The "Official" More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Power Rankings
Well, it’s April, the month of my birth. What more appropriate time than this to discuss terror and dismemberment? That’s right; continuing what I started here, it’s time for the next installment of "Scary Stories Power Rankings," wherein we take a look at the second book in the vaunted trilogy: More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Perhaps it’s just me (it usually is), but it seems that of the three volumes, More Scary Stories gets the least love. While I do not necessarily agree with this, I think I understand it, because this book is weird. I mean, obviously any collection of tales of terror retold from folklore is going to have an air of the unusual about it, but even by those standards, there is some absolutely off-the-wall batsh*t insanity between these covers. For a tiny taste of how twisted things get here, check out the dedication page:
Yep, that’s a severed pig man’s head hanging on a clothesline. And he looks pretty god damned satisfied with himself. So…what? Why? Just…really? I can’t explain what this all means, unless it’s some sort of obtuse warning against the bourgeois about a potential proletariat uprising. The pig man’s head hangs there, grinning smugly, as if to say, “Buckle your meatbelts, ladies and gents! It’s about to get hog wild!” Thanks for the warning, you abominable swine.
Anyway, before I delve into the muck and try to POWER RANK these freaky fables, allow me to take a moment to address the book’s forward, entitled “Hoo-Ha’s.” This term, according to the text, was apparently coined by T.S. Eliot, so all you comedians out there finally have the missing link for all your poetry-‘n’-vaginas jokes. And yeah, you could try to argue that these are not the sorts of hoo-ha’s they’re talking about, but look at the image that leads off the section:
That shriveled skeleton dude is clearly winking at the reader, like, “'Hoo-Ha’s!’ GET IT???” He knows what the hell he’s doing and I won’t hear any argument otherwise. Also: ewww, gross, look at that thing.
A’ight boils and ghouls, let’s do it to it. Submitted for your approval:
When I ranked the first Scary Stories…stories, the two songs included in the book ranked relatively high, for various reasons I explained there. There is only one song in this volume, “BA-ROOOM!”, and it suffers a crueler fate. It’s not so much that it sucks (anything sang to the tune of ‘The Irish Washerwoman” cannot possibly suck that much) as it is that the tales in this book are by and large incredibly hard to rank, and we must thus rank them by whatever criteria we can cobble together. The fact that this is just a song, and an exceptionally brief one at that, makes it the slightest entry in More Scary Stories, and hence it brings up the rear. And speaking of which…I’m not certain, but I think this story might be really, really gay (not as a pejorative, just as a thematic element). Basically, the song is about two dudes who are dead. In bed together. Without knowledge that the other man is also dead. Fin. It’s…a bit of a head-scratcher. Why are these guys dead? Why are they sharing a bed? Was it some sort of sexual accident? They do look pretty content in the picture, so it can’t have been a violent death, unless they’re extreme masochists. Perhaps their masochism is what brought them together in the first place. Does the fact that neither one knows that the other is dead reflect a lack of afterlife in this scenario? And furthermore, who is the person singing the song, and why are they so damn jolly about two bedfellows’ corpses? Maybe the singer is a homophobe. I just don’t know what to make of all this, and the unanswered questions raised by this song extend well beyond its running time, which is something like 15 seconds. I'm not sure what’s going on here, but since these guys are among the happiest corpses I’ve ever seen (easily top ten), I’ll let them continue to joyously rot in bed together and move on.
#27: The Voice
Not to be confused with NBC's competitive singing program of the same name, “The Voice” is yet another victim of brevity. Compounding that, it’s pretty unoriginal…it’s essentially the “The Big Toe” from the first book, but with no setup and no ending. A girl is trying to sleep, but she hears a hushed voice announcing its intention to come get her. It gets a little closer each night, until it yells out, “I’VE GOT YOU!” The girl screams, bringing her parents running, only to find that there is nothing there. Somehow, that is the end of the story. There are several things that bother me about this one: we never learn who or what is whispering these threats, and the story itself is really just a pointless anecdote. It’s more or less the self-contained second act of a better story. The only reason this one isn’t at the bottom of the rankings is because, I admit, it freaked the hell out of me as a child, though I cannot explain why, so it must have been doing something right. But it could never possibly place higher, because of one glaring issue. You see, as I mentioned, the creature or whatever yells that it has got the girl. Very clearly, it says, “I’VE GOT YOU!” But he/she/it does not! The girl is unharmed and there’s nothing in the room at all, so her gottenness is dubious at best. I can’t stand a liar, so “The Voice” will stand in the metaphorical corner that is number 27 so it can think about what it’s done.
