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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The "Official" Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Power Rankings

Since I have been sitting in front of a computer for 95% of the past seven years (go ahead and do the math, Pointdexter!), I have become quite familiar with the various types of articles that online media websites like to post. One of my favorite sorts of article is the Power Rankings that websites such as ESPN.com will do. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, a Power Rankings article is basically a list of sports teams in order from best to worst or vice versa at a certain point in time, with an explanation for their placement. These rankings are arguable and often, especially for certain portions of the list, fairly arbitrary. Having said that, they are a hell of a lot of fun to read, so I thought I’d try my hand at one. The sports theme has been done to death, though, by writers far more knowledgeable in the field than I, so today we're trying something a little different. After a thorough investigation of what exactly constitutes my “wheelhouse,” I submit for your approval:

 
#29: The Walk



Choosing the worst story in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not unlike choosing which of my children to drown. Nonetheless, after much deliberation, it became apparent that “The Walk” is the drownee, and has to bring up the rear of the Power Rankings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, but basically, it can be summarized as follows: two guys are walking through the woods. They don’t know each other, and they feel uneasy. They keep getting more and more uncomfortable, and then OH MY GOD SOMEONE SCREAMS. That’s it. On second thought, maybe there is something inherently wrong with that story. Anyway, I think the most damning thing about this story is that NO ONE remembers that it even exists. I forget that it exists, and I’ve read the book more times than you can shake a stick at. I’m not sure how you would go about shaking a stick at a concept as abstract as “times,” but bear with me here. Anyway, I think I’ve already forgotten about this story, so time to move on. Pretty sweet, moody artwork in the accompanying illustration, though. Of course, you can say that about pretty much any one of these stories, but more on that later.

#28: The Attic


This is another story that no one seems to remember. It comes from the final chapter of the book, which moves away from the predominantly grim tales that precede it by containing more humorous stories that are equal parts scary and goofy. This story, like many others in the book, is basically just a bunch of buildup and ends with a loud scream. Quick aside: I have read a great many reviews or comments on this book from people where they laud the illustrations (and rightfully so), while deriding author Alvin Schwartz’s prose as pedestrian and uninspired. I vehemently disagree with this. Schwartz has an incredible gift for presenting the stories in a straightforward way without sacrificing atmosphere or tension. This book is a collection of horror folklore, often from oral tradition. What people seem to forget is that these stories are meant to be told just as much as to be read, and only by reading the text aloud can one fully appreciate Schwartz’s expert structure and word choice; the stories roll right off the tongue when read aloud, without awkward passages or overly elaborate run-on sentences. For evidence of this, just listen to George S. Irving’s incredible readings for the audio book version (which I wrote about on my old blog; I'll re-post it here one of these days). Anyway, this story in particular is meant to be read aloud; the problem is that it relies on the audience for it to make any sense whatsoever, which is a gamble. The gag, as it were, is that the story ends abruptly with the main character screaming, without any explanation of what may have happened. When the audience expresses confusion and asks what happened to the guy, the narrator explains that the unfortunate fellow stepped on a nail in his bare feet. Not a bad little twist to the usual murder by monster or madman, but I have tried telling this story. Waaaaay too often, whoever I’m telling it too just assumes that the ending is nonsensical, and that the story is stupid and pointless. Then I’ll be all like, “Well, don’t you want to know what happened wink wink nudge nudge?” in order to try and bait them into asking so I can deliver the punchline. And that sucks and makes the whole thing lame, so I can’t rank this story any higher. This concludes the most words ever written about “The Attic.”

#27: The Slithery-Dee

“The Slithery-Dee” is a poem about the mysterious monster referenced in the title. It is extremely fun, and I appreciate the fact that the monster is never described in any sense other than that it comes from the sea and loves to eat people. The illustrations are adorable and appropriately blackly humorous for a poem in which the narrator is devoured before he even finishes talking. That said, it’s a four sentence poem. Seriously, this is the whole thing:

And though brevity is the soul of wit, "The Slithery-Dee" is essentially an amusing trifle that I cannot in good conscience slot any higher than #27 on the POWER RANKINGS.

#26: The Guests


“The Guests” may be ranked too low. It is the definition of a classic ghost story, an eerie little number about a traveling couple who unwittingly spend the night with some dead folks. There are two things that convinced me to place it near the bottom of the Rankings. One, and this is not the story’s fault, it’s a little too classic. As in, I feel like I’ve seen it a million times.  It’s a pretty widespread, archetypical kind of yarn, with no real extra twist to make it stand out, and as such is just less interesting to me than many of the more offbeat entries here. To be sure, there are many stories in here that have been widely reproduced and told in various form, but this one just seems the most...milquetoast, somehow. The second reason is much odder, yet probably influenced my decision more. You see, the story is formatted very strangely in the book. The title and first sentence are about 3/4 of the way down the page, with nothing but blank space above them. This is followed by a full page of text, then a page with nothing but the illustration for the story, which takes up half a page. I don’t see any reason why the text couldn’t have been shifted around, or the picture placed before the title, in order to make this two pages long instead of three. It’s just weird and has bothered me for over 20 years now, and my meager recourse is to drop “The Guests” down to #26. So there.

