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Monday, June 2, 2014

The "Official" Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones Power Rankings

The generally accepted rule of trilogies is that the third installment is almost inevitably the weakest. This makes sense: the first installment is bursting with new creativity, the second is able to refine things and boost them to new heights, and by the time part three rolls around, some degree of repetition sets in, and the excitements tends to wear off. Still, there are some advantages to being the third in a series: the groundwork has been laid, there is a certain comfort in the series' familiarity, and there is still plenty of room for improvement and exploration. And so, in this vein, we have Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. It's definitely the weakest of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (for reference, see my POWER RANKINGS of the first and second books in the series), but it's still wholly enjoyable. There are some uninspiring elements, to be sure, but the good parts more than make up for it. It's Return of the Jedi. And there's nothing wrong with that. Now what say we get these proverbial puppies POWER RANKED? Ladies and gentlemen and blood-soaked genital-free skeletons, without further ado, Joey Marsilio, in association with Snickers (Hungry? Grab a Snickers!) proudly presents to you:


#25: You May Be the Next...



We'll start at the end. "You May Be the Next..." is the final story in this book, and is one of those occasional stories that is actually a song. If the title sounds a bit familiar, it is because it is a lyric from "The Hearse Song," which was collected in the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This is no coincidence; this song is almost identical to the older one, just briefer and with a somewhat more nihilistic ending. It's the same melody, contains many of the same lyrics about your body rotting and being consumed by worms, and comes to the conclusion that this process of death and decay is what constitutes a "perfect day." Perverse finale aside, I'm not quite sure what to make of this one. I suppose Schwartz may have known that this was to be the final Scary Stories volume, and concluded it in this way to be a cheeky throwback. Unfortunately, it really just comes off as lazy; the book already has less stories than its precursors, so it's kinda bullsh*t that it ends with a blatant rehash. Oh well, at least it makes the POWER RANKINGS easier to compile. And for what it's worth, it's a cute song, insomuch as rot can be considered cute. One final note, if I may put my intellectual hat on for a moment: the illustration of a melting corpse candle is a perfect visual methaphor for the process of decomposition. Some day you too will be in the ground, doing just that. Unless you get cremated or buried at sea or something. Um, anyway, moving on...

 #24: The Bus Stop



Speaking of rehashes, this one is only slightly less blatant than "You May Be the Next...", which is really saying something considering that the song was mostly a word-for-word reprint of an earlier one. The story here is that some guy meets a girl at a bus stop. They hang out, he likes her, but one day she just stops showing up. He comes to find out from the woman's mother that the woman had been killed at that exact bus stop. Twenty years ago. DUN DUN DUN. This is, thematically, more or less the same story as "The Wreck" from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is almost EXACTLY the same story as "The Night It Rained," from In a Dark, Dark Room. "The Night It Rained" is actually creepier and more effective even though it's from a book ostensibly aimed at younger readers. "The Bus Stop" is as tired and played out as an OJ Simpson joke. Ha ha ha, just remembered the Dancing Itos. Ha ha ha. Oh man.

 #23: Hello, Kate!



On the plus side, "Hello, Kate!" is not necessarily a blatant repurposing of an earlier story. But it's not exactly original either. It's...not really much of anything. A guy walks to a local dance, and runs into his friend Kate on the way there. Before he can say hello, though, he realizes that Kate is actually dead, so this must be her ghost (how that fact slipped his mind for even an instant is beyond me). He therefore avoids uttering the titular words despite great temptation, Kate's ghost follows him for a while, then walks up to him, and disappears. At this point the story ends, and you shrug and wonder where the last couple minutes of your life went. Basically, the story's entire selling point is that there's a ghost in it. There's a ghost in like 80% of these stories, so you've gotta offer up a little more than that to keep the reader engaged. Maybe give Kate a machine gun or something, I don't know.

 #22: The Hog



Scary Stories 3 carries ("scaries?") on the tradition of dedicating its final chapter to horror stories with a comedic bent. "The Hog"-which, contrary to what the title may have you believe, is not about a possessed Harley-Davidson-is a bizarre entry in the genre. You see, this tale concerns a corpulent couple who, after a whirlwind romance, eventually go their separate ways. Arthur, the boyfriend, moves away and marries someone else, while Anne, the girlfriend, withers away in loneliness and dies. Are you chuckling yet?
Some years after this tragic turn of events, Arthur finds himself back in his hometown. He also finds himself quite annoyed, as everywhere he goes, a hog dutifully follows him around. Finally, his temper reaching its limits, Arthur PUNCHES THE HOG IN THE FACE. His porcine pursuer, taken aback by this treatment, speaks up in Anne's voice, heartbroken that her ex could physically abuse her like this after all they had once meant to another. Then the pig ghost sulks away, like television's Incredible Hulk. The end. It's been 23 years and I'm still trying to figure out what is funny about any of this. Well, OK, except for the pig getting punched in the face, but I don't think that's even supposed to be the funny part. Even the picture is sad: look at that sickly thing! The only thing I can figure that might lend this bleak tale some levity is the note at the end that the hog is supposed to speak in a high voice. I don't quite think that's enough; if I broke the news of your parents' death to you in a Mickey Mouse voice, I wouldn't expect you to laugh. Considering this is very similar to "Cold As Clay," one of the grimmest tales from the first Scary Stories book, it just seems really out of place in the "funny" chapter. It's one thing for a joke to be lame, but this is actually quite depressing.

