Succumbed to Floodwaters or Adolescence
I grew up in New England, where ghost folklore is as culturally integrated as pizza or lighthouses or the history of Thanksgiving. Our small universe was multilayered in the troubled history of the dead. We found it in the farmhouses with foundations built from stacked stones, the boneyards dating back to yellow fever, the remains of cobblestone streets peeking out from under freshly deteriorating gravel. Ghost stories were the white noise of our existence, like the melodic industrial hum coming from nearby factory towns.
Given this landscape, I’m not at all surprised that my favorite books were not pastel paperbacks of The Babysitters Club, but instead well-worn copies of ghost story collections (Tales for the Midnight Hour, The Thing at the Foot of the Bed), many of which I purchased for a quarter or two at weekend yard sales. My most prized collection came from the bi-annual elementary school book fair: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a trilogy of folklore collected and retold by Alvin Schwartz (arguably his most infamous contribution to children’s literature). While many of my other childhood books succumbed to floodwaters or adolescence, this trio has followed me from city to city, bookshelf to bookshelf, sandwiched somewhere between used copies of the Best American series and perfectly preserved issues of Cabinet magazine.
Most people familiar with Schwartz’s books will agree that the artwork, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, is their most memorable attribute. While Gammell’s career illustrating children’s books spans four decades, he is best known for his unsettling contributions to these story collections. The images leave you feeling polluted with fear, as though Gammell somehow swiped his canvas through the nearest circle of hell and smudged the otherworldly residue into recognizable forms. His artwork is the two-dimensional equivalent of walking through a spider web at night. I am shocked that I slept at all knowing these books were within a 50-foot-radius of my unprotected body.
Almost twenty-five years later, I am still wildly impressed by Gammell’s abilities, although I am more impressed that Harper allowed this artwork into the pages of a children’s book. I have never seen anything quite like them in children’s literature—and neither will new Scary Stories readers, unless they buy previously owned copies on Ebay: in 2012, Harper released a new edition of this collection with tamer illustrations by Brett Helquist, whose work is lovely, but not nearly as traumatizing. The new books look a little more like Goosebumps and a little less like that weird dream I once had about a long-dead Abraham Lincoln trapping my entire family in a fiery gas chamber.
Schwartz’s stories, as expected, no longer feel scary. They are only moderately haunting in a nostalgic way, the same way the series finale of Growing Pains is now only moderately sad. This time around I find myself more drawn to Schwartz’s “Sources” section at the end of each book, in which he cites each story’s fountainhead. Sometimes this is a text, other times a patchwork oral history. In his source for a story called “The Wendigo,” he writes, “This Indian tale also is a summer camp tale that is well known in northeastern United States. It is adapted from a version that Professor Edward M. Ives of the University of Maine narrated for me. He first heard it in the 1930s when he attended Camp Curtis Read, a Boy Scout camp near Mahopac, New York.” Another reference, for a story called “The Viper,” simply states: “[Informant] Leslie Kush, fourteen, Philadelphia, 1980.” I have to wonder: how credible is a fourteen-old-girl as a source? Does she become more credible if her audience is nine-year-old girls? Like an older kid telling ghost stories around a campfire, is she believable only for the wisdom of her years?
Only one story frightens me as an adult, but not for the same reasons it would have a couple decades ago. The story, called “One Sunday Morning,” is about a girl, Ida, who wakes up to the sound of church bells and believes she has overslept. Rushing down quiet sidewalks toward church, she assumes the unusual absence of sound indicates that everyone is already at the service when in fact Ida has woken prematurely enough to crash the early bird mass for the local dead. She realizes this when she doesn’t recognize anyone in the congregation except the woman sitting beside her, a neighbor who had died a month prior. Taking a closer look at her surroundings, she notices the pews are filled with corpses, many of whom are already aware of her unorthodox presence and visibly angry. “Leave right after the benediction,” whispers the recently dead neighbor, “if you care for your life.” Ida waits for the service to end and then bolts, a crowd of livid ghosts at her heels. They tear at her clothes and scream “You don’t belong here!” as she runs until the sun rises and the supernatural disappear. Ida wonders if the whole thing was a dream until later that day, when a friend returns Ida’s coat and hat that she found torn to shreds in the graveyard.
At nine years old I had considered Ida’s predicament and deduced that she got what she deserved for lacking the keen observation skills that would have eradicated such a dilemma. All she had to do was look at a clock or heed the unusual darkness before dawn and the whole event could have been avoided. Where were her parents? I wondered. What was a benediction and why did she have to wait until it was over before making her escape? I removed Ida’s crisis from my list of potential supernatural threats, thinking I was incapable of such gross lapses in judgment.
Re-reading this story as an adult, I notice Ida’s age is never mentioned. Contextually, she seems more like an old widow: she goes to the early-bird church service, alone, and her name is Ida—a name that peaked in the 1880s and has since fallen off the charts. As a child I had vainly assumed Ida was a nine-year-old girl, a mirror image of myself when I first came across this book. The story suddenly feels foreign and prophetic in a Rod Serling sort of way. It now reads like a cautionary tale, warning me to be wary of my perception, so limited in scope. I envision myself reading it again in forty years, seeing Ida in a wildly unforeseeable light. Perhaps this is the most spine-chilling lesson one can glean from these stories: beware of your proclivity to see only what you want to see.
Candace Opper is Late Night Library’s Managing Editor. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Brevity, BITCH, Full-Stop, and various publications put forth by the American Association of Suicidology.