#26: The Church
“The Church” bothers me. I’m not making some sort of statement about organized religion here; I’m merely expressing my annoyance with this story. Allow me to explain. The narrative here concerns a man named Larry Berger, who I think may have been one of Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriends on Sex and the City, the one who broke up with her via Post-It note. Anywho, old Lare Bear has a pretty powerful fear of ghosts, which is understandable considering that they are potentially malevolent disembodied souls and all. One day he’s driving around in a topless Jeep when it starts pouring down rain, which shows a remarkable lack of foresight on his part. Fortunately, what Larry lacks in prudence he makes up for in knowledge of local folklore, as in his frantic search for shelter he deliberately bypasses an old cabin that he knows for certain is haunted. Eventually, Larry’s drenched desperation leads him to seek refuge in an abandoned church. As he makes himself comfortable, he finds that the church is full of ghosts. IRONY. This is where the story gets weird. Larry takes off like a bat out of hell, smacking straight into a ghost in his haste. Now let me quote the final line of the story, which describes the spirit’s response to this affront:
And the ghost, he went-BAA-A-A!
OK, so I can’t be alone in thinking that that’s no kind of f*cking sound for a ghost to be making, right? It sounds more like the bleating of a lamb or something. Further complicating things is the fact that, as in each volume of Scary Stories, the final chapter of this book is comprised of humorous tales. Now, in general, I don’t see much about this story that is particularly humorous, aside from the odd phrasing of the final passage, so I began to think that the joke is that perhaps Mr. Berger, a.k.a. the Bergermeister, is mistaken. In his paranoia concerning encounters with the undead, maybe he mistook a herd of sheep seeking shelter from the elements in the same church as he for a gaggle of ghosts. That would explain the peculiar exclamation that ends the story, although there is very little other evidence to indicate that the beings inside the church were anything other than ghosts aside from their somewhat vague description. THEN we come to the audio book version of “The Church,” wherein the narrator interprets the final words as the mocking laughter of a ghost, a “MU-HU-HA-HA!” as it were. This would seem to disprove the sheep theory. So what’s the deal here? Why is this in the funny chapter if there’s no punch line? I just don’t get it, and for more than twenty years now, this story has mystified me. These decades of pained confusion earn “The Church” a big ol’ #26 ranking and seven spectral thumbs down.
#25: A Weird Blue Light
“A Weird Blue Light” is, somewhat true to its name, a bit of an odd duck. It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with it as it is that it just doesn’t seem to belong. An account of a Confederate ship running into a phantasmal schooner, it reads less like a campfire story and more like a newspaper article. It lays down the facts, presents a few quotes, and zips on to the next story. Which is fine, I suppose, but I don’t read More Scary Stories for its journalistic integrity. If I may digress, as I often do: when I was a lad, there was a series of books that I read that were each entitled World’s (Something) “True” Ghost Stories (the quotation marks are theirs, not mine). So we had World’s Weirdest “True” Ghost Stories, World’s Scariest “True” Ghost Stories, World’s Delawarest “True” Ghost Stories, and so forth. The original book in the series was entitled World’s Best “True” Ghost Stories, and was itself a collection of accounts reprinted from a pair of earlier books by C.B. Colby, who was something of a raconteur of bizarre real-world anecdotes. “A Weird Blue Light” reminds me of a story that would have been at home in one of these collections: brief, to the point, and almost clinical in its presentation. In More Scary Stories, it jumps out as a dry oddity, and I often forget that the story even exists. It’s fine for what it is, but that’s all.
#24: The Cat's Paw
Simply put, I liked this story better when it was called “A New Horse.” There is actually an interesting juxtaposition at work here: “A New Horse” was hands-down one of the most insane stories in the first Scary Stories, a fever dream of therianthropy and old lady parties. Now, in the second book of the series, which has a much more freewheeling and ethereal feel as a whole, we get a more pedestrian version of the same story. A cat keeps stealing a dude’s hams, so he ends up cutting off one of the cat’s paws. The cat escapes, the paw turns into a wriggling human foot, and it turns out that a neighbor lady’s foot happens to be missing. Yawn. I would merely hand-wave the whole ordeal away as a bland Xerox of a previous masterpiece but for one thing. One seemingly tiny but incredibly significant thing. The gentleman who ends up racing to the doctor to save the defooted woman is “a fellow named Burdick.” BURDICK. Really take your time with that one. Savor it; roll it around your mouth like fine butterscotch candy. Burrrdick. Just amazing. True nominal majesty. If there was ever any doubt that Alvin Schwartz was a legitimate master of his craft, let the name of Burdick assuage that doubt. I'm probably far more amused by this than I should be.
