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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Frightful Flashback: The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales (But Mostly Poems)

In a dark, dark mobile home, there was a dark, dark cupboard...

And in that dark, dark cupboard, there was a dark, dark shelf...

And on that dark, dark shelf, there was a goofy, rainbow-colored record player...

And in that goofy, rainbow-colored record player, there was...

THIS RECORD!



I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in my numerous online missives about scary stories, particularly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. But Alvin Schwartz was not the only author to produce collections of scary stories for younger audiences, and he certainly wasn't the first. Maria Leach, for example, had been doing an excellent job laying the groundwork for macabre collections to come in her compendiums of chilling folklore like Whistle in the Graveyard. And then there's this curious little number: 1970's Scholastic release The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales.
I was introduced to The Haunted House long before I ever read it. In fact, for years I didn't even know it was an actual book.
You see, at some point during my childhood, my mother bequeathed unto me the sweet vinyl pictured above, mentioning that it was a scary record she used to enjoy in her childhood. We listened to it together, and I was entranced. It was like nothing I had ever heard before: the soft, haunting voices of a man and woman alternating recitations of classic horror poetry and prose. Well, the vast majority was poetry, really, but that's how you knew this stuff was classy. The record's natural pops and snaps evoked the eerie ambiance of sitting fireside, listening to ghost stories and peering out into the darkness, wondering what lurked there watching you back. It was a brief but spellbinding experience (you don't get a lot of auditory mileage out of 7" vinyl). And now you can hear it too, thanks to the magic of Youtube!




Several years later, when I would acquire a copy of the text version of The Haunted House, I would discover that the recording barely scratches the surface of it, covering only about a third of what appears on the page. Plus the book's cover is all trippy and colorful in comparison to the album cover's admittedly fitting bleak monochrome.



The Haunted House is a mixed bag, like a goodie sack after a rigorous night of trick and/or treating. As I mentioned before, there's a plethora of poetry here, regarding topics ranging from feuding cats to still, frosty November nights to gleeful cannibalism. In one jolly limerick, a woman becomes frustrated with her inability to become a witch and commits suicide.



And naturally, there's some good old atomic age technophobia at work here:


Who know comic books were so informative in regards to nuclear weaponry? As you can see from these examples, shockingly dark gallows humor is abundant here. In the spirit of how Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark always had some humorous entries, this book never lets you forget what a hoot horror can be. I mean, what's funnier than a fatal auto accident?


A couple of these poems also received the ultimate compliment: they were quoted on Magic: The Gathering cards. Back in 1994, when Magic was more elegant and sophisticated (*SHOTS FIRED*), the cards would often quote classic literature, Bible verses, etc. to add some flavor to the denizens of the world that Wizards of the Coast were creating. Two of the cards from the Legends set just so happened to include flavor text derived from poems featured in this book. Might someone on the design team have been a big The Haunted House fan? If only we had gotten a "Cradle That Rocks by Itself" artifact (foreshadowing!).


Then again, it could just be a coincidence. I've seen Roethke's poem a few times elsewhere, and Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. And rightfully so; these are both exemplary works in the field of creepiness. One thing we can all agree on: the art is better on the Magic version.


One thing, though...I've seen bats, we've all seen bats, and if Roethke thinks bats have a human face, he should probably get his eyes checked, because from the sounds of it he's blind as a...well, you know.

Speaking of artwork, let's address The Haunted House's. The competent, cartoony illustrations are a far cry from Scary Stories' sanguine, betendriled nightmare visions, having more in common with In a Dark, Dark Room's youngster-friendly relative zaniness. It does, however, effectively convey a certain mood, and at times somehow manages to make a story much more creepy by its contrasting playfulness. For example, take the case of The Wreck of the Hesperus, a poem so grim and depressing that it makes Upton Sinclair's The Jungle seem like The Berenstain Bears Learn to Embrace Communism. The bleak saga of a shipwreck that claims the life of a young girl and her father because the father in question is a prideful moron is made all the more disturbing by its somewhat basic, juvenile illustration. Turns out the way to make a picture of a dead child even more disturbing is to make it kind of look like said child drew it.


