No, I'm not dead, despite what my online presence, or lack thereof, may suggest. And speaking of the undead, I'd like to reflect today on a particularly strange series of books about the supernatural. In this case, the strange thing is not the content of the books themselves, but rather the series' origins and evolution. Perhaps the oddest thing about these books is that there are nine books in the series (well, arguably...I'll get to that), yet there is almost no information about them anywhere. Most of the Amazon pages for them have no reviews, and even a Google search reveals little more than used book sales. Isn't it unusual that such a lengthy series seems to have not a smidgen of the dedicated, borderline obsessive fandom afforded even the nichest of long-running franchises?
I suppose at this point I should mention the name of this series of books. Don't worry, you probably won't recognize it unless you're one of the six people searching for information on them online and this post showed up by default. The nine books comprise the, for lack of a better term, World's (Insert Adjective Here) "True" Ghost Stories series. Basically, each book proffers an assortment of "true" stories of the supernatural-the quotation marks are their addition, not mine-that best exemplify some descriptor (for example, "mystifying" or "bone-chilling"). I'm sure the selection process for these was thoroughly scientific and their placement is definitive and by no means arbitrary. But this is all very abstract, so let me get into some concrete details before you click away from the page in annoyed bewilderment.
The first book in the series is 1988's World's Best "True" Ghost Stories by C.B. Colby, though it's not really where the series began. No, the true origins of the series go back into the 1950s, when Colby, "an avid adventurer and sportsman" per his bio, wrote a syndicated newspaper column called "Adventure Today." The column dealt with unexplained happenings, supernatural phenomena, mysterious disappearances, lost treasure and what would at the time be referred to as "ripping yarns." The veracity of each story was certainly debatable, as Colby himself would remind the reader, but he presented them with the appropriate zeal and bombast. Eventually, the column gave way to books collecting some of Colby's best offbeat tales: 1959's Strangely Enough! and 1965's somewhat inaccurately-titled Weirdest People in the World. The stories in it are weird, sure, but oftentimes the people within them are completely ordinarily and as perplexed by the events around them as anyone would be. I'd ask Colby what the thought process was behind the name, but I'm afraid I'm about forty years too late for that.
Anyway, several decades after that, Sterling Publishing released World's Best "True" Ghost Stories, a compilation of stories from Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People that dealt with ghosts and the supernatural. Well, mostly.
There are also stories here of, among other things, a disappearing indigenous tribe in Alaska, an old woman who apparently spontaneously combusted, and a weird tale about talking cats that isn't very good and yet has been retold in more volumes of horror tales than I can remember. So while there's a general theme of uneasiness to the proceedings, there are less ghosts than you might think.
And speaking of titular inaccuracies, let's address the "true" portion of the title. That gets explained in the note to the reader that starts off World's Best, a note which is largely repurposed from the Introduction to Strangely Enough! There are some changes to the text, most notably a few additional sentences written by Colby, or more likely someone posing as Colby, considering he died more than ten years before the book was published. So either way, you could say they used a ghostwriter. The additional lines explain to the reader that "all the accounts in this book have, at one time or another been passed off as 'true'...and who shall say they never happened?" So basically, a very liberal definition of the truth, which in 2017 is more or less the factual standard. Colby never really gets enough credit as a pioneer in the field of truthiness.
That's the book in a nutshell. A mix of accounts of unexplained events, spooky anecdotes and classic folklore, all presented in the matter-of-fact style of a newspaper article and accompanied by simple black and white illustrations that heavily rely on shadows and isolation to convey the otherworldliness of the events described. It is remarkably effective, and what it lacks in florid language it makes up for in efficiency. In the same vein as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, the brevity of the stories makes them easy to recount, and the journalistic presentation makes them feel more authentic and less like utter flights of fancy. For the most part, at least...I'm still not buying the talking cats thing. It's a great collection of oddball tales in the spirit of Ripley's Believe It or Not! and a nice greatest-hits collection of Colby's two prior greatest-hits collections.
In 1991, a similar collection of Colby's old works with a different theme, World's Best Lost Treasure Stories (I would have preferred World's Best "Lost" Treasure Stories, but that's splitting hairs) was released by Sterling, suggesting their intention of building a World's Best... franchise around Colby's old material. They got a franchise, alright, but it was not the one they were expecting.
Shortly before the publication of Treasure Stories, Sterling released another installment of spooky tales. This one, World's Strangest "True" Ghost Stories, drew on different source material, bypassing Colby entirely by excerpting stories from John Macklin's 1967 book The Strange and Uncanny.
Perhaps a bit more grim than Colby's work but just as compelling, here we learn of the psychic horse that solved a child's tragic disappearance, the cursed mummy that was allegedly on board the Titanic when it sank, and the sleepy English crossroads that bore both a terrible curse and a name that probably wouldn't fly in America in 2017.