#23: A Ghost in the Mirror
“A Ghost in the Mirror” is another story that isn’t a story. By which I mean, there is no real narrative here. There’s some back story, sure, but this boils down to instructions on how to play a children’s game that entails summoning a ghost into your bathroom mirror, which seems more than a little demeaning. It’s nowhere near as monumental as “The Dead Man’s Brains” from the first book, but it gets the job done, to the extent that South Park had an episode based on the game wherein the Notorious B.I.G. kept being summoned to various bathroom mirrors, to his eternal annoyance. That’s not the only musical connection to this story, though I’ll concede that the following is more personal than the South Park episode. Bear in mind that this book came out in 1984, and I first read it in the latter portion of the decade. Also bear in mind that there is a story in this book entitled “The Man in the Middle” (technically foreshadowing). My juvenile mind had a tendency to combine the names of the two stories into that of a song of the era you may have heard of: “Man in the Mirror.” As such, every time I heard Michael Jackson’s ode to self-improvement, I couldn’t help but think of the King of Pop summoning a malevolent phantom in his bathroom mirror. Maybe this is why I have continually shied away from taking a look at myself and making a change, for fear of unleashing a poltergeist or something. Bottom line: “Ghost in the Mirror” is a neat description of a fun childhood game that sounds like a great song and makes said song pretty eerie. Certainly makes you wonder about the “one man’s soul” Jacko sings about. Of course, now that he’s dead, you can try summoning him in the mirror and bringing this all full circle. SHAM-OH-NAH.
It is worth noting that, nestled into this story, is the theory that Mary Worth, heroine of the most boring comic strip of all time (Aldo Kelrast notwithstanding) is the same entity as Bloody Mary. You may know Bloody Mary as the notoriously murderous spirit that children try to conjure up in their bathroom mirrors, which is really a stupid thing to do if you think about it. If true, this is possibly the most mind-blowing piece of information I have ever happened upon, and I'll never be able to see Mary Worth dispense stern but sensible advice in quite the same way ever again. Not that I'd want to.
So now that we’ve got all the non-stories out of the way, we can discuss something that is too much story. One of the few issues I have with the Scary Stories series (and many other collections of this sort) is that there are certain archetypes that get revisited over and over. To be fair, these variations aren’t carbon copies; they each have their own unique quirks. But “Clinkity-Cink” is the worst sort of variation. For one thing, this is yet another version of “The Big Toe,” the most copied story of them all (and not the last one in this book, either), but exists on the opposite spectrum of the similarly-themed “The Voice.” The latter is too short and mystifying to make much impact, whereas this one is too long, too busy and, to be frank, f*cking annoying. And it HURTS MY HEART to say this, and not just because my diet is alarmingly high in sodium and cholesterol. The thing is, this story originated as an Uncle Remus story, and I am a tremendous mark for Uncle Remus. I could read about Brer Rabbit murdering Brer Fox, Brer Wolf and assorted other Brers all damn day, but “Clinkity-Clink” is an entirely different animal. It starts off with a depraved gravedigger stealing a pair of silver dollars that have been used as weight to keep a dead woman’s eyes closed. Considering how much silver is worth these days, one can hardly blame him. Naturally, supernatural karma kicks in, and the woman comes back for her money. So far, so good. But then…we get several pages of the fire flaring and flickering and popping and snapping and the wind blowing and the coins clinking and the old lady’s ghost moaning and my brain begging to be put out of its misery for having to read this as the same phrases get repeated over and OVER and OVER. It gets under your skin in the completely wrong way. To be fair, removed entirely from the rest of Schwartz’s body of work, the story is fine and probably very fun to tell around a blazing campfire. But taken in the context of a series of books that tell the exact same story numerous times, this is the longest and most irritating version, and probably the story I skip over the most in re-reads. Hopefully next time this phantasmal old woman exacts revenge from beyond the grave, she hurries the hell up with it.
This story suffers from many of the same issues as “Clinkity-Clink,” but to a lesser degree. It was a bad run for hyphenated titles, I suppose. Honestly, though, this is a more creative story overall: a family moves from Schoharie into a cheap house in Schenectady (I had no idea these were actual places when I was a kid; the names seemed too absurd), only to find that the house is inhabited by a sentient chair (!) that runs around the house in an effort to point out the dead body buried beneath the rafters. You know, avant-garde stuff. The main issue here is in the presentation, as the text reminds us far too often that the sound the chair makes while running around is thumpity-thump. Now, call me crazy, but I think there are enough interesting things about a goddamn living chair that I don’t feel the need to dwell obsessively on how exactly it sounds. It thumps, I get it. Please, tell me something else about it. By focusing on the needless repetition of the thumping sounds, the story does itself a disservice. Have some more confidence in your subject matter, person-who-came-up-with-this-story-a-hundred-years-ago. Though I will admit that the family’s conclusion that the best way to deal with discovering a murdered body is to cover it back up and flee is both blackly humorous and a bit asinine. The story ends with the poor chair becoming impotently enraged at the family’s cowardice, and I don’t blame it one bit. What a bunch of bastards.