 #21: Strangers


Another entry from "WHOOOOOOOO!", the funny chapter, "Strangers" fares much better than "The Hog" in terms of comedy, though that really isn't saying much. I think Watership Down was funnier than "The Hog." The gist of "Strangers" is that a man and woman on a train happen to have a brief chat on the subject of ghosts. The man pooh-poohs such supernatural balderdash, but the woman wryly notes that perhaps he has seen a ghost without even realizing it, and then vanishes, apparently scaring the hell out of our ersatz Steven Spielberg and possibly inspiring him to produce Poltergeist. It's a solid punchline, for what it's worth. A decent joke, but not much of a story. An imperfect "Strangers," as it were. ADVISORY: this story is not to be confused with "The Stranger," which is either a classic novel by Albert Camus or a solo sex act, depending on your own personal preferences.
 #20: T-H-U-P-P-P-P-P-P-P! 


Yet another death comedy jam, "T-H-U-P-P-P-P-P-P-P!" (I'm not typing that out again) fares only slightly better than its predecessors on the list. The premise is classically eerie: a little girl is harassed at night by an odd-looking ghost that just sits there and stares at her, never uttering a sound. Of course, every time the girl calls to her parents for help, the ghost vanishes. Finally, at her wit's end, the girl desperately begs the ghost to stop tormenting her. In response, the ghost wiggles its fingers in its ears and gives her the ol' raspberry, which is where the title comes from. Unlike "Strangers," this is a full story, and unlike "The Hog," I can tell why the story is supposed to be funny. Having said that, it's kind of a lame, "heh, I get it" ending that is pretty disappointing given the decent job the story had done at establishing a sense of dread. There's nothing terribly wrong with the story, really, and the illustration of a disembodied ghost child is perfectly unsettling, but the series deserved better from its final full story (the only things after this in the book are "You May Be the Next..." and the notes on sources) than a goofy cartoon ending.
  
 #19: It's Him!

Yes, before you ask, this is another one from the "funny" chapter. The biggest problem with "It's Him!" is extremely obvious upon reading the story. Let me see if you can figure it out from my plot summary: a husband and wife, both horrible people, continually fight until finally the wife decapitates the husband and dumps his body somewhere. That night, while she is celebrating her newfound freedom at home, her husband's voice drifts out of the woods, repeatedly asking her whoooooooo is going to stay with him this cold and lonely night, etc. She responds sarcastically, and the voice keeps getting closer and closer until the husband's ghost finally shows up and yells something at her as he attacks. No, that's not déjà vu you're experiencing. This is the exact same damn plot we have seen literally (not figuratively) a million times before in this book series. It was in "Clinkity-Clink," it was in "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker," it was in "Cemetery Soup," it was in THE FIRST GOD DAMN STORY of the entire series, "The Big Toe." If "The Bus Stop"'s plot was tired, "It's Him!"'s plot long ago died of exhaustion and has had its bones picked clean by the buzzards. I mean, talk about beating a dead horse! Ironically enough, the story in this book about an actual dead horse is pretty damn good, but we'll get to that. So, with this in mind, why did I rank "It's Him!" over most other stories in the same chapter? Because of one simple factor: it's actually funny! I kind of love the fact that both the husband and the wife are complete, unrepentant assholes. It's fantastic that after the woman graciously separates her husband's head from his body, she exhibits not remorse but exhilaration. And I especially like the fact that the new widow doesn't seem particularly frightened by her late husband's plaintive spectral wails. She just basically tells the ghost to f*ck off, calling him a "dirty rat" and "miserable mole." The balls on this lady! Figuratively. And the picture is pretty hilarious too. You could tell me you've seen a funnier severed head than this today, but you'd be a liar:



 #18: The Black Dog


Believe it or not, there are actual scary stories in Scary Stories 3, tales of terror more interested in producing chills than guffaws. "The Black Dog" is one of these, a classic haunted house story about some poor man that finds himself bedeviled by a spectral canine. It's your standard stuff: the dog just appears and disappears without a trace, makes noise and then is nowhere to be seen, and so forth, sort of like if Paranormal Activity had been produced for Animal Planet. And there's one shockingly nasty moment when the ghost dog (not to be confused with Forrest Whittaker...did I make that joke already?), though invisible, rips open the throat of a guard dog brought in to do some ghostbusting. Though this grotesquery livens up a somewhat rote genre exercise, there's still one glaring problem here; not to be too highfalutin', but the narrative arc here is a bit lacking. The ghost shows up, bothers a guy, inflicts some sudden graphic violence, and then just stops showing up while still making his presence known. There's no real resolution, no backstory...it's just stuff happening. I'm not expecting Tolstoy here, but come on, at least give us an actual ending. Plus, there was already a story called "The Little Black Dog" in More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark...talk about confusing! And that one featured a blood feud between the Mansfield and Burton families culminating in a horseback pistol duel. This one can't help but suffer by comparison.
 