The next year would see the release of World's Weirdest "True" Ghost Stories, written by John Beckett.
This was a milestone: the first installment of the series to apparently be an entirely original creation rather than an abridged rehash of a book from decades before. Still, it continued along the same lines, and probably benefitted from being able to draw from events that had occurred within the previous twenty-five years.
With 1992's World's Most Spine-Tingling "True" Ghost Stories, the series introduced yet another author, Sheila Anne Barry, and perhaps its greatest asset, artist Jim Sharpe.
Whereas the books before had all contained effective but relatively indistinct artwork, Sharpe's illustrations are bold, unique and very evocative. From screaming faces to ominous spirits to a malicious killer doll in a sailor suit, Sharpe would go on to illustrate the remaining installments of the series and elevate even the more mundane stories with his detailed, semi-insane renderings.
But it should really come as no surprise that the guy was talented, considering Time, TV Guide, and many other respectable publications had hired him to do cover artwork for them. Frankly, given his resume, it seems like he was slumming it a bit for these books, but maybe he just loved this kind of crap as much as I do.
Oddly enough, after two consecutive original books, 1993's World's Most Bone-Chilling "True" Ghost Stories went back to the repurposing well, revisiting John Macklin's work and lifting stories from his awesomely-named 60s books Brotherhood of the Strange and Dwellers in Darkness.
But after that, subsequent titles went back to being original works. Well, mostly...by this point, the series was getting pretty tired, revisiting the same themes time and again and even repeating some of the same stories (albeit with different authors) as the books continued to roll out every year like macabre installments of Madden.
The eighth book in the series, 1996's World's Most Mysterious "True" Ghost Stories, could well have been called Weird War Tales for its heavy focus on military themes (which, funny enough, would likely have met with noted armed forces buff C.B. Colby's approval). Even Sharpe's artwork looked oddly rushed by that point.
Finally, things wrapped up in 1997 with World's Most Mystifying "True" Ghost Stories, as the series drifted off into the aether like an unfed Tamagotchi, likely to the tune of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997."
Or did it? 1998 saw the release of The Little Giant Book of "True" Ghost Stories, where the series did what it did best: repackaged old material. Basically books five through seven of the series crammed into one volume, The Little Giant Book kept the series...well, not alive exactly, but undead at least. And that, after a decade, marked the last volume of "True" Ghost Stories.
Yet it still did not mark the end of the stories themselves. C.B. Colby's original material persists to this day, published in various compilations of spooky stories, but the strangest part of this saga involves an overlap with a completely different series of books.
Following the huge success of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, Short & Shivery, and others of their ilk, a new contender in the youth-focused horror short story arena emerged in 1991's Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs. The big hook of this book and its numerous sequels were their sheer nihilism. Whereas the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books would often feature protagonists that got thoroughly heebie-jeebied but ultimately survived, Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs was a slaughterhouse where no one made it out alive. If you wanted to read about a child getting ripped apart by a werecat, or an entire family being strangled to death by their own shadows, or extraterrestrials burning kids to death before summoning their compatriots to Earth to do the same to the entire human race, you were in luck. This series persisted through the 90's, with almost as many volumes as the "True" Ghost Stories series until it finally petered out, possibly because they ran out of children to murder.
You may be wondering why I bring this up. Well, apparently long after the demise of the original series, someone published a book simply called Scary Stories for Sleepovers.
And, lo and behold, it contains some of the very same C.B. Colby joints printed in Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People in the World and reprinted in World's Best "True" Ghost Stories. Nearly sixty years after their original publication, the stories are still going strong, veritable literary body snatchers hopping from series to series, assuming their identity while never losing their own.
So, to recap: a newspaper column was repurposed into two books, which were then repurposed into another book, which begat a series of books with similar titles that at times repurposed material from other books and at times consisted of original material (albeit said material consisting of retellings of events recounted elsewhere). After the conclusion of this series, several of the books were repurposed into a giant compilation book, and long after that, the original stories that were repurposed into the first book in the series were repurposed again under the title of an entirely different series of books. It's a truly fascinating web of use and reuse that, in the end, boils down to the simple fact that people love a good story. And ghosts. And cursed mummies. And psychic horses.
A final note: there was a television show years back called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?, hosted at first by James Brolin and later by the illustrious Jonathan Frakes, master of the wry smile.
The show would present reenactments of stories, then call upon the viewer to determine whether or not they had actually occurred. Many of the stories reenacted on that show were the very same ones described in these books, so I would often have a bit of an unfair advantage in determining which of the tales I was witnessing were Fact...or, I suppose, "True." Whether due to coincidence or fandom, the subject matter of this low-key series of ostensible ghost stories (yes, including the psychic horse) had made it to primetime network television, a.k.a. the American Dream.
Well done, "True" Ghost Stories. You "truly" are the (insert adjective here).