#20: The Brown Suit
This is quite a fun little romp: a widow visits her husband’s corpse in a funeral home, only to find that the cadaver is wearing a blue shirt, whereas in his living days, her husband preferred to rock a little brown number. You would think this would have been discussed beforehand, but I digress. The undertaker, in between delivering chokeslams and tombstone piledrivers, assures the widow that he’ll fix this little hiccup in a jiffy. When she comes back later, she finds her husband in a brown suit, as requested. The widow apologizes to the undertaker for the trouble, but he’s all chill about it. Apparently there had been another corpse in the funeral home with a similar build wearing a brown suit, so he just switched the heads. It’s a cute bit of gallows humor, and a far funnier approach to corpse mutilation than most of us are used to. Still, at its heart it’s simply a joke, and thus just squeaks into the top twenty. It shouldn’t feel too bad about its placement, considering that it still ranked A-HEAD of eight other stories. I hope that last sentence didn’t convince you to stop reading this.
#19: Cemetery Soup
Here we have, yes, another version of “The Big Toe,” but what it lacks in thematic originality it makes up for in execution. It’s certainly the most insane version of the story in the book, due to its exceedingly cavalier attitude about cannibalism. The gist of it is that an old woman, while passing through a cemetery one afternoon (because that’s what stable people do) see a bone jutting out of the ground, and for some reason her FIRST GODDAMN THOUGHT is that she could make some delicious soup stock out of it. So this ancient degenerate desecrates a grave and gets herself to a-soupin’, when the ghostly voice of the bone’s previous owner (possessor? I don’t know) asks her for the bone back, first politely, then with increasing ferocity as the woman neglects to acquiesce. In a nice bit of role reversal from these usual stories, the old woman gives precisely zero f*cks about the ghost’s demands and only tosses back the bone when her soup is good and ready; the ghost kind of sheepishly scurries away, no doubt dreading the verbal abuse he’s going to receive from the other, more effective phantoms, and the old lady sits herself down for a delicious bowl of rotting bone marrow soup. Oddly, as a child, I never realized how vile this story actually is, and it is one of the few entries that becomes more disturbing in adulthood, despite being a part of the comedic chapter of the book. I couldn’t really rank this story any higher than I did due to its similarity to far too many other stories, but I admire the twist on the formula and the shameless grotesquerie of it all. And man, the balls on that old lady.
The highest-ranking of the stories from “The Last Laugh,” the aforementioned comedic chapter of More Scary Stories, “The Bad News” barely edges out “Cemetery Soup,” mostly because it’s more original, though perhaps a bit less interesting. It’s quite straightforward, really. A couple of baseball-loving broheims make a pact: the first one that dies must come back to the other in spirit form and inform him if they play baseball in Heaven (awfully presumptive of these guys that they’d both be getting into Heaven, by the way). So one dies and comes back to delight the other with the knowledge that, yes, they’ve got some sweet baseball teams in Heaven. There’s just one catch: the still living guy is scheduled to pitch tomorrow *rimshot*. Honestly, it’s pretty funny, but it’s not like it’s that great…just a well-told joke. However, I have to give this one bonus points for: 1) The super sick baseball skeleton artwork. It figures these guys would be Cubs fans. And 2) The fact that I thought this was HILARIOUS as a kid. Seriously, I thought that was the most mind-blowing twist ending ever, and it rocked my world whilst tickling my ribs. So, once those bonus points are accounted for, #18 it is, the same as the jersey number that Google tells me is currently held by...uh, well, nobody on the Cubs. I’m sure you could not possibly be more fascinated by this piece of information.
#17: The Cat in a Shopping Bag
Alright, it’s time to get serious. By which I mean that the comedic stories are over and we’re just wallowing in grimness now. EXCEPT. There’s this outlier, and it’s pretty damn good. “The Cat in the Shopping Bag” is not much different than the stories in the joke chapter: a woman accidentally runs over a cat while Christmas shopping, and feels so bad about this that she puts the squashed kitty corpse in a bag to bury later, shoving the whole sickening mess in the back seat of her car. After she leaves the vehicle, she happens to turn back and see another woman break into it and steal the bag, like a dingo stealing a baby. The cat-runner-over then follows the thief, who takes the bag to a diner and treats herself to a tasty beverage while fishing around in the bag for her mysterious prize. Upon realizing what exactly the ghastly item she has picked up is, the thief faints. When the EMTs show up to haul her off to the hospital, the woman who ran over the cat grabs the bag and gives it to the ambulance crew, assuring them that it is the thief's Christmas present that she’ll surely be looking for when she wakes up. The story is hilariously grotesque, and I appreciate the fact that the woman who was so worried about the unfortunate feline loses all concern for the cat in the face of petty revenge. It’s really gross and fun, and everyone involved is a total a**hole. However, it suffers due to the fact that it is basically a long-form joke that isn’t billed as such, and also because More Scary Stories’ table of contents omits the “The” from the title. Yep, points off for typos and poor organization. I can be petty too, you know.
