I’ve been slacking on the true stories over here lately, but I’m back! A book like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — the mere idea of which freaked me out when I was little — deserved a little extra attention, having finally been read about twenty years after I was the appropriate age for it!
These True Story posts give me the opportunity to share some additional thoughts and feelings about the books we cover on the show. Since I went into the Scary Stories episode with so many expectations of what the book would be like and was then so surprised by what it actually was, I have a lot of thoughts AND feelings. So keep scrolling to read them!
(Check out the episode here! No plot summary really necessary, since the stories are episodic and so short.)
This book made me feel like kind of a loser when I was in elementary school.
I feel pretty lame admitting this as a twenty-nine-year-old, grown-ass woman, but it’s the truth.
We talk briefly in the episode about the fact that — in my elementary school, at least — there was a sort of in-group of cooler kids who were brave enough to see scary movies and read scary books, especially Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the Goosebumps series (hear more about that in Episode 11!). I more or less defined myself by my love of books when I was growing up, so it was highly offensive to me that any of my peers would be beating me at my own game by reading series that I hadn’t gotten to yet… even if it was because I was steering clear of the scary stuff!
(Also, how hilarious that, as an elementary schooler, I viewed popularity through the lens of library books. Classic.)
Prepping for this episode taught me a little something about urban legends!
Truthfully, I don’t know much about urban legends, largely because — secret’s out! — I’m not really a fan of anything spooky. I didn’t expect that preparing for the Scary Stories interview would end up being so educational, but thanks to the fact that all of the stories in the books are based in urban legends and storytelling traditions from various areas and cultures, I did!
In hindsight, I feel a little guilty that I didn’t realize just how rich with research the series is. Alvin Schwartz did a ton of work to curate each title! Digging into the Scary Stories backstory gave me a chance to learn a little something about folklore and urban legends.
I really loved the way the book was put into categories.
I love things that are organized just as much as I hate things that are scary. It was so fun cracking into this little paperback and seeing that the stories themselves were divided into different sections based on theme: Aaaaaaaaaaah!; He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs; They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose; Other Dangers; and Aaaaaaaaaaah! (again). Within each of those categories is a series of stories, each of which is — at most — two or three pages.
Overall, the format is different than anything I’ve seen in a while (and that includes other kids’ reading I’ve done for the pod), and I think it made this kind of content that much more readable and fun. I can see why the cool kids at my school breezed through them!
The illustrations are really pretty terrifying.
Obviously, one of the downsides of podcasting as a medium is that you lose the visual element. But the visual element of the Scary Stories series is part of what makes them so, well, scary! Almost every article I read in preparation for my interview with Gale referenced the original art by Stephen Gammell as a major element of the books’ success.
“This adoration [of the books] baffled my mom,” author Victor LaValle wrote in an August 2019 piece in the New York Times. “Why did I keep coming back to this horrifying book? At that age, I didn’t know how to articulate the effect it had on me. In response to her confusion, I’d open to a page, any one would do, and tap on Gammell’s drawings. That’s why.”
See? The drawings are a pretty big deal.
With that in mind — and since I couldn’t show you on the podcast — here are a few screenshots I found online:
See? Pretty freakin’ terrifying! (Apologies for keeping you up past your bedtime tonight.)
Generally speaking, I found the stories themselves kind of unsatisfying.
I really appreciated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a collection — especially knowing what I do now about the work that went into aggregating it — but looking at the stories individually, I was less impressed. I talk about this on the episode, but I think it bears repeating: it’s really hard to get invested in a story (no matter how intense or scary it is!) when you know so little about the characters and there’s no room to develop a backstory for the action. Because of the lack of character development, the stakes just seemed kind of low to me.
I understand that part of the beauty of these short stories is that they’re intended for kids to learn by heart and repeat back to friends (it’s literally in the title!), but I think it would have been interesting to at least have some characters in common from story to story so that readers who might be less likely to tell the stories can at least feel more invested in the reading of them.
Update: kids still do find these stories scary.
In our conversation on the ep, Gale and I wonder about whether or not kids of 2019 would still find stories like this as terrifying as kids of the eighties and nineties did. With all of the technology that makes it that much easier to bring scary things to life in TV and movies these days (LOL), can a 100-page book of short stories with black and white drawings still keep littles up at night?
Thanks to feedback from several members of the SSR community, I can report that yes, it can! A few listeners messaged me to say that their kids have read Scary Stories in recent years and that they were reasonably traumatized. Oh, and also, they loved them.
Listen to the podcast episode about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark here!
I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.