 #17: Like Cats' Eyes


This wee little half-page story is pretty cool, to be honest. It's strange and moody and surreal. A woman steps outside for air as her ailing husband lies on his deathbed. Her grief-soaked reverie is interrupted by a clique of little men whose eyes glow "like cats' eyes" that roll up in a pimpin' hearse, roll into the house right quick, and then run out carrying a strange bundle. Then the husband's nurse comes outside, and declares that he has died. The subtext here, if you missed it: they're carting out THE HUSBAND'S SOUL. Personally, I think this is pretty chilling. To have a loved one's death be a perfunctory task for a cadre of oddball dwarves is a strange and unnerving thought. And the accompanying image is perfection: harsh blackness in vague human shapes, the only truly defining characteristic being sets of uncaring feline eyes. And a stovepipe hat, I suppose. So why, then, does "Like Cats' Eyes" fall short of the not-at-all-arbitrary Scary Stories pantheon? Really, the biggest thing holding this one back is its brevity. Not that there really was much else to say here (the commentary is probably longer than the actual story at this point), but it's hard to rank a tale of this extremely short length among the true classics.

 #16: The Wolf Girl


Speaking of length...Prior to this book, the Scary Stories series had been divided into several chapters, each of which contained multiple stories. One of the innovations that Scary Stories 3 introduced was single-story chapters, each of which fittingly contained one story that exceeded the length of your typical SS (scary story, not sailing ship, in case you're the type that is predisposed toward nautical terms). "The Wolf Girl" is the first example on these POWER RANKINGS of these longer, more in-depth pieces. In fact, it reads like something from a news magazine, a fair and balanced story of a feral, imbalanced girl.  You see, this is an old Texas legend about a baby girl whose mother gives birth to her and dies shortly thereafter. The corpse and mewling child are soon discovered by a pack of wolves, who take the baby with them instead of eating it. This seems rather wasteful, as baby is the veal of humans and could have made for a sumptuous meal, but our lupine friends are having none of it. Instead, they raise the baby as one of their own, and she grows into a full-fledged wolf girl who nurses wolflings at her teat and engages in pack attacks and securities fraud just like a real wolf! Now, this all is definitely weird and creepy, especially since this lupine Lolita runs around in the nude like some sort of howling hussy. But is it honest to goodness scary? Eh, not so much, at least not in my mind. Then again, maybe I'm just not the target audience for this. I grew up in a mobile home park, so feral children are old hat to me. In any case, I definitely admire Schwartz's ambition here in going with a more long-form narrative. I just don't find the story itself to be all that, nor a bag of chips.

 #15: The Dead Hand

"The Dead Hand" is that time-honored archetype: the story that plainly pales in comparison to its artwork. In fact, there may be no greater disparity between the two factors in question than this story right here. The text portion is essentially a riff on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." There's a village on the edge of a haunted swamp, see? And everyone is scared of the evil creatures that prowl said swamp, except for this one asshole who makes fun of everyone else's anxiety. Finally having enough of this bullying, the villagers dare this goon to go out into the swamp at night by himself. He does just that, and ends up being maimed by a vaguely defined "dead hand." It's a middling morality play about the perils of being a d*ckhead to your fellow man, and also completely forgettable...or at least it would be, were it not for the accompanying illustration. Seriously, look at this thing. WHAT IS IT EVEN:


I'll give you a moment to compose yourself. This ghastly visage of the damned is horrible in a way that practically defies description. But let me try anyway. It's a melted disfigured skull tree with root veins, hentai tentacles and gross matted hair, and that's the kindest, gentlest verbiage I can come up with. It's a horrid gray scale portal into Hell that's, you know, for the kids. I don't know what this has to do with a dead hand, nor do I particularly care. With imagery this chilling, the story could have just been a few blank pages and I still would've ranked it right about here.

 #14: Is Something Wrong?