#16: Something Was Wrong
This is where things get really tough for your friendly neighborhood POWER RANKER. The middle portion of this chart could really go numerous ways, so you’re just going to have to trust my scientific method here. My process leads me to this one, the book’s opening story, and though More Scary Stories doesn’t necessarily lead off with its strongest material, “Something Was Wrong” is a solid yarn. Basically, a guy finds himself walking down a city street, disoriented, wondering how he got there (jeez, been there). He tries asking people for help, but everyone is terrified at the sight of him. Finally, he calls his wife, and is informed that she isn’t home. Nope, not now, because she’s attending her husband’s funeral. DUN-DUNNNNN. Tough luck, buddy. I like to imagine this guy running back to the cemetery and awkwardly apologizing to everyone for being late to his own funeral, while his wife nags him about the fact that, even in death, he hasn’t changed. Cue studio audience laughter. Credits roll. Great job, everybody!
#15: The Dead Man's Hand
#14: The Man in the Middle
This is actually one of the hardest stories for me to rank. I like it, and it involves a genuinely unsettling scenario. It’s very different from anything else in the book, and combines with “A Ghost in the Mirror” to form the Michael Jackson reference I mentioned earlier. These are all points in its favor. However, there’s just not that much to it. A woman gets on the subway late at night, and soon three men sit across from her. The one in the middle seems really out of it, and is being propped up by his buddies. They eventually take off, leaving only the man in the middle sitting there, staring. A sharp turn forces him to pitch forward to the ground, where the woman can see a bullet hole in his head. Now I will grant that there are several leaps of logic in this story; I have spent probably 73% of my adult life among drunks, and I have rarely if ever mistaken someone who is really sloshed for a corpse. Nor am I sure exactly what the two men were trying to accomplish with the corpse that they couldn’t have done better by throwing it off a bridge or something. Still, it is a pretty ghastly scenario and is vaguely humorous in an extremely uncomfortable way. So after weighing all of this, I’m ranking it right here, which is appropriately enough smack dab in the middle. If you have a problem with that, please remind yourself that this is a power rankings article about spooky stories for children that were written in 1984. Oh God, what am I doing with my life?
#13: The Wreck
#12: The Curse
This one is, to say the least, odd. First and foremost, the titular curse is not the focal point of the story, but rather a bizarre afterthought. But I get ahead of myself. Regardless of what expectations the title sets up, this story is about a fraternity hazing gone wrong, as a group of bros take two new pledges to an abandoned house that was recently the site of some unsolved murders. There is a palpable tension to this portion, as the pledges go upstairs individually with nothing but a candle, only to have their candles mysteriously snuffed out upon reaching the third floor. When the others eventually go up to tell them that they’ve spent enough time upstairs and are have earned their official frat merit badges or whatever, they find blood on the floor and an open window in an otherwise empty upstairs area. The pledges are never seen again. In and of itself, this is all pretty freaky…but then what about the curse, you presumably ask? Well, the story is told from the perspective of one of the frat guys, and he notes at the end that someone must have placed a curse on them all after the pledges disappeared, because every year since then, one of the survivors has either died or gone insane. The story ends as the narrator goes insane and starts shrieking. Which…OK, fine, but what? I mean, I understand the show-don’t-tell approach to storytelling, but this is so out of the blue that it seems like another story entirely was tacked on at the last minute. I don’t need to know every detail of the curse, but I would like to know why it was even necessary in the first place. Is it supposed to be a Twilight Zone-esque twist? It doesn’t feel like that, really. It certainly can’t be here because there were any shortage of stories that ended in someone yelling, “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” It’s just so weird, like if one of the false endings of Return of the King had just been Merry & Pippin dropping dead while the others hobbits stand around shrugging. Yet, perversely, this final mystifying third of the story makes it memorable, so I can’t punish it too harshly. After all, it’s not like it’s the weirdest story in this book.
#11: The Bride
I’m quite torn on this one. On the one hand, the story itself is great, equal measures tragic and horrifying. It’s short but…well, not sweet at all, actually. A newlywed couple decides to play literal, not-a-cutesy-name-for-sex hide & seek on their wedding day, and the bride gets a bit too clever by hiding herself in a trunk in the attic. The trunk happens to have an unfortunately heavy lid that conks the bride in the head, knocking her unconscious and falling shut, locking. The description of the bride’s ordeal is among the most chilling things Schwartz ever wrote: “No one will ever know how long she called for help or how hard she struggled to free herself from that tomb.” In the end, no one finds her, and she is given up for lost, a runaway bride in the Julia Roberts tradition, but more dead. Years later, a maid goes looking for something in the attic, and ends up scarred for life as she finally finds the bride in the trunk, reduced to just a skeleton. Now come on, that sh*t is freaky. You could imagine it happening to someone…you could imagine it happening to yourself. This story could just as easily be a news report on a tragic accident. And therein, I think, is the story’s lone failing. Scary Stories, in general, revels in the unreal, from the unearthly ghouls that stalk its pages to the dripping, pulsating nightmares that make up the illustrations. The best stories are horrific fever dreams, and when they end, they dissipate like a fog. There are exceptions to this, like the first book’s “The Babysitter,” that are just too powerful too deny, but the reality of this one hurts it just a bit. Essentially, it’s just so damn sad, and there are no ghosts and goblins to remind you that this is all made up. It’s a tragedy, albeit a very effective one, and the top ten is no place for Debbie Downers.
