More Stephen Gammell: The Eerie Series & Halloween Poems
Well, despite the elevated temperature outside, the sudden abundance of jokes about pumpkin spice-flavored food and beverages tells me that it is fall once again. Yaaaay! Of course, this means that I barely wrote anything all summer, but I think that the one-two punch of a V.C. Andrews smörgåsbord and the sprawling final installment of my Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Power Rankings would knock anyone out of commission for a while.
Speaking of Scary Stories, since Halloween is right around the corner (it's a very lengthy corner that takes a couple weeks to get around), the time is right to discuss something related to this august series of horror folklore. Popular opinion holds that the most memorable aspect of these books is the collection of ghoulish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which manage to walk the nightmarish line of simultaneously surreal and hideously visceral. Now, Gammell is an accomplished illustrator apart from the Scary Stories series, having won the esteemed Caldecott Medal in 1989 for his work on Song and Dance Man. Even though these books are consistently beautifully illustrated, they lack the specific sense of otherworldly menace that have earned Gammell's horror illustrations such esteem. BUT DID YOU KNOW? The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series are not the only spooky books for which Gammell has provided his own brand of horrific imagery. Today, I'd like to share some of Gammell's more obscure horror work. His deep cuts, if you will.
In 1976, well before Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark caused America's children to soil their pants, some of Gammell's earliest illustrations were in a pair of titles in the so-called "Eerie Series," Ghosts and Meet the Werewolf. These were the sort of "true stories of the supernatural" books that floated around quite a bit back before the 24 hour news cycle made scary stories obsolete. In 1983, another volume in this series entitled Meet the Vampire was released, but I don't have that one. This just goes to show that George R. R. Martin isn't the only one who takes forever to write sequels. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, the first book Stephen Gammell illustrated was entitled The Search: a Biography of Leo Tolstoy, which is really one of those "huh, how about that" sorts of things. Anyway.
This is Ghosts, and no, I don't know what is up with that cover. Five clones of the same grumpy face floating around one of the Castlevania maps or something. The interior, however, is much more visually arresting, with a half dozen new Stephen Gammell pieces. He was still finding his stride as an artist, so generally they're a bit more spare than his later work, but there's some good stuff here, such as this one from an account of coffins in Barbados that seemed to move by themselves:
Before you ask...why yes, that is a dead baby. Apparently some unseen malevolent force just couldn't stop desecrating its grave. We've got a word around here for that: "incorrigible." Clearly some pretty creepy stuff. Then we have this atmospheric portrait of a dead Native American and a Stephen Gammell staple, a really f*cking gnarled tree:
Gammell would later go on to illustrate a bird nearly identical to the one pictured here at the beginning of the first Scary Stories book. This may be one of the lamest bits of non-trivia I've ever spewed. Up next, a trio of hellhounds:
Awww, puppies! Pictured here are the Hounds of Death. It's not too difficult to figure out what they're all about once you hear that. I know I said they were a trio, but the more I look at the photo, the more unsure I am how many dogs there are. How many are on the left side? And maybe that snarling face in the sky isn't even a dog at all, but rather a manifestation of the evil inside us all. But it's probably a dog. Now, as it happens, this illustration in particular was great practice for the next volume in The Eerie Series:
Despite what its title may have you believe, Meet the Werewolf is less a humorous, buddy-comedy romp and more a collection of tales of grisly dismemberment and cannibalism. Bear in mind, most werewolf stories aren't the spooky, charming curiosities ghost stories are; rather, they tend to be accounts of old timey psychopathic mass murderers. The Wolfman on the cover looks like he's laughing, but if he is, it's because of your imminent demise.On to the Gammell!
Portrait of a man becoming a wolf. A visual representation of the basic concept of werewolfism, also known as lycanthropy. Possibly based on events that occurred at a bar mitzvah.
This illustration of a crazed, bloodthirsty beast is pretty awesome. It also reminds me a lot of Todd McFarlane's version of The Lizard. Or maybe Venom. It looks like a Todd McFarlane-drawn Spider-Man villain, is what I'm saying.
This one is a French werewolf, which everyone knows are the foulest smelling werewolves of all (the eau de fromage does not mesh well with the respective bouquets of bloody meat and wet fur). In what I'm calling right now as the creepiest thing you'll read all day, this guy supposedly took the form of a wolf to capture children, who he would then slaughter and serve as dinner to his oblivious family. It says a lot that the fact that a man may have been able to transform into a wolf is nowhere near the most unsettling part of the previous sentence. But if you ever wanted to see the Scary Stories guy draw a multiple child murderer, well, there you go.
After The Eerie Series, Gammell would achieve notoriety as the illustrator for Alvin Schwartz's collection of horror folktales. And though he would go on to provide the imagery for more jolly books like Wake Up, Bear...It's Christmas and Wing-A-Ding, he would still make trips back into the realm of the supernatural. As such, he was the perfect fit for this collection of Halloween poems, entitled (drumroll please)...Halloween Poems.
If the impish hobgoblin on the cover wasn't enough of an indication, this book is incredible. If my scanner wasn't crappy and would likely destroy the book in the process, I'd scan the whole book and present it here. It's just...awesome. Every single poem has its own picture, and since poems are quite a bit briefer than short stories (Beowulf and whatnot aside), we get a veritable cornucopia of Gammell goodness. Speaking of cornucopias, Gammell also illustrated a companion piece named Thanksgiving Poems, but I am really getting off track with the inane trivia here. Let's get to some of these creepy treats.
Look, I don't mean to speak for you or anything, but this is pretty damn incredible, right? It's an undead jamboree! Oh, and I'm just gonna go ahead right now and apologize for the crappy quality of these images. The beauty of this book is that the pages are much larger than those in Scary Stories, giving Gammell more of a canvas to work on...buuuuuuut it's kind of too big for my scanner to be able to scan well, so I'm afraid I'll have to use these crummy iPhone photos. Mea culpa. At least this picture is great, right?
Now check out this crazy thing. It's just...just so crazy! Look at it! The craziness!
Here we have a group of trick-or-treaters, just as cute as a bug's nose. Let's see...there's the pirate, the gorilla with glasses (always a seasonal classic), the witch and the HOLY GOD WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT????? Note that not only is there some kind of warped skeleton ghost behind these kinds, but a shadowy eldritch abomination lurking behind that. And you thought the worst hazards awaiting trick-or-treaters were razor blades in apples or strips of tape with pennies attached to them.
While we're on the subject of things that are alternately cute and skin-crawling, take a peek at this. No Halloween is complete with a jack-o'-lantern, and no Stephen Gammell book is complete with a hideously deformed abomination.
Finally, to bring things back to child murder and cannibalism, here Gammell's take on the classic Hansel & Gretel gingerbread house. And what a masterpiece it is, with strange viscous fluids oozing from the dark windows, a fence made out of bones and chicken wire, and the witch herself chilling up top, shrouded in mist and working up an appetite for veal, human-style.
That's just the tip of the black and white, mysterious-tendrils-havin' iceberg. There are so many more fantastic illustrations in this book, and any fan of Gammell's work should do themselves a favor and track down a copy. Come on, you have the internet, it'll only take a minute. You'll be richly rewarded with some eerie and devilishly fun images, and not more of my phone camera garbage.
That's it for this tour of some of the deep cuts in the catalog of a true master, the Michaelangelo of monstrosities, if you will. I hope you've enjoy this romp through the realm of some synonym for horror that starts with the letter "r", and I hope you have a SPOOKtacular Halloween! Heh heh heh...bet you've never heard that one before!
Joey Marsilio, author of Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, is one step closer to that Ph. D in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It's a legitimate science!