#25: A Man Who Lived in Leeds


I do have a certain appreciation for the fact that this is the most surreal entry on this list, consisting of an oddball poem that utilizes a string of rhyming similes to gradually evolve from a declarative statement about some dude and his garden into the narrator shrieking about the inherent terror of his own demise. The illustration is similarly abstract, portraying an ominous, overcast sky dripping blood, which is pooling and spattering on the ground. On the other hand, Schwartz prefaces the poem with a warning that “some say this rhyme doesn’t mean anything.” I tend to side with these nameless “some;” it is interesting nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

 #24: Old Woman All Skin and Bone



“Old Woman” is the first of two songs in the book, which are helpfully accompanied by musical arrangements in case you’d like to bust these out on the piano at your next get-together. An existential rumination on the horrors of our own mortality (I think), this song details an old woman’s trip to church, wherein she stumbles upon a corpse that some a**hole just left lying on the ground. Understandably freaked out by this, she fearfully asks the church’s resident preacher if she will end up like that one day, and the preacher rather coldly assures her that yep, she too will be a worm-ridden body, probably sooner rather than later. She then goes completely ape-sh*t as this catchy little ditty ends in screams (my preferred ending to any song, really). I rank this lower on the list due to the fact that it is not an actual story in the traditional sense, and the fact that the song itself is, to be honest, fairly plodding and repetitive. Every two lines are followed by a drawn out, moaning “O-o o-o o-o!” I know exactly how the melody for this sounds, and the fact that it isn’t the same as the dudes going “Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh” in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” has always been a personal disappointment. Then again, the very idea that the story ends with a preacher being a total jerk to a frightened old woman, who responds by letting out a bloodcurdling scream right in his face, is pretty hilarious, especially for a children’s book. Just for that, this should probably be ranked higher, actually.

#23: “May I Carry Your Basket?”


I don’t actually have a lot to say about this story. It’s more like a bizarre anecdote than a fully structured short story. To summarize, some guy is walking home late at night when he runs into an old woman (probably not the one from the song previously mentioned, though I suppose one could make the leap that she died after talking to the preacher and decided to prove him wrong by not taking it lying down, so to speak) who is bundled up against the cold. Being a gallant fellow, he offers to carry her basket, which turns out to contain her severed head. The head and the woman’s body chase the guy for a while, the head bites him a couple times, and then they disappear. That’s it. Unusual, sure, unless you live in East Palo Alto, but a bit of an anti-climax. The illustration is creepy but not that memorable, and overall it’s just sort of a blah experience. Also, the message of the story seems to be that courtesy towards the elderly will not go unpunished, and I’m not sure that’s something I wish to endorse.

 #22: The Dead Man’s Brains


Another non-story, this one is unique in that it is essentially instructions on how to play that classic Halloween game wherein you pass around a bunch of stuff in the dark while describing what body parts they are supposed to be (a wet, squishy tomato as the titular brains, for example, or a dried apricot for an ear). Great stuff for a kid’s party, sure, but why would I rank it higher than so many honest to goodness stories? Well, first of all, the illustration is beyond delightful: a Marie Callender-esque woman walking across the room with a big smile on her face, “Home Sweet Home” crochet hanging in the background, carrying a serving tray with a severed head on it. The top of the head has been removed, and steam is coming out from the open brainpan. Yummy! Secondly (and I realize this is a sort of a cheat), the recording of this on the audio book is AMAZING. It seriously is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, and the narrator’s obvious glee at describing these sickening body parts and the mundane objects that represent them is infectious. His little giggle while proclaiming that the “worms” are actually spaghetti is incredible, and the sheer hilarity of the whole thing had me letting that tape rock until the tape popped. So yeah, a non-story gets extra credit for being so awesome in the audio version. Don’t like it? Then make your own damn Power Rankings.
 
#21: The White Wolf


Aside from the fact that the title of this story is the same as one of my many nicknames, “The White Wolf” definitely has some things going for it. The phantom wolf that prowls the countryside looking for revenge is a pretty cool idea, the illustration is suitably creepy, and the story has a brutally violent resolution that places this one firmly in the “not for pansies” category. The thing is, though, this one ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Certain key elements of the plot don’t make much sense (the wolf in question seemingly comes back from the dead specifically to enact vengeance upon the hunter that killed it, yet it spends quite a while terrorizing the entire area before finally targeting the hunter specifically…perhaps it needed to build up its confidence?) and in general this one just isn’t as memorable as many of the other stories. It’s certainly not bad, just somewhat unremarkable.

#20: The White Satin Evening Gown


Most of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seems to take place either in “the old days” or in some place outside of time. The settings tend to be rural, or at least more rustic than most of us are used to. The penultimate chapter, “Other Dangers,” bucks this trend, as the stories all clearly take place in the modern era. Sure, there are some quaint, early-80s elements here and there, but the point is that none of these stories could have taken place before urbanization and the advent of modern conveniences. As a result, the reader gets more of a sense that the events portrayed could conceivably happen to them, which is enhanced by the fact that there are no supernatural elements at play here, just very bad people. “The White Satin Evening Gown” is, in my estimation, the weakest of these urban legends, but it still packs a punch. Essentially, some jerk who owns a pawnshop sells a girl a dress for her prom, despite knowing that it was stolen off a dead body. Maybe this is what they had in mind when they named that TV show Hardcore Pawn. Anyway, the girl wears her corpse dress, gets sweaty (or, if you prefer, “glows”), and the leftover embalming fluid absorbs into her skin through her sweat glands and kills her. Now, I’m no scientician, but I’m not sure that would exactly work out in real life. Maybe some dipsh*t at the funeral home spilled a whole vat of embalming fluid on the dress and the girl had allergies or something and couldn’t smell it, I don’t know. Regardless of how feasible these events may be, it’s rather unsettling to think that something as mundane as your outfit might be the death of you, especially on prom night. Actually, given how my prom night went, I think I would have preferred the embalming fluid.

#19: The Girl Who Stood on a Grave


Another stone cold classic, this is a story with a very clever twist ending that I’ve seen in many other forms. For example, there was an episode of The Twilight Zone with the same basic storyline, although that one opted for a pretty sweet double twist ending. Ooh, yeah. The fact that it is so familiar keeps it from being one of the elite stories here, at least in my mind, but it works as a showcase of Schwartz’s skills in presenting these stories. I have a similar collection of horror folklore entitled Short & Shivery by Robert D. San Souci; it and its sequels present a vast array of scary stories from around the world. Unlike Schwartz, San Souci spends a lot of time elaborating on these tales, going more in depth with characterization and back story. Sometimes this really pays off, but it comes at the expense of the “telling-it-around-the-campfire”-ness of the stories.  San Souci has his own version of this story in one of the Short & Shivery collections, but it is several times as long and sets up a more elaborate scenario with much deeper characters. It’s a fine read, but is far more cumbersome to relate to an audience orally, which is why I prefer the Schwartz version. He keeps it simple and straightforward, and it works beautifully. You can tell the story to somebody in about a minute, and it’s very effective. I should note that The Twilight Zone took twenty-some minutes to tell the story, but it earned it with the fact that it is presented as a Western with the aforementioned double twist ending, moody cinematography and the fact that it’s a f*cking TV show that needs to fill time. Plus, it stars Lee g*ddamn Marvin, and if you’ve got a problem with that, then I don’t know what to tell you.