#10: Rings on her Fingers
And here we all, the hallowed halls of top tenitude! Oddly enough, I don’t think I really liked "Rings on her Fingers" as a kid, but I’m not sure why. It’s a unique and well-told story with great art (though that pretty much goes without saying in these books). This poor woman names Daisy lapses into a coma, and the town quack makes like Dr. Nick Riviera and pronounces her dead prematurely. After her burial, a thief who had taken note of her valuable jewelry digs her up and, in order to expediently remove her rings, decides to chop her fingers off. Knowing how the people in these stories tend to act, he may have just been looking to snack on them. His scheme is thwarted, though, as the combination of refreshing evening air and attempted dismemberment wakes Daisy. She wonders aloud who her assailant is (I would imagine this was only one of many questions she had at that point), and when he is too busy sh*tting his pants to respond, she literally just shrugs and walks off. What a trouper. The thief, understandably freaked out, tries to run away, but falls into the grave, lands on his knife, and bleeds to death. At least the grave didn’t go to waste. The glass is half full, people! Pretty tight little story here, and a fun ride while it lasts. Makes you wonder what this lady did right after the events of this story, though. Part of me hopes she did the Kill Bill thing and just walked right into a diner to get some coffee while still covered in the dirt from her former grave. Dare to dream.
#9: SoundsSometimes the recipe for a great story is just tossing some guys into a nutty situation and seeing what happens. That’s just what “Sounds” does, and though I’d hesitate to call it great, it is very good. The base concept is that a group of fisherman end up caught in a storm and spend the night in a haunted house. Then a bunch of weird sh*t happens, and they end up choosing to flee into the storm rather than stay bone dry with a bunch of phantoms. Putting aside my weakness for anything with a nautical theme (this will come up again later), the plot here is rather slight. The thing is, though, that the plot is secondary, a perfunctory means of setting the stage. Where the story gets its power is from the eerie details of just what these men suffer through: blood dripping from the ceiling, the sounds of a murder upstairs, long peals of hideous laughter. This is a study in style over substance, of creating an atmosphere so creepy that it is damn near unbearable. In that regard, “Sounds” is a success, and one of the better experimental deep cuts in the Scary Stories library.
#8: The Bed by the Window
Oh, old people. Such rapscallions they are. Take George and Richard, the two elderly men "The Bed by the Window" is based around. They share a room at a nursing home, bed-ridden and just trying to pass the time until the reaper claims them. George, lucky bastard that he is, has the bed by the window, while Richard has to content himself with listening to George’s descriptions of the wonderful sights outside (I mean, I doubt they’re that great, but then, I’m not confined to one room for the rest of my life, either). Richard decides he wants the bed by the window so, rascal that he is, he knocks George’s heart medication out of his reach, thus subjecting George to death via massive heart attack. When the corpse gets hauled out, Richard settles into his new bed by the window, and turns to finally check out some of those chicks in tube tops he’s heard so much about. All he finds behind him is a blank brick wall. Let that be a lesson to you would be murderers out there: God knows how to pull a sweet prank too. This story is pretty great; I love me a good ironic punishment, even if it completely comes out of left field. And I enjoy the fact that such a seemingly innocuous thing as window access drives a man to murder if it eats away at him long enough. Plus, come on, it’s like a gritty reboot of Grumpy Old Men. It’s not the best of the best or even particularly scary, but it is kind of adorable.