Our highest ranking entry from the humorous chapter of SS3, "Is Something Wrong?" has quite a leg up on the competition due to the fact that it's actually pretty funny. It revisits a number of elements of earlier stories, but rather than come off as derivative, it ties everything up in a fresh and amusing way. The story beats are lifted whole cloth from tales in previous volumes: a man's car breaks down, forcing him to seek shelter for the night ("The Church," "Sounds"), and he happens upon an abandoned house, wherein he makes fire and goes to sleep ("Wait Till Martin Comes") and is disturbed by something unspeakably awful falling down the chimney ("What Do You Comes For?", "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker"). Unlike some of the nimrods that populate these stories, the guy gets while the getting is good and bolts from the house. Unfortunately, the terrifying entity is too swift to be outrun by mere mortals; just when our hero thinks he is safe, the hellspawn taps him on the shoulder and bashfully inquires, "Pardon me, is something wrong?" Pretty hilarious stuff, especially considering the amazingly insane illustration:



Who would have thought this godless abomination was such a softy? He weeps those bloody tears not because of the damnable agony his tortured soul perpetually writhes in, but because he's really upset that he must have freaked out his guest. He probably had a whole breakfast thing planned, with crepes and mimosas and everything. Sounds pretty awesome, actually. Maybe I should find an abandoned house to squat in and just see what happens.

 #13: Faster and Faster


Although the most prevalent recurring theme throughout the Scary Stories series is most certainly death,there are usually some limits as to how far the carnage is allowed to extend. Specifically, amidst all the horror we don't really see kids die. Plenty of adults die, and there are definitely stories that insinuate the impending doom of a child, but these things are usually left up to the reader's imagination. Not so in "Faster and Faster." Two boys find a tattered, blood-stained old tom-tom in the forest and one of them foolishly decides that playing it would be the cat's pajamas. Much like opening a can of Pringles, once he starts in on it, he just can't stop, and pounds on the drum with the fervor of a boy possessed. This stirs up some ancient ghosts from frontier times, and the boy is shot dead with a Native American Ghost Arrow (that should be the name of a cocktail) as his aghast friend looks on, before the spirits return to their eternal slumber. I still remember how appalling this was to...wait, when did this book come out? 1991? OK, I remember how appalling this was to nine year old me. Yeah, the circumstances are kind of goofy, but nonetheless, a child gets murdered right here. We were playing for keeps this time, and from this point forward, no one was safe. The story may be rather forgettable, but the strength here is in the message, not the medium, and for that I have to give "Faster and Faster" its propers.

 #12: The Trouble


Like "The Wolf Girl," "The Trouble" was one of this book's duo of full-chapter-length short stories. It is also completely unique in the annals of Scary Storydom by being factual, more or less. It reads a lot like the transcript of a segment on Unsolved Mysteries, actually. "The Trouble" is a series of dated accounts of the bizarre paranormal phenomena that plagued the Lombardo family back in 1958, including objects flying around, furniture moving itself and bottles of all kinds being so god damn hip-hop that they pop themselves. When natural causes are ruled out, the conclusion reached by paranormal researchers is that the apparent poltergeist that has been haunting the home is actual a subconscious manifestation of teenage Tom Lombardo's latent psychokinesis. The theory goes that sometimes, for reasons unknown, teenagers under great stress can at times project a sort of mental vibration that affects objects around them in seemingly impossible ways. Hogwash? Perhaps, but these events are pretty well-documented (details of the case were printed in The New York Times, Life magazine, and other credible publications) and Schwartz doesn't add a bunch of embellishment. It's a very cool and offbeat, and it was kind of amazing as a child to read this and think that somehow, some day, when I became a pissy teenager, I too might be able to move objects with my mind, like a morose, way less hot Jean Grey. The book even explicitly speculates that the events of this story "might even happen to you." Alas, therein lies part of the problem. You see, this story had me perhaps a little too convinced that I would someday be a teen telekinetic, and as my teenage years drifted slowly by like so much floating garbage, I felt a bitter sense of disappointment that it never happened. Thanks a lot, "The Trouble," for setting me up for a huge letdown. Add this to the fact that the individual daily updates of freaky occurrences get a bit repetitive after a while, and I have no other choice but to leave "The Trouble" a scosche below the Top Ten. That's what ya get for letting me think I'd be able to move objects with my mind, ya JERK.

 #11: No, Thanks


I'm going to float an idea here: in a series that is practically synonymous with the bizarre and grotesque, the most peculiar story of them all is this little number, a slice of life based on an actual, no foolin' real world encounter. Yep, "No, Thanks" is a stylized version of an incident detailed in none other than The New York Times, which is not exactly renowned as a treasure trove of terror (unless your own personal bogeyman happens to be LIBERAL BIAS). And I think the story is honest-to-God hilarious.It involves a man leaving work late at night and strolling to his car across an empty parking lot. Or so he thinks! An apparently very ugly man (the guy in the illustration looks like ET's cracked-out brother) approaches the businessman, creepily murmuring about how sharp the knife he happens to be brandishing is and just how easily can cut through anything. Like, we might imagine, flesh, or particularly overripe tomatoes. The businessman gets freaked out, thinking he is about to get brutally filleted, but no! The creepy dude gets right in his face and says, "'Hey man,only three dollars. Two for five. Nice present for your mama.'" The businessman declines the offer and gets the hell out of there. This is probably the funniest twist of any of the stories in these books, and is marvelously weird and out of left field. So why not the Top Ten, then? Well, if I were basing this entirely on personal opinion, this would probably be top three. But I have to be objective here and consider all the facts, and the only conclusion I can reach here is based largely upon the peculiar nature of the story that I noted in the beginning. Like I said, it's hilarious...but I'm not sure it's supposed to be. I think it's supposed to be scary, since it's not Ye Olde Funne chapter like the other humorous stories, and the tone in general is quite menacing. But the ending is so anticlimactic and goofy that any element of fear dissipates immediately upon reading it. So I'm not really sure what this is supposed to be. If it's supposed to be scary, those last few lines eliminate that possibility outright, and if it's supposed to be funny, it's in the wrong section of the book. As much as it pains me to say it, this identity crisis keeps "No, Thanks" juuuuuust out of the Top Ten. But on the bright side, it informs you of a great method to get super deals on nice, sharp knives.