#18: The Wendigo


Speaking of Short & Shivery, one thing that series was big on that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels rarely dealt with was the subject of mythological monsters. By this I mean basing a story around one specific monster from a certain culture’s folklore. Schwartz actually wrote a book entirely about such things (Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Creatures, if you’re curious), so perhaps that is why he usually avoided the topic in this series. “The Wendigo” stands out as a big exception. Not many people seem to remember it, which accounts for its middle of the road ranking, but it’s really quite swell. One of the longer stories in the book, it centers on a creature from Native American lore that roams around in the Great White North, largely in Canada. Unlike most Canadians, the Wendigo is very violent and impolite, as a hunter and his poor Indian guide, DéFago, find out. As the Wendigo calls out to the guide (the book notes that the creatures calls out, “’Da-Faaaaaaaaay-go!’”, which means either it or I am unaware of how the guide’s name is properly pronounced), and the guide eventually loses it and disappears into the woods. It’s scary enough to put yourself in the hunter’s shoes: alone in the wilderness, days from civilization, having lost your only guide whose voice you can still hear screaming in agony when the wind blows. But the ending is what really freaked me out as a kid: the hunter eventually finds his way back to civilization, and years later returns to the area for another hunting trip. Why on Earth he would think this is a good idea, I do not know. Anyway, while at the hunting lodge or whatever, a bundled-up figure walks in and sits by the fire. The hunter is sure the man is the long-since presumed dead DéFago, so he approaches the figure and inquires as to his identity. When the man doesn’t respond, the hunter snatches away his hat, only to find that the “man” is nothing but a pile of ashes. Logic aside (how did a pile of ashes walk into the room in the first place?), this scared the CRAP out of me when I was eight years old. Poor DéFago. I guess he should have known better than to trust a white man.

#17: Wait till Martin Comes


This is one of those stories that makes you ask, “LSD or peyote?” In a nutshell, a guy is out walking when a storm brews up, so he ducks into an abandoned house for some shelter from the rain. He gets the fireplace going, curls up and goes to sleep. Pretty sweet deal. But of course, this man finds out that housing always has a price when he has a series of increasingly malevolent encounters. He wakes up to find a cat purring next to him. Awwww, kitty, he thinks, and goes back to sleep. Then he wakes up again, and now there are two cats, but the new one is much bigger than the first. The cats ask each other if they should “do it know,” but decide to wait until "Martin" shows up. Understandably assuming this to be a dream, or perhaps excited about the possibility of a Martin Lawrence appearance, the traveler goes back to sleep. Anyway, this goes on for a bit with bigger and scarier cats showing up until the guy gets the picture and runs the f*ck out of there. We never find out who Martin is. This whole thing probably sounds completely inane and ridiculous, and if anyone but me cared about this, they would likely argue about this story placing so high. My rebuttal would be that I found this story inexplicably hilarious, and the accompanying illustration of cats is super cute and I like cats so whatever, it’s awesome. Infallible logic right there.   
 
#16: Alligators


Some more animals for your reading pleasure! In all honesty, I probably agonized over the placement of this story more than any other. It’s weird and mean and kinda funny but unsettling. At its heart a very sad story, “Alligators” concerns a marriage between an ordinary woman and a man who is, for lack of a better term, a werealligator. The problem isn’t so bad when it’s just him going off alone all night to be all alligatory, but once the couple have kids (his tendency to spend all night swimming leads me to believe that these pregnancies are the result of a series of nooners), the problem compounds, as the children now leave to go swimming at night with him. The situation reaches its nadir when daddy and his lil’ gators try to pull mommy in the river and feed her raw fish. She escapes, but for some reason no one believes her story about her family’s reptilian metamorphosis, and she is committed to the mental institution. She never sees her family again. This is awful, heartbreaking and peculiar to say the least, and yet it kinda rules. It really walks (or swims) a fine line between scoff-inducingly absurd and utterly tragic, and your mileage may vary. Hence, it sits right about in the middle of the Rankings, even if, on just the right day at just the right time if I’m in just the right mood, it might secretly be my favorite.

#15: The Thing


 “The Thing” is another tough one to rank. On the merits of story alone, it’s nothing particularly special. Two dudes see a scary skeleton man, then a year later one of those dudes gets sick and dies, looking on his deathbed just like said scary skeleton man. But boy oh boy, once you go deeper than that, this story is a fricking beast. Most noteworthy up front is the illustration for this one, which hangs right there are the beginning with the title and is the first thing you notice about the story. It is HORRIFYING. I could barely stand to look at it when I was younger. It’s a picture of the skeleton guy from the chest up, looking dapper in a white dress shirt and suspenders. But good Lord in Heaven, his face! It is the grim visage of a rotting corpse, its hair pathetic strands, its eyes sharp but sunken, his mouth grinning unwillingly as his decomposing mouth flesh has exposed way too much of his teeth. It is revolting in the most gorgeous way possible, and were it not for one other image in this book (we’ll get there eventually), I would be hard pressed to top the sheer shudder-worthiness of "The Thing." Also, for whatever reason, this story always informed my mental image of the ambiance of most of the settings in this book. This idea of two young men sitting on a fence at dusk in a town that kinda sounds like Gilroy, chatting and relaxing and unaware that doom awaits them in the turnip field across the street, has always been very evocative to me. Unless the book explicitly sets the action elsewhere (the snowy fields of Canada, for example), I by default tended to picture the other stories also taking place in a setting like this, a sleepy little farming town. I don’t know why, but whatever the reason, I give “The Thing” a lot of credit for being much more potent than it seemingly deserves to be.

