader with murder, mortality, and all things that go bump in the night—which is pretty darn cool for a kid to read and it’s pretty darn cool for an adult to come back to years later.