#7: The Little Black Dog
As pedestrian as this story seems on the surface, I am quite fond of it. It’s your standard ghost story: man kills his rival and the rival’s dog, so ghost dog (not the Forrest Whittaker one) haunts him and eventually kills him. Even the title is nondescript (although what would the horror genre be without titles starting with “A” or “The?”). But it’s the details that make this one so winning. First of all, that illustration. Just look at it! Oh, it’s a little black dog alright…except instead of dog paws he has a chicken foot, a human hand and what appears to be a monkey’s paw. He seems to even have more than four legs, so who knows what may be attached to those, and he is shrouded in ghostly mist. This sort of grotesquely imaginative imagery is Stephen Gammell’s specialty, and he really knocks this one out of the park. Secondly, we’ve got a character named Silas Burton, who is second only to the aforementioned Burdick in the awesome names department. Honestly, a detail as small as naming the main characters Billy & Silas is very evocative of the period in which this story is taking place without beating the reader over the head with it. Finally, the way Schwartz describes the ghost dog’s presence, noting that it makes its surroundings “stink of dog” and leaves thick black dog hairs in the food of the man he torments really play up what a sickening, horrific situation that the main character is in. He’s doomed from the start, but the anguish he goes through in his final days, hounded (HA HA) by a specter only he can see, makes this one almost as haunting as the titular canine. The lesson here: don’t kill dogs! I guess I could make a tasteless Michael Vick joke, but that’s really pretty passé at this point. Moving on…
#6: One Sunday Morning
I don’t know what it is about this story, but it really got under my skin when I first read it. I’m sure the illustration that sets it off, consisting of a trio of desiccated corpses coming to get you, had a lot to do with it. Beyond that, though, the surreal journey this story details has the haunting quality of a nightmare that turns out to be real. When the main character, Ida, attends a different church service than usual, only to find that it is a mass of the dead at which she is most unwelcome, the flesh crawls. It’s like a zombie movie, except the zombies are fully cognizant of what they’re doing and are furious at you for breaking their social taboos. The fact that the later discovery of Ida's shredded jacket proves that both her supernatural encounter was real and that the ghouls had savage intentions puts the whole thing in an even darker light. In this scenario, the undead do walk the earth from time to time and have no regard for human life (and why should they?). Sure, this story gets a few demerits for the unexplicable fact that a church bell wakes the main character and summons her to the unholy mass, because if this is something the undead do every week, it seems hard to believe that no one would ever have noticed before. Maybe there was a new zombie working that week who didn’t know that ringing the bell was needless. If so, I would have liked to have had that bit explained. Regardless, logic loses importance when dealing with a nightmare, and overall this is classic stuff, even if I feel the lack of a morning/mourning pun was a terrible missed opportunity.
#5: "Oh, Susannah!"
OK, this definitely raises even more questions: what in the blue hell is happening in this picture, and what does it have to do with the story? Well, allow me to answer those questions with yet another…question: who cares? You’ve got a skull-faced Elder God emerging from the clouds, with one tentacle arm and one mummy arm, shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips. Then we have an old lady (?) in a rocking chair, getting pulled through the sky by what appears to be a bloody eyeball, optic nerve and all. There appear to be at least three celestial bodies in the background, and a white line down the whole thing that is obviously part of the piece but whose meaning is quite unclear. This image is ALL THE AWESOME mixed up with ALL THE DRUGS, and I advise that you soak it in because it is more or less the pinnacle of human achievement. If we were judging on imagery alone, this would be a clear-cut #1, not just on this list but on the list of life in general. Alas, the narrative itself feels like it’s missing that special something to put it over the top, like perhaps there are just one too many unanswered questions. But damn, would I wear the hell out of a t-shirt with this illustration on it.
#4: The Window
Vampires have suffered quite a blow to their reputation in the field of horror of late. Media overexposure has taken its toll, as has a certain pop culture phenomenon that chose to portray the savage, blood-lusting undead as teen dreamboats. “The Window,” however, reminds us in no uncertain terms of just how loathsome and terrifying old school vampires could be. From the outset, which is an ominous full-page illustration of a strange shadow figure advancing toward the reader up a fog-shrouded hill as the full moon hangs above, there is a heavy aura of foreboding to this story. It is, of course, warranted by the events that unfold: a young woman sees two small lights ascending the hillside outside her house and watches them with interest, only to find out too late that they are actually the eyes of a vampire. And this is not one of those chic, sexy vampires; it is described as a twisted, rotting creature with cat’s eyes and “a shrunken face like that of a mummy.” And, true to its monstrous appearance, the creature attacks the girl, ripping her throat open with its fangs. The remainder of the story concerns her brothers’ grim search for the vampire and (SPOILER) its eventual destruction. Make no mistake, this is a brutal but excellent showcase of how the vampire became the monster legend it is. The vampire isn’t polite, it isn’t cute and it damn sure isn’t benevolent. It’s a walking corpse caked in moldy dirt that will smash through your f*cking window and drain your jugular like it ain’t no thang. This is the type of tale that makes you want to look out the window to see if there might be something out there stalking you, yet forces you not to, lest your fears have some basis in reality. This is pure, old-school horror, a monster movie matinee brought to life on the page, with all the requisite blood and guts. As it should be. “The Window” is, in a word, classic.
#3: Somebody Fell from Aloft
I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t much care for this story when I first read this book. It was too confusing for my young, sugar-addled brain. The fact is, your typical Scary Story to Tell in Whichever Environmental Conditions You Prefer, Although the Dark is Recommended proceeds in a fairly linear fashion. We are introduced to our main character, some sort of problem unfolds, and the main character may or may not be slaughtered like a hog. "Somebody Fell from Aloft," however, does not play that. This story starts with a bizarre ordeal at sea, wherein two men fall off a ship amidst a thick fog, lost forever beneath the waves. The thing is, one of those men should have been dead already; he was a stranger who fell to the deck from above, crashing to the floor with such velocity that his survival was near-impossible. Only when one of the men on the ship (the only one who seemed to recognize the stranger) decided to heave the body overboard did the strange man stir back to life, dragging them both to their doom as he laughed and laughed. So far, so good! As if all that wasn't enough, get this: our narrator is a sailor who guides us through the first half of the story. He visits an old sea captain after all this occurs, who then takes over the narrative and fills us in on the back story of what may have happened on the ship and why, telling a tale of bloody revenge from years past. Everything here clicks: the descriptions of the conditions at sea are moody and evocative, the sailors' individual dialects are well captured, and the shifts in terms of the chronology and point of view are, in the context of this book anyway, revelatory. This may be fairly simple storytelling, but amongst brief horror folktales, this is positively Tarantinoesque! It is worth noting that, once more, my affection for maritime stories and salty old sea dogs comes into play in terms of getting this one some extra bonus points. Regardless, "Somebody Fell from Aloft" is a peculiar standout here, being both the longest story in the book and one of the best. It is a true centerpiece, and it boggles my mind that I thought so little of it back when I was actually in the book's target audience. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I didn't know what "aloft" meant. Regardless, the time to rectify the mistakes of my youth is now. Err, one mistake, anyway. As a true seafaring wretch might say, "'Somebody Fell from Aloft' be an underrated gem, it be!"
#2: The Drum
So, this story. This f*cking story. I cannot possibly tell you how strange this story is, and I can't help but ponder the deranged mind that first created it. And because of this, I absolutely love it. Let me try to explain this whole mess: there are two sisters who run into a gypsy girl one afternoon. The gypsy girl has a drum that is apparently from the future, since when she plays it, a little man and woman come out and dance. It's probably from Switzerland or something, if "It's a Small World" has taught me anything about how different cultures operate. The girls are understandably enchanted by this contraption, so the gypsy girl makes a Faustian bargain with them: be the biggest brats they can be, and if they can meet her standards for abhorrent behavior, she'll give them the drum. So these greedy little b*tches go home and do every awful thing they can think of, up to and including abusing their baby brother and letting the pig out (OH NO YOU DI'INT). Their mother, deep in the throes of what appears to be a nervous breakdown, says that if the girls don't shape up, she's going to have to hit the road and leave them with a new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail. Now, OK, hold the phone here a second. Let me make sure you understand this. This woman is suggesting abandoning her wretched children and leaving them in the care of some sort of being that has glass eyes and a f*cking wooden tail. And she says this quite cavalierly, as though this is some sh*t that just happens. Unfortunately, the gypsy girl has impossibly high standards for heinous behavior, so these brats allow their avarice for the drum to guide them into worse and worse behavior. Finally, when they have done every terrible thing they can think of short of slaughtering their mother and brother with rusty hooks, the gypsy girl reveals to them that she never had any intention of giving them the drum, and it was all just a game. THE F*CK. Interesting side note: the notes on sources in the back of the book compare the girl to the devil, in terms of the temptation to sin aspect, but make a point of the fact that she is in some ways worse, since at least the devil honors his bargains. That's right, this little gypsy girl is worse than Satan. And THEN, since these little creeps have been doing their best Omen impersonations for days, they go home to find that their mother was not one to make idle threats, and their new mommy is sitting by the fire, glass eyes, wooden tail and all. A very wise editorial decision was made as regards this monster mom. I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to picture what exactly this being looks like; the wooden tail alone makes her sound inhuman. Now, Gammell's illustration could have easily been a portrait of this creature, and I'm sure he would have done a masterful job. Instead, the choice was made to leave the particulars of the new mother up to the reader's imagination, which is all the more horrific. The illustration that Gammell chose to do in place of that is less on-the-nose; it shows the shadowy forms of the girls holding hands while walking out in a desolate landscape, while strange horned imps gaze down upon them from the barren treetops. It is a stark, lonely image, and beautiful enough to be the only interior illustration to grace the cover of any of the Scary Stories books (the other two had original art created specifically for the covers). If you can't tell by now, I really, really like "The Drum," messed up as it is. It's a potent meditation on the fact that people are just the worst combined with a nice little bogeyman tale. In many other books of horror stories, it might very well find itself atop the POWER RANKINGS. Alas, not here, because of...
#1: Wonderful Sausage
And there you have it, folks! Another book of horror folklore ranked, reviewed and regurgitated for your convenience. Now go forth, argue, and spout off about how wrong I am in the comments! Although most likely, the comments will be nothing but a barren wasteland of spambot ads within a few weeks. In a way, isn't that the greatest horror of them all?
Joey Marsilio is willing to descend to hellish depths of depravity in order to get you to buy his book, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. Come on...if you had a book out, he'd buy it!