#14: The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers


To put it simply, I don’t know anyone who ever read this story that doesn’t love it. It serves as the final story in the book, and a fine final it is. It is probably the straight-up funniest story here, while also being one of the more gruesome. The titular bloody-fingered ghost, you see, inhabits a specific hotel room and proves most inhospitable, moaning about his dripping digits and maybe kinda sorta killing people, we don’t know. You see, despite the protestations of the hotel clerk, people just keep checking into the room due to its cheap rates, but tend to flee in terror upon first sight of the ghost. That is, until an apparently ultra-baked hippy checks in to the room. The ghost emerges as usual, raising Cain and waving around his blood-covered fingers, but the hippy tells him to chill the f*ck out and get a band-aid because he’s just trying to play his guitar, man. That’s where the story cuts off, and I always wondered what happened next. I figure that the ghost kinda swayed there for a minute, confused, then sat down on the bed and, curious about the source of this man’s courage, took a hit off some fat doobage. Then, since marijuana has been shown to increase blood coagulation, maybe the ghost’s fingers finally stopped bleeding, so he and the hippy became bros and they rolled around in a sweet van. Now the only wailing that ghost does is on the guitar, man! You should see him; dude is sick.

#13: Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!


If you can’t tell, we’re really moving into the blue chippers now. About half the stories in the book could be argued to be the best in one way or another, but the burden is on the POWER RANKER to sort it all out, and he is I, and I am him.  Anyway, I’m ranking this one #13 because of where I think it ranks in public opinion, but less so because of my own opinion of it. In essence, I think most people regard this story more highly than I do. Oddly enough, this used to be one of my favorites, but somewhere along the line I just stopped liking it as much as I had. As a refresher, the story is that a boy accepts a bet to stay overnight in a haunted house. He begins to hear someone singing a weird song outside, and even more peculiar, for each verse the voice outside sings (it is all meaningless gibberish), the buy’s dog sings a verse in response to this song (more gibberish). The singing gets closer and closer, until finally a bloody head falls down the chimney. The dog dies of fright, the head turns to the boy, opens its mouth and-AAAAAHHHHH! Yup. Did the head scream? Did he bite the boy? Was it like Re-Animator? Please tell me it was like Re-Animator. Anyway, I like the offbeat nature of the story…the fact that the song lyrics don’t seem to mean anything, the singing dog (which, I am pleased to report, the boy is baffled by instead of just saying, “Oh yeah, of course” like this was f*cking Narnia or something), etc. I think my problem is twofold: the singing drags the story out perhaps longer than it needs to be, and I’m at a loss why the boy didn’t just give a Nelson Muntz laugh and punt the stupid head. So, I don’t know. It’s a good story, and it deserves its props. It just doesn’t hold up to repeat readings as much as the others do, for me anyway.

#12: “What Do You Come For?”


This story is basically “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” but better. Granted, there’s no dog (had the dog been shown in the illustration for “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” these rankings might be reversed), but I prefer almost everything else about “What Do You Come For?” Here’s the quick and dirty rundown: an old lady sits at home alone, wishing she had some company, when various pieces of a gangrenous corpse fall down her chimney. The pieces assemble, dance around a bit, and then let her know that they’re only there as a form of lethal wish fulfillment. It’s a very quick story without the repetition of “Me Tie” (what a strange abbreviation), and I feel this leanness makes it punchier. The picture is scarier, with two rotting feet peeking out of a chimney flue. You gasp and wonder what might be heading down next. And besides that, a big gangly corpse is infinite times scarier than an old bloody head. This story taught me that it is better to be lonely than to be murdered by a zombie, which I’m sure will have numerous practical applications throughout my life. Finally, this story gets bonus points for being one of the only stories in the book that ends in a scream, but wherein said scream is not a simple “AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!” Score.
 
#11: A New Horse


Back in the early aughts, my buddy Eric and I went on a road trip from San Jose, California to Austin, Texas and back. We traveled at a fairly leisurely pace so that we could take in some sights, and as a result we were on the road for two weeks. As you may imagine, we had plenty of time over the course of the trip to listen to various CDs (this was back when people still purchased and listened to CDs, short for "compact discs"). As it happens, I had all three books in the Scary Stories series on CD, so we decided to listen to those, and found them so enjoyable that we actually rationed the three discs over the course of the trip rather than burn through them all in one day. This story in particular had us busting up laughing at the part where one of the characters is complaining that every night a witch turns him into a horse and rides him. I had never thought about what a kinky premise it was. Even if you choose to take a less gutter-minded approach to the material, the fundamental plot here is pretty batsh*t insane: an old witch uses her powerful sorcery to turn a young man into a horse and rides him to house parties. Eventually the young man gets his revenge and turns the witch into a horse, getting her horseshoed and selling her off to her own husband, the poor fool. The thing is, though, why the hell is this old lady wasting her magic on this crap? Is there no better way for her to get to these house parties than turning people into animals and enslaving them? Maybe she should have conjured herself up a damn car. And what does an old lady wants to go to house parties for all the time for anyway? Maybe it would make some more sense if these were secret midnight meetings for a coven of witches to perform satanic rituals or something, but no! The book makes it very clear that this lady is going out to party. Good for her, making the most of her golden years like that. The thing is, I kind of love that it doesn’t make sense, and that it’s just insane and inexplicable, and that the fact that people are getting turned into horses is the least crazy part of the story. Add to that the brilliantly disquieting illustration, which looks kind of dopey at first but gets eerier and eerier the closer you look at it, and you have a gorgeous little slice of lunacy here. Also, due to a specific memory I have of reading this in the car on the way to school one morning, I always think of the song “What You See” by Oingo Boingo every time I read this story. I adore Oingo Boingo, and I adore “A New Horse.”

