Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Life of Fear: Stories

Sometimes I think about all the horrifying things I've seen in movies and wonder how they'd add up if I ran the numbers. Just how many deaths have I watched for entertainment? How many dismemberments, disembowelments, and eye-gougings have paraded across a screen for me to laugh, scream, or shudder at? Still, for all the grotesqueries I've witnessed, I usually find that it's the things that aren't shown in a film that hit the hardest. This might be why I respond more viscerally to horror that I read as opposed to horror I watch. A good imagination can be your worst enemy, and the best horror fiction uses just the right amount of ambiguity to leverage your thoughts against you.

More recent examples will follow, of course, but right now I want to devote some time to the three books of my youth that left the deepest mental scars. Of the three, one can't even be considered horror at all. Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School is about an elementary school whose blueprints were botched prior to its construction. The result is a building erected on its side, like a skyscraper, rather than horizontally. The altered design is enough to send the entire school into disarray, and all sorts of crazy things happen within the school to place the students' education and general well-being in peril.

The first story introduces us to Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher in the school. Mrs. Gorf turns her students into apples when they misbehave, or even when they don't - she's really just concerned with keeping the kids quiet so that she doesn't have to teach. So one by one, over the course of one fateful week, each kid commits some minor infraction and ends up on her desk as a shiny red delicious.

The amount of fear this story inspired in me seems ridiculous now. Maybe the reason it hit home was that Mrs. Gorf bore a uncanny resemblance to my own 2nd grade teacher, who I'm sure would have turned me into an apple had she possessed the power. For a story to take that fear of an adult who didn't particularly like you and turn it into a tale where they became outright malicious had more than a little resonance at the time. I put this book right back on the shelf after reading that story and let my eyes slide past it every time went to get something new to read. I avoided this book for months, but eventually my curiosity grew too strong. I skipped the Mrs. Gorf story and read the rest of the book to find out with some relief that the following chapters weren't nearly as grim.

Book number two was Choose Your Own Adventure #6: The Green Slime. This is the first book that told me a story whose characters met an unhappy ending (and actually died if I remember correctly). The fact that it was my choices that led to their demise made it that much worse. I haven't seen a copy of this book since I returned it to the library back in the eighties, so I can't say much more than I remember there being far too many wrong choices to make, even for this series.

Another perennial favorite, one that caused more nightmares than probably any other book in my life, was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. Anyone who's read these books knows immediately why they're memorable - and it's not for Alvin Schwartz's collections of retold folk tales, urban legends, and poems, although those are good. It's the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. The stories aren't actually all that scary, nor were they when I was a kid. Some are appropriately gruesome, but they're balanced by other stories that end with sufficient humor or irony to soften the blows.

But the pictures. Oh god, the pictures. These images are etched forever in my memory, particularly the following:


Despite how horrifying they are, I was fascinated by these illustrations. These are some of the most iconic pieces of art ever to appear in children's books, and they've been the source of no small amount of controversy since their release. I'm dismayed beyond words that HarperCollins elected to remove the art from the most recent edition of the books. Gammell's work has been replaced with offensively generic art that's laughable when you look at it alongside the original paintings. (See this and this for more information on Gammell and the controversy.)

Sure, I understand, parents want to protect their babies from everything scary in the world. It's true that all of these books inspired legitimate fear in me as a kid. But I got over it. I learned to self-police when I was reading and eventually grew braver. The curiosity that these books inspired eventually led me to re-read them (in two out of three cases), and they quickly became some of my favorites. The lesson they taught me wasn't that books are scary and bad and to be avoided at all costs, but that the written word can be powerful enough to evoke emotion as strong as that which you'd experience in the real world. It's the reason I still love to read, and for that I thank each one of these authors, however warped they may be.

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