 #10: The Appointment


"The Appointment" as a story is, to put it gently, old as sh*t. It's been told in various forms since ancient times (though these ancient versions rarely involved a pickup truck), but despite its long-in-the-tooth status, "The Appointment" is a refreshing and darkly humorous addition to this series. A parable about the inevitability of fate, it involves a young man who, while out on the town one day, runs across Death incarnate, who beckons to him. Understandably freaked out, the young man borrows his grandfather's truck and flees to the city in a panic. The grandfather, in a truly historic display of balls, marches right back up to Death and demands an explanation as to why the Avatar of the Void would dare to beckon to someone who was obviously too young to die. Death, to his credit, plays it adorably coy, and apologizes for freaking the young man out. He hadn't intended to beckon; he was just making a gesture of surprise that the young man was there in the first place. See, he actually has an appointment with the young man later in the day, up in the city. Though the story ends there, I have to think the next thing out of the grandfather's mouth was, "Oh. Sh*t." That is a powerful, cold-as-reverse-hell ending right there, so it's no wonder Schwartz chose to start the book with it. Sure, it's very brief, and less viscerally unsettling as some of the higher-ranking stories, but there's no disputing that "The Appointment" is a classic. The fact that no matter how fast you run or how far you travel, you're still going to run into Death in the end is the scariest story of all, and there's nothing even remotely fictional about it. Plus the picture is pretty metal.


 #9: The Dream


Not to be confused with the R&B singer of the same name, "The Dream" is an offbeat scenario that, fittingly enough, operates on nightmare logic. It actually plays with some of the same themes of the inevitability of fate and the hazards of self-fulfilling prophecies that "The Appointment" traffics in, while taking them in a stranger direction. It concerns a woman who has an eerie nightmare about entering a creepy house and receiving an ominous warning of doom from a stranger. Waking in a panicked sweat, she decides that the dream is an omen warning against her impending trip to a certain town. She decides instead to change her vacation destination, only to find her nightmare unfolding around her once she arrives. Part of the reason this gets the edge over "The Appointment" is the slow, unsettling way the woman realizes that she has unwittingly set the events of her nightmare into motion while trying to keep her sh*t together. The other part of the reason is the insanely creepy illustration, which turns what could have been a mundane portrait of a portly woman into a weirdo Kathy Bates hellbeast looming over the viewer. And in case you thought that image couldn't get any more disturbing, check this out.


 #8: Bess


With enough skill, pretty much anything can be a source of terror, even something so placid as an old horse. "Bess" is both the title of the story and the name of the old horse in question (what a coincidence!), which belongs to Jim, our protagonist. One day, Jim decides to visit a fortune-teller, because that always turns out so well, and predictably she warns him of his impending demise at the hands of his favorite old horse. Baffled and bemused by this death sentence, Jim goes on his merry way, but the fear that perhaps, in some odd way, the fortune teller might be correct gnaws away at him. Finally, Jim ends up giving the old horse away to a farmer, and is shamefully relieved one day to find that Bess has gone to that big glue factory in the sky. Yet, as we have seen very clearly elsewhere, it's not so easy to escape one's grisly destiny. Despite the grim specter of death hanging over the proceedings, this is a fun story in that we know how it's going to end, but have no idea how the story will get there. It's like a Final Destination movie, where you try to puzzle out just how this seemingly harmless animal ends up killing her owner. The conclusion is ironically satisfying, making sense without being completely predictable, and the whole horsemeat enchilada is boosted by the accompanying image, which is like a glimpse into Hell's stables. A solid bit of gruesome clockwork, this is the best rumination on fatal destiny in a book that contains several good takes on the subject.