#10: The Haunted House

And now we enter the top ten, so you know things are heating up! Now let me start off with the bad news: while the story itself is a good one, it’s not one of the book’s most memorable. It’s your typical “ghost seeks retribution from the person who killed it” story with a few interesting twists (I enjoy the fact that the killer is identified by a priest placing a finger bone from the dead girl in the church collection plate, which latches on to the killer when he puts his hand in. He probably should’ve just slept in that morning), but it’s not as exciting and/or insane as some of the crème de la crème. So why, then, does it make the top 10? Simple. You start this story, read the title, say, “Oh, hey, a haunted house! Neat,” and get to reading it. So you’re reading along, and the first page ends, and then you turn the page and SWEET JESUS WHAT IN THE NAME OF F*CK IS THAT? 
You’re greeted with one of the most ghastly and disturbing images I have ever seen in my life, bar none. It is an illustration of a woman who has clearly been dead for some time, her flesh having rotted away from her face, exposing teeth and gums, cracked, bloody bone and deep empty eye sockets. If I could barely peek at the picture from “The Thing” when I was young, I couldn’t look at this one at all. I actually read every story but this one several times before I ever finished it, because that dead woman, staring right at me, was too much for me to bear. I eventually adjusted, but damned if that isn’t a disgustingly powerful portrait. I noted earlier that it annoys me that people give all the credit for the book's quality to the illustrations, and that Schwartz’s writing style has been unfairly maligned, but having said that, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations deserve every bit of praise heaped upon them and then some. They are staggeringly ingenious, and manage to tap into something primal in the deep recesses of the human mind. Never have I ever seen the pure, unadulterated essence of nightmare brought to life in any way comparable to Gammell’s black and white illustrations. The simplest things, like a barn or fencepost, look alien and terrifying due to Gammell’s use of deep shadows and weird, snaking tendrils that seem to drip off every surface. The fact that some of these pictures manage to be downright hilarious while also being gross and creepy is a testament to the man’s artistic mastery. I don’t even necessary believe that this book represents Gammell’s best horror work (that honor would go to the sequel, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark), but it is perhaps his most iconic. I’m such a huge fan of his work that I have bought several other horror-themed books he has illustrated, including Halloween Poems and Ghosts, purely for the artwork, and have never been disappointed. Gammell even illustrated a book for children ages six and up that presents an allegory for the Holocaust using anthropomorphic forest animals, which I have never read but sounds like the most terrifying thing ever. I wonder if some of this book takes place in that universe, and the cats from “Wait till Martin Comes” are actually Nazis. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. My point here is that “The Haunted House” is a very solid story, but simply has to make top ten on the strength of providing the framework for an image that made thousands of children piss their Osh Kosh B’gosh.

#9: The Hearse Song


A dark horse (not to be confused with “A New Horse”…heh, little Scary Stories humor there) candidate for the top ten, “The Hearse Song” seems to fly in the face of my other Power Rankings. After all, this is just a song, and all the other non-stories are much further down the list in favor of meatier entries.  What makes this one so special, that it should breathe such rarified air? Well, the best way I can put it is that “The Hearse Song” transcends the material. So many people know this song, or some version of it, or some parts of it. Even my grandmother at least can sing, “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,” if nothing else. This is just an unlikely earworm (if you’ll pardon the term) that is as funny and catchy as it is revolting. I mean, for a song about your corpse getting eating by a loathsome pack of worms, it’s got a pretty good melody to it. Schwartz must have known the power of the song, for it not only leads off its chapter, but the chapter itself is named “They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose,” after a line from the song. Each chapter of Scary Stories has a title page all to itself, with the name of the chapter, a short description, and an illustration of what you may call the “host” of the book, a curious entity that appear to be somewhere between undead cowboy and cadaverous fisherman. The illustration that accompanies this chapter’s title page is sort of a companion illustration to “The Hearse Song,” as this odd fellow gleefully gobbles down a bowl of something we cannot quite see. All we know is that blood is dripping from the side of the bowl, spattering on the ground and on the man’s own bare foot. Much like the song, this picture provokes both hilarity and disgust, and is easily my favorite of these chapter title page images. Everything just combines here in a beautiful package that, if you think about it too hard, might make you puke. It is simply splendid. This may not be the greatest story here in the most literal terms, but it also may be the most commonly known element of this book. That is, if someone knows only one thing about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s probably this. For what it is, it’s perfect.

#8: High Beams

 
Three of the four stories from the urban legends in this book are in the top ten of the Power Rankings, a testament to the potency of accounts of events that could very well have happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. Of those three, I find this the lesser, though not by much. The rundown: some chick goes to watch a basketball game at the local high school. On the way back home, she is followed closely by an overly aggressive truck driver who continually flashes his blindingly bright high beams on and off. The girl makes it home in a panic, terrified that the man in the truck it going to attack her, but it turns out he was just trying to warn her about the murderer hiding in the back seat of her car with a knife. This is a great, tense story, and even though the chronology gets a little wonky at the end (either the police show up immediately to a house that has been established to be out in the boonies, or the truck driver just kinda hangs out in the driveway with a gun for a long time), there’s not much to complain about here. The greatest compliment I can give this story is that, all these years after reading it, I still feel some residual paranoia from time to time at night when I’m getting into my car by myself. Just last week I checked behind the seats when I got into my car around midnight. I felt like an idiot, but what else is new?

#7: The Hook


Another urban legend, “The Hook” is one of those stories that you can’t help but love despite the fact that you’ve heard various versions of it a million times. You know the deal: a young couple parks at a make-out spot (do those still exist? I went to one years ago and got stalked by someone not unlike the truck driver from "High Beams," so I wouldn’t know), and before they can get down to business, a radio broadcaster cuts in with a story about an escaped hook-handed murderer. Man, those kids today listening to their iPhones in the car would be screwed. Anyway, the girl gets freaked out and thinks she hears sometime trying to break into the car, and despite her date’s protests, insists they go home. When they get there, the pissy boyfriend goes around to open the girl’s car door, and finds a bloody hook hanging there. This is, of course, great stuff, but what really sets it apart in my eyes is what a g*ddamn hater the hook-handed murder is. You’ve got this guy bringing his girlfriend up to Make-Out Hill and he’s all psyched to get some, but then this psycho starts scratching his car up with a hook, so he not only gets blue balled, but also probably needs a new paint job. We have a name for you, Mr. Hook Hand: C*ckblocker. In fact, I always wanted to make a short video which was basically this scenario, except that the news broadcast refers to him as a "hatin’-ass c*ckblocker," and when the boy drops off his girlfriend at home and discovers the hook dangling from his car door, he mutters a disdainful: “C*ckblocker!”, a la Jerry Seinfeld and Newman. Maybe one day.