Overall, the art does the job just fine. Still, there is something very of-its-time about it...for example, I can't help but hear ABBA in my head when I look at this picture:


The art above is from "The Velvet Ribbon," which is one of the most famous stories here and was wisely selected for the record.  It's a classic tale that can be found in many such collections of horror folklore, such as In A Dark, Dark Room, which I referenced earlier but have helpfully linked to my article about once again. The details between the versions are different, but the payoff is just the same: a woman's head falls off. As an added bonus, the one here continues wailing as it rolls across the floor! It's a real treat for decapitation aficionados.
The other four stories here vary in quality. There's the so-so "The Devil's Pocket," about two boys who hang out in a quarry their parents have forbidden them from approaching; the comical "The Ghost Catcher," a goofy tale of spectral deception from India; and the masterful "The Red Room," abridged from a longer story by none other than sci-fi legend H.G. Wells, which serves as an incredible exercise in extracting maximum suspense from the most basic setup: a dark, candlelit room in a spooky house. They're all breezy and fun to read, and even the weakest of them has a certain charm.

The best story here, though, is "The Cradle That Rocked by Itself." I mentioned Maria Leach earlier in the article, and I cannot overstate what an excellent job she did compiling and retelling spooky tales from all over the globe during her career. "The Cradle" is possibly my favorite of them all. It concerns a family who hears what sounds like a baby crying outside during a terrible storm. Reasoning that it must be seals or something, no one goes out into the maelstrom to investigate. Once the storm passes, the family finds a nice cradle washed up on the beach and, seemingly unable to form a connection between it and the distinctly babyesque sounds they heard during the storm, takes the cradle inside and puts their baby in it. They continue using it for more babies over the years despite the cradle's quite unusual trait of rocking itself. Rather than immediately chop it up and throw it in the fire due to an exceedingly apparent ongoing haunting, the parents hand-wave the whole thing. Their blasé attitudes become decidedly UN-blasé, however, when a visiting family member is able to somehow perceive the reason behind the inexplicable rocking...the pale, dark-haired phantom of a mourning mother has been tirelessly rocking away for all these years. Rather than celebrate the gift of a laborer that never eats, sleeps or demands pay, the family...chops up the cradle and throws it in the fire. As a final, skin-crawling memento, a baby cries from somewhere within the flames the entire time the cradle burns. Pretty unsettling stuff, and it was rightly chosen to conclude the audio version. Do yourself a favor and check it out if you never have before.


Other than that, it's just poems, poems, poems. Fortunately, editors Gladys Schwarz and Vic Crume have good taste, and selections include works from such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are some astonishingly morbid works here, like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's "The Erl-King" and its depiction of a child's murder by supernatural forces, or "Dust," which describes a woman's literal journey from dust to dust as she transforms from cleanliness-obsessed housewife to open-eyed corpse covered in the sort of grime that bedeviled her living days. Then there's "Voices," which gives me the heebie-jeebies even though I can't quite put my finger on why:


Of course, there's plenty more to savor here. You got Vic Crume's superb titular poem, and a shark inviting an impressively naive flying fish to dinner, and rhymes about death that my grandparents used to recite...


It's all great stuff, and well worth checking out if you get the chance. You can probably find a used copy pretty cheap, or up in your grandmother's attic for free! It's a deserving addition to any library of strange and scary tomes, disco illustrations and all. The record is also a great pickup, if you can find it. Unfortunately, my copy was lost (along with the rainbow-colored record player) when my family abandoned our mobile home; it was among the many items my father promised he would go back to retrieve but never did. I eventually purchased two more copies on eBay, giving one to my mother to replace the original record (which was rightfully hers) and keeping one for myself. Both copies mysteriously disappeared, though we suspect my grandfather may have pilfered them during a period of time he was staying with my folks. He denies this fervently. In the end, perhaps that which we should fear most is not ghosts, ghouls or goblins, but rather the dread specter of kleptomania.

Until next time, I leave with with a simple image demonstrating what this book would look like had it been illustrated by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark's Stephen Gammell, just for kicks. Happy October!


For further October reading, consider Joey Marsilio's novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. It's the grooviest! Check it out here!

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