 #7: Such Things Happen


Don't write this story off because of its dismissive title; "Such Things Happen" is a cool little story that resembles an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone. You see, this one guy accidentally runs over a cat belonging to an elderly neighbor of his that is jokingly referred to locally as a witch. When a series of unfortunate events (no, not that one) begins to ruin the man's life, he turns to his grandfather for advice. You know things are getting desperate when you have to resort to asking an old man about wardin' off witchery. Things escalate into a battle of wills as black magic faces off against geriatric trickery with potentially fatal consequences. The interesting thing here is to watch as modern day skepticism dissolves into paranoia and folk magic as the misfortunes pile up. You wonder just how far this guy and his crone rival will go, and how his family and friends will react to all this. Now I will admit a certain amount of bias here, because I performed this story in its entirety for an audience as part of a public speaking class in college, so I get the warm fuzzies from it. Still, I think the story is entertaining and unique enough that it deserves this lofty spot on the rankings. I mean, I picked it out for my performance based on its entertainment value, so obviously it must be awesome. My taste is impeccable and beyond reproach, and you only need to look at my recent reading material as proof:


 #6: Sam's New Pet


I have mixed feelings about this one. I feel like "Sam's New Pet" has to be in the top ten on the basis that it is definitely iconic. There are only a few stories in these books that can be summarized as "the one about..." and be recognizable to someone that hasn't read these since they were a kid, and this is definitely one of them. It is a fun, disconcerting story with a good, if completely ridiculous, twist ending. Let me summarize, though I'm sure you'll remember it as soon as I begin: a couple takes a trip to Mexico and encounter a Mexican hairless dog that keeps following them around. Thinking it would make a cute pet for their son, they prove themselves to be exceptionally poor role models by smuggling it back across the border. The pet falls ill, though, and a trip to the vet reveals that the animal is not a Mexican hairless dog at all, but rather a rabid sewer rat. Now obviously this would be a pretty sh*tty thing to have happen to you, and the scenario of retroactively realizing that your beloved pet has been rubbing rabid filth all over your everything is pretty unfortunate.  The fly in the ointment here is that, depending on how you read the story, it is maybe kind of really racist. If you take the point of view that the parents are the protagonists, then the symbolism of them bringing something into America from Mexico that ends up being diseased vermin is quite troubling. I mean, there are a lot of fears that get addressed in these books, but xenophobia is probably not one that should garner a lot of sympathy. Now, personally, I choose to take the point of view that the parents are actually just incredible morons that we're not supposed to sympathize with. I mean, they walk around Mexico asking everyone who will listen if the "Mexican hairless" dog that has been tailing them has an owner, somehow without realizing that it is a F*CKING RABID SEWER RAT. Everyone they ask about it just laughs and shakes their head, which is universal code for, "Wow, what a couple of f*cking idiots." If you take this perspective, then the story is a lot more palatable, making fun of the incredible ignorance and cultural isolation of some percentage of the American population. Still, I'm not entirely certain where our sympathies are supposed to lie, so I'm keeping this one out of the top five on the POWER RANKINGS despite its classic urban legend status. I'm sure you understand.


 #5: Footsteps


"Footsteps" may seem an odd choice to rank this high. After all, no one dies here or even gets hurt, there's no grotesque monster, there's no crazy twist at the end. The thing is, "Footsteps" doesn't need any of that, because it excels as an exercise in fearful suspense. There's something downright elemental about the terror here. It is both surreal and completely relatable, and it's all too easy to put oneself into the protagonist's shoes. The protagonist in question, a girl by the name of Liz, is just doing her homework at the dining room, waiting for their mother to get home as her younger sister sleeps upstairs. When she hears footsteps enter the house, she naturally assumes it is her mother, but the silence she receives in return, as well as the heavy, plodding nature of the footsteps, makes it terrifyingly clear that whomever has walked into the house is certainly not anyone Liz is expecting. The very idea of hearing a stranger moving around within your home is chilling enough, but then the footsteps head up the staircase toward Liz's sleeping sister...you can see how this all is very upsetting. It's scary in the same way that your doorknob rattling in the middle of the night is, as there are few things more likely to induce involuntary urination that some outside party forcibly injecting themselves into your private space. The powerlessness and desperation here are palpable, and the story's minimalism works heavily in this favor. We are forced to imagine who or what might be tromping around the house, and we are thankfully spared any gore, which would cheapen the story's spartan power. This is Hitchcock, not Eli Roth, and it is powerful indeed.