#6: Aaron Kelly’s Bones

I love this story. Love it. I’m not putting it in the top five for the same reason that I’m not putting “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” in the bottom fifteen: because I’m a man of the people, and I don’t honestly think a lot of people remember this story all that well. Which is truly a shame, because it is fantastic. Basically, Aaron Kelly dies, but rather than just lay in a coffin like some schmuck, he decides to go home and sit in his chair by the fire. His widow tries to get him to go back into his grave, but Aaron is all like, “Hell naw! I don’t feel dead, so f*ck it! I ain’t going anywhere.” What a badass! So the widow eventually is all like, “Whatevs, Aaron,” and starts dating a fiddler, since she is technically single now. Aaron plays it off legit, even though he makes the fiddler nervous, so much so that when the fiddler’s severe case of p*ssyitis cramps Aaron’s style, Aaron tells him to play some music so that he can dance. Then we get an utterly rad sequence where the fiddler fiddles and Aaron dances around while his body parts fall off one by one. His enthusiasm is infectious; you can’t look at this picture and tell me this motherf*cker isn’t having a ball:

And judging by that picture, he's apparently buck naked! I like this dude's style. By the way, this is another story where the audio book shines. Every other story is narrated more or less verbatim, but for whatever reason, the narrator, George Irving, adds a bunch of his own description of Aaron dancing around the room, prolonging the sequence while someone plays “Turkey in the Straw” in the background on their keyboard, which is currently programmed to the “FIDDLE” setting. And bros, it is sick! You can feel the joy dripping off Irving's every utterance of terms like “crickety-crack,” and it has really colored my reading of the book in an even more positive way. Oh, and the capper: we find out at the end that Aaron was only doing all this so that his widow wouldn’t get re-married, and once he’s sure of that, he rests in his grave. What an absolute sweetheart! Though this may seem selfish at first, think about it: this world has a clearly established afterlife, and though we don’t know the exact nature of it, we know that death is not the absolute end. Therefore, Aaron is just making sure that he and his wife will be together forever, instead of being locked into some icky post-mortem threesome with the fiddler. Now that is some genuine, old fashioned romance right there. Good show, Aaron. I would totally high five you if you were here right now, and then your hand would probably break off or some sh*t because you’re a f*cking dead corpse.
 
#5: The Viper

This is the highest ranking of the funny stories in the book, and truth be told it isn’t quite the tour de force that “Aaron Kelly’s Bones” is. It’s a simple story: a woman receives a series of phone calls from a man identifying himself as “The Viper,” who says he is coming up to see her. Personally, I’d just be psyched that Randy Orton was coming to my house to hang out, but the woman finds the calls rather frightening. She grows more and more agitated as the calls keep coming and her guest's arrival grows more imminent. Finally, this Viper shows up at her door, and turns out to be some Slavic Danny DeVito-looking mother*cker whose goal is to “'vash and vipe the vindows.’”


Oh, those wacky foreigners. Anyway, this one is obviously pure cheese and goofy as balls, but let us not forget that this is a children’s book first and foremost. And man oh man, when I was a kid, this was the funniest sh*t ever in the history of the world. My grandparents still reference it randomly from time to time, so obviously we’re on to something here. It has the same sort of widespread appeal of “The Hearse Song” while being an actual story and having some sense of suspense, at least the first time you read it. So thanks for making a miserable child laugh, Alvin Schwartz. The least I can do in return is to put "The Viper" in the top five of the Power Rankings.
 
#4: Cold as Clay


“Cold as Clay” is the DMX of Scary Stories. It’s dark and hard and merciless, but it has a heart, albeit one full of pain. Much like “Alligators,” it’s a terrible tragedy at its core, but the lack of animal metamorphoses makes it more relatable to your average Joe, and thus more effective. It concerns the relationship between a young farmhand, Jim, and the girl he loves. The girl’s father doesn’t think the farmhand is good enough for his little princess though, so he sends her away. Heartbroken, Jim wastes away and dies, and due to his guilt the girl’s father cannot bear to break the news to her. One night, Jim unexpectedly (to put it mildly) shows up where the girl is staying, and says she is needed back home. He gives her a ride back on his horse, but seems quite ill, with a migraine that “aches something terrible” and an alarmingly low body temperature. The girl wraps her handkerchief around his head to warm him up a bit. When she gets home, her father is freaked out when he learns who accompanied her, but Jim has disappeared. They dig up his corpse, and find the handkerchief still wrapped around his decaying skull. No one makes it out of this one unscathed; the girl is shattered, and poor Jim is equal parts terrifying and pitiful. The illustration of Jim’s withered body in a coffin is spine-tingling and fits the mood beautifully, or at least as much as the term “beautiful” can be applied to a decomposing cadaver. As a cherry on top of this gut-wrenching sundae, the music in the background of the audio version of this is eerily reminiscent of “I Got 5 on It” by The Luniz, which is phenomenal in ways that I am not a talented enough writer to convey.
 
#3: The Big Toe

“The Big Toe” has quite a hill to climb. It is the first story in this book (minus the intro, “Strange and Scary Things,” which is informative but doesn’t really count), and it leads off the first chapter, “Aaaaaaaaaaah!”, which is comprised of nothing but stories that end in a scream of some sort (surely you have noticed the prevalence of this theme by now). So not only does it fall on this story to grab your attention and convince you to keep reading the book, but it also has to outshine a batch of stories immediately following it that share the same gimmick. And on top of that, it utilizes that repetition of dialogue technique that I held as a weakness of some other stories, like “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” Yet remarkably, “The Big Toe” overcomes all this and manages to excel to the point that it makes the top three of the Power Rankings. Let’s take a look at the plot and see if we can figure it out. The first thing that greets you is this image, which lets you know what you’re in for:

You’ve got this creepy kid crouching there with sh*t dripping off him and claws and a huge-ass ear. In most stories, this sinister little bastard would be the villain, but not in the Scary Stories universe. He’s about as pleasant as things get around these parts. He’s squatting to check out a big toe jutting from the ground all by its lonesome, kinda resembling Diglett from Pokemon if he was covered in a huge rancid toenail. But this scary child isn’t looking at the toe; he’s looking right at you, the reader, and his expression tells you everything: he’s f*cked, and he knows it. Anyway, this image is somehow a literal interpretation of how the story starts, as a little boy just finds a toe chilling in his garden. He grabs it, but finding it still attached to something apparently underneath the ground, he does exactly what any sane human being would never, ever do: he rips the toe clean off whatever it’s attached to. Then something underground “groans and scampers away.” And the boy, instead of having a massive coronary on the spot, takes the damn toe home to show his parents. And they are f*cking psyched. That’s right, rather than call the nearest child psychologist while saying about 17,000 Hail Marys, these lunatics decide that this severed toe of unknown origin would be just perfect for their supper.  I don’t know what sort of ghoulish cannibals these people are, but I grew up in a mobile home park, and even I would never even dream of eating a toe I found in my backyard. So of course everyone eats their chunk o’ toe for dinner and goes to bed. The boy is able to sleep soundly despite dismembering someone earlier in the day, but his reverie is short-lived. Someone outside is wailing into the night, wondering where its toe could have gone. I have to imagine it’s being sarcastic. The kid is freaked out, proving that he does in fact feel some level of human emotion, but his fear can’t hide him from the voice, which grows closer and closer. With each utterance of “’Where is my to-o-o-o-o-e?”, the kid feels his doom growing nearer, and when the voice finally reaches the boy’s bedside, it shrieks that the boy has it in a jump ending, and we are left to assume that the boy is eviscerated. Of course, this would only reclaim one part of the creature’s toe, so the thing would then have to go murder the boy's parents and open them up as well. They are apparently pretty heavy sleepers, so that shouldn’t prove too difficult of a task. The author even enlightens us to another possible ending to the story, which is cool as a sort of alternate timeline but can’t touch the original. If you have read this entire entry on the Power Rankings and are unsure why this one deserves to be #3, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place. The audio book version is also totally boss, and even though the album sequencing for the recordings rearranged the order of the stories for some reason, it still leads off with this one, because the producers knew what a gem they had. As a lead off hitter, “The Big Toe” is Ricky flipping Henderson.
 
#2: The Babysitter

This one is pretty simple: more than any other story in the book, “The Babysitter” scared the bejeezus out of me when I first read it, and for a long time afterwards. Not because of the picture, which is why I was afraid to read “The Haunted House,” but because of the story itself. The last and finest entry in the urban legends chapter, “The Babysitter” presented a scenario that seemed plausible and, as such, more chilling than any ghost or goblin. Beyond the plausibility, it is downright invasive, telling the reader that they are never truly safe, no matter where they are. The titular babysitter, Noreen, is watching some little tykes while their parents go out and get sloshed, when the telephone rings. The man on the other side, a stranger, says he will be there soon, laughing like a madman. Though at first this seems like a harmless if annoying prank, the man keeps calling, providing a countdown for how long it will be until he arrives. Scared and fed up, Noreen calls the operator. The calls are traced, which provides a revelation that makes everyone’s blood run cold: the calls are coming from another phone inside the house. Just then, a stranger opens a door upstairs and begins to come down towards the kids, who barely escape the house with their lives. It's essentially a deadly serious version of "The Viper" (which immediately follows it in the book). This really resonated for me: that thought that I could be sitting there watching T.G.I.F. while a psychopath lurked in my home, waiting to spring out and choke the life out of me, was quite disturbing. It’s a good thing my house didn’t have an upstairs, or I might have been damn near traumatized. You know how you know this story is good? Because it is more or less the same as the first twenty minutes of the film When a Stranger Calls, an opening sequence that is regarded as one of the best in horror cinema. It’s true, Wikipedia even says so. Once the portion of the story that mirrors The Babysitter is over, the rest of the movie is a bit of a slog, because that first sequence is so harrowing that there is nowhere to go but downhill. This is therefore a pretty ringing endorsement for the plot: it is so good that trying to follow it up is pointless. Honestly, the main thing keeping this one from the number one spot on the Power Rankings is the picture. It’s not bad at all, it’s just that it’s…well, it’s more funny than it is scary. Check it out:


You have this homely chick that looks pissed off about something, and then this wacky big-headed baby that’s giving you this smug grin. It’s a pair of sunglasses and a diaper-related pun away from an 80s movie poster. I enjoy the picture for what it is, but I can’t help but feel it drains some of the menace from one of the most dreadful stories in this collection. Maybe that was the idea: Stephen Gammell getting silly was the only way to prevent a nation of children from having a nervous breakdown every time the telephone rang. One interesting aside: modern-day horror has a bit of a hill to climb in that current technology, in particular cellular phones, makes it much harder to believably imperil your protagonist than it used to be. Movies these days often have to mention how someone’s cell phone was broken or lost or doesn’t get a signal. This is the rare piece of horror fiction that is even more believable with the advent of superior telecommunications. A person can call you from any room in your house at any time; he or she doesn’t even need to have access to a landline as long as they have a cell phone. A landline actually makes things more complicated, because unless you had two separate phone lines in your house, you usually couldn’t call yourself on your home phone. Cell phones do away with that needless complication. So the next time some creep calls you on your phone late at night, just think: he could very well already be inside the house with you, and you won’t know it until it’s too late. Pleasant dreams!

 #1: Room for One More

 
Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the number one spot on the Power Rankings! And this one is a doozy, having earned perfect scores across the board from our panel of judges. Disclaimer: the panel of judges consists of me and a glass of scotch. To recap the plot, a man is woken up one night to see a hearse in the driveway. The driver of the hearse looks at him and tells him, “There is room for one more.” When the man fails to climb in, the hearse drives away, but the whole affair leaves the man shaken. The next day, he is about to get into an elevator at a crowded office building when he sees the driver of the hearse inside, who helpfully informs him that there is room for one more within the elevator. The man is taken aback and declines this offer, after which he is horrified by screams and a loud crash as the elevator cables snap, the accident killing everyone on board. Before I continue, allow me to express my sympathy for the poor hearse driver. He has his offer rejected twice, once after what was surely an inconvenient nocturnal trip, and all he gets is a gruesome death at the bottom of an elevator shaft for his troubles. I’m sure he had hopes and dreams just like the rest of us, but alas! At any rate, this story is pretty famous (it’s another one that was the loose basis of a Twilight Zone episode, albeit a fairly crummy one, at least by Twilight Zone standards), and dates back over a hundred years in various forms. This version is wonderful, punchy and free of melodrama, and much like “The Babysitter,” has a way of sticking with the reader. To this day, I get nervous during long, creaky elevator rides, mostly thanks to this story. Granted, I’ve never gotten on an elevator with an enigmatic scoundrel that previously had given me a cryptic warning of impending death, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify me from being splattered all over an elevator shaft. There’s just such a nice buildup of tension here as the reader tries to figure out what is going on, and the fact that it is wrapped up in such a brutal and yet familiar way is very unsettling. What gives this story the edge over “The Babysitter” is the illustration, which Gammell just nails. Many stories' pictures are literal interpretations of events in the story. Every once in a while, though, Gammell goes a step further and chooses to illustrate a visual metaphor for the story instead. Though this is far from his most far-out interpretation (that distinction would go to “’Oh, Susannah!’” from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is so insane that it deserves an article all to itself), it certainly sets the tone without explicitly showing you any one of the events described here. Take a look:


So we’re apparently in a graveyard, and among the poor saps currently having their eyes and/or noses eaten by worms, there is one open, unmarked grave. Though this is obviously a reflection of the hearse driver’s message, it becomes much more than that. Here’s a nice hole in the ground, just for you, the picture seems to say. Go ahead, lay down, try it out! It won’t be long before you’ll be needing it anyway, whether you should fall victim to a faulty elevator, a wrathful ghost or just a psychopath calling you from within your own house. The hearse will be coming for you one way or another, and when it does, we know just the song to sing. And that, folks, is how you secure the pole position on the Power Rankings.

Well, that about does it for my rundown of all twenty-nine Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, from least to most POWERFUL. Feel free to agree, disagree or post amateur erotica in the comments section. Just understand that I have a Bachelor's Degree in English Language Literature which, aside from preparing me for a lifetime of retail work, probably makes me more qualified to determine these Rankings than you (please indulge me here). If you just can't get enough Scary Stories, and my eight million references to the audio book piqued your interest, here it is in full:

 

It is unfortunately abridged, but what's here is pretty incredible, and will allow you to experience the stories in a whole new way, a way which has background music that kinda sounds like it's from Miami Vice.  With that, this concludes "Joey Marsilio’s Power Rankings: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Edition." Now somebody hire me at Grantland so I can get paid to write this stuff.

You'll have so much fun reading Joey Marsilio's novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, it's downright spoooooky!

5 comments:

Garrett Steel said...

To make up for my lateness in reading your work you will get comments fom me about the top 16 picks and I will tweet a sentence from your blog out of context for my 78 followers to read. Here we go

16. Why is a werealigator able to find a woman and I am not?

15. Sometimes I look like "the thing".

14. clever paragraph here, JD

13. I remember being as freaked by the dog talking back as anything in this one. What does the correspondance mean?

12.

11. lol'ed at this p-graph

10. That's a Garrett girl if ever I saw one.

also 10. We gotta read the Holocaust allegory book. This one gets two comments because I had nothing for twelve.

9. One of the ones you should have cut and pasted the picture to accentuate the paragraph.

8. Katy Perry has some pretty nice high beams.

7. Ru-Fi-Oh!

6. I need to torrent the audio. Also, why are you editing out profanity? You love profanity.

5. Very funny but not scary. Utterly baffled how it made it so high on the list.

4. Luniz is classy as shit compared to this generation of hip-hop. Almost as sad as Jim's story, that is

3. The family eating the toe was the freakiest part for me.

2. The only psychopath growing up in your childhood home was your father.

1. Aaaaaaaaaaah!

Joey said...

Well Garrett, thanks for taking the time to type up such a lengthy and amusing response. To answer your question about my editing out of profanity, it actually is a subtle reference to the relationship that the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series has with censorship. You see, after being on the American Library Association's list of most challenged series of books for nearly the entirety of its existence, the publishers seem to have bowed from the pressure and recently re-released the books with capable but far less striking and memorable imagery from another artist. Since the illustrations have always been such a huge part of the book's appeal, I certainly question the decision to replace them with pictures that are more "palatable." Hence the undertone of censorship. Either that or I just think it's funny.
Also, as far as the call and response portion of "Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!" is concerned, as far as I can tell it doesn't mean anything. Of course, the story originated in Kentucky, so I'm not surprised. After enough Wild Turkey, you'll hear me yelling some pretty weird things to house pets as well.

SteveAsat said...

Illustrations from "High Beams" and "The Dream" highlight how similar are Gammell's and Sam Kieth's style when drawing faces, if not other things. I'm thinking of things like Four Women and Zero Girl more than The Maxx, but pretty much any time Kieth wants to cue the reader that things are shifting from objective reality into surrealism or interpretation, faces begin to lose their normal proportions. Teensy features on a big head are unsettling in one way, while big features spread all across a face are strange in a different way.

Libellule said...

Poems aren't described as having "sentences"; they have lines. It's a nine-line poem.

Libellule said...

"I do have a certain appreciation for the fact that this is the most surreal entry on this list, consisting of an oddball poem that utilizes a string of rhyming similes to gradually evolve from a declarative statement about some dude and his garden into the narrator shrieking about the inherent terror of his own demise."
Sorry, but your writing is terribly sophomoric.