 #4: Just Delicious


Given all my complaining about Alvin Schwartz's tendency to rehash stories from previous books in the series in Scary Stories 3, you would think that a story that is basically just yet another variation on "The Big Toe" would fall well short of the top five on these POWER RANKINGS. And yet, despite the fact that that is exact what "Just Delicious" is, here we are. Life can be funny sometimes. So what's the deal here? Well, the story does so much so right that it outweighs the predictability of its premise. First of all, there's much more pathos here than we're used to in these sort of stories; instead of "The Big Toe"'s barely-formed characters, here we explore a tragic abusive relationship between a husband and wife. The man possesses a vicious, out-of-control temper of which his wife lives in constant fear. So when she prepares some particularly delicious liver for his supper and ends up eating all of it herself, with the market already closed for the evening, she has to turn to desperate measures to avoid spousal abuse. This achingly sad situation becomes even more appalling when the woman realizes that there's only one place she can get a fresh liver on such short notice: the funeral home next door. And boy, does her husband love him some unwitting cannibalism, declaring the pilfered, probably formaldehyde-tainted liver the best he's ever tasted! Unfortunately for him, the dead woman whose organ he has consumed might just have some designs on getting it back. So yes, it's a hodgepodge of the back-from-the-grave-to-reclaim-stolen-property trope and the sickening human flesh consumption of "Wonderful Sausage." And yet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts...which is still pretty great, given how highly-ranked both "The Big Toe" and "Wonderful Sausage" were on their respective lists. The emotional investment we have in the plight of the poor abused woman makes her husband's spectral comeuppance all the more satisfying, and in the end, there's a valuable moral to be learned here: don't be an asshole, or else you might be tricked into consuming human organs before having them violently extracted from you by a vengeful phantom. Valuable advice if I've ever heard any.

 #3: Maybe You Will Remember


Far and away the most ambitious story ever tackled in in Scary Stories series, "Maybe You Will Remember" is a tense fever dream that combines psychological horror with a deep sense of mystery. We follow one Rosemary Gibbs as she arrives at a Paris hotel with her mother, who suddenly falls ill. The hotel's doctor sends Rosemary out to get medicine, and suddenly everyone she encounters is acting incredibly shady and wasting her time with bizarre lies. When she finally returns to the hotel, only to find her mother missing and the desk clerk and doctor claiming to have never seen either of them before in their lives, our hearts break for Rosemary while our brains try to solve the puzzle of what exactly is going on here. And that is when things take a turn for the truly bizarre, as the story just kind of ends there. Yet just as the reader begins to feel just as confused as Rosemary by this abrupt conclusion, one notices the note at the end of the story to go ahead and turn to page 102. This leads to the "Notes and Sources" section of the book, in which Schwartz details the history behind the folktales he collects. In an unprecedented move, the actual ending and explanation for the story are contained here. Now I can see how someone might find that a cheap trick, but personally I enjoy it as a bit of structural innovation that plays with the story's dreamy reality-warping feel. You have to actually go outside the story itself to figure out what's going on behind the scenes, which is far more meta than I would expect from a book of children's campfire stories. It helps that the explanation is very cool and satisfying while also being suitably horrifying. The whole production has a very special feel to it, and it's no surprise that the storyline was adapted into a movie, entitled So Long at the Fair. I can only hope that, in the spirit of "Maybe You Will Remember," the movie just suddenly cuts to silent blackness, and after a few minutes of confusion, an usher walks into the theater and explains to the patrons what they just watched.

 #2: The Red Spot


Oh  ho ho. This f*cking story. Simple, brief, but oh so effective, "The Red Spot" falls into the chapter titled "Five Nightmares" and that designation doesn't even do it justice. The story itself could be called "The Genesis of 1,000,000 Nightmares," and even that would be underselling it. It's incredibly short, but this is a case where brevity works in order to make the horror more visceral. Let me describe the story and see if it comes back to you: a spider runs across a girl's face in her sleep. Over the next few days, a red spot forms on the girl's face and grows increasing itchier and more painful. Finally, the girl makes a doctor's appointment to get the boil checked out, and tries to relax with a hot bath. As she soaks, the boil erupts in a bloody mess as countless baby spiders hatch from the eggs their mother had planted in the girl's cheek. I'll give you a moment to stop screaming. The is HORRIBLE, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. It's odd to say when considering a group of stories where gruesome murder is par for the course, but this is the single most horrific event that occurs in any of these stories. Having one's body violated by foreign entities is bad enough, to say nothing of having their million little evil babies gestating right below the surface of your skin. This is Alien for pre-teens, and yet it is somehow even worse, because it's f*cking SPIDERS. As a noted arachnophobe, I may be biased, but I would rather die a thousand deaths and have my corpse ground into delicious sausage meat than have a brood of spiders growing inside my body. Worse yet, the scenario here doesn't depend on ghostly visitations or mythological beasts; on any given night, while you're sleeping snug in your bed, that spider behind your bookcase might decide your flesh would be the perfect breeding ground for its spawn, and boom, you're ground zero and you don't even know it. Sure, science may deem this process impossible, but that's irrelevant. This is all plausible enough to make you never want to close your eyes again for fear of an epidermal arachnid invasion. And the illustration, with blood and pus and spiders splattered all across this poor shocked girl's face? This is the stuff that PTSD is made of. In fact, this would be the hands-down pick for the top spot here, if not for...


 #1: Harold


Come on, what else could be number one? If you've ever read this book, there's a 99% chance that you expected this to take the top spot. "Harold" isn't just a scary story. "Harold" is bold, italicized, caps-lock-on HORROR. It is disquieting in ways that defy description, and seems engineered from the ground up as a diabolical tool to get children into therapy. Let's start off with that illustration. Oh, sure, almost every piece of artwork in these books is a nightmare, but there's just something so...wrong about this. There's the stringy hair, the button eyes as black as pitch, the facial expression both lifeless and somehow disapproving, the gross paunch and the gnarled masses where a man would have feet. The Frankensteinian stitches convey that this is a construct, not a human, yet the oozing blood drops at the bottom suggest that this effigy is made more of flesh than rags. The doll makes Chucky look like a Care Bear, and we haven't even gotten to the text yet. As you would expect from the head honcho of these POWER RANKINGS, the story itself more than holds its own against this masterfully macabre image. It concerns a couple of dudes who, during the hottest part of the year, take their cows up to graze in a cool mountain pasture for a couple months. The trouble is, there isn't a whole lot to do up there, and the men come down with a terrible case of bored-as-f*ckitis. Instead of just engaging in some good ol' homosexual experimentation, which in retrospect would have saved them a lot of trouble, the men take to arts and crafts, channeling their boredom and aggression into the construction of a scarecrow that they name Harold. Since he is just a sack of straw, the men feel that they can beat and curse Harold without repercussion, revealing some serious anger issues in the process. After a while, the scarecrow eventually gets tired of their sh*t and starts grunting when they abuse it. This would be enough to send most men screaming down the mountain, but the men laugh it off...until they notice that Harold has been growing. Finally, one day Harold just gets up and starts walking around, eventually climbing up on top of the roof and hauling ass back and forth. This is finally enough to push the men over the edge, so they lead their cows back down to the valley and away from the devil doll. Unfortunately, they forget their milking stools in the process, and are so cheap and stupid that one of them decides to run back and fetch them, because what could possibly go wrong? His final fate is one of the most shocking and graphic moments in any of these books, as Harold has apparently been taking some notes from House Bolton on how best to deal with one's foes. In all, this one is such a powerhouse that its very existence seems utterly soul-scarring to a child, like someone accidentally inserted a few pages from The Necronomicon into their storybook, and it's still haunting years later. If there was ever any doubt that Scary Stories 3 could meet or even surpass the lofty, corpse-laden heights of its predecessors, let "Harold" remove it. Along with the skin from your still-living body.

And there you have it, folks! The definitive, no-foolin', definitely not too wordy Scary Stories 3 POWER RANKINGS. Feel free to applaud my brilliance and tenacity, or, you know, argue the rankings in the comments. Otherwise I just end up arguing with myself, and I can do without getting lectured by my therapist about that again. Thanks for reading, and have a good FRIGHT! Hahahaha oh man, seriously, writing three of these things has really done a number on my psyche.

Help Joey afford his massive counseling bills by picking up a copy of his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior!
 All images copyright HarperCollins, except for my Flowers in the Attic photo.

4 comments:

Dustin Katz said...

Hi! So first I'd like to acknowledge that this is a bit weird, since I don't know you and I don't comment on blogs much, but I have a certain fondness for Alvin Schwartz and I stumbled on these posts about his books and I've been laughing my ass off. Keep up the good work, man. I hope you seek out and/or are already taking opportunities to get paid for your non-fiction writing, because you are definitely good enough.

Joey said...

Thanks for reading, Dustin! I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. I don't get anywhere near as many comments as I would like, especially once you remove the spambots, so I really appreciate it! I'm working on getting paid to write, but in the meantime, just knowing that people enjoy what I post makes it worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff! I enjoyed your power rankings of the first two books and was wondering when you'd get around to the third.

I disagree that it is the weakest of the series. The first book, while good, is the most watered down and tame of all of them. That said, I enjoyed your clever commentary and the rankings are spot on for the most part.

I never did get the accompanying image for "Footsteps", "Is Something Wrong", or "No, Thanks", yet like the tale "Oh, Susanna" in part 2, it is the bizarre imagery that makes it memorable. Also, the bizarre covers like the skull/tree hybrid creature casually smoking a pipe next to a cemetery or the 3-headed creature on the cover of the third book. The macabre surrealism of Gammell's illustrations is what really sold these books. The new editions of the books are proof of this. I went to Barnes & Noble and read the looked at the Helquist Illustrations... they were just sad. I wanted to hate them, but I couldn't. I felt pity. Luckily, I still had my old copy in storage. The moron at the publishing company who green-lighted that idea should be demoted to janitor immediately.

Anyways, keep up the good work! You have a talent for writing and a good sense of humor. Don't fret too much about the comments. Plenty of people like myself will read stuff without commenting, it doesn't mean we didn't enjoy it.

- Robert

Quiddity99 said...

Thank you for these series of posts. Story-wise, I'd agree with Harold getting the top ranked, and online it is arguably the most remembered and mentioned story from the series, likely due to an ending which is quite gorier than perhaps all other stories in the collection.

The picture for The Dream has haunted me for years, and I'd consider even scarier than the infamous eyeless ghost image from the first book.

Really only complaint is that I'd consider The Wolf Girl scarier than ranked here, helped by